Skip to main content

This young person's goal: Build climate resilience across Puerto Rico

The impact of Hurricane Maria was Salvador Gómez-Colón initial inspiration.

Salvador Gómez-Colón speaking on stage at Davos

Salvador Gómez-Colón, founder of Light & Hope for Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico, speaking in the Forging a Sustainable Path towards a Common Future session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

This is an excerpt from "Stone Soup for a Sustainable World: Life-Changing Stories of Young Heroes" by Marianne Larned, available on Amazon and Target.

Stone Soup 3d Book Cover

On the night of September 20, 2017, nobody slept well on the island of Puerto Rico. Winds gusting at over 150 miles per hour blew across the island, tearing up trees from their roots and whipping debris into the air. Over the course of 24 hours, more than 20 inches of water inundated streets and highways. The electricity went out across the entire island, and everyone, rich and poor, found themselves suddenly in darkness, facing an uncertain future.

That night, as he huddled with his mom and grandparents in the lobby of his apartment building in San Juan, worried about what would happen next, Salvador Gómez-Colón hoped he would be one of the lucky ones. He could feel his building swaying in the wind. He hoped that the roof wouldn’t be torn off, or that the building wouldn’t come down completely. "It was definitely the night that I felt the most vulnerable and scared of my life," he says.

When he woke up, there was about six inches of water on the floor of his bedroom and water was seeping through the air conditioning vents. His room was completely waterlogged, and would eventually fill with mold, forcing a remodeling. But the building was intact, and his family was safe. That was what mattered most.

For many this was not the case.

Across Puerto Rico, the dawn of September 21 felt apocalyptic. Entire buildings had been destroyed, reduced to piles of rubble and mud. Knee-deep water flowed through residential streets, making it hard for emergency services to rescue the injured and displaced. Fallen power lines snaked along the roads.

In the northeastern part of the island, where many people had already been living in dire circumstances, ravaged by poverty and neglected by their government, the storm mercilessly pillaged thatched huts, rickety apartment complexes, and neglected homes for the elderly.

Gómez-Colón woke up that morning knowing that that day — and the days that would follow — would change his life and the lives of every one of the more than 3 million people who live in Puerto Rico. "There’s always one person that’s having a worse time than you," his mom told him. He didn’t wait a second to spring into action. 

He was only 15 years old, an enterprising ninth grader at a private school in San Juan, when Hurricane Maria hit. He excelled in his classes. But Hurricane Maria was not a class exercise. All around him, people were really dying. It has been estimated that more than 4,000 people were killed during Hurricane Maria, but the actual number is likely much higher. We might never know exactly how many lives the hurricane took: what we do know is that in the days and weeks following the storm, people were hungry, unwashed, and plunged into darkness. 

Gómez-Colón didn’t have the power to turn "five loaves of bread and two fish" into enough nourishment to feed the multitudes, but he was determined to do what he could. Knowing that the storm had knocked out power across the island, he realized two things. Without electricity people would feel unsafe going into the streets after dark; and they would have trouble washing their clothes, which could lead to a number of preventable illnesses, not to mention a pervasive feeling of uncleanliness that would negatively affect their mental health over time. 

Gómez-Colón knew that Puerto Rico’s strong sun — the same sun that gives elderly residents heat stroke, and forces Puerto Ricans to carry umbrellas during the day — could provide the energy to power new equipment. Solar power could make it possible for people to cleanse themselves, protect their families, and feel safe during the night. It could also help usher in new modes of sustainable living that would last well after the power had come back on.

His goal was simple: to hand out solar lanterns, phone chargers, and washing machines until the need was completely met; or until every single light came back on.

He calculated that a donation of around $100 could provide a solar light, a mobile phone charger, and a hand-crank washing machine to a family in need. With the help of his mom and Neha Misrah, the cofounder of Solar Sister, a nonprofit that distributes solar panels to women entrepreneurs in Africa, he started a GoFundMe campaign and called it Light and Hope for Puerto Rico. "Neha was my guiding light and mentor from the beginning," Gómez-Colón says.

His GoFundMe campaign was an immediate success. He reached out to his parents’ friends and colleagues in the mainland U.S., and anyone else he could think of, and invited them to pitch in. In only four days they had raised $36,000. Within the first three weeks, the campaign had raised $65,000. Gómez-Colón shared his story online so people from around the world could help too. In the end, more than 1,200 people pledged more than $160,000 — enough to provide 3,500 households with solar light, mobile phone chargers, and nonelectric portable washing machines.

But he didn’t stop there: he began researching, and then reaching out to organizations that could help. He came across The Laundry Alternative, a company that sells sustainable, hand-operated washing machines. Soon other companies offered to pitch in: Gentlewasher, EasyGo, Mpowerd, Schneider Electric, and Omnivoltaic Energy Solutions. The crowdfunding campaign grew into a movement, defined by a simple, universal equation: C + Feel = Hope (See + Feel = Hope).

In the wake of the storm, good news in Puerto Rico was hard to come by. Perhaps that’s why the media took notice of Gómez-Colón’s campaign. He quickly found himself the subject of profiles in CNN Money, Teen Vogue and the online site Remezcla, and he became inundated with requests for interviews. He was even named a TIME Magazine Teen of the Year, alongside "Stranger Things" actor Millie Bobby Brown and snowboarder Chloe Kim.

Thrust suddenly into the spotlight, Gómez-Colón remained humble. He remembered what his mom had told him, and kept his focus on helping others. And he didn’t just talk the talk: he walked the walk. While some kids were spending their weekends playing video games, he was out in the streets teaching people how to use the lanterns and set up the washing machines. His goal was simple: to hand out solar lanterns, phone chargers, and washing machines until the need was completely met; or until every single light came back on.

For more information, visit StoneSoupLeadership.org/book or follow the StoneSoup Leadership Institute on social media @stonesoupleader on Facebook or Twitter.

More on this topic

More by This Author