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If you visit the official tourism website for Puerto Rico you’re welcomed with vibrant colors, dazzling scenery, and descriptions of buena gente. It’s easy to want to fall in love with this place and its people.
Beyond the beautiful backdrop is a rich narrative of rebuilding, hope, tenacity, and community. Operation HOPE is honored to be a part of this story of economic recovery and communal growth. As we celebrate our five-year anniversary of HOPE Inside Puerto Rico, we look back to honor the journeys of the people we’ve served, the resourcefulness of our coaches, and the growing impact of key strategic alliances.
It is a beautiful opportunity to be part of this journey; it is an immense satisfaction to realize the hidden potential that our people have, to see in their faces the desire to be more resilient, the hunger to have the knowledge to undertake their business dreams, to be successful and self-sufficient. Seeing my communities embracing our programs, putting the acquired knowledge into practice, and being able to be useful to my people, gives me a reason to be here, a reason to live… it inspires me to serve.
– Erick Serrano Lugo, Program Manager of HOPE Inside Puerto Rico and resident of Yauco, Puerto Rico
In September of 2017, Puerto Rico suffered major damage from two hurricanes within two weeks: Irma, which led to a major disaster declaration and FEMA (Federal Emergency management Agency) assistance for nine of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, and then Maria which led to a second disaster declaration and extended eligibility for assistance to all 78 municipalities. The damage was catastrophic. Part of the aftermath included a massive migration of Puertorriqueños to the U.S., further devastating the local economy, changing family dynamics, and beginning the shift of an entrepreneurial push.
Through our HOPE Inside Disaster program, Operation HOPE partnered with FEMA in August of 2018 with a year-long grant. By November, the organization had recruited local staff, completed financial and disaster recovery training, and created a local alliance with the mayors of Las Marías and Maricao. Operation HOPE’s first workshop in Puerto Rico was held on December 13th in Las Marías, with 30 attendees and 25 intake applications for continued counseling.
“Working in Disaster Operations is perhaps the most rewarding and often presents some of the most challenging tasks; however, the “HOPE” that we bring to individuals as they rebuild their financial profiles is unmatched. The “HOPE” that is realized in the delivery of our mission both informs and impacts the communities we serve for future generations.”
– Marlon Trone, Senior Director of HOPE Inside Disaster
The conditions to meet with individuals and families in different areas of the island were incredibly challenging, as described by our directors in the FEMA Disaster Case Management report:
“Accessibility and remote environments continue to prove challenging for on-the-ground staff. The roads continue to be in poor and risky conditions and the [coaches] have to physically walk the remote areas to reach clients in or near their homes to do case management. There are also challenges due to weak cell phone and internet reception in the remote areas. Due to conditions of the roads, bridges, and the limitations in the cellular and internet signal, the [coaches] made their field visits in pairs.”
Despite accessibility challenges for staff, Operation HOPE registered 163 cases that year, exceeding the program goal of 94 cases by 173%.
On the heels of a successful partnership with FEMA, Operation HOPE then partnered with the EDA (US Economic Development Administration), with support from Banco Popular. This is when we introduced our Small Business Development program to the area, along with continued disaster preparedness and recovery.
July 17, 2019: EDA invests $1.2 million in Operation HOPE Inc., of Atlanta, GA, to provide up to 300 technical assistance workshops in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to help small businesses grow & succeed following Hurricanes #Irma and #Maria in 2017.
Financial disaster recovery and small business development go hand-in-hand when it comes to building and sustaining a resilient economy. This next step successfully elevated our program in the region, once again exceeding program goals over the next several years.
“Our Small Business Assistance and Disaster Preparedness and Recovery programs help potential and existing business owners to build business and managerial capacity; to learn how to prepare their business plans; and to build resiliency, especially amid a disaster. More importantly, we empower our participants to identify with their boundless potential for success and develop an entrepreneurship/wealth mindset. This is essential to be successful and one of the reasons our program is so unique.”
– Nicole Pietro, Chief Development Officer
In Spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world and Puerto Rico shut down in the same way the rest of our nation did. Operation HOPE offered COVID-19 Disaster Guidance and Assistance Services to 616 people during an 18-month period. Puerto Rico also experienced a swarm of major earthquakes in 2020, leading to the declaration of a State of Emergency.
The territory suffered from wide-spread business closures including large foreign companies that left the island. This spurred many individuals to take the leap, creating their own small businesses – both for independent survival and for the collective growth of the economy. As Coach Isabel says, “Small business development or PYMES (pequeñas y medianas empresas) are crucial to Puerto Rico’s economy by bringing more income and jobs. For a country to progress, it must invest in its small businesses and give them the tools to help them grow and beat obstacles like those we are facing now.”
September 18th of 2022 brought Hurricane Fiona. The entire island (about 1.5 million residents) lost power, and over half also experienced water service interruptions. Almost all of Puerto Rico’s commercial crops were destroyed, which has become a targeted industry of re-growth – both for the economy and for food sovereignty since most of their food is imported. To this end, one of our coaches travels into the mountains every Saturday to hold workshops in person with a group of farmers who are over 50, have a high school diploma, and don’t have access to computers.
On the other end of the spectrum, another coach focuses on women-led businesses. She has seen more and more women choosing to work for themselves after college. At last year’s BE Fest (Boricua Emprende Fest), the “largest, most inclusive and accessible annual business education and celebration event in Puerto Rico,” 61% of attendees were women. Our coach Julisette says, “The 61%-woman attendance rate is definitely indicative of what is going on in PR’s financial landscape in general and entrepreneurship ecosystem in particular.” Currently, over two-thirds of our Small Business Development participants on the island are women.