By Nona Tepper
The night Beti Atilano landed in Puerto Rico, she slept in her car. She didn't know anyone, didn't know any hotels, so she rented an SUV, started driving and didn't stop.
"I didn't tell anybody," she said. "I had friends on the phone telling me to stay in the first place I find, and I remember just driving to this little strip mall and sleeping in the parking lot."
That was March 1, days after Atilano, a Forest Park resident, spearheaded "Forest Park 4 Puerto Rico," a fundraiser that raised at least $10,000 for World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit comprising celebrity chefs who raise awareness and donate food to the hurricane-devastated island. In the three months since the fundraiser, Atilano has learned a lot.
She's visited Puerto Rico at least six more times. She doesn't sleep in cars anymore. Instead of raising money for independent organizations, she founded Global Citizen USA, a nonprofit that provides long-term survival and disaster relief services to environmentally devastated areas. Atilano is currently focusing on Puerto Rico, but eventually plans to expand her work to Mexico, Haiti, Cape Town in South Africa and more.
"I've always heard people say you're only one person, but I swear you can make a big impact," she said.
In early May, Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan who famously criticized President Donald Trump's response to the hurricanes, emailed Atilano asking, "What do you need from me?" Atilano's trained volunteers, alongside the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, AmeriCorps and others, on how to install solar generators, smoke detectors, filter water, etc.
All in anticipation of hurricane season, which officially started on June 1.
After Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit the area within two weeks of each other last year, Atilano said islanders now feel panicked about what the 2018 storm season will bring. In early May, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that the two storms caused more than 4,600 Puerto Ricans to die, an estimate much higher than the government's official tally of 64.
"We knew a long time ago the number was off," Atilano said. "When we do distribution, people tell you their story and what they've lost, including lives. That number was very high. We got to all municipalities and towns in Puerto Rico, so it was obvious the number of deaths reported by the government was way off."
The two storms opened Atilano's eyes to the suffering on the island. She saw a video online of the destruction and debris the hurricanes left, and knew she had to do something. She had always been involved in charitable causes, but had never spearheaded a relief effort before — much less founded a nonprofit in Puerto Rico.
So after organizing "Forest Park 4 Puerto Rico," she traveled to the island for the first time to network with nonprofits, government officials and talk to people about what they need. She quickly realized that those residing outside of cities were most at-risk — bedridden seniors, those without electricity and surviving without stable food and water.
"It's very sad when you see their house is totally destroyed, all moldy and they're still living like this because it's all they can afford," she said.
In May she applied to adopt 10 schools. Across the island, she said, at least 350 schools sit vacant, shut down by politicians about three years ago during a failed attempt to privatize the island's education system. She hopes to receive approval for at least two schools in Ocean Park, which is part of the San Juan Township area. She chose that area because she wants to be near the airport so she can distribute supplies across the island.
"I'll turn some of these schools into shelters or community centers, prepping for hurricane season over there, so I'm very sure it would be all be successful," she said. "I'm 0 percent political; I'm just trying to move forward with whatever is helping people at this point."
She's also been calling around schools, churches and businesses — near and far — collecting items to benefit the ongoing relief effort. She has collected more than 350 pallets of aid items, which hold canned food, toiletries, clothing.
"You name it, it's there," she said.
Those interested in donating should contact Atilano through her Facebook page, "Global Citizens USA."
"A lot of people know me in Puerto Rico as 'Beti the Mexican,'" said Atilano, referring to her ethnic origins. "They know who I am, and they allow me to be a part of their life, saying, 'You're a Puerto Rican now.' It's humbling."
This story has been updated to reflect that many people in Puerto Rico refer to Beti Antilano as 'Beti the Mexican.'