June 30, 2019

SUNY Empire Students Volunteer in the Rebuilding and Recovery of Puerto Rico in the Aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria

Students will make a Presentation on the Recovery and Rebuilding Efforts at the Fall Student Conference

Back row, left to right, are students Arayah Jessop, Lisa Schnitzer, Diane Owens and Carline Penal. Front row, left to right, are: SUNY Global’s Christian Speedling, SUNY Empire’s Jim McMahon, students Ashley Vanderhall and Dennis McGraw.

(SARATOGA SPRINGS, New York – July 17, 2019) Again this summer, SUNY Empire State College graduate and undergraduate students have volunteered to participate with “NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative,” a collaboration of labor, nonprofit, philanthropic and academic partners, established by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“For the people of Puerto Rico who lost homes during the recent hurricanes, a helping hand can make a world of difference,” said Jim Malatras, president of SUNY Empire State College. “SUNY Empire students sacrificed time away from work and family, in addition to their studies, to help the people of Puerto Rico rebuild. At the same time, the experience has had a profound impact on them. Many of our students tell us they have been inspired to complete additional degrees and, for some, to change jobs and career paths after this kind of service experience. I am so proud of our students and grateful for their significant contributions to improving the lives of the people of Puerto Rico.”

Two students are working with a group from Monroe Community College, and six have returned to Orocovis, Puerto Rico, where the first cohort of SUNY Empire students volunteered in 2018.

This year’s Orocovis students deployed from June 30 – July 13.

Up at 5:15 a.m., students had breakfast at 6 a.m., climbed into pickup trucks between 6:30 and 7 a.m., picked up the day’s supplies and headed to the job site.

“We’re digging holes for pilings, taking old roofs off and putting new roofs on, whatever needed to be done,” said Jim McMahon coordinator of student services with the college’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies, who again this year accompanied the students for their two-week deployment. Tired students returned to basecamp between 3:30 and 4 p.m. “We work nonstop,” said McMahon. “Everyone is in bed by 9:30.”

This year’s volunteers will make a presentation about their experiences at the upcoming annual Fall Student Conference.

About Graduate Student Ashley Vanderhall

“I decided to volunteer because my maternal grandmother was born here in Bayamon, Puerto Rico,” said graduate student Ashley Vanderhall, a legal assistant at Capital One Bank studying to complete her MBA and a resident of Coram. “The most humbling part of the experience was hearing the stories of what occurred during the hurricane and how peoples’ lives changed so much afterwards. Never take life for granted and appreciate all that you have.”

Vanderhall’s previous construction experience was limited to helping her father around the house and in the yard, putting fences together, gardening and assembling furniture for her home.

“I have a 10-year-old son and he was so proud of the work that I have done here in Puerto Rico,” she added. “To see pictures of his mom on a roof and lifting lumber and using a power tool filled his heart with pride and joy. Most importantly, my grandmother is so proud to say that I am giving back to her country.”

About Undergraduate Student Lisa Schnitzer

“Other than raising my daughter, this was by far the most amazing, humbling, life-changing experience,” said Elizabeth (Lisa) Schnitzer, a billing specialist with an insurance managing general agent and a resident of Pine Bush, who recently completed her Bachelor of Science in Business Management and Economics. “Two years after Hurricane Maria and there are still so many people living in homes that are severely damaged by the storm. The homeowners and the people of Puerto Rico were very loving and grateful for our help, and I am just as grateful for the impact they’ve had on my life.”

Encouraged by her 18-year-old daughter, Mahalla, to apply for the trip, Schnizter was reluctant to go, as Mahalla had just graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Air Force; boot camp could begin as soon as mid-July, and she wanted to spend as much time as possible with her daughter.

As it turned out, Mahalla does not have to report until Sept. 10, so Schnizter is able both to spend time with her daughter and volunteer to help in the recovery and rebuilding of Puerto Rico.

“I’ve made it a point to teach my daughter, since she was little, the importance of contributing to society by helping others in need,” said Schnitzer.

Interacting with the people and helping to rebuild their homes had a profound impact on Schnitzer. She said that she as decided to complete another degree, a bachelor’s in emergency management, concentrating in disaster recovery, as she sees herself making a career from her experience.

About Heart 9/11

Lodging, supplies, transportation and work assignments were provided and coordinated by Healing Emergency Aid Response Team 9/11.

“The people of HEART 9/11 were amazing,” Schnitzer said. “They taught us how to safely and properly use all of the tools on the job sites. I was pretty nervous at first, but quickly became comfortable using a lot of them. I think that myself and the other SUNY and CUNY students quickly realized that we are capable of doing much more than we thought.”

HEART 9/11, a nonprofit organization, comprises a team of first responders, including members of the Fire Department of the City of New York, the City of New York Police Department, the Port Authority Police Department and the Building Trades Council of Greater New York City, who bonded in the aftermath of 9/11.

The other students who participated in the recovery and rebuilding efforts are:

  • Nadine Grant, Deer Park.
  • Ahryah Jessop, Schuylerville.
  • Roxanne Marin, Schenectady.
  • Dennis McGraw, Albany.
  • Diane Owens, Delevan.
  • Carline Penal, Brooklyn.

Grant and Marin participated with the group of students from Monroe Community College.

About SUNY Empire State College

SUNY Empire State College educates more than 17,000 students in person, online and through a blend of both, at more than 30 locations in New York and at eight international sites worldwide. Together with one of SUNY Empire’s more than 1,300 faculty mentors, each student designs his or her own individualized pathway to a college degree that accommodates his or her schedule and awards credit for prior college-level learning. SUNY Empire awards more than 3,000 degrees annually and 94 percent of graduates stay in New York state. Today, more than 84,000 SUNY Empire alumni are entrepreneurs, veterans and active members of the military, professional athletes, teachers, medical professionals and leaders in their field, as well as in their communities. To learn more, visit www.esc.edu and follow the college on social media @SUNYEmpire.