By Mahalia Cummings
How did this relief drive come about? When Willie White called Ladan Alomar to bring an idea to her for a Puerto Rico Relief Donation Drop Off, she had already been in the throes of organizing and planning relief efforts. But during that call, the idea to collect supplies for people who had lost everything was brought to fruition.
The collection this Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., in front of the Rite Aid on North Pearl Street will mark some tangible evidence of community leaders coming together, but Centro Civico will be leading the Capital Region’s long-term struggle to rebuild the Puerto Rico relief and rebuilding effort for years to come.
Puerto Rico is an island of strong-willed people. But Hurricane Maria would test anyone’s faith. It’s people like Ladan who help to reinforce it. Ladan Alomar is the Executive Director of Centro Civico, a role she has served in for almost thirty years.
Centro Civico is a dual-language not-for-profit that provides immigration services, access to a bilingual daycare center, and support for people with developmental disabilities, English as a Second Language development, and more. All services are provided with the goal of filling gaps within the disparities that low-income and Hispanic communities struggle with. Under Ladan’s direction, Centro Civico has continued to flourish and provide needed resources to build strong families and encourage self-sufficiency for residents across the Capital Region.
The organization’s most recent endeavor is to provide much-needed supplies to the people of Puerto Rico in a desperate hour of need. Ladan has been a pioneer in the Capital Region — advocating and working for women’s rights, educational rights, human rights and economical development among other important issues.
When people don’t know how to help, they often turn to grassroots organizations for clarity. In turn, these organizations and their efforts help to make a “larger impact”, in Ladan’s words. It is that togetherness that Ladan is extremely grateful for, and leaders like she and Willie White continue to do what is needed to help to provide the vehicles for the passion and empowerment of the community.
Most people in Puerto Rico still lack electricity. Drinking water is difficult to find. In many cases, people seeking the support needed to survive find themselves caught in bureaucratic red tape. Within all this, children are suffering the most.
Ladan expresses how she first felt hearing the news of what had Hurricane Maria’s effects on Puerto Rico. “I was hurt. I was worried. I felt powerless. I would say that was the biggest emotion - powerlessness.” But it is this vulnerability that only helps to amalgamate the efforts of people who truly want to make change. Ladan felt grief and despair, but she did not unpack to live there. She channeled that into something positive, and others like her utilized their emotions and connected with each other to pool their resources.
Ladan Alomar makes it clear that she is not alone in this effort, and she hopes that sentiment is reflected for the people of Puerto Rico. She is working with collaborators such as CAPRI, the 100 Hispanic Women, Capital District Chapter, the Capital Region Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Albany Latin Festival Association (ALFA), the City of Albany Poverty Reduction Initiative (CAPRI) and others. They have joined forces with Centro Civico to create the Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Team. When I ask her about the collaboration effort, she says: “That connection not only makes us feel safe as people, but it strengthens us because we know that we are not alone.”
Ladan is not afraid to be emotional, and it is that capacity for feeling what she needs to that lends so much compassion to people who benefit from her work. She says that in the emergency stages of such disasters, the focus is on making sure people have the basics: safe shelter, food, and water. These are the main tenets of survival that are stripped away when a crisis hits. But after that, a different type of rebuilding begins. “Sometimes support from your family, your faith, when you know you’re not alone and there people out there thinking about you. And doing stuff to help you. All of this is emotionally and mentally healing.”
We also talk about the long-term effects of Hurricane Maria. “It is projected that the kids are going to lose a year of education,” Ladan says. She has secured a pledge of 200 backpacks from SEFCU, in the name of providing needed school supplies for students. She has brought up the possibility of students coming to the mainland for their schooling during this academic year, depending on what the future holds.
Ladan shares an anecdote from her childhood, in which she took hungry children in need into her home, without a second thought. She did not take into account the empty cabinets, the empty fridge, the footprints they would leave in their wake. With childlike determination, she could only think of one thing: helping those who need help. She treasures a picture that captures her in the middle of saving her allowance for this very purpose. She says it’s these defining moments of her life that cement her knowledge that we are all here for a purpose.
In times of crisis, it is all too easy to succumb to a feeling of helplessness. Ladan deconstructs some of the common thoughts that come about during international tragedy. No, we cannot afford to be desensitized to what we see on the news. “Images of pain and suffering have an impact on us. We are not a wall. We are human beings. We have to be proud of the fact that we have feelings and emotions and images and stories of other humans have impact on us.” No, our youth are not self-involved and complacent. “You have to take the time to connect with our youngsters and give them these experiences, they have feelings and emotions, too.”
And no, you are not alone. When I asked her what she would say to a survivor of this disaster face-to face, her answer was rooted in physical comfort first and foremost. “First I hug them. Because I think my hug and my touch would say a lot.” But she would ultimately say, “You are not alone.” We can all embody that sentiment, individually and together. As Ladan says, separatism is often stoked or exacerbated, but it is not the truth of what we as connected humans can achieve, one donation or act of kindness at a time.