A Mission of Mercy: Islander helps Head Start schools of Puerto Rico

LINDA BRUNO PHOTOS | This damaged building is an example of how Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.

LINDA BRUNO PHOTOS | This damaged building is an example of how Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 it was one of the strongest storms ever recorded. In its wake, the massive storm left a trail of damage and destruction on the island that still hasn’t been resolved.

For Shelter Island resident Linda Bruno, helping the people of Puerto Rico, especially the youngest victims of the storm, has become a major focal point in recent months. Through her work with the Hispanic American Doctors Association (HADA), Ms. Bruno, a retired educator, collected enough money and donations of school supplies and books to reopen 18 Head Start schools in Puerto Rico serving kids from age 3 to 6.

“They’re like a one-room school house with 15 to 20 kids,” explained Ms. Bruno. “It costs about $500 to supply a school with paper, pencils, and things like Play-Doh, clay, books and hula hoops.”

“The teachers were crying when they saw the stuff,” said Ms. Bruno, who traveled to Puerto Rico in February to oversee distribution of the donations.

Many of those donations came from the Shelter Island community, and on Friday, May 18 at 6 p.m., Ms. Bruno will host a wine and cheese party at the Shelter Island Library to thank those who helped with her “Mission of Mercy.” The party will be followed by a Friday Night Dialogues presentation at 7 p.m. during which Ms. Bruno will talk about the project and show a video of the much-needed supplies being delivered to the schools.

Her involvement in the hurricane relief effort began this past winter when she traveled to Fort Myer’s, Florida to spend time with her friends from Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. While there, she met a woman who owned a Cuban restaurant and expressed a desire to help the people of Puerto Rico. The woman, in turn, introduced Ms. Bruno to Claribel Bocanegra, director of HADA, an organization based in southwest Florida that’s been sending shipping containers full of much needed medical equipment to hospitals in Puerto Rico.

During her career, Ms. Bruno worked as an elementary education teacher, a principal and a superintendent. She also spent five years in China where she started an English learning center for preschoolers and trained teachers how to work with very young children. So Ms. Bruno was interested in helping the preschool children of Puerto Rico — and particularly children in Head Start programs.

“Head Start is a public program and they’re the neediest kids,” explained Ms. Bruno.

Some of Puerto Rico’s Head Start students back in their repaired classroom surrounded by the new school supplies and furnishings.

Some of Puerto Rico’s Head Start students back in their repaired classroom surrounded by the new school supplies and furnishings.

Though HADA is a physician-based organization and its focus was to send shipping containers from Florida to Puerto Rico filled with medical equipment — particularly intensive care neo-natal unit equipment for a hospital that had its roof blown off — the group had been contacted by Head Start staff in Puerto Rico pleading for help for the schools.

“When I met Claribel from HADA she showed me a text she had gotten from them,” Ms. Bruno said. “She said, ‘I wouldn’t have a clue what a preschool would need.’ I said, ‘I know what they need.’”

Ms. Bocanegra offered Ms. Bruno as much space as she needed on HADA’s Puerto Rican-bound containers to help the Head Start schools. A Go Fund Me account was quickly formed through HADA to collect monetary donations and Ms. Bruno began contacting everyone she knew, both in Florida and on the Island, to gather donations of all sorts.

“The Lions Club, the Presbyterian Church, the Shelter Island Library and the school all started giving me stuff,” said Ms. Bruno. “In Florida, I put posters in the country club bathrooms. I went to Wal-Mart and Costco and collected school supplies.”

One of the biggest local supporters of the project was Jernick Moving & Storage which sent a van over to pick up boxes of donations at the library whenever Director Terry Lucas called to say they had supplies ready to go.

Then in February, Jernick transported all the supplies to Florida free of charge and delivered them to HADA’s shipping container for transport to Puerto Rico.

Ms. Bruno met the container in Puerto Rico and helped deliver the supplies to the schools. She also used $9,000 in monetary donations to buy school supplies directly from a vendor in Puerto Rico, which had a twofold benefit of supporting the local economy and avoiding shipping costs.

The 18 Head Start schools that Ms. Bruno’s efforts reopened are scattered across the country. But with an estimated 100 Head Start schools in all on Puerto Rico, many remain cut off from the outside world.

“It’s hard to get detailed information. So many areas are still without power,” said Ms. Bruno.

At this point, no more containers are being sent from Florida, but Ms. Bruno notes that monetary donations are still welcome on the Go Fund Me page with the owner of the school supply company in Puerto Rico available to deliver any additional supplies purchased for the children.

“I would say that out of the $9,000 in cash donations, $7,500 came from Shelter Islanders or friends of Shelter Islanders,” said Ms. Bruno. “They were incredible, and almost everything on those containers, boxes and boxes of school supplies, were also from Shelter Islanders. The Lions Club sent me $1,000 worth of books in Spanish.”

Also lending a hand were Sag Harbor teachers Toby Marienfeld and Denise Read who raised money through a student council project in their district.

Children at a reopened Head Start school check out the new toys, books and games delivered by Linda Bruno’s “Mission of Mercy.” Claribel Bocanegra of HADA is at right.

Children at a reopened Head Start school check out the new toys, books and games delivered by Linda Bruno’s “Mission of Mercy.” Claribel Bocanegra of HADA is at right.

“Instead of sending a check, I said let the kids shop on Amazon for books in Spanish,” said Ms. Bruno. “Besides the cash, we got a lot more donations in goods — close to $15,000 if you look at it in kind, including Jernick’s delivery of the supplies.”

“It’s just really incredible, that’s why I wanted to have this party Friday night,” she said.

But Ms. Bruno isn’t done with Puerto Rico yet. Currently, she’s working to get donations for the children’s ward at the damaged hospital. While HADA is supplying the medical equipment, Ms. Bruno is focusing her efforts on a hospital play room and items to comfort babies and young children — mobiles, rattles, books and toys, as well things needed to outfit a parent resource center.

“I’ll also continue to work with Head Start. Puerto Rico is in the same Head Start division as New York and New Jersey,” she said. “It’s a federal program, so there is some possibility of getting some money from them.”

Though she professes to be retired, Ms. Bruno’s recent efforts seem to indicate otherwise.

“When I want to play golf, I play,” said Ms. Bruno. “And when I’m bored, I go online and track down Head Start, school suppliers and donors and do something for them.”

So after all this effort in Puerto Rico, has Ms. Bruno’s Spanish improved?

“Not enough,” she said.

The wine and cheese party is Friday, May 18 at 6 p.m. at the library followed at 7 p.m. by Friday Night Dialogues. Ms. Bruno will share details of the “Mission of Mercy” and show a video documenting the delivery of  books, supplies and materials to the schools. To reserve for the party call Ms. Bruno at (631) 749-5139 or email [email protected] To donate, visit gofundme.com/hadacares.

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