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SUNY Potsdam Students and Faculty Headed to Assist with Hurricane Recovery in Puerto Rico

July 13, 2018

SUNY Potsdam Director of International Education Krista LaVack (right) is leading a group of 10 students, including six from SUNY Potsdam, to volunteer in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.

Twenty-three SUNY Potsdam students and two faculty members are heading to Puerto Rico this summer, to aid in the island’s reconstruction following the devastating damages wrought by Hurricane Maria.

Two groups will travel to Puerto Rico this month. Each group will spend two weeks working with partner organizations on the ground, assisting in reconstruction and revitalization efforts.

As part of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, the student volunteers will pitch in with recovery work, such as debris removal, roof repair and light construction projects. The students will also receive three hours of college credit, covered by a SUNY scholarship, for their service learning trip.

“When I first heard about the devastation that hit Puerto Rico, I was deeply saddened. Puerto Rico is my childhood, it is my home, and it is where many of my friends and family still live today,” said Carlie Bonilla ’19, a dance major who now lives in the Bronx. “I am so amazed how resilient and united the people from Puerto Rico are even through their devastation and their pain. Now is the time for us to use our hearts, our humanity, and our resources to help.”

Bonilla will fly to Puerto Rico this weekend, along with a group led by SUNY Potsdam Director of International Education Krista LaVack. The group will consist of 10 SUNY students, including these six from SUNY Potsdam:

  • Carlie Bonilla of Bronx, N.Y.
  • Rick Casey-Sanger of Plattsburgh, N.Y.
  • Isaac Metzler of Castorland, N.Y.
  • Deanna Lyn O’Neil of Carthage, N.Y.
  • Julissa Santana of Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Lisbeth Zea of Jamaica, N.Y.

The group will be based in Toa Baja from July 15 to 28, and will volunteer with All Hands and Hearts to clean, restore and rebuild homes. All Hands volunteers have been working to assist in recovery in hard-hit areas. The SUNY Potsdam students will be housed in a community church during the group’s stay.

Deanna Lyn O’Neil ’20 of Carthage, N.Y., will also be in the group working in Toa Baja. Unlike most of the other participants, though, she is a nontraditional student and mother of two. O’Neil is completing her bachelor’s degree in business administration through SUNY Potsdam’s Watertown-based program based at Jefferson Community College.

“I raised my kids to help make the world we live in a better place, by helping those less fortunate, leaving a place better than you found it, and hopefully inspiring others along the way.  I am interested in this service learning opportunity because of the opportunity to help others in need. I find it heartbreaking the conditions that people continue to live in due to the hurricanes,” O’Neil said.

Dr. Christopher Torres, an assistant professor of public health and human performance, will lead a group of 30 students, including 16 from SUNY Potsdam:

  • Scott Boyce of South Colton, N.Y.
  • Alyse Camacho of Bronx, N.Y.
  • Alexa Ferrer of Stony Point, N.Y.
  • Mary Lynn Glenn of Fayetteville, N.Y.
  • Sydney LaPan of Bolton Landing, N.Y.
  • Randy Lipscomb of Elmont, N.Y.
  • Elijah Mendez of Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Hassel Moncion of Bronx, N.Y.
  • Samanta Palomeque of Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Elizabeth Rookey of Oswego, N.Y.
  • Jermaine St. John of Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Amber Strable of Hogansburg, N.Y.
  • Francine Thomas of Hogansburg, N.Y.
  • Destiny Tirado of Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Abel Ulloa of Inwood, N.Y.
  • Taylor Vlad of Croton on Hudson, N.Y.

Torres’ group will be based in the capital of San Juan from July 29 to Aug. 11, and will travel each day to project sites, working with NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster. NECHAMA’s Puerto Rico Rebuild Project is focused mainly on repairing and rebuilding roofs, completing minor repairs and conducting debris removal. The group will be housed at a university campus.

One additional SUNY Potsdam student, Ryan Ward of Dexter, N.Y., also traveled to Puerto Rico earlier this month with a group led by a SUNY Oswego faculty member.    

To help equip the groups for their trips, Brian LaVack, CEO of LaVack Custom Builders in Massena, N.Y, donated safety glasses, respirator masks and earplugs for all of the SUNY Potsdam students and faculty participating in the Puerto Rico program.

“When I heard about SUNY’s involvement in Governor Cuomo’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Rebuilding and Recovery Initiative, I knew I wanted my organization to get involved,” LaVack said. “These donations are small, but they will properly equip the SUNY students to safely complete the physical work to support the people of Puerto Rico. The non-government organizations are doing incredible work there, and I’m continuing to look for ways for my business to get more involved in the future.”

In all, 500 SUNY and CUNY students will travel to Puerto Rico throughout the summer, along with skilled workers from the building and construction trades. Through the Governor’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, the students’ housing, meals and airfare is fully covered. UNICEF USA committed $500,000 to support this effort.

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Founded in 1816, The State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America’s first 50 colleges—and the oldest institution within SUNY. Now in its third century, SUNY Potsdam is distinguished by a legacy of pioneering programs and educational excellence. The College currently enrolls approximately 3,600 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its challenging liberal arts and sciences core, distinction in teacher training and culture of creativity. To learn more, visit

For Media Inquiries

Alexandra Jacobs Wilke, College Communications (315) 267-2114