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New England volunteers help Waves Ahead rebuild LGBTQ Puerto Rico one home at a time

Waves Ahead volunteers and a home they helped rebuild. Photo courtesy Waves Ahead

Hurricane season is here. 

In Puerto Rico, where September 2017’s Category 5 Hurricane Maria devastated the US island territory, many people are still living under blue tarps. Their homes lacking shelter from storm-force winds. Many still with spotty to no electricity and relying on assistance for food and water.

“I know President Trump has said on numerous occasions that we are all set, that we don’t need more money for the hurricane relief efforts, but that is false. We need it,” said Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead, an advocacy group for LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups in Puerto Rico. 

“More groups like mine that are so small are doing most of the work that government is not doing,” he said. “The US government stopped. FEMA stopped. Everybody stopped, pretty much. There were some organizations that came from the United States that did amazing work, and they’re gone.”

The 2019 US disaster relief package, delayed for months and finally just signed by President Trump in June, promises $1 billion in aid for Puerto Rico, with $600 million going to the food stamp program and $300 million to community block grants.

However the track record of this money getting to the people who need it most has not been good. Labiosa credits some government officials, like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, for doing great work, especially in urban areas. But not for the remote areas, and especially not for marginalized groups, like LGBT people. 

“This segment of the population is being even more marginalized and forgotten than any other here in PR,” Labiosa said. 

Which is exactly where Waves Ahead comes in. 

Roofs for blue tarps

During the first 60 days after Hurricane Maria, Waves Ahead provided more than 378 individuals and 63 families (with 51 children under the age of 16) with food, drinking water and other essentials for survival. Many of these people were elders living alone, or with their aging partner, and many were LGBT, according to Waves Ahead statistics. 

The group has since provided aid to more than 1,140 individuals. Thirty-one percent are 60 years and older, 40 percent are families with children, 42 percent are LGBT, and more than 55 percent live alone, the group reports. 

Waves Ahead has also started replacing blue tarps with real roofs. As of June this year, they have rebuilt, with the help of volunteers from “LGBT and Puerto Rican Diasporas,” 18 homes across eight municipalities. 

“These 17 homes we did with less that 80K,” Labiosa said. “We are not overspending. And if I show you these homes, you’ll be like, ‘What? You did this with what?’ We did this because of the efforts of people to give their time and effort to come to Puerto Rico and help us rebuild these homes.”

Meanwhile, they’re developing four community centers for LGBTQ people and woman-led households. They recently completed the first one in San Juan and held its grand opening on May 14, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The four centers are going up across the island in urban areas, and will serve as bases for outreach into remote areas—not just for hurricane relief but also for the LGBTQ community support they were providing before the hurricane struck.

New England connection

Volunteers rebuilding the houses and community centers are coming from groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which helped reconstruct five homes last year, and more locally from Boston’s Moving Violations Motorcycle Club. 

“Moving Violations’ Peg Preble did all the fundraising herself,” Labiosa said. “She is a machine. She brought 30 people here and in two weeks they finished a home that was totally destroyed. It was one of the projects that I thought, ‘I can’t even look at this. There’s no way.’ But they did it.”

Labiosa also acknowledges another woman who collected about $2,000 for Waves Ahead after she heard about their work from a friend at a dinner party in another Boston suburb. “It brought me to tears,” he said. “She Googled us and found information about us and did it on her own.”

In January of 2018, Boston Pride raised more than $10,000 for Waves Ahead at a fundraiser cosponsored with Club Café and Boston Latinx Pride—a group Labiosa has some history with. A former Bostonian, Labiosa cofounded Latin@Pride in 2014, and he served as vice president and board member of Boston Pride. 

His Boston roots go decades deep. He earned his master’s in counseling psychology from Northeastern University and did postgraduate work at both Suffolk University and in the Department of Psychology at Children’s Hospital. Before returning to Puerto Rico, for some 25 years he’d worked in the Boston area in public health, serving marginalized communities, focusing on Latinos, the LGBTQIA community, HIV/AIDS prevention, and substance abuse recovery. 

Making Waves

With very minimal financial contributions, Waves Ahead has been able to do a lot. But there’s so much more to do. More homes. More community centers. More generators, water, food, toilet paper. And with hurricane season upon us once again, these contributions are making a difference right now where they’re needed most.

“We can’t do our work with just one big one-time donor. We need more individuals to donate,” Labiosa said. “We want to finish these homes. People are traumatized. They’re having so many issues. We just want to help address them.” 

 “I understand that people are afraid of giving money because they have seen in the news what the government has done,” he said, “but what I want to remind people is that they are not giving it to the government when they’re making a contribution to Waves Ahead. They are giving it to people who are putting their money where their mouth is, where the hands are that are making the difference.”

“And I want to say, thank you for not forgetting us,” he said. ”

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