Father Decaen with Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Puerto Rico
Father Ramon Decaen is the diocesan spiritual advisor of the Society. He was invited to be part of a team of volunteers to go to Puerto Rico Dec. 3-9. The team was comprised of members of the Society from nine states. He said the volunteers were very diverse in their background: a medical doctor, a high school teacher, a retired fireman, a former college executive and others.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul works around the world in disaster relief. When a major natural disaster hits, they will often go to help with recovery efforts. They are currently working at more than 20 disaster sites in North America alone, including hurricane relief in Florida and Texas, as well as the fires in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“Most people know the Society for helping locally through the parish conferences,” Father Decaen said. “Vincentians are best known for their spirituality based on their patron St. Vincent de Paul. This spirituality moves the members to meet the needy where they are at, both figuratively and literally.”
He explained that members of the Society visit the needy at their homes, sharing compassion for those who are going through difficult times.
“They work to foster systemic change that is a ‘hand up’ rather than a ‘handout,’ he explained. “This helps to lift them out of poverty by giving them the tools they need to stay out of poverty. While helping with the immediate needs, Vincentians also work toward the long haul to help build long-term stability.”
The Society has been working in Puerto Rico through the local conferences on the island. US mainland conferences have sent food, water, generators, and other much needed supplies.
When Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean in late September, it devastated the island countries. It is regarded as the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico history. The category 5 hurricane had winds hit at more than 170 miles per hour. The powerful winds blew water into neighborhoods, putting houses under 9 feet of water in some places.
“Those who had cement roofs were fortunate,” Father Decaen said. “They had their homes filled with water but at least they had a roof. Those who had wood frame or metal roofs lost them and many of them had nothing to return to. The antiquated electrical grid was already limping before the hurricane hit; the hurricane dismantled it.”
Although only 66 fatalities were reported, this number is in question due to missing people and accuracy in reporting methods.
The national office of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul planned for weeks before the deployment to Puerto Rico. Coordination with FEMA was critical. Arrangements for water, food, and generators were purchased and shipped from US mainland. Most of the island was without electricity and clean water.
“We had the goal of showing Christ to the people,” Father Decaen said.
Each day began with Mass at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast and a short meeting. By 7:30 a.m. the volunteers were driving to one of the two Parish Recovery Center (P-RAC) sites.
The first site was the town of Canovanas, about 30 minutes east of San Juan. This town was hit especially hard by the hurricane.
“We worked out of Parroquia de la Resurreccion del Señor (Resurrection of the Lord Parish),” Father Decaen said. The parish did not have electricity, and the parish garage served as their home base. The volunteers registered people for FEMA relief, assessed their needs, offered Christ’s consolation, gave food and water, and had people visit the doctor if they were in need. They also had $25 restricted-use gift cards to be used at Walmart, one of the stores still up and running.
“From the time we began to the time we ended the day, there was always a line of people waiting to get help,” Father Decaen recalled. “We worked non-stop; our only break was the short 15-minute rotations for lunch.”
The second site was at the town of Manati, about 45 minutes west of San Juan, where they offered the same services.
“The greatest joy for me was being able to serve these people who had so little and yet were so grateful,” Father Decaen said. “They were so grateful for the food and water they received, the smile that greeted them, and the faith in our Lord that is getting them through this.
“One woman I interviewed,” he recalled, “said with tears in her eyes, ‘I have lost everything.’ But then she smiled and said, ‘But I’ve got my life and my family.’ I added, ‘and the Lord is helping you through this’ at which she said, ‘Amen!’ with a bigger smile. The people loved to receive blessings and prayers. I was blessed to be a part of this effort.”
In the evenings the group drove back to the rectory of Parroquia San Augustin (St. Augustine Parish), their temporary residence.
“There we would share our experiences and evaluate how we can do better the next day,” he said. “We prepared and ate dinner together every evening.”
By the end of the five-day trip, they had served more than 700 families. Local conferences will follow up on those interviewed. Some of the people helped will rebuild their homes. Others will move away. More than 1,000,000 have applied for FEMA assistance and more than 200,000 have been evacuated to the US mainland.
“The country suffers from 38% unemployment and massive debt,” Father Decaen shared. “They are in the process of rebuilding their electrical grid. This will be a long-term effort. The Society will be serving the recovery efforts for a while.”
Those interested in helping the efforts of the Society of St Vincent de Paul may make a donation to Society of St. Vincent de Paul and labeling it for “Puerto Rico Disaster Services.” Donations may be sent to 2215 O St., Lincoln NE 68503. More information is available at lincoln.svdpcouncil.org.