By Lea Lane, Forbes
When I visited Puerto Rico before it was devastated from Hurricane Maria last year, despite some economic problems, historic Old San Juan looked pretty as ever, cruise ships were docking, and the countryside was lush and green. The industry was hopeful that things would improve.
But then, Maria. And the island continues recovering from her blows as Puerto Rico heads into another hurricane season striving to survive.
I can’t imagine a more important and meaningful personal or family vacation than traveling down there to have fun — and by doing so, helping out in even a small way. Hotels and restaurants are open again, the beaches, rainforests and caves remain special, and the people are especially appreciative. With a bit of extra pre-planning and an open spirit you can still savor the pleasures of Puerto Rico. But most important — and memorable — you will be doing good for others as you enjoy yourselves.
By traveling to Puerto Rico here’s an idea of what you can achieve, and how to go about it:
— Just go. Visits to Puerto Rico help more than 50,000 people keep their jobs and businesses. Hotels and smaller lodgings, restaurants and bars, stores and galleries need support to stay open. So even if you don’t volunteer further, you’ll be helping just by being there. Just be sure to check ahead.
— Move around the island. San Juan is the heart of Puerto Rico, but towns like Arecibo, Ponce, Mayagüez and Isabela offer local charm, beautiful beaches and special attractions. They need help for their local economies and are often overlooked. So plan ahead to be sure of the infrastructure situation and room availabilities, and if you can, consider daytrips and overnights, exploring the island.
— Help out in varied ways. Opportunities big and small offer you and your family chances to bond, learn and help. You can support agriculture through farm stays and just by buying local produce at farmers markets. If you have more time you can distribute food, reconstruct homes, paint schools, repair playgrounds, clean and maintain gardens, and mentor children. If your kids love animals you can take bird censuses, help endangered species, construct and clean up shelters, photograph animals for adoption websites, and even adopt homeless pets. Anything you do, even for a few hours, raises morale and shows that you care — and makes you feel good too.
— Contact organizations. If you’d like to do more than support the island through a vacation visit, many who have been doing their part to help those in need can guide you to do yours. Airbnb has donated its fees from booked trips and there are recovery organizations such as the All Hands Volunteers Organization and the Cosa Nuestra Relief Fund.
Connect Relief offers opportunities for aiding those still in need, as does Americas for Conservation and the Arts. Star chef and tireless philanthropist Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen (WCK) has served millions of Puerto Ricans. You can cook fresh meals at one of their #ChefsForPuertoRico kitchens. Volunteer to chop veggies from local farms, cook paella, package up meals for dispatch, and deliver food to vulnerable populations.
Visit Rico is a nonprofit service, recruiting volunteers. Go to the Mercado Agrícola Natural in Old San Juan on Saturdays or to the Cooperativa Orgánica Madre Tierra in La Placita Roosevelt. On the west coast, go to the farmers markets in Aguadilla and Rincon. Mercado Agrícola Natural de Ponce in the south, and Luquillo on the east coast.
Para La Naturaleza helps the ecological system recover from Maria’s devastation. Instituto Nueva Escuela connects volunteers and schools. And to deal with abandoned cats and dogs, Amigos de los Animales still needs volunteers.
Follow me @lealane, or on Instagram, where I’m Travelea; and check out Amazon for my latest book in paperback and on Kindle, Travel Tales I Couldn’t Put in the Guidebooks