It would be understandable for head women’s basketball coach Renee DeVarney and head swimming coach Karin Colby to have canceled their previously-scheduled winter training trips to Puerto Rico. After all, parts of the U.S. territory, which was devastated by the Category 5 Hurricane Maria, still remain without power, clean water, and cellular service four months after the storm's initial landfall. By December, 16 other college programs had decided not to take their scheduled trips to Rincon, a beach town on the west coast of Puerto Rico.
DeVarney and Colby, however, saw it differently, and used their trips in early January as an opportunity to help with the recovery process and to show their student-athletes the resilient spirit of Puerto Ricans.
“I never considered not going,” said DeVarney, whose team traveled to in Rincon despite other colleges’ cancellations. “Seeing and hearing about the needs of the people made me and the team want to go even more. When tourism is a primary source of income for the island, I knew that was where I wanted to go to spend our money.”
Colby visited San Juan prior to her trip to see the damage for herself. What she witnessed assuaged her concerns about safety and reinforced her desire to put the team’s money toward a good cause.
“After visiting the pools where we'd be training and talking with countless local business owners, policemen, doctors, and residents, I was confident that San Juan was not only a safe place to bring our team, but one that needed the support of tourism,” she says.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Puerto Rico’s tourism industry generated $8.3 billion and supported nearly 70,000 jobs in 2016. It was one of the only consistently growing sectors in an economy hampered by prolonged recession, but after the storm, business halted as travelers made other plans.
In addition to supporting the recovery through tourism, the women’s basketball team also made it a priority to perform community service. On the final day of the trip, members of the team piled into a bus and drove into the mountains to deliver water to families without access to transportation.
“I was able to speak to families in Spanish,” recalls Hayley Raymond ’18, a chemistry major from Haddonfield, N.J. “To hear them thank us and tell me that they did not have basic necessities was so important and I will never forget them.”
Although the swim team was unable to perform a specific service project, Colby plans to meet with the captains to discuss fundraising for non-profits in Puerto Rico.
For both teams, their experiences transformed the trip from a tropical vacation focused on training and competition into an examination of privilege and the value of helping others.
“For our students to see first hand the needs of communities that are rebuilding and to understand the impact we can make, is a powerful experience,” Colby says.
DeVarney echoed the sentiment, saying “our original plan was to play some games and experience the warm weather. Luckily, it turned into so much more.”