When Héctor Ibáñez ’20 and his brother, Joey Ibáñez ’23, headed home to Puerto Rico in March after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they met people who were surviving on crackers and rice.
Since they and other college friends were all stuck at home with time on their hands, they decided to make a difference. Hector and his friend Isak Romero, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, started making calls to raise funds and help alleviate hunger on the island.
Now, more than five months later, their nonprofit organization, A Comer Puerto Rico, has helped feed more than 13,000 people and continues to distribute food weekly to both urban and rural communities struggling with poverty and hunger.
“A comer” is Spanish for “to eat.”
“When a friend of mine was delivering groceries to his grandma, he saw a lot of people who were malnourished,” said Héctor , who majored in chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “For fear of the virus, lots of people were locked in their houses and people in nursing facilities were locked in their rooms with few resources.”
The pandemic is only the latest in a series of crises on the island, a U.S. territory, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a string of earthquakes from late 2019 into this year. “All of these things have drained resources for the Puerto Rican people,” Héctor said. “Things have gotten difficult.”
Combining their skills in computer science, chemistry and grant-writing, the friends reached out to funding agencies, venture capitalists, other nonprofits and government departments, seeking partners who would help them provide basic food items – dry grains, beans, drinking water, bread and milk – and medical supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer.
“We had no idea what to expect in terms of funding, but with our first $1,000 in venture capital, we were able to feed 100 people,” Romero said. “That gave us momentum to keep growing and now we can focus on the areas of greatest need on the island.”
They received a financial boost from television personality Mike Rowe, who featured their organization on his “Returning the Favor” show on Facebook Watch and donated $20,000. They also have a GoFundMe site, and Joey received a Serve in Place grant through Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives to help fund some of their work.
The students say meeting people who are living in some of the regions devastated by storms has been heartbreaking.
“A lot of people are spray-painting their houses to let rescue workers know that they are OK,” Héctor said. “One that we came across was a message in Spanish on a house that had collapsed on itself. It said ‘Thank God, he spared us from the worst. We are alive.’
“Puerto Ricans are an incredibly resilient people,” he said. “That’s the only way we can stay together is as a community through all of these crises.”
Both Héctor and Romero said they see a new attitude among some of the nation’s younger generation, who in the past would have wanted to move away from the island. Now, many want to earn an education in the U.S., then return home to work for change.
“The youth hold the island deep within their hearts and can’t stand to see it suffer,” Héctor said. “The recent political upheaval is highlighting that the youth will not stand by this neglectful government. We have new energy to solve the problems that have gone unsolved.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.