Let there be no doubt: Vero Beach is Nicole Perez’s home.
But her house – the one she grew up in – is in Puerto Rico, which she still affectionately refers to as “my island.” And it breaks her heart to see so many of the people there suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“We love it here, but not a day goes by when I don’t think about the island and what’s happening to all those people,” said Perez, a Puerto Rican native who attended the University of Florida and, after getting married and living in Miami, New York and suburban Kansas City, moved to Vero Beach nine years ago.
“It hurts,” she added. “It hurts a lot to see people with no power, no gasoline, no way to communicate, struggling to get food and water. They’re saying it could take up to six months to get electricity back, and it will take even longer to rebuild.
“As a mom, seeing children’s hospitals being evacuated because there’s no fuel for the generators . . . that was very difficult.”
Seeing those images was so difficult, in fact, that Perez was moved to action. The day after Maria blew through Puerto Rico, shredding the island’s infrastructure, she embarked on a campaign to collect – from local and regional donors – supplies to be shipped to the storm-ravaged island.
At first, Perez contributed what she gathered to other local efforts to help Puerto Ricans desperate for food and water, as well as items such as batteries, flashlights, first-aid/medical supplies, blankets, toilet paper, diapers, baby formula, baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, insect repellent, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and detergent.
Her early collections were sent to San Juan, but now she has organized an effort to get desperately needed supplies to her native Mayaguez, located on the west end of the island.
“Everything has been going into San Juan, but there was no gas to get it to other parts of the island,” said Perez, who, along with her husband, Sergio Zeligman, owns Panda Contractors, a roofing and remodeling business in Vero Beach. “I grew up in Mayaguez and we were getting so many donations, so I was adamant that we get stuff to that side of the island.”
Relying on Facebook posts to advertise her efforts and using her family’s business as a drop-off site, Perez coordinated with a friend at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in West Palm Beach and learned there was a collection hub at the Greenacres Community Center.
So after she packed the donated supplies in boxes – most of those who contributed to her campaign are from Indian River County – she had them delivered Saturday to Greenacres with help from Samuel Jan Homes, a custom home builder based in Vero Beach.
“They used their trailer and driver,” Perez said.
The boxes were stacked on pallets, which were placed in steel containers and loaded onto an 18 wheeler, which transported the goods to the Port of Miami on Monday.
The cargo ship carrying the supplies was expected to arrive in San Juan by mid-week.
From there, Mayaguez’s mayor – “He’s good friends with my father,” Perez said – will make sure the supplies make the two-hour road trip from Puerto Rico’s capital to his small city.
Perez said she didn’t know how many people the shipment would help, but she’s grateful that “so many people understand the need for this.”
While she has family members living in Puerto Rico, they were able to evacuate before the hurricane devastated the island. But some of her friends weren’t as fortunate – she said last week that some of her friends from Puerto Rico still hadn’t heard from their families on the island.
“I left when I went to college at UF, but I still feel connected,” Perez said. “There’s something very special about that island. Puerto Ricans can leave Puerto Rico, but you can’t get Puerto Rico out of Puerto Ricans.”
That’s why, Perez added, her efforts will continue.
“It’s has been pretty much a full-time job,” she said, “but it’s worth it.”