“It started out as something really small,” recalls Edgard “Gardy” Domenech of the hurricane relief drive he’d conceived of a year ago.
Domenech, an AFSCME Local 2363 (Council 86) member who hails from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, has been the mail services coordinator at Mansfield University, a small school in northern Pennsylvania, for more than two decades.
In the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria, he knew he needed to do something to help his loved ones who still live in Puerto Rico.
So, during a Mansfield University football game, he set up a table on the sidelines, requesting donations. His friend and co-worker, AFSCME member Andy Worthington, Mansfield University’s graphic designer, created an eye-catching banner whose cost was borne by the university. And Domenech’s 13-year-old daughter, Sophia, agreed to join her father tableside.
The outpouring of interest from fans and spectators stunned even Domenech, a 27-year resident of the tightknit Mansfield community.
“People kept coming up to us during the football game, asking how they could help, offering money or food. We’re like a family,” he says. “People are really there for you.”
Sensing he was onto something, Domenech didn’t stop there.
He enlisted the help of another Mansfield friend, the school’s baseball coach Harry Hillson, and several weeks later, set up another table manned by baseball players in front of a community bank. Meanwhile, Domenech and his daughter drove one town over to set up a parallel relief effort.
Their second attempt proved even more successful than the first.
“It was huge. We got so many donations my house looked like a warehouse,” says Domenech.
With many more supplies than his family needed, Domenech turned to Facebook, reaching out to his old community in Puerto Rico, even visiting his former high school’s page, to see if there were others in need.
The requests for donations clogged his Facebook inbox, with interest pouring in from all over the island. Using the money that had been donated for shipping, he packed and sent (with help from the baseball team) 93 priority mail boxes full of food, personal hygiene products and water to everyone who’d reached out to him.
“I used every single penny” from the drive, said Domenech.
But he still wasn’t done.
Last winter, Frank Crofchick, Mansfield’s dean of students, approached him to see if he would lead a service trip to his native island. The Student Government Association paid for travel and transportation, while Domenech arranged logistics and chaperoned the students. The man who manages the mail for the 2,500-student university played the roles of educator, diplomat, translator and host.
For nine days, Domenech arranged a series of service projects for the students, some of whom had never traveled outside the Pennsylvania region, much less to the Caribbean.
He took the students to a basketball court next to his former elementary school, where they prepared 200 water-filtration devices that were distributed to residents in need. The Mansfield University team cleaned up neighborhoods and even restored the park where Domenech played as a child.
“It was something very personal and emotional for me,” recalls Domenech.
In addition to the projects they worked on, the Mansfield team made time for sightseeing, including a trip to Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent waters, and also enjoyed home-cooked meals. One of those meals was prepared by Domenech’s high school friend who showed the group her gratitude even though her home had no power. They also took part in Puerto Rico’s Christmas celebration, known as Three Kings Day.
It was a life-changing experience for the students.
As first reported in the Elmira Star-Gazette, the journey offered students an important opportunity to both give back and gain perspective.
“Sometimes you have to look at the blessings that you have,” Marc Holman, a student from Baltimore, told the newspaper. “What we take for granted here, people don’t take for granted in other places.”
“The students did a great job,” says Domenech. “They really worked hard.”
While Puerto Rico continues to struggle more than a year after the hurricanes struck, and President Donald Trump’s response remains unsatisfactory, the contributions made by Domenech and his student partners have had a meaningful impact.
While serving their communities is in the DNA of countless AFSCME members, Domenech’s experience illustrates just how close the bond between AFSCME members and their communities can be.