PATERSON, NJ- Paterson Public School has teamed up with a number of community organizations to sponsor a school in Puerto Rico that was heavily affected by the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria last September.

The relief effort has already raised $9200 from its first fundraiser, a “tag-day,” which was held in schools district-wide in December. The group hopes to raise at least $10,000 through its next fundraiser that will take place later this month.

The “Paterson Pairs with Puerto Rico” Fundraiser will be held at St. Gerard’s Hall from 7:00-11:30 pm on February 17. Attendees will be treated to food, live music, and raffle giveaways. Tickets are $50.

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It’s been over four months since the storm first made landfall, but the island and its three million inhabitants are still reeling from the worst recorded disaster in Puerto Rican history. Thousands are still without power and access to clean water, and many schools have yet to reopen.

A committee of educators and community advocates was formed to spearhead Paterson’s effort to help. Through donations and fundraisers, the group plans to sponsor a school by providing supplies and assistance. Several members are planning a trip Puerto Rico in April to personally deliver the supplies and help in any way they can.

The committee vetted several schools, eventually settling on Escuela Superior Vocacional Pablo Colón Berdecia, a vocational school in Barranquitas, PR. Though currently partially opened, the school’s operations have been crippled, leaving its 580 students in limbo. It is currently operating without electricity, limiting many of their vocational and technical programs.

For almost two months, the six-building educational complex was used to hold refugees from the crisis, and teachers were asked to clean up their own classrooms as part of the rebuild. Now the school is looking to return to normal operations.

“They need the basics. The books are ruined. Some of the computers got damaged. They have a gymnasium, but a lot of the things got water damaged.” said Carlos Ortiz, principal of the Paterson Newcomers Program.

For Ortiz, the committee’s choice hits incredibly close to home. He grew up in Barranquitas, graduated from Superior Vocacional in 1979, and his sister, Descia, is currently the school’s principal. “When I went there after Maria, it was utter devastation. It was like a bomb exploded on the whole island,” says Ortiz. “There were a lot of mudslides, and tons and tons of electrical poles and cables all over the place. There were many poles broken on the school buildings themselves.”

He says he is honored to have a chance to give back to a school that gave so much to him. “Being able to give back to the community means a lot. It helps that I know people who need it, and that the staff is committed to achievement.”

Acting Deputy Superintendent of Schools, Susana Perón, is part of the committee effort that plans to share the “full-service community model” that Paterson uses to integrate students from all walks of life into its education system.

The purpose of the model is to provide a comprehensive educational experience to cater to all the needs of the student. These may include language integration, health and nutrition, and individual casework and counseling.

Even before the devastation, the city had planned to build relationships in Puerto Rico. “Paterson has a large population of Puerto Ricans and a large population of bilingual students, so we were thinking about traveling to Puerto Rico and recruiting teachers,” said Perón.

This effort brings these plans to the forefront.

“We’re hoping that this is not a one-time deal. We read about closing schools and thought the kids having interrupted education is something we wanted to help alleviate, which is why we want to go there. We’re using it as an opportunity to partner with the university and recruit teacher candidates,” said Perón.

Paterson’s public schools have seen an additional influx of Puerto Rican students since the hurricanes, but, according to Perón, the city is uniquely equipped to handle this surge. “This is something we always do with our students anyway,” she says, referring to the full-service community model. “It’s not just about a language, it’s about a culture. It’s about learning how people do things and how best we can reach these children.”

It’s not just monetary donations the group is seeking either, Taina Pou, another member of the committee told TAPinto Paterson. “We’re looking for all kinds of help. A lot of people are volunteering. There is a set up committee, there are performances. Everyone is welcome to come,” Pou said.

The money from the partnership will go towards various projects around the school complex including buying supplies, restoring recreational fields, which were fully stripped of trees and vegetation, and helping put together a “multi-purpose room.”

“Puerto Rico is still in great need. I feel we can do more for them. It’s not going to be an overnight process. We will continue moving forward and try to help as much as we can,” said Perón.

For those interested in attending the February 17 event, or helping the relief effort in other ways, reach out to Taina Pou at 973-262-0269.