When Hilda Vlachopoulou arrived in Puerto Rico as Team Rubicon’s Puerto Rico Rebuild Project Manager last April she had never before been to the territory. But she had years of experience running programs for the U.S. Department of Justice and for Tulane University and she spoke fluent Spanish, in addition to four other languages. “My time in Puerto Rico has been transformative,” she said, citing the 500 roofs and three homes in 24 communities that Team Rubicon rebuilt with a local contractor following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. “We were able to help approximately 1400 people,” Vlachopoulou said, though she met and worked with many more than that.
And it is the people she and TR served who affected her and have meant the most to her over the last year. “People who materially had nothing left,” Vlachopoulou said, “I would see them and they would insist on feeding homemade meals and would play music and dance with me and treat me like family.”
Vlachopoulou’s role was to work with a case manager from the St. Vincent de Paul Society to determine who and what homes qualified for services, to coordinate with other nonprofits in the area (such as The Mission Continues and Mercy Corps) for things beyond TR’s scope, to oversee and coordinate with the construction manager on all of the projects and so much more. But she also took time to visit homeowners and even homeless vets living in tents in the jungle, to listen to countless stories, to really connect with people on a deep, human level. (When I visited the islands last September and we would drive through neighborhoods, people would come out of their houses and flag Hilda down, calling her name and saying she was an angel.)
Vlachopoulou said she talked to many mothers whose kids would search their yards for missing toys, not understanding that their toys had blown away along with the roof and maybe a wall or two of the family’s home. Seeing this broke her heart. Some of these same mothers had lost their jobs after the hurricane and they and their families had to move into the crowded homes of relatives who had fared slightly better. “It was incredible to see the mothers’ and kids’ joy when they could move back into the home after we repaired the roof and made the house livable again,” Vlachopoulou said.
Those same children grew accustomed to seeing Vlachopoulou and the construction workers and often wanted to play with them or try to help them. Even after the work was done, the children would ask Hilda when she and the crew would be back again. “It was sad to know that I would not be,” she said.
One boy in particular stuck out in Vlachopoulou’s mind as being impacted by Team Rubicon’s work in Puerto Rico. The boy lived in a very poor neighborhood that had a lot of crime problems. Hilda had been warned when she first got to the island about going into that neighborhood alone, but eventually, those in the neighborhood grew used to seeing the Team Rubicon SUV and were nothing but friendly to her.
One day when Vlachopoupou and an architect drove through the neighborhood to check on the houses that TR’s contractors were scheduled to re-roof, the young boy and his dad ran up to her. The boy had been watching the contractors work on his neighbor’s homes. He had sketched what they were doing, and then made sketches of his own for the way he wanted his house to look. He showed them to the architect, and he told Hilda that he wants to be an engineer when he grows up, a dream that may not have been possible if not for the interactions with the construction workers, with the architect and with the TR team.
It’s these people and interactions that she will miss the most when she leaves her role and Puerto Rico in March, as TR’s rebuild in Puerto Rico has drawn to a close.