Amherst students delivered dinners from Valentine Dining Hall to Puerto Rican refugees living nearby

It’s early evening on a recent Sunday and four students are busy carting large trays of pork chops, seasoned vegetables, cider-braised turkey and cookies into the small lobby of the Quality Inn in Westfield, Mass. 

They are part of the large group Amherst community members—faculty, staff and students—who have been quietly working together for months to make sure local Puerto Rican refugees have access to hot meals every week.

Amherst students delivered dinners from Valentine Dining Hall to Puerto Rican refugees living nearby Ricky Goodson ’21 volunteered because, he said, it sounded like people needed help. Luz Lim ’20 went because she wanted to talk to displaced Puerto Ricans as people, not as refugees. Kirstin Henry ’20 did it because she had started learning about the fraught history of the 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, dressed in large winter coats against the chilly weather. 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 her halting Spanish that the food has arrived. 

She says that most of the displaced families had been at the hotel since mid-November—living on FEMA aid and waiting for long-term placements in local apartments—and says she’s sympathetic to how hard it must be to live in a hotel. Howland recalls watching some of the kids experience snow for the first time, a moment she describes as “humbling.”

For them, she says, the food is “something to look forward to, because they’re not able to cook a home-cooked meal.”

Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the L. Stanton Williams 1941 Professor of American studies and English, heard about the influx of refugees from Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in the fall. Sánchez-Eppler reached out to see if there were opportunities for the College to help. Amherst Dining Services agreed to provide dinner for 75 people every Sunday. Fellow professors Paul A. Schroeder Rodriguez and Solsiree del Moral then figured out ways to incorporate the project into their classes—“Puerto Rico, Diaspora Nation” and “Active Citizenship,” respectively—so that students would have the opportunity to bring food to Westfield and talk to the displaced families there.

Amherst students delivered dinners from Valentine Dining Hall to Puerto Rican refugees living nearby “I’m Puerto Rican. The whole Puerto Rican community on the island and in the States felt like this is something where we have to work together,” noted Schroeder Rodriguez, who teaches Spanish. “A lot of us were asking what can we do in our little world, and this is something we can do.”

Joseph Flueckiger, director of Dining Services, said his staff prepared entrées like mac and cheese and lasagna in easily transportable, family-style containers. The effort, which began Jan. 27 and was initially planned to last eight weeks, was later extended into the spring.

“There aren’t that many ways, other than financial, to support people,” Flueckiger said. “We felt like this was one way we could do it that would have a meaningful effect.”

Among the first students to visit the hotel was Katy Correia ’20. A student in Schroeder Rodriguez’s “Diaspora Nation” class, 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,” she said. “They were just more expecting to take their food back to their rooms and go, but it was nice that that changed when they realized we were interested in meeting them.”

Correia said the students initially avoided talking about the recent hurricane, worried that such a conversation would be too personal for the families. That later changed when Correia and fellow students met up with some of the family members again and eventually worked with them on short documentary films about their experiences.

“For me, it was kind of amazing to put a face to the name,” she said. “You’ve heard about the stuff going on at the island, you’ve heard about all the destruction, and these people are the ones living it. They are the ones experiencing all the things you can’t even imagine. So it was really humbling.”

At the Westfield Quality Inn, the two boys have returned for more pork chops and are giggling over their to-go containers. The four Amherst students have been joined by Puerto Rico resident Niurka Velez, who is visiting her mother-in-law at the hotel. Velez tells them how she walked out into the eye of Hurricane Maria and looked up at the gray sky, knowing the storm wasn’t over. For a month and a half after the hurricane, her phone service was completely cut off, she says. She’s searching for work and inquires about jobs at Amherst, so Goodson gives her information on who to contact. 

The 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.”