By Octavio Villegas, Staff Attorney for the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic
I have the honor of serving as a Pro Bono Staff Attorney with the University at Buffalo School of Law’s #UBLawResponds. I am a proud alumnus of University at Buffalo School of Law, class of 2015. I have been part of all five service-learning trips of UB’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, and many other clinic meetings and events over the past two years. I write this to tell you why this work is so important to me.
After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, my employer JetBlue offered us the opportunity to serve. I spent over three weeks right after the hurricane helping JetBlue with passengers seeking to leave Puerto Rico during the day. At night, I would rent a car at my own expense, buy supplies, and travel around the main island to deliver necessities to families in desperate need. I had many friends in Western New York who had no contact with their families, and it was my privilege to check on their safety and provide them with water, food, and other essentials. I did all this at a time when there was no internet, no phone service, or running electricity across all of Puerto Rico, so I would have to download directions and head out, hoping for the best. There was also an island-wide curfew, so I had to make the trips and trust that nothing would delay me. There were also very long lines for gas and water. I thank God that all of my trips went well. That work was a humbling experience, and one I will always be glad I did.
When UB’s law school launched the #UBLawResponds work in Puerto Rico, I was thrilled. I knew first-hand the devastation the Puerto Rican people had endured, and was certain that University at Buffalo Student Attorneys could provide needed legal and policy help. I joined the group for the last part of their first trip, and witnessed first-hand the appreciation that the team was receiving. It was then I committed to helping the work continue.
On the next trip, I started serving as a pro bono volunteer attorney. I have been part of every trip since, providing cultural expertise, connections, advice, navigation, and language support for those who are not Spanish-fluent. I have seen student attorneys put in long hours, both on legal and humanitarian work. It has been inspiring to be with them. I am also fortunate to have kept JetBlue as a second job (I also work full time as an attorney for the City of Buffalo), and with the volunteer hours I have put in with the clinic, JetBlue has generously awarded tickets to the clinic that allow student attorneys to fly to Puerto Rico without cost to the law school.
On our trip earlier in January, we saw first-hand the aftermath of the latest disaster with the earthquake clusters that hit (and are still hitting) the southern part of Puerto Rico. We raised funds to provide essential supplies, and researched how #UBLawResponds can be part of continued and expanded efforts to make Puerto Rico more resilient. I am looking forward to continuing my volunteer work with the commendable #UBLawResponds efforts.
To help support the work of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, please donate here.