Former IPFW volleyball players stunned by Puerto Rico damage

"The entire island is destroyed."

From left to right, former IPFW volleyball players Pepa Ralat, Jeff Ptak, Hector Soto and Jorge Ralat are returning after spending a week distributing supplies in Puerto Rico. (Photos courtesy of Helping Puerto Rico Rise.)

Deep in their hearts, four former IPFW volleyball players didn’t want to believe the damage in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico was as bad as had been reported. They wanted to believe there was some semblance of hope the situation had been oversold.

Instead, everything was unbelievably worse.

“I don’t cry, ever, but the second house we went to I was in tears,” said Jeff Ptak, a former all-American who played professionally for six years in Puerto Rico. “The entire island got it’s ass kicked. It doesn’t look the same. The entire island is destroyed. If your house was made of any kind of wood, it’s just gone.

“It was so moving. It wasn’t because of the complete devastation, but the spirit of these people. One woman had eight children and nothing to give them, and she was just so happy to see us. It was so moving.”

Ptak and Jorge Ralat are on their way back to Fort Wayne, hoping to return in time for a 5-9 p.m. fundraiser at Hotel Tango 2, 10212 Chestnut Plaza, after spending a week distributing supplies in Puerto Rico. Through a Gofundme fundraiser, they raised more than $14,000 to buy supplies, which they gave out to small communities in southern Puerto Rico that had not been reached by rescue operations. They were joined by former IPFW teammates Pepa Ralat, Jorge’s brother, and Hector Soto.

Asked to put what they saw into context, the men still struggle.

“It was eye-opening, just so much to take in,” Jorge Ralat said. “When you see it in person, it’s just hard to put yourself together and keep going. It’s going to take years for the island to be back to normal.”

As an example, the leaves have been stripped off trees, and the concrete posts holding up power lines have been broken in half by the storm’s power. As they drove into the country, Jorge Ralat said they could reach outside their van window to push dead power lines aside so they could get through.

“Everything that are usually simple daily tasks are extremely complicated,” said Pepa Ralat, who lives in Weston, Fla. “Things that in Fort Wayne take you 10 minutes, in Puerto Rico takes you an hour. Traffic is very complicated with the roads being lost, a lack of power and the desperation of people. I was extremely surprised with how much damage the hurricane caused all over the island, on the infrastructure and everything.

“I don’t think we made a dent in the problem whatsoever. It’s going to take at least a couple of years before things feel normal again in Puerto Rico. The people are resilient, and they want to do the best they can with the resources they have, but they need a lot of help. They just struggle every single day to to just live and survive.”

As an example, they hoped to be able to buy and distribute bottled water, but there were severe limits on how much could even be purchased.

“You can’t find water,” Ptak said. “Sam’s Club was letting you get two cases of water per checkout. After we explained what we were doing, they let us take 20 cases a second time, but outside of Sam’s Club they had all the water locked up because if they had opened it all up, it would have been mayhem.

“We did as much as we possibly could with the money we collected. I’d love to go down there again. You see how you affect a community or a single family, the gratitude that they have, the appreciation they had for what we did for them was incredible. The amount of food and water that we could carry to one family, it was as if it was Christmas morning for them. They were so grateful, so happy.”

When they finally arrived at the communities, they found houses without doors or roofs. They purchased eight tarps to cover roofs that had blown away.

Their efforts were helped by the Ralats’ father who had grown up in the area and knew where to send them. They started at a small school, and then reached out to communities that were cut off.

Ptak said there were plenty of people and relief workers trying to help, but the work needed seems limitless. The Fort Wayne group made a dent with their donations, but they couldn’t fix anything, they said. The only hope they saw was in the people who have refused to give up.

“The people are smiling about it, saying, ‘It is what it is, but day by day we’ll get out of this,'” Jorge Ralat said. “They have such high spirits that it blows your mind. There are still small towns you want to help, but I know already by tomorrow or by Wednesday that despite whatever we brought, they won’t have anything again.

“Why do we ever complain about life? Their spirits are so high, and everywhere you go you talk to people, and regardless of how low things get, they just keep moving ahead.”

Both men said they’d love to go back. They have jobs and families to take care of here, but they’d like to go back. This trip changed them.

“We did everything we could, we stocked up on everything they needed and we were sad we couldn’t do more,” Ptak said. “We would love to keep it going. They were truly grateful. It’s just crazy people are still trying to live in these places.”


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