It’s early evening on a Sunday, and four students are carting trays of pork chops, vegetables, cider-braised turkey and cookies into the lobby of the Quality Inn in Westfield, Mass.
They are among a group of Amherst faculty, staff and students who have been quietly working for months to ensure that local Puerto Rican refugees have access to hot meals every week.
Ricky Goodson ’21 volunteered because, he said, it sounded like people needed help. Luz Lim ’20 went because she wanted to meet those who’d been displaced, to get to know them as people. Kirstin Henry ’20 did it because she had started learning about the fraught relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico in an American studies course, where she, Goodson and Lim are classmates. And Khyla Haddock ’20 was there because the others needed a licensed driver and she wanted to pitch in.
The first takers of the dinner feast are two preteen boys. They speak to each other softly in Spanish, quickly fill carry-out trays with food and bolt from the lobby.
At her perch near the main entrance, front desk agent Sarah Howland begins phoning the rooms where Puerto Rican families are staying, telling them in halting Spanish that the food has arrived. She says most of the families have been there since mid-November—living on FEMA aid and waiting for long-term placements in local apartments.
Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the L. Stanton Williams 1941 Professor of American Studies and English, heard about the influx of refugees from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. She reached out to see if there were opportunities for the College to help. Amherst Dining Services, headed by Joseph Flueckiger, agreed to provide dinner for 75 people every Sunday.
Fellow professors Paul A. Schroeder Rodríguez and Solsiree del Moral then figured out ways to incorporate the meal deliveries into their courses—“Puerto Rico: Diaspora Nation” and “Active Citizenship,” respectively.
Among the first students to visit the hotel was Katy Correia ’20. A student in “Diaspora Nation,” she had her first meal with the Puerto Rican families on Easter Sunday: “They definitely didn’t expect that we spoke Spanish, too, so a lot of them were pleasantly surprised. They were more expecting to take their food back to their rooms, but that changed when they realized we were interested in meeting them.”
With other students in “Diaspora Nation,” she went on to interview some of the families for the documentary film Puerto Rico Pa’lante.
“You’ve heard about the stuff going on at the island,” Correia says. “You’ve heard about the destruction. These people are the ones living it. They are the ones experiencing all the things you can’t even imagine. So it was humbling.”
Inside the Quality Inn, the two boys have returned for more pork chops and are giggling together. The Amherst students have been joined by Niurka Velez, who is visiting her mother-in-law at the hotel.
Velez tells the students how she walked out into the eye of Hurricane Maria and looked up at the gray sky, knowing the storm wasn’t over. She’s now searching for work and inquires about jobs at Amherst, so Goodson gives her information on whom to contact.
The Amherst students are still talking about Velez, her resilience and drive, as they walk back to the car.
“Everyone keeps labeling them as refugees,” says Lim. “It’s really people trying to live.”