Benny Mendez Velez calls himself a first generation “New Yorican.” Born in Brooklyn, New York, he spent summers in Puerto Rico and moved to the island in eighth grade. After a stint in the military and some jobs stateside following high school, he came back to Puerto Rico in 1995 and has worked in the tourism industry the past 21 years.
When Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island, his entire life was turned upside down.
“I pretty much lost everything in the home and the house is pretty much done for. All I have worked for to accumulate in my life is gone because of one girl named Maria,” Benny says, a wistful smile on his face.
All that remained was his dog and his passion for the island.
“I’ve always loved this island since I was a kid. … Just to see the devastation and to see the people’s faces, it really got to me. It was very emotional.”
His kids, who all live in the states, have tried to get him to come there, but he refuses. He found an apartment a few towns over from where his house was, and is making a living by shuttling around aid workers, including the crews from DTE Energy. Benny says he feels obligated to help Puerto Rico and its people.
“I have to do my part too one way or the other. One way is working with the recovery companies that are here like DTE, so here I am for better or worse. I can’t just get up and leave.”
Benny worries what will happen when the recovery groups all go home, especially since tourism isn’t expected to pick up again until the third quarter of 2018 – and hurricane season is just around the corner.
Since late January, Benny has been driving DTE workers from their hotel to their yard where they keep their trucks and supplies – at 6 a.m. and again at 6 p.m. Always cheerful, despite his personal losses, he has made a special connection with the crews.
“Working with these guys here, DTE, totally awesome. Never before have I seen such togetherness with the crews. It’s like the Army with the buddy system. Well-organized. So unreal, these guys and gals,” he says.
Benny’s story and his commitment to the island resonated so deeply with the crews, that they decided to do something special for him. Holding back tears, Benny explains how the employees donated several thousand dollars out of their own pockets for him:
“They did something for me I’ll never forget. I didn’t expect that. Even now I get emotional with it. They raised some funds for me. I’m hanging on to that because when this is done there might not be anything for us, so that’s going to help me out along the way until we can get things back together. I was totally impressed and shocked and grateful. I’ll never forget that.”
And the crews will never forget Benny.