On September 18, 2022, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, bringing with it 130 mph winds and torrential rain.
In its wake, it left the island with no power and no access to running water. Some parts of Puerto Rico received over 30 inches of rain in a short period of time, inundating the island with standing water and long-lasting damage, including a potential long-term economic hit that could wind up costing billions.
The full impact of Fiona’s devastation on Puerto Rico was surprising to some since it was just a category 1 when it made landfall. However, the island had yet to recover from Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm that made landfall five years ago. The slow recovery from Maria made the effects of Fiona worse and more difficult to address for responders.
It was in this post-hurricane period that The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS) chapter at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras stepped up and took action to help the community recover.
Chapter President Paola Figueroa Pratts realized that through service to the community they would fulfill the NSLS mission in an immediate, concrete way.
“We undertook community service efforts after Hurricane Fiona to help communities who were flooded and had lost all their belongings. We handed out fresh and prepared food, secondhand clothes, and hygiene and first aid products."
More than just giving back, they helped instill a sense of community.
"For our chapter, members were engaged with people from around the island, and they showed great interest in making a change in Puerto Rico, which is what leadership is all about.”
Partnerships Expand the Impact of Service
To begin the chapter’s journey in helping the community recover, Paola and her E-Board connected with area organizations who were already on the ground and familiar with local needs.
“We contacted local community organizations that are trained in organizing service events throughout the Island. We collaborated through partnerships with five other groups as well as other NSLS chapters in the state to collect non-perishable food to donate to those families who needed it most.”
To make a difference when the need is this great requires a special kind of leadership ethos based in a strong commitment to service and the ability to assess and act quickly. In addition, the team members learned they’d need to lean heavily on their interpersonal communication skills.
“What helped us achieve our goal of helping our community was the ability to delegate tasks to crew members and accept tasks that were assigned to each individual person. At the same time, we needed to listen to each other and our partners, and act accordingly in sync with the rest of the group. These skills helped us accomplish our shared goals in the best way possible.”
Teams that set challenging goals for themselves and then successfully meet those goals naturally wonder what’s next. Paola’s chapter learned and grew from this shared experience during a time of crisis. They’ve collectively decided they want to build on that experience and deepen it to meet more needs in the future.
“We want to do more community service events during hurricane recovery times, as well as more conferences on a variety of topics. We want to work together to bring awareness to social problems outside of the campus.”
Leading a Crisis Response
An intense experience like disaster recovery can help you learn more about yourself, your natural leadership style, and your strengths as a leader.
“I’ve gained knowledge on how I work under pressure, how I manage a directive for the student organization to work, and how to delegate tasks to others. I’ve also been able to discover more aspects of myself that otherwise wouldn’t have been as clear to me.”
For other chapters who want to help their communities in similar ways, Paola suggests preparing the organization’s members ahead of time. That way, when the need arises, the group is ready to launch into action at a moment’s notice.
“Provide a variety of activities that not only concentrate on members, but drive members to interact and practice leadership skills with outside people, to gain exposure and experience.”
Many NSLS chapters have embraced a renewed commitment to serving their communities, which can often necessitate learning new strategies for motivating members. It may also require a new approach to goal setting, among other mindset shifts. Paola acknowledges the road to fulfilling the commitment to helping others isn’t always easy.
“Leadership is the ability and the willingness to always strive for improvement, give 100 percent even when one doesn’t think they have it to give, and to always do your best.”
Successfully leading a team in community service following a crisis requires focus and determination. This nonprofit CEO and NSLS member also leans on teamwork to make a positive difference.