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MPOWERD: Seungah, can you start off by telling us why you chose Puerto Rico for your first impact trip?
Seungah Jeong: We picked Puerto Rico because it had a profound impact on the company last year when the island's devastation was part of an unfortunate series of natural disasters that occurred across the US. We learned some incredibly valuable things about ourselves as a company; number one, our products are critically important in providing support during disaster relief. Number two, the distribution network we have in place through our valued retailer and NGO partners is essential to help communities react, recover, and prepare for future events.
We decided that Puerto Rico made sense because six months after the hurricane, we felt that the news media had moved on. Since it's important for us to think about pre- and post-disaster relief, we wanted to go during the post-disaster relief effort to better understand the use of our lights in helping people resume their normal lives.
MPOWERD: John, what were your overall goals of the Puerto Rico impact trip?
John Salzinger: The purpose of the trip was to see first-hand what happens when the media cycle leaves an affected after a natural disaster strikes. There are many aid organizations that MPOWERD works with to deploy our solar lights, who demonstrate a long term programmatic approach to relief and then normalization. The key is the amount of time these organizations stick around to ensure a full recovery of those impacted. These are the perfect organizations for us to work with as our product is designed with intent for longevity and building, or in this case rebuilding, capacity.
Personally, I know a lot of people from Puerto Rico, NYC residents who have lived in Puerto Rico or simply New Yorkers that travel and vacation there. Many of them were telling me that the island wasn't back to normal-at all. It was dysfunctional, even to the point whereby transportation, clean water needs, construction challenges and security concerns were not being addressed. In my opinion, there's a disproportionate response from the government, aid organizations and the public depending on who is affected by a disaster. Too many groupings of people - - like a particular population's "race," country of origin, on economic strata seem to be the determining factor as to the level of resources and response from those responsible. I personally, wanted to "test" that out, and I thought of Puerto Rico, as being a US territory, and a minority, was a reasonable opportunity.
MPOWERD: John again for you, what was your impression and reaction to the conditions in Puerto Rico now 6 months post Hurricane Maria?
JS: Puerto Rico is still in Recovery and there are many people across the island who still do not have access to water and electricity. Even in the capital, San Juan, there are brownouts, almost every single day. So, imagine trying to do business without electricity for half the day. And now imagine trying to do business without electricity and with customers who can't afford your goods because there are no jobs, and there's no tourism!
So, taking into account the economic depression Puerto Rico was already facing, and then adding two hurricanes, has been a devastating scenario to deal with and so shocking to see. The emptiness of San Juan was just overwhelming and that was a telltale sign for me, because if San Juan is a struggling economically, then we knew areas further out that we would visit would be even worse off.
It is why we went to Yabucoa, which was just highlighted in an article from USA Today that talked about it being a 'Forgotten City.' When we were there we met people working with a phenomenal volunteer aid organization All Hands All Hearts, and that was really interesting because it was from people all over the world participating and helping this rural area just because they were driven by altruism. That was truly inspiring. Each and every single person I asked ,"why are you doing this?" they just said "because I think it's the right thing to do".
It was really inspiring to see everyday people, not government, coming together to create community and help others.
MPOWERD: Seungah, can you speak a little bit about our partners on the ground in Puerto Rico right now and how they’re integrated with our business?
SJ: Our business model is very different from other companies who have offices to distribute to the last mile. While in Puerto Rico, I personally wanted to see whether our model of working with NGOs was efficient and sufficient. What was amazing is that we actually learned that it is, and perhaps even more so [than other companies]. Our business model allows us to engage with so many different types of partners doing different types of relief work. There is real value to partnering with so many unique organizations-it can really amplify our effort.
It was incredible hear from each of the organizations we met with in Puerto Rico: how they work and how they've been able to integrate with us. For example, we worked with a young boy, Salvador Gomez Colon, who was raising awareness on the ground in communities all over the island with his organization C+Feel=Hope. Not only did he turn his fear into action by raising money for our solar lights as well as hand-cranked washing machines, he personally distributed these necessities to local hospitals and communities.
MPOWERD: John, MPOWERD partnered with Crazy Legs, can you tell me a bit about the relationship with him?
JS: I met Crazy Legs on a Mario Sorrenti photoshoot over a decade ago. We were reunited recently—right after Hurricane Maria hit. We met up with him in San Juan. He's known for inventing Breaking (more widely known by its commercial name of "Break Dancing") and he's from Puerto Rico. He now lives in NYC and has created his own foundation with the help of RedBull in conjunction with his NGO, Rock Steady for Life. As a celebrity, it's awesome to see him using that status for good, and his connections to bring as much support as he can to Puerto Rico.
But what was really interesting was he [Crazy Legs] was able to bring us through Puerto Rico to places that I was familiar with but you really needed a local to know your way around. He brought us to a street party in San Juan, where people were dancing last year, and they're still dancing now. The difference is, now, they're dancing over raw sewage that's spilling out into the street, but they're STILL dancing. And every one of all ages was out and enjoying themselves. And it was the middle of the night. The positive spirit was palpable.
During the street party, we met an elderly gentleman, donning a fedora, who was dancing up a storm. It was this amazing salsa street party scene and he had so much character that we decided we wanted to talk to him. He didn't speak English and we don't really speak Spanish (just Spanglish), but we ended up showing him a light and he got really excited and that's when we told him he could keep it. It was at this point that he put his hand on his chest and he said "corazón"… which means heart. It was quite moving to watch positivity beget more positivity. That's how Puerto Ricans have weathered this storm! Overall, you could tell, he had gone through tough times but he was resilient and in that moment his mood was infectious and the interaction was uplifting. That was his was of recovering - - through strength and positivity. I just remember that evening so vividly. Legs showed us the spirit of island and proved how resilient its people truly are. That was awe-inspiring
MPOWERD: Seungah, to end the interview, can you share a specific anecdote that really stands out to you?
SJ: There was one woman I met who touched me very deeply. Her house was demolished, and Save the Children was there to provide emotional support to her and her child, but they couldn't help her rebuild her house. She was wearing a shirt that read: "I can't 'adult' anymore," and I REALLY felt that from her.
We were asking each person we met if they could tell us something positive that had happened since the Hurricane, and she couldn't think of a word. The cameraman, the sound man, everyone who we were traveling with had to give her words, but she kept shaking her head saying "no, I have no words," and that was devastating. Eventually we suggested enough words that she came up with two: one was "God" and the other was "friends." It was so difficult to watch the fact that she struggled so hard to try to find a positive word for everything she had been through recently.
That day I sent a communication to a volunteer we knew on the ground and asked if she could go over to this neighborhood and help this woman rebuild her home. The volunteer said they might be able to--though there were no guarantees given how remote some of these communities are.
Connecting people-that's the whole point of what we do at MPOWERD. The real value of working with so many types of organizations is that we can extend our reach and be part of the overall efforts to help build sustainable, lasting change.