Editor’s note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson and photojournalist Spenser Heaps traveled to Puerto Rico earlier this month to chronicle the efforts of Utahns trying to bring relief and comfort to those suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. This is the second in a series of reports.
RINCON, Puerto Rico — Statton Davis planned to turn 17 in style.
The well-planned celebration included a friend-centered party, a vintage turntable, some classic rock vinyl and new snowmobile gear that he picked out long before his Dec. 2 birthday.
Instead, the Cache County teen marked his birthday with his dad, scrambling across battered tin roofs in Puerto Rico, converting orange buckets into water filtration systems — and learning a life lesson that all that stuff he thought was important might not really matter at all.
“It’s been the best birthday present ever,” he said swallowing hard in an attempt to keep his emotions at bay, “so fulfilling. I have really fallen in love with the Puerto Rican people. They’re really different people. I think we could learn a lot from them.”
When Lendio executive Mark Santiago approached his colleague, Ben Davis, about putting together a humanitarian trip to Puerto Rico, the goal was two-fold. They planned to deliver supplies like solar lights and batteries, water filtration systems, USB fans, tarps and toiletries to some of the communities still struggling to recover even basic structures of everyday life three months after Hurricane Maria decimated the island on Sept. 20.
But the fathers also hoped the trip would provide transformative experiences for their sons.
“I was just thinking of my 15-year-old son,” Santiago said. “He spends so much time on his phone where it’s all about him, so I just wanted to provide an experience where he could kind of see what the world is really like, see kids his own age in another country, see destruction and devastation and how resilient people are, and how people work through it.”
Santiago, whose grandparents are from Puerto Rico, served a mission on the island and played professional basketball there for three years after graduating from BYU. Ben Davis served a Spanish-speaking LDS mission in New York, which is home to thousands of transplants from the U.S. territory.
After making a trip to the island with Light Up Puerto Rico in October, Santiago felt compelled to do more.
“We can’t just come down here one time,” he said. “That’s just a drop in the bucket. How do we follow it up? That’s when I said, 'I’ve got all these neighbors that have these great sons, (and) they’d do anything to give them opportunities to learn.'”
He tossed out the idea and it quickly mushroomed from a few men and their sons to more than 40 men and boys. They traveled in conjunction with Light Up Puerto Rico. While the volunteers delivered solar panels and generators to some of the most fragile, the groups of fathers and sons loaded up minivans with supplies and went in search of those in need.
Ben and Statton Davis were joined by their Providence neighbor Al Dustin, 67, who brought along the oldest son of the bunch, Dan Dustin, 38.
As they drove through damaged, windy roads, what they found was complicated. The need was massive and shocking, but the people were joyful and resilient. They described gathering around a cellphone light at night and how their diets had changed because they couldn’t store food.
But most weren’t complaining to the men — just sharing.
One couple the four Utah men encountered had been sleeping on a porch — her in a hammock and him in a water damaged armchair — for three months because their roof had been shredded by the hurricane. The fathers and sons patched the roof and covered it with tarps, and for the first time in three months, the man and his wife, who couldn’t walk, would enjoy sleeping side by side in a bed.
Over and over the dads stood back while their sons demonstrated how to use the solar lights or how the water filters worked. After a few encounters, the boys didn’t wait to be invited or prodded, they just reached out for a hand, introduced themselves, and asked them if they could help them.
Wedged between tarps and a suitcase full of solar lights in the back seat of the minivan, Statton choked back emotion when he talked about one in particular.
“We were in San Sabastian,” he said. “This is just a small moment, but we were driving down this one road in a pretty poor part of town. We saw these kids playing on the street, and I pulled out a big ol’ bucket of candy. I asked them if they liked candy, and their eyes just lit up. You could tell that was a really special treat for them, and a whole bucket was insane. They ran in screaming, telling their parents, all sorts of excited.”
Jayson Santiago raised $4,500 to buy water filters and solar lights for Puerto Rico as part of his Eagle Scout project. He was thrilled to know he was going to be able to deliver the items himself.
“I thought we were just going to buy the solar lights and water filters and ship them,” he said. “I was excited to go. … It was so fun serving the people, especially knowing that my ancestors lived there.”
Jorge Daniel “Chucho” Alvarado is the son of Cari Lu and Jorge M. Alvarado, who work tirelessly leading the efforts of Light Up Puerto Rico. The 16-year-old traveled to the Island for the second time in a month with his father.
“I really like serving and helping people,” Chucho said. “I already know that, but I know it more when I actually do it.”
The fathers on the trip hoped their sons would be moved, that their worlds would be expanded, and that it would remind them how transformative the power of service is.
The boys saw and experienced even more than they imagined.
But they also said they saw their fathers through new eyes.
“My dad loves to serve,” Jayson said. “When he’s serving, he doesn’t really think about himself. … I was just really proud of him. I guess I learned that he’s more emotional, especially with his ties to Puerto Rico. This was the opportunity to come serve his people, pretty much.”
Dan Dustin said it only deepened the admiration he has for his father, who helped fix multiple roofs during their short visit.
“I’m proud of my dad,” he said. “He makes me a better person. I hope I can be half of him when I’m his age. It’s just awesome to be with him, and just proud to be here.”
Mark Santiago was overcome with emotion as he talked about one moment at a church service in Cabo Rojo that he was grateful to share with his son.
"After the meeting, a lady came up to me and said, ‘Elder Santiago, you baptized me 31 years ago’,” he said. “We both started crying and embraced and it was spectacular. For my son to see that, it was pretty neat.”
Jayson said it was his father’s joy that moved him.
“That was amazing just to see that,” he said. “My dad was just praying that he could see someone he baptized. It was his first area. … He was so happy.”
Chucho admires the efforts of both of his parents.
“They’re pretty much dedicating their lives to it,” he said. “But I love it, and it’s all for a reason — and worth it.”
Davis said that in hindsight, the lessons were going to come to his son and the other boys whether the fathers planned for them or not. In fact, oftentimes the dads were learning as much or more than the boys.
“All of my thinking was ‘What do I do to make sure this is life-changing for him?’” Davis said. “I just wanted him to fall in love with the people of Puerto Rico like I did when I was serving my mission in New York. Last night I was thinking I really should have been less concerned about that.”
Part of the reason the fathers didn’t need to be concerned about what their sons might learn is because it seems impossible not to be inspired by the generosity, upbeat nature, and resiliency of the Puerto Rican people.
The other reason not to worry is that it turns out the best lesson is a good example.
“He’s still my dad,” said Statton, swallowing that emotion again. “But I’ve been able to see a part of him I haven’t really seen that much before. His love for the Puerto Rican people from his mission, I just didn’t know he loved the Puerto Rican people that much. Just seeing him engaged and just how much love he has for these people, it’s been really awesome.”