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The American Red Cross reaches out to the most vulnerable families in Puerto Rico

Touched by the difficult living conditions of Aide Robles and her family, who had been struggling during three months without electricity and running water, volunteers from the Red Cross Spiritual Care team, with their partners from a local church organization, gave a hand to clean the house. This was their end of year present for this family with special needs.

After reaching the top of a hill near the town of Adjuntas, in the heart of Puerto Rico, it is a steep slope down to the small white wooden house where Aide Robles lives with her husband and son. We drive slowly as the narrow muddy path has been damaged by a landslide, keeping to our right as much as possible, away from the ravine. We had been preparing ourselves emotionally as Wanda Ruiz Cruz, a chaplain from the Red Cross Spiritual Care Team, had warned us this would be no easy mission.

In front of the house, a surrealistic view: old-style furniture neatly arranged at the edge of the green hill, over a pile of rubble and what is left of a wooden wall. In the middle of this ghostly living room stands a folding wheelchair. “This was Aide’s mother’s home”, explains Wanda, who lives a short drive away, before leading us into into the adjacent house.

Wanda’s Red Cross heart went to her vulnerable neighbors when she discovered the appalling conditions in which the family lived after hurricane Maria. She brought them supplies of water, food and clothes and is now back with Red Cross chaplains Reinaldo Cruz and José Gonzalez Retamar, Michael, a young volunteer, and two ladies from a local church organization. The objective: to help Aide get her home spick and span during the end of year season.

As we walk in the house, the stench is almost unbearable. Plates with stale rice lie on the kitchen table, a huge pile of dirty clothes covers the floor of the dark bathroom where worms are crawling. On the only bed, a stained tarp covers the bare mattress. The result of three months without running water, and limited resources for this special needs family. “Oh Lord, that hurricane”, recalls Aide, looking up with her sad eyes. With her disheveled grey hair, deep wrinkles and drooping shoulders, she looks much older than her 55 years.

“Maria damaged all our belongings, everything: our clothes, the mattress, the washing machine, the TV, everything is ruined. But the worst for me was losing our clothes.”

Water is finally back and putting on their masks and gloves, Wanda and her colleagues are already at work with brooms and mops from the Red Cross cleaning kit, sponges, detergent and bleach. “We will start with the bedroom, as this is where Aide’s disabled son sleeps”, says Reinaldo. Juan Carlos, 18, cannot speak, and spends the day lying on his bed or the couch, from where he is now looking with bewildered eyes at team of busy cleaners.

After two hours scrubbing the house, Michael, at 23 the youngest in the team, has stopped counting the number of buckets of dirty water and bags of rubbish he has carried outside. It is his first experience with the Red Cross. “I am on holiday in Puerto Rico. When I saw what the Red Cross was doing, I really wanted to help.”

Wanda, who is deeply shaken by the months of neglect revealed during the clean-up, takes a short break and comes back with a new Red Cross blanket, tarps and insecticide. The other volunteers are coming out of the house which is utterly transformed. But another surprise awaits.

“Aide, could you lend us a pair of scissors?” Carefully sitting her on a chair in the yard, one of the ladies from the church organization, with the help of the Red Cross volunteers, offers Aide a haircut session. Aide is delighted at the attention and smiles gleefully during the soft massage of the skull with the shampoo. Reinaldo delicately pours water from a bucket to rinse her hair, reminiscent of a scene from Out of Africa.

Aide is now looking at her new face in a mirror, coquettishly playing with a lock of hair. “This is a time of joy, love and happiness”, we hear her say.

About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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