NEWS AND POLITICS
This15-Year-Old Is Bringing Solar-Powered Lights to Hurricane Maria Victims
"Imagine not being able to see anything from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m."
SEP 30, 2017 4:10PM EDT
When 15 year-old Salvador Gabriel Gómez Colón woke up on the morning of September 20 and began to survey the destruction Hurricane Maria had wrought in his San Juan neighborhood, Condado, it didn’t take him long to understand that the situation was dire beyond comprehension. "My parents lived [through Hurricane] Georges, and my grandparents lived [through Hurricane] Hugo, and they said this was nothing compared to Maria," he tells Teen Vogue. "It took every single city and town in Puerto Rico and completely decimated it."
Salvador used the word "lucky" to describe his family's situation more than once. Their apartment building has a generator producing electricity (though it can’t be rationed; if they turn it off, it won’t turn back on) and a cistern with water, two basic utilities most Puerto Ricans lack right now. But just looking around and seeing downed trees that "look burned" and a landscape that had "the color sucked out of it" gave him an inkling of how bad things were.
And then there’s the food situation. Salvador’s family, like many Puerto Rican families, is running out of things to eat. His parents last went grocery shopping five days ago, standing in line for hours, only to be warned against buying any meat products, as the supermarket didn’t have power — and hadn’t for several days. They haven’t been able to buy food since. "I try to find the positive things in moments, and then I realize how serious the moment is," he says. "I think, 'If I feel threatened, how must most families in Puerto Rico be feeling?'"
That empathy led him to reflect on the bigger picture, and he began mulling over an idea. "I felt a drive to help. I realized it was part of my duty as a citizen, for Puerto Rico," he says. "I thought about things that were needed. I knew there were lots of campaigns for food, money, but there were a lot of items that weren’t being addressed. The first idea that came to mind was about light. Thousands and thousands of families don’t have power and light. It’s a safety and public health issue. Imagine not being able to see anything from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. — it’s like solitary confinement. I mean, I’ve never been in solitary confinement, but I imagine that’s what it must be like."
Clothes seemed like another public health issue. "Most people don’t have closets. Their closets were blown away. They don’t have clothes anymore," he explains. "The clothes they’re wearing probably haven’t been changed. They need their clothes to be cleaned." He sensed he could help fill the void, and so he took advantage of his cell and Internet connection, however tenuous, and got to work.
Salvador contacted his mom’s friend, Neha Misra, who is involved with [Solar Sister][ https://www.solarsister.org], a project based in Africa that combats "energy poverty." He asked Misra what she thought would best benefit Puerto Rico in the short-term, until power is restored (official estimates range from as few as several months to as long as a full year), and she suggested solar-powered lights. He then spoke with another of his mom’s friends, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan. "He told me that when 'we don’t have light and power, we use hand-cranked washing machines.'" Suddenly, Salvador knew what he had to do.
Relying upon Misra’s help, he set up an Indiegogo campaign, which launched on September 28. The campaign aims to raise $100,000, which will be spent on solar-powered lights and hand-crank washing "machines." In just 24 hours, Salvador, working with a spotty connection — "it takes us an hour to receive a text message," he says — had raised over $14,000.
And if you were wondering what he’s going to do when the campaign ends, he’s already got a plan for that. He’s negotiated bulk pricing and will distribute the lights and washing devices, as well as mobile phone chargers, in some of the hardest-hit coastal areas, including the predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican town of Loíza and the decimated northern coastal town of Toa Baja.
Despite his success so far, he describes this project as an "odyssey." That trial-filled journey, however, has given him focus and purpose in the confusing, frightening days following Hurricane Maria. "I want to be a person who brings a good change in the world," he says. "I feel responsibility to set this world up to be the best it can be. I have a lot of aspirations, but the common thread is that I want to help people."