Helping Hands

January 5, 2021

Mariela Paredes, executive assistant at Hackensack Meridian Health, plans a getaway trip each year for her birthday. But as she approached her 40th birthday, she suddenly had a different idea.

Starting in late December 2019 and progressing into 2020, the southwestern part of Puerto Rico was struck by a swarm of devastating earthquakes, including 11 that were a magnitude of 5.0 or greater. Mariela, who has family members in Puerto Rico, knew this area was still shattered from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in 2017.

“I told my fiancé that I wanted to go somewhere different for my birthday this year. I wanted to give something to others,” she says. “I told him that I wanted to go to Puerto Rico to help.”

Mariela hadn’t planned a trip like this before, but she had an idea of who could help her: Hackensack Meridian Health and her fellow team members. “Hackensack Meridian Health has donated toward hurricane relief before and does a lot to support the community,” she says. “Plus, I know plenty of team members here whose families were affected by Hurricane Maria and the earthquake in Puerto Rico.”

It turns out, it was the perfect partnership.

All Hands on Deck

Mariela’s first stop was Jim Blazar, chief strategy officer at Hackensack Meridian Health and Mariela’s boss. “I talked to Jim about my idea, and he pointed me to the right people to make it happen,” she says.

Mariela next approached Kenny Esser, SVP and chief of staff at Hackensack Meridian Health, who loved the idea and brought it all the way to CEO Robert Garrett—who, in turn, generously donated $20,000 to the effort. That money was used to purchase a variety of supplies greatly needed by families in the southwestern part of Puerto Rico, including cots, mattresses, food, blankets and other emergency items.

Kenny brought in Kristin Larew, director of board administration, to support Mariela with research and planning. Kristin and Mariela identified two organizations that were willing to work with them. The first was Puerto Rico Rise Up, a nonprofit comprised mostly of doctors and business leaders with ties to Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico Rise Up connected me with a couple living in Puerto Rico—James and Madeline Perez—who were willing to help me,” Mariela says. “They were amazing. They let me ship hundreds of boxes of supplies to their home and inventory all of the items they received. They also helped me locate a truck that I could use to distribute the items.”

The second organization was All Hearts and Hands, a disaster relief nonprofit that uses community and volunteer engagement to help families recover faster from natural disasters. Hackensack Meridian Health team members donated about $2,500, which was provided to All Hearts and Hands to support their work in Puerto Rico.

Other Hackensack Meridian Health team members jumped right in to help, as well. Maritza Nunez-Soto, corporate office manager, helped Mariela project-manage all of the to-dos that were quickly stacking up (and donate volunteer shirts that Mariela and her fiancé, Argenis Chong, proudly wore in Puerto Rico). Team member Jennifer Tercovich lent her expertise with ordering all the supplies that were sent to Puerto Rico. From the Materials Management department, Karl Blomback and Michael Goolsby facilitated shipping the supplies and made sure all items arrived safe and on-time.

Boots on the Ground

By late February 2020, all the pieces were in place. Mariela and Argenis, who also works at Hackensack Meridian Health in Materials Management, arrived in Puerto Rico on February 27 ready to work. They spent their first three days distributing the supplies to earthquake victims in the southwestern portion of the country.

“We saw so many people sleeping in tents in the middle of the road or in the middle of nowhere,” Mariela recalls. “It was so hard to see so many families and children living on the street. It was a really emotional experience.”

After that work was complete, Mariela and Argenis spent five days volunteering with All Hearts and Hands to repair a family’s home decimated by the hurricane. “The family had been living in very poor conditions,” Mariela says. “We worked to fix the roof and rebuild the walls of their home.”

Continued Support

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a temporary pause on the remainder of Mariela’s efforts in Puerto Rico. She had reached out to Mark Eimer, chief technology officer at Hackensack Meridian Health, about donating old laptops and tablets from throughout the network. Mark Eimer spoke with Mark Halverson from CDW Healthcare, one of Hackensack Meridian Health’s strategic vendors, who offered to do one better: along with Chrome Enterprise and Google, donate 500 new Chromebooks and licenses for schools in Puerto Rico.

“So many schools down there have been completely destroyed, between Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes,” Mariela says. “Many kids there aren’t getting any education. Being able to collect 500 Chromebooks was the most amazing feeling ever. It was a dream.”

Mariela was supposed to return to Puerto Rico in April 2020 to distribute the Chromebooks, but so far, the pandemic has prohibited that travel. She is determined, though, to get back as soon as possible.

“This has been a work of love and compassion for more than just me,” Mariela says. “This wasn’t just my own project; this was a true group effort.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.