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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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A Different Kind of Christmas

Author: By Himilce Velez, Healthcare Services Branch Director Health and Social Services Recovery Support Function DR-4339-Puerto Rico
Published Date: 12/21/2018 4:46:00 PM
Category: Observances; Response & Recovery;

Reflections on Health and Social Services Recovery in Puerto Rico

Hope. That´s the word that best describes Christmas for the people in Puerto Rico. We have one of the longest celebrations around the world full of folklore and customs. The season goes from November to mid-January.

Puerto Ricans believe that Christmas means happiness and celebration. We share experiences with our loved ones, getting together, singing different songs (we love to sing) and eating a variety of our delicious Christmas meals (i.e., pernil asado, rice and pigeons peas, potato salad, pasteles, guineítos en escabeche, etc.) It is also time for reflection, spending time with those who are in need or lonely.

As the HHS Healthcare Systems Branch Director here at the FEMA Joint Recovery Office, I am leading a team that is working tirelessly to help communities that are at risk and rebuild a better and more resilient healthcare system for future emergencies in Puerto Rico.  Over the last year, I have seen a lot of things change.

Last year was a different Christmas. After Hurricane María, we experienced a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from sadness to joy. The sense of loss was everywhere around us. Everybody lost something or somebody. We were grateful, but we lacked the excitement from previous holiday seasons. As Puerto Ricans we may have lost everything but hope.

During December 2017, I was still without power just like countless others here on the island. We tried to keep up our Christmas spirit, but we kept our decorations very simple. We put up our tree even though we didn’t have power to turn on the lights. We put some ornaments outside of the house.

My mom and I decided the best way to light up our Christmas was to help others by engaging and coordinating a number of community and church events. Every Friday from November to January, we volunteered for a community event such as delivering meals to those in need. We spent our time visiting with the elderly, families with children and people with mental and physical needs. 

We were very conscious about buying Christmas gifts. People were suffering, and we felt it was not the right time to spend money on things there were not necessary. We focused our energy on making people happy by singing and participating in “parrandas” which is a cultural tradition to surprise people in their homes by singing and playing instruments. We sang to make everybody happy and forget about the pain for a while. A lot of seniors were lonely because many people left the Island in the aftermath of the hurricane.

This year’s Christmas holiday season is still not the same. We cannot erase what happened, but we can celebrate knowing that we are better than before.

I’m really proud of the progress that my team has made over the last year to strengthen healthcare systems and enhance social services. My team, which is made up of mostly local hires, is building capacity and connecting people from the healthcare sector. We’re bringing together public and private partners, NGOs and communities. We are also supporting health and social services within the municipalities so when the next disaster strikes, we will be more prepared and ready to respond. All of our partners have been eager to collaborate and participate in the recovery process. Our ultimate goal is to improve the way things were before.

Our spirit and strength as Puerto Ricans have helped a lot in this process. We are grateful of all the support we are receiving, especially from our HHS leadership, partners and colleagues. We are committed to this mission. This Christmas season we are working very hard without losing our festive spirit. Hope and solidarity make a difference in what we are doing.


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