By Shelby Ashline, originally published by the Greenfield Recorder here
Photos by Recorder Staff/Paul Franz/Anonymous contributors
NORTHFIELD — When Northfield resident Magda Ponce-Castro started raising money to purchase solar lights for her native Puerto Rico, she thought she’d keep track of donors on a small list.
She had no idea how big the fundraiser would become. On Thursday, just eight days after Ponce-Castro put out a call for donations on her Facebook page, she flipped through four lined notebook pages with names of more than 100 donors.
“It gives me goose bumps just to think about it,” Ponce-Castro said of the outpouring of support. “It’s amazing … People give me $100 checks in my name! They don’t even know me!”
Thanks to contributions from Ponce-Castro’s Facebook friends across the country, colleagues and local community members, she’s ordering at least 450 solar lights through mpowerd.com. The lights, which come in two sizes, provide up to 18 hours of light once fully charged, Ponce-Castro said, and will be distributed throughout her hometown of Maricao, Puerto Rico.
A path of destruction
After Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, battering the island with 150-mph winds and feet of rain, Ponce-Castro said friends quickly began asking what they could do to help. Ponce-Castro said residents of Maricao, where she grew up, continue to struggle with the loss of primary roads that were casualties of landslides, downed trees and significant building damage that closed banks and hospitals. Much of the town is without water, and Ponce-Castro doesn’t expect residents to have electricity for months.
Ponce-Castro lived in Puerto Rico until she pursued her master’s degree at Springfield College in 1998, and moved to Northfield in 2001, but still has family and friends in Maricao whom she visits annually, including her mother, Juanita Castro, cousins and nieces. Because Ponce-Castro’s mother lives in a house built with concrete, she was unharmed by the Category 4 hurricane.
“I knew she was going to be OK,” Ponce-Castro said. “For a while it was very hard. I didn’t hear from my mom for at least 10 days.”
The two usually communicate weekly, when Castro drives 25 minutes to get cell phone service. Still, some of Ponce-Castro's other loved ones weren't so fortunate.
“There was one friend, I think a river went into his house,” she said. “I haven’t been able to talk to him. I have no idea where he is right now.”
“I have a friend, all the window casings were thrown inside the house,” Ponce-Castro continued, referring to her friend Lourdes Cruz, who fled to Colorado after the storm. “She lost everything, too.”
An outpouring of support
Fielding questions from friends about how they could help Puerto Rico residents made Ponce-Castro think. When she reached her longtime friend Awilda Castro (no relation), who works with Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, Ponce-Castro originally thought of donating food.
“(Awilda) said ‘We’re already starting to get food, but we need some batteries,’” Ponce-Castro recalled. “Everything they have is battery-operated.”
That’s when Ponce-Castro thought of gathering solar lights. She initially purchased about 20 plastic lamps from the Solar Store of Greenfield, deciding she specifically wanted to focus on helping Maricao.
“I want my lights to go to Puerto Rico to help my town,” she said. “My town is very, very poor … I want to make sure these are given to people who need it.”
But Ponce-Castro decided to expand her project — which she said became something of a part-time job — even further, posting on her Facebook page and the Nextdoor social networking website, inviting others to donate.
“The next thing you know, that same night I had like $75,” she said. “By the next week I had like $1,000.”
Ponce-Castro said she’ll write instructions on how to use the solar lights in Spanish and send them by UPS to Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan. She arranged for a friend to pick up and transport the shipment the rest of the way to Maricao. Ponce-Castro said the Presbyterian church her family belongs to will be involved in distributing the lights, including her mother, who is “scouting the area” to find residents who need the lights most.
Just the beginning?
Though anyone interested in helping Ponce-Castro purchase more solar lights are invited to contact her by email at email@example.com, she said, “This is just the first project of so many projects.” Ponce-Castro said the First Parish of Northfield Unitarian Church reached out to her in hopes of starting other fundraisers. She’ll give a presentation there about Maricao on Sunday, Oct. 29.
“They want this to just be the beginning and have future projects in my town,” she said. Ideas include fundraising for medicine, finding methods of purifying residents’ drinking water and donating to Ponce-Castro’s Presbyterian church for meal purchases.