How can churches partner with other organizations to effectively and comprehensively meet the needs of their community? We speak with Glorymar Rivera Báez, executive director of REHACE, about the organization’s work in Puerto Rico providing services to vulnerable populations and rebuilding communities.
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How can churches partner with other organizations to effectively and comprehensively meet the needs of their community? In this episode we speak with Glorymar Rivera-Báez, executive director of REHACE, about the organization’s work in Puerto Rico providing services to vulnerable populations and rebuilding communities.
Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Jessica Anschutz, the assistant director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talks. Joining me is Dr. Glorymar Rivera Báez, executive director of REHACE (Rehaciendo Comunidades con Esperanza, Inc. or Remaking Communities with Hope, Inc.), the nonprofit organization of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico that provides services to vulnerable populations facing emergencies caused by poverty, lack of access to education, and atmospheric, social, and economic events. Thank you so much, Glorymar, for taking the time to speak with me today about REHACE’s disaster relief work and community building work.
Glorymar Rivera Báez: Thank you so much, Jessica. It is a pleasure for me to join this episode, and hopefully the information and our experiences will inspire the listeners of this podcast to do more and join different organizations working on behalf of vulnerable populations in different areas. So, thank you so much.
Jessica Anschutz: Thank you. So, Glorymar, to set the context for our listeners, I want to invite you to talk a little bit about the issues that are facing the people of Puerto Rico today. Why don’t you set the stage for us?
Glorymar Rivera Báez: Puerto Rico is part of the United States. As a territory of the United States, we face different challenges. We are part, but at the same time we have different struggles, politically speaking, and also in terms of our economic situation and social situations that we have, such as some disparities in health care access and benefits and in other areas. So, one of the major things that Puerto Rico has been experiencing, one of the challenges that we have been working with, is the economic situation. We have been in an economic recession for more than 10 years now, so that has put a lot of burden onto the families.
According to the statistics, somewhere around 50 percent of the population of Puerto Rico is living under poverty conditions, so that represents a huge challenge for families in general to overcome different emergencies, such as atmospheric emergencies, COVID-19, and other situations. Because families are already struggling to have access to basics needs and supplies and they are working with such an economic struggle, it is very difficult for families in Puerto Rico to be on their feet once a disaster happens. That was the case with Hurricane Maria. When Hurricane Maria made landfall, landing in Puerto Rico back in 2017, we were already struggling with this environment that I just mentioned. Those organizations and leaders that are used to working in response to an emergency said that people will overcome or will recover depending on the resources and access to the resources that they have.
The information that I just shared sets the context to better understand why it has been so difficult for communities in Puerto Rico to get back to normalcy. And I’m talking about those communities and families outside of the metropolitan area. Puerto Rico is 30 by 100 miles, so it is small, geographically speaking, but we have a population right now of 3.2 million people. Actually, there are more Puerto Rican people on the United States mainland than in Puerto Rico, but still there is a large population located in Puerto Rico. In the metropolitan area, if you visit San Juan, which is the capital of Puerto Rico, and some of the surroundings, you will have the sense of normalcy because of the tourists and the economic activities around the metropolitan area. But when you travel further outside the metropolitan area, then you will start seeing a lot of communities living in a lot of stress in that sense.
So, the economic situation, the atmospheric emergencies that we face such as Hurricane Maria. Then we had in 2020 the earthquakes in the southwest part of the island, and also the pandemic that also affected a lot. And last September we were hit by Hurricane Fiona. So that puts in perspective the multiple situations that we are dealing with and that we have been dealing with for the past years.
Jessica Anschutz: That is a lot to deal with, and any one of those things on its own would certainly be a lot. As you reflect on the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, how have you adapted and changed REHACE’s focus since that time?
Glorymar Rivera Báez: Well, Rehaciendo Comunidades con Esperanza, which is the Spanish name for our organization, the nonprofit of the Methodist Church, REHACE, was incorporated in 2002, so REHACE has a trajectory of 20 years. But the reality is that before Hurricane Maria, REHACE was seen as a ministry of the church. I say this because sometimes we minimize the work and impact when we use the words that we use, such as ministry, and people tend to see that a ministry is something that people will do as part of their response, their experience, in the church. And even though it was incorporated and had access to a lot of resources because of its status as a nonprofit organization, the impact that it had was primarily to the inner side of the church, so the work that REHACE used to do before Hurricane Maria was more related to training, creating awareness, working with volunteers, and some access to education through tutoring centers that were in local churches. That was the work that REHACE used to do on a yearly basis.
After Hurricane Maria, we had a huge opportunity or we saw it as a huge opportunity to use REHACE as a platform to have access to external resources, financial resources, and to develop the capacity of REHACE to expand the work and better respond to the emergency. I will say that the first reality check was we had to make decisions at a fast pace. At that time the whole island was under a disaster declaration, an emergency declaration. The extent of the damage was very present. We didn’t have power, electricity, for months, for many months. There were communities that didn’t have access to water. The streets — there were mud slides in the streets.
We were experiencing major damages all over, in different municipalities all over, even in the metropolitan area, so we knew that we needed to do something. In a conversation with the bishop at the time and his leadership team, we saw REHACE as the door to embark in formal conversations with different partners. And we did that. You know, it was fairly fast. We were managing a lot of information. Establishing priorities was very difficult at the time.
After that it was so fast, so rapid, the way REHACE expanded. The way I see it is we were babies even though we had a lot of years. We were seeing ourselves with little potential. Maybe that describes it. But once we shifted the way we were seeing the organization’s opportunity, after that, we expanded — and it was probably in a period of eight months. Before Maria, we had a deficit operation; REHACE was working under a deficit. After that, we put everything in order, and we started recruiting people with the funding that we received. We put a lot of effort in capacity building. We put in place a strategic plan to respond to Hurricane Maria, and from there we expanded to the organization that we are right now.
So, yes, Hurricane Maria set a before and after for REHACE. And for a period of five years, we’ve managed a volume of $30 million in direct services. I think that will exemplify in a dramatic way how we saw an organization that was already established and how the key component was that we saw an opportunity and we took advantage. We said, okay, we need to make some decisions. We have to make it quick. The church has its structure, but because REHACE is a 501(c)(3) organization with the federal exempt and the local exempt, we were able to get access to federal funds, local funds, and also United Methodist Church funds through UMCOR that helped us to expand the work that we did and with amazing results.
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Jessica Anschutz: What an inspiring story! And it’s really inspiring to think about the number of lives that REHACE has impacted in this time. Now REHACE has four areas of emphasis. Can you name those and describe those for our listeners?
Glorymar Rivera Báez: Yes, of course. After 2020, we sat down and evaluated the scope of work and the work that we were already doing after Hurricane Maria. So, we established these four focus areas, which the first one is response to emergencies, including atmospheric, biological, and social emergencies. The second one is well-being initiatives. The third one is food security, and the fourth one is access to education.
In the response to emergencies area, we developed, as part of the response to Hurricane Maria, a comprehensive case management program. We developed that program with the help of UMCOR, using UMCOR’s holistic approach to disaster case management, so we have a certified trainer, who is our case management director, and we trained the case managers in this holistic approach. We ended last year the long-term recovery program for Maria; by the end of the program, we were able to serve 2,969 families through this comprehensive case management program.
This holistic approach covers a total of 28 met needs, so the case managers help families to set or to develop a recovery plan considering the specific needs that the family has. The responsibility of a case manager is to connect that family with resources in the community, the municipality. Also, we channel the resources that we have and the funding that we receive through different proposals to help that family. In June 2022, we finished with the 2,969 families, and we were able to repair 1,299 houses out of that number.
So, the comprehensive case management is the program that we have been that is still open. We finished the project in response to Hurricane Maria, but we opened that same program to respond to the earthquakes. And this January, we opened a program to respond to the families affected by Hurricane Fiona. We have already established a target of the amount of families that we want to serve and the amount of houses that we would like to repair. Also in that area, we have 15 collection centers; and the distribution and collection centers operate or work using church facilities. So, we train the coordinators, and the coordinators are basically lay people that volunteer to provide those services. And we have set up an infrastructure for the collection centers. We have established protocols and guidelines, so that’s part of our capacity building effort.
Then in the well-being area, we developed a program, and its focus is to provide or equip people in how to deal or cope with the crisis, different crises. We provide psychoeducational workshops and also group therapy sessions for families affected. Our purpose in that area is to provide the skills and the knowledge that people need to better respond to the emotional distress in the different crises that they are experiencing. We also work with children and with older adults. So, we have different projects in that area. We also work with the community of immigrants that we have. Most of them are located in the metropolitan area. They come either from the Dominican Republic or from Haiti. So, we have different ministries. In these projects, we partner with local churches, and we partner with other nonprofit organizations that are present and are working in these areas.
For food security, we have partnered with the Food Bank of Puerto Rico, the Council of Churches, and also with private organizations that provide food assistance. So, we partner with them. We distribute food vouchers throughout the year and also food bags or grocery bags to different families at a mass scale. In large amounts, we distribute.
And for access in education, we have four tutoring centers. We provide tutoring services, and we have strengthened the tutoring center services with psychosocial curriculum. We also give skills and workshops to the children, so they have the skills to better respond and not be in a vulnerable situation. So those are the four areas and some of the projects that we have in each of them.
Jessica Anschutz: I really appreciate the comprehensive approach that you all take to addressing the needs of your community. When I look at a lot of congregations’ responses to poverty and disaster relief, they tend to focus on the immediate response to the emergency, food safety, and access to education, and I think we often forget about the wellness piece. Can you say some more about what that wellness piece looks like for you all on the ground?
Glorymar Rivera Báez: Yes. When we expanded our projects after Hurricane Maria, we were focusing on our efforts primarily in the comprehensive case management, providing direct assistance, and later we developed the construction unit. So, we put a lot of emphasis in those areas. After the earthquakes, one of the things that we immediately noticed is that, even though people’s houses were affected, it was very unique — there weren’t a lot of structures damaged after the earthquakes, but people were staying outside of their houses. People relocated to sleep in tents. They didn’t want to get back to their homes.
What we saw, what we immediately experienced, was a lack of coping strategies. The well-being, the mental health, was the most affected aspect after the earthquakes. When we had conversations with other nonprofit organizations and disaster response agencies, everybody across the board said that what the people need is emotional care, spiritual care. That was very, very evident across the island. The earthquakes took place in the southwest part of the island. But even in the metropolitan area, people were having trouble sleeping and in their interpersonal relationships and all of that. So, we were thinking and questioning ourselves: what should we do to respond? We didn’t have the infrastructure to help families with their repairs because the houses in Puerto Rico, most of the houses, are in concrete. It is very expensive and very hard to complete construction with concrete and that type of materials.
So, we were thinking: what can we do to help families right away? And what we did was, since our case managers are mostly either psychologists or social workers, we made a shift in their task, and we put together brigades of emotional care, and we sent those brigades to the communities where people were sleeping in tents and where people were in small clusters or families and communities. We started deploying those emotional care brigades. After that we sat down and put together a more formal approach to respond in the long run.
That’s how the RED program — Resiliencia Emocional ante un Disaster, which is an emotional resilience program — that was how we developed that program. We set up a model that incorporates the emotional care with evidence-based strategies to deal and cope, you know, to strengthen how to deal with your emotions, always recognizing that there are no good or bad emotions. There are emotions, and we need to recognize them. And the key component is how we deal with the emotions, how we translate or transform those emotions into good behavior or behavior that will have good results in our decision making, etc.
We incorporated those components, evidence-based components from the psychology area and also the spiritual care. For the therapy group sessions, the psychologist will partner with the pastor in some of the sessions, so families or the participants will have both components — the mental aspect but also the spiritual care. Those therapy groups have five sessions, so this is fairly small; it is not a long-term therapeutic process. For people that need to receive individual care, we will refer. We establish partnerships with different organizations that work specifically in that area. And the other component that we developed was these workshops. The workshops are either a two-hour or a one-hour workshop in which we cover information about how we deal with emotions. How can we cope in distress if we are in distress? If we are in a crisis? If we are experiencing an emergency, such as an earthquake or a hurricane, etc.?
And the important thing is these skills, the strategies that we provide to the participants, are strategies that they can put in any other context. If they are experiencing a family crisis because they lost their job, they can use those strategies. If they are experiencing a marital or some type of crisis, they can put that in place. So, I think that that’s one of the areas that is a huge opportunity for church to partner with programs in the mental health area, and there are good programs in different areas. If you pay attention to the statistics in different places, in different states, there is a crisis, you know. Mental health is truly a big crisis. Yes, we have been working at a smaller scale, but the feedback that we have received is amazing. People really appreciated that type of intervention.
Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much, Glorymar, for highlighting the mental health crisis and for sharing just a little bit about how you all are working to respond to that. I hope that it can be an inspiration to our listeners. Our time together is drawing to a close, yet I feel like you have so much to offer and to share with our listeners. I want to invite you, as we close our time together today, to reflect on any words of wisdom you may have for church leaders as they seek to address the needs of their communities.
Glorymar Rivera Báez: Well, Jessica, this has been my experience as a person that grow up in the church. My father is a pastor, so I grew up in the church. I have been working with the church for many years, and I think that we need to adapt to the new realities of the world that we are living in. When I say sometimes people are afraid — they think by saying we need to adapt is that will mean that we need to distance ourselves from the words of Jesus and the evangelical approach. That’s not what I feel. When I say that we need to adapt, I mean that we need to make sure that the church is relevant to the people. If the community, the people, don’t feel that the church is relevant to their needs, to their lives, what’s the purpose in attending church?
Sometimes I see that the church puts a lot of attention into the way we do the worship — the music and all those types of experiences. At the end of the day, I believe that what people really need are that we equip them with the skills and resources so they can be a better dad, a better mom, so they can be a better professional at their workplace, so they can better respond to a different crisis. I think that the church has a huge opportunity to transform the way we do church, the way that we behave. We need to be relevant to the times and to the people around us. Otherwise, the church will no longer be a place that people will look to, you know. I think that we have a huge opportunity to reflect on that and to see in which other ways we can serve and can exemplify Jesus’ words and love and what Jesus has asked us to do on a daily basis.
Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much, Glorymar, for your time today, for your work, and for your ministry. May God bless and keep you.
Glorymar Rivera Báez: Thank you, Jessica. I feel blessed being part of these podcasts, so thank you so much.
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