Last fall, Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico like a monster, decimating the island's infrastructure, ravaging its water supply and trashing its crops.
All these months later, the struggle to rebuild and rebound continues. Nearly 25 percent of the island is still without power, according to the Puerto Rico Power Authority.
UMass Lowell wants to help, from the ground up. Through an effort organized by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the university is collecting donations of seeds to help Puerto Rico re-establish its crops.
Elsie Otero, associate director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, says the disaster hits close to home for many people on campus.
"I know a lot of the UMass Lowell community, especially students, have family on the island who are deeply affected by Maria," Otero says.
Otero says the non-genetically modified seeds collected will be distributed in Puerto Rico's communities and schools as well as for small-scale market farm production. The community service effort was announced as part of the university's MLK Awareness Week, which honors the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
"This particular project is an attempt to do something long-term that will have a lasting impact," she says. "We thought of it right after the hurricane."
David Lewis, a retired UMass Lowell business professor who has helped with other relief efforts in the past, will deliver the seeds in person on March 8. He is also bringing 8 pounds of seeds that he is personally donating.
"I'm a courier, basically," says Lewis. Last fall, he drove a truck of supplies to Houston following Hurricane Harvey and, with his daughter, he spent a week volunteering in Haiti.
"I heard about this and asked, 'What can I do to help?' I just like to do this stuff," Lewis says.
The effort solicits dozens of types of tropics-friendly seeds, from Asian greens to zucchini, and cucumbers to sweet potatoes. Most urgently needed are "fast crop" seeds, including beans, bok choy, cucumber, squash, okra, kale and radishes.
The seeds will go to the Puerto Rico Resiliency Fund, which is working to restore the island's food supply and agriculture.
Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico had been experiencing a resurgence in its agriculture, but Maria wiped away the progress.
Seeds and monetary donations can be delivered to the Office of Multicultural Affairs (University Crossing, Suite 366) through March 1. A website with a list of seeds and other information, including a link to donate online, is at www.uml.edu/puertorico.
The seed drive is not the first UML-sponsored project to deliver support to Puerto Rico. In October, the Multicultural Affairs and Events and Hospitality offices collected enough supplies to fill 50 boxes that were sent to hurricane victims.
Also, during the Rowdy Cares with Stuffed Bears donation drive, student alumni ambassadors coordinated a collection of more than 350 stuffed animals for the island's children. They were delivered to a hospital in Naranjito, a mountainous community particularly hard-hit by Maria.
The effort is part of this year's MLK Community Service Initiative.