Alumni Spotlights

Bob Sheehan, ’85: Bringing the Vincentian Tradition to Puerto Rico

May 8, 2018 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09

Bob Sheehan, '85, his wife, Kathy, and son, Jay, spent a week in Puerto Rico helping to clear the debris that was left in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 hurricane, the worst natural disaster on record in that country. The devastation that resulted has been described as "apocalyptic": roofs were ripped off homes, flooding damaged neighborhoods, and the residents were left without power and water. In the months that followed, relief efforts were undertaken by numerous organizations. Yet, as this year’s hurricane season approaches, evidence of the damage to the island remains. That’s why volunteer efforts, like the one Bob Sheehan, ’85, and his family participated in, are vital to the residents there.

Bob, an account executive with Underwriters Laboratories; his wife, Kathy, mayor of Albany, N.Y.; and their son, Jay, flew to San Juan on March 17 with a group of students and administrators from Hofstra University to assist the residents of Puerto Rico. It was Kathy’s idea: She had gone on a mission trip during high school and found it to be very rewarding, so she wanted their son to have that same opportunity. And, having experienced Niagara’s Vincentian tradition as a young adult himself, Bob knew the trip would be meaningful for him and Kathy, as well.

Even before they landed, Bob and his family could see evidence of the destruction on the island: Blue tarps covered the roofs of houses and buildings, so numerous that Bob initially thought they were tiles. “It hits you immediately that the extent of the damage that remains in Puerto Rico is visible before you land,” he says.

After landing in San Juan, the group drove about 40 minutes south to Cayey, where they made their temporary home in a baseball stadium, sleeping on air mattresses in luxury boxes and showering in the locker rooms. They spent the first couple of days getting familiarized with the area and what they would be doing, then got to work early Monday morning in a town called Salinas, a community on the southern coast about a half hour away.

From 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., Bob and his family helped to remove debris from the yards of the residents there. Bob notes that he was struck by the fact there was still such a great need for the simple task, but as he got to know the people, he began to understand how Hurricane Maria had traumatized those who lived through it, and how overwhelming the idea of cleaning up their own property was.

“Every single person who was in Puerto Rico and lived through the hurricane talked about it in terms of life and death, that it was just an 8- or 9- or 10-hour battle with the weather and with the elements,” and they wondered if they were going to make it out alive, he says.

In addition to the physical work the volunteers completed, residents were grateful for the time they spent listening to their stories.

“Part of what our role was, and the way that we could be helpful and live and provide a Vincentian tradition, was just to be there and to be able to listen and to be understanding and to be present,” Bob says. 

The people they met were the “nicest, kindest, most gracious” people, Bob continues. They would offer the volunteers water and snacks during the day, happy to do something for those who were helping them.

While most of the debris, even household items like pots and pans, were discarded, Bob recalls a volunteer in his group finding religious medals in one elderly woman’s backyard. When the woman saw the medallions, her eyes lit up, he says. “Out of all the things that we found, this was the one thing that really brought a smile to her face,” because she thought they had been lost.

Bob is pleased that he could assist the people of Puerto Rico in this way, and would welcome the opportunity to return. “Our experience was so overwhelmingly positive and spiritually nurturing that we’d absolutely go back,” he says.