Texas deputy helps native Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
Deputy Sheriff Armando Aviles Jr. managed to fill four 18-wheelers with supplies to send to Puerto Rico
By Brooke A. Lewis
HOUSTON — Armando Aviles Jr. fondly recalls the soothing sounds of "coquis" or frogs during the summers he spent as a boy in Puerto Rico. The memory of those sounds was a call to arms for the Harris County Sheriff's deputy after Hurricane Maria devastated his native island.
Just weeks earlier, the deputy with the Harris County Sheriff's Office had rescued flooded victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. "They needed help, (and) I could get to them," said Aviles, who felt fortunate to only suffer some minor damage at the home he shares with his wife and five stepchildren.
When Maria hit, he said: "My family needed help, and I couldn't get to them."
Aviles' cousins and grandparents live in Aguas Buenas, but he had no way of immediately getting to the mountain town thousands of miles away. Worry paralyzed the deputy as he sat at home trying to figure out a way to help his isolated relatives.
"I'm not rich," he said. "I don't have the hook up with big organizations. I can't call somebody and say, 'Hey give me a plane.' "
Aviles grew up in New Jersey but spent summers in Puerto Rico, where he was born. He couldn't stop thinking about his family running out of food and living without electricity and water.
The 35-year-old deputy decided to hold a two-day relief drive at Kroger on Highway 6 in northwest Houston, an area he now patrols. He's worked six years for the sheriff's office.
As Aviles started putting plans into place, he asked the area Kroger manager if he could use the store to keep donations and hold the drive.
The manager broke down in tears, confiding to Aviles that she, too, was Puerto Rican.
The plan started to come together.
Aviles spread the word on social media. He also partnered with another deputy who is an executive for United Sikhs, an organization that has been active in hurricane relief.
In a moment of panic, he remembers asking his wife, "What if nobody shows up?"
Instead, he watched Puerto Ricans from across Houston flood the store to donate whatever they could.
"All these Puerto Ricans came out from different backgrounds, different jobs, even Puerto Ricans who didn't have any money. Puerto Ricans who are unemployed, children," Aviles said. "They came out and wanted to help."
Aviles managed to fill four 18-wheelers with supplies to send to Puerto Rico. They were sent to a warehouse in Miami and are scheduled to arrive by plane in Puerto Rico by early December. However, the deputy still doesn't feel like efforts are enough. He's heard stories of Puerto Ricans burying loved ones in backyards and tales of hospitals with no electricity.
He hears about islanders with diabetes who have run out of insulin.
Plans swim around in the head of Aviles, who set up a GoFundMe to help raise more money for supplies.
He's also searching for families from Puerto Rico who relocated to Houston in the wake of Maria and are in need of food for Thanksgiving. He dreams of holding a local Christmas toy drive for Puerto Rican children.
He wrestles with the reality that there's always more he could do. "You know, you can't get to everybody, as bad as you want to," he said.
©2017 the Houston Chronicle