Nearly eighteen months ago, two of the North Atlantic’s most intense storms to make landfall, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, created widespread destruction. As images of downed power lines, darkened cities and other evidence of catastrophic losses flooded media outlets, Pawling residents lined up to send non-perishable provisions to survivors as far away as Texas, Florida and the Caribbean.
The partial collapse of Guajataca Dam in northwestern Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017, threatened that a bad situation could suddenly become much worse for the U.S. Commonwealth. While these stories may seem a distant memory for many of us, the residents of Puerto Rico have spent more than a year reimagining and rebuilding their lives while taking comfort in whatever remained unchanged. For the youth of Puerto Rico, this meant living without reliable access to food, clean drinking water and electricity, adapting to significant changes in their home and school settings, and very often saying goodbye to friends and loved ones who were leaving the island to seek refuge and employment in far off lands.
The developing stories of the hurricanes’ one-two punch drew the attention of Cary Keesler, a 12-year-old Boy Scout from Pawling. He was familiar with Puerto Rico’s Lake Guajataca because older members of his troop had visited there a few years earlier. He knew friends from the National Society of the Children of the American Revolution (N.S.C.A.R) who were anxiously awaiting confirmation that family members had survived the storm on Vieques, an island to the east of Puerto Rico. He also had firsthand knowledge of how quickly lives can change, having been displaced from his childhood home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. When the opportunity arose to spend a portion of his school year on a project of his choosing, the eighth-grader set out to help the scouts affiliated with Camp Guajataka near San Sebastián, Puerto Rico.
Cary researched statistics including the percentage of consumers without power and the number of schools that would forever stay closed after the storm. He learned about various relief agencies that were providing food and household goods to the island, as well as the distribution networks manned by volunteers of all ages that helped get the supplies where they were needed most. When he learned how hard scouts there were working to rebuild their communities and their severely damaged scout camp, Cary was determined to find a way to help. One of Cary’s Boy Scout mentors who has ties to the island suggested the camp would need supplies to teach handicrafts once it reopened. Following a visit to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, Cary decided to model his project after UNICEF’s “School in a Box” program that distributes education supplies and materials to teachers and students in regions hard hit by emergencies. He spent four months preparing a “Merit Badge in a Box” so that fifty scouts could try their hand at leatherworking as a respite from their recovery efforts. Cary created information boards about the situation in Puerto Rico and his plan to help his fellow scouts. He displayed the boards during presentations in the classroom, during scouting events, and at N.S.C.A.R. meetings.
Cary spoke with people who had visited the island as relief workers and received inspiration and advice from others with family members on the island. Cary reached out to relatives and friends as he gathered hand tools, safety equipment, and first-aid supplies to send with leatherworking kits he had purchased using funds previously earmarked for a week of summer camp in the Adirondacks. He translated and laminated merit badge requirements and background information to include dual-language instructions in his care package. Cary also enlisted the help of N.S.C.A.R. members to pack personal first-aid kits and accepted notes of encouragement from anyone willing to draw a picture or jot down a few words.
The effect of the commonwealth’s widespread power outages was evident as Cary tried to make contact with anyone affiliated with the camp or the local Boy Scout council. In mid-May, Cary sent a large weatherproof tool bin tightly packed with more than 80 pounds of goods to the best address he could find. After tracking the package to a regional postal station on the island two days later, no further information regarding the delivery of the package could be found. Eight months went by without his knowing if the package had reached the boy scouts. In January, an envelope from the Boy Scout Council of Puerto Rico arrived. Those closest to the project had given up hope of hearing if the care package had been useful at camp.
The envelope contained several patches representing the people, places, and events that benefited from the “merit badge in a box” and a letter thanking Cary for his efforts. Maria Molinelli, the Executive from the Boy Scout Council of Puerto Rico, explained that the leatherworking materials had been used at their summer and Christmas camps. She indicated how chaotic life had been since the storms and extended an invitation for Cary to visit Puerto Rico and attend summer camp there this July. He will spend the next several months trying to make that opportunity a reality.