The Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) at SUNY New Paltz, in partnership with the Center for International Programs, is leading a group of students and faculty working in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to repair and restore homes and infrastructure that were damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
The trip is made through the State University of New York’s participation in Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, through which the state is mobilizing assessment teams made up of state officials and partners in the non-profit, philanthropic and academic sectors, to assist with reconstruction planning and response in Puerto Rico.
The initiative creates service learning opportunities for 500 SUNY and CUNY students to participate in the response, doing hands-on work with non-profit and grassroots organizations already on the ground in areas of greatest need.
The Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz emerged as an ideal collaborator to take part in New York’s response in Puerto Rico. The IDMH has a dual mission to provide disaster and trauma response services in the Hudson Valley and beyond, and to prepare students and professionals with the knowledge and skills needed to become future leaders in disaster mental health.
“This initiative is a great opportunity for students to apply and deepen their knowledge about individual and community reactions to disaster, cultural and contextual influences on reactions, disaster response and responder self-care, all while making a difference in real people’s lives,” said IDMH Director Amy Nitza.
“We want to help students understand how all the pieces fit together. Mental health isn’t just doing counseling; it could be giving people hope, connecting them to other people. I think we’re watching that happen along the way. The people whose houses we’re working on here are making us lunch, telling us their stories, so there’s been a real sense of connection,” Nitza said.
The IDMH deployment will be in Puerto Rico from July 15 – 28. It includes IDMH Director Nitza, IDMH Graduate Assistant Nathaniel Pickering ’18g (Mental Health Counseling) and 28 other SUNY students, including 13 New Paltz students and five enrollees in the College’s undergraduate minor in Disaster Studies.
“I think one of the most unexpected things for me to experience was the happiness expressed by the homeowners while they allowed us to work on their homes,” Pickering said. “It seems to me that while the hurricane has broken their homes, their spirits are not broken. Their resilience inspires me to continue working as much as I possibly can.”
Student participants receive a stipend and an opportunity to earn three SUNY credits while making a difference in their chosen field. They are working primarily with NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster, which is spearheading an effort to repair concrete roofs on family homes near the capital city.
“When I was younger I used to live in Puerto Rico,” said Alyzé Rodriguez ’19 (Psychology; Disaster Studies minor). “Knowing how my own loved ones had struggled, I could not imagine what those who are less fortunate were going through. I wanted to participate and be proactive in the improvement of the island in any way possible.”
The Center for International Programs at SUNY New Paltz helped organize the effort to include SUNY students, and has provided logistical support for New Paltz student participants at every step of the process.
The group’s lodging, meals and transportation are covered in part through a partnership with UNICEF USA, which provided $500,000 in funding to the overall NY Stands response.
Visit the Center for International Programs online for more information about international learning experiences and opportunities at SUNY New Paltz.
More information about the NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative and the SUNY/CUNY role is available online.
The State University of New York also supports the disaster response effort by working with campuses to ensure that students displaced by Hurricanes Irma and Maria receive the in-state tuition rate. View the resolution adopted by the SUNY Board for full details.