Detroit’s ex-homeless to make solar panels for Puerto Rico

Kristen Jordan Shamus
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Formerly homeless men and women from Detroit will work to literally empower the people of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, building portable solar panels that are to be delivered to the island.

The Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services, told the Free Press that supplies to build 15 portable solar panels had been ordered and were on their way to the nonprofit’s Green Industries, where they’ll be assembled for hurricane relief.

She is among the Michiganders hoping to bring some aid to the devastation on the island caused by Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that struck Sept. 20, felling electrical towers, poles and power lines in its path. It left most of the island’s 3.4 million residents with limited or in many cases no access to food, clean drinking water, electricity, gasoline and cellphone service.

The 100-watt, 12-volt polycrystalline portable solar panels can be used to charge cellphones and computers or run fans or lights — or even small refrigerators.

“Basically, they collect the rays from the sun, which is good for Puerto Rico because they have a lot of sun. They convert the sun’s rays into energy that gets stored on a battery that items can draw from; things can be plugged in,” she said.

Access to refrigeration, Fowler said, is vital for people whose medication must be kept cold.

“Especially when you think about insulin,” she said. “Those folks are really in trouble. We thought that would be magnificent because a lot of people can’t access gasoline or generators. And when you’re talking about six months without electricity, it just frightens me.”

Parts for the first batch of solar panels, which include battery boxes, 12V plugs, inverters, wires and fuses, were expected to arrive in Detroit by Tuesday. It costs about $500 to build a single unit. Fowler said the nonprofit group will work through the week to build them, and then soon after will travel to Puerto Rico to ensure they make it into the hands of people who most need them.

Family: They’ll be delivered to people like Carlos Melendez’s 87-year-old father, along with his sisters and their children.

Melendez, who lives in Ann Arbor, volunteers at Cass Community Social Services with his wife, Bonnie. He will travel to Puerto Rico with Fowler to deliver the first batch of solar panels.

“We’d love to send as many as we can make,” said Fowler. “We’ve got the recipe, if you will, to put them together, and we’ve got somebody with relatives in Puerto Rico who can take the first few down. We’re working on transport for a larger number with other donations that are headed down. We’re putting connections together. It’s a little complicated because communications are down.”

It’s the lack of the ability to communicate with loved ones that has Bonnie Melendez especially worried about her father-in-law, Benigno Melendez, who lives in Puerto Rico and has an open wound on his leg.

“We have had some limited communications, but it’s very spotty, like we can hear every third word when we do get through,” said Bonnie Melendez, noting that her father-in-law lives in a town called Caguas, in the central mountain region south of San Juan.

They worry about the risk of infection in the wound on his leg, especially since there’s no access to clean tap water, limited medical supplies and food.

Her husband, she said, “is desperately trying to get his father out of Caguas. … He would like to go in and bring his dad out, but there are no rental cars to rent. There’s no gas to put in them.

“The infrastructure has been smashed to smithereens.”

They bought a plane ticket for Benigno Melendez to fly to Detroit on Wednesday, but it might not be easy to get him out of Puerto Rico.

“The questions are: Can we tell him in time, and then can he get to the airport?” she said.

Clever workarounds: The scenario is daunting, and it has led many to get creative about communicating with loved ones in the hurricane-ravaged areas.

“My father is such a clever man,” said Rose Figueroa, 29, of Ann Arbor, who grew up in San Juan and whose entire family lives in Puerto Rico. “The other day, he called me through the Direct TV modem. He got some diesel for the generator, enough to call me through the modem — apparently the modem has a phone number and he called me through the phone.

“I didn’t know it was him. I was at work, so I didn’t pick up until it was like the third call. Now, I know it’s him and I pick up.”

Figueroa said it’s been emotional being so far away from the people she loves, knowing they are suffering.

“The last time I was there was in August,” Figueroa said. “Now, Puerto Rico is so different. It’s really sad. For me and for other Puerto Ricans, this is something that we are constantly thinking about. We’re driving and we think about it. We listen to a song and we start crying because there’s nothing we can do.”

So rather than spend her days worrying, feeling powerless, Figueroa has found strength by organizing donations for her loved ones and the other people stranded on her island home.

She started an Ann Arbor-based chapter of Puerto Rico Rises, and is collecting donations of things such as batteries, solar cell phone chargers and lights, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, bottled water, baby formula and canned goods.

“We’ve started a huge movement here in Michigan,” she said. “We partnered with the Puerto Rican Family Institute in New York. We are using Ann Arbor as our headquarters and have satellite drop off centers in Livonia, Sterling Heights, Canton, Ypsilanti and in churches and schools.”

Corporate automotive partners, she said, have agreed to truck the supplies to the Puerto Rican Family Institute in New York City, where they’ll be loaded onto ships to help the people.

“We’re doing our best here and helping,” she said.

Her father, Dr. Ivan Figueroa, a general practitioner, has been helping the sick and injured in his neighborhood, and hopes to volunteer soon at a hospital within walking distance of his home, Rose Figueroa said. When he can get a text message out to her, he sometimes will send funny pictures.

“He is the one stuck there, and he is trying to lift our hearts here and encouraging us to keep doing what we’re doing,” she said.

Bonnie Melendez said she hopes the aid coming in to Puerto Rico soon will be able to be better distributed to the people in need.

“It’s not that the United States isn’t sending help,” Melendez said. “They are. They have many, many National Guard on the ground. My mother-in-law can hear them working. They are trying. But it’s just so overwhelming.”

When Fowler told her about the plan to build the solar panels, she said: “I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I can see where in this situation, it would be really beneficial to these people.”

Fowler said Cass Social Services is taking donations to raise money to build more solar panels, with hopes that enough money can be raised to make a true impact on the people.

“If we get a real rush of donations, and can order supplies to build more, we’ll put out a call for volunteers,” she said. “The sooner we can get them there, the better.”



SOLAR PANELS: To donate to Cass Community Social Services, which is building solar panels to help with hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, go online to or send a check to Cass Community Social Services, 11745 Rosa Parks, Attn: CR, Detroit, MI 48206.

“Just let us know it’s for the solar panels so it’s designated for that and we’ll use it exactly in that way,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of the nonprofit organization.