From Evansville to Puerto Rico, volleyball team sends supplies after Hurricane Maria

Evansville

Evansville volleyball coach Manolo Concepción, a native of Puerto Rico, has been overwhelmed by the support he and his players have received from the community since the hurricane struck.

On his television, Evansville volleyball coach Manolo Concepción saw images of buildings being destroyed by a single gust of wind and an island in total darkness after the power was knocked out. Concepción thought about his aging mother, who lives by herself in the house where he was raised, as he prepared for the upcoming match.

His players, Mildrelis Rodriguez and Joselyn Coronel, tried to do the same amid all the thoughts about their families that kept creeping in every moment. They had no idea what their families were experiencing, and had no way to reach them.

Evansville was preparing to play Indiana State in two days and had to focus.

But it took everything they had to not be glued to the television or computer looking for updates about their beloved home of Puerto Rico. The uncertainty and the waiting was unbearable, but they had no choice. They had to go on despite their fears.

It was Sept. 20, and Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm. The trio tried to go about their daily activities as much as possible while hoping for any word from their families 1,800 miles away.

Evansville

Concepción has tried to keep his team focused on volleyball despite everything.

Nearly a month later, the official death toll is at 48, but it is reportedly closer to 450, and nearly 85 percent of the population is without power.  

It took nearly two weeks for Concepción, Rodriguez and Coronel to reach all of their immediate family members. As with so many, their families are without electricity and water and have limited access to food and cellphone reception. Over a third of the island still doesn't have access to clean water. Food, gasoline and other resources are scarce, and many roads remain closed due to damage. Coronel's mother lost her house.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has called it an "unprecedented catastrophe" and, along with many other officials, has pleaded with the U.S. government for more aid and assistance.

"I was [in Puerto Rico] for [Hurricanes] Hugo and George and it was devastating, but once I heard this was going to be worse than those storms combined, I definitely started to get really worried and realized our families might be in danger," Concepción said by phone last week. "The lack of communication was very stressful. And what made it worse is that it was right in the middle of the season."

Before the damage had been fully assessed, the trio began hearing from others in the Evansville Purple Aces athletic department, the university at large and the greater Evansville community who wanted to find out ways they could help. From comforting words, to area high schools looking to organize benefit matches, to fans hoping to donate supplies, the team was overwhelmed with support.

Thanks to a waiver from the NCAA, similar to the one the University of Houston received after Hurricane Harvey, the Evansville team was given permission to raise money and send supplies to Puerto Rico. It wasn't long before Concepción's office was filled with donated goods. He estimates over 500 people have donated either money or supplies, and he's been fielding dozens of calls and emails every week from people hoping to help.

Initially, Concepción thought many of the donated goods could go to his players' families, but with such an outpouring from the community, they have been able to expand their reach. They know they can't help everyone, but that hasn't stopped them from trying. They sent the first shipment about two weeks ago and hope to send another one this week.

He estimates they have raised over $2,000, and in the next shipment they will send 300 boxes (with 24 bottles each) of water, 30 large boxes of canned food and several boxes full of solar-powered objects, batteries and other miscellaneous items. They even received a letter from a young girl in the community who wanted to make sure the people of Puerto Rico knew she was thinking of them.

In his fifth year as head coach at Evansville, Concepción was formerly a coach and consultant in Puerto Rico, and he worked as an assistant for the Purple Aces prior to that in 2008. He returned to Evansville in 2013 with the task of rebuilding a fledgling program. During his tenure he has recruited players from Puerto Rico and around the world. Rodriguez and Coronel are both juniors, and are the sixth and seventh Puerto Rican players to play for Concepción's program.

Since the hurricane, he's heard from several anxious players on the island who are trying to figure out what to do next and are interested in potentially playing for him.

Concepción made deliberate efforts throughout his time in Evansville to be a part of the community in hopes of building a fan base and a recruiting pipeline. He's seen his efforts returned tenfold during this crisis.

"It's been overwhelming and very emotional," said Concepción. "To see the community actually care so much like they have, it's been incredible. For me, in this small town in the middle of Indiana, getting so much response from those around me, and the girls, it's just made us feel like a real part of the family."

The Purple Aces are 8-13 this season, and 2-7 since the hurricane hit. Despite their struggles on the court, Rodriguez is grateful for the sport and the distraction it has provided.

 "[My teammates] have been really helpful to me, and very supportive," she said. "They help me stay more calm and relaxed and text me all the time to find out how things are going and how they can help. They encourage me to just keep going and stay focused on what I'm doing."

She has managed to speak to her parents only three times since the storm, as they have to go to a different part of the island to get cellphone reception, and she has struggled without being able to speak to them regularly. She worries about them, because both of their places of work were destroyed, and she hopes to at least get them to Pennsylvania, where her sister lives, during winter break.

Evansville

Mildrelis Rodriguez has struggled with the limited communication with her family, but has been grateful for the distraction volleyball has provided.

It's been hard to focus on school, but her professors have helped her. She says they frequently email her to check in and have been generous about giving her extended time on assignments if she needs it. She's appreciative of the support from the school and the community, but knows there is more work to be done.

"It's a really tough situation. I want people to just be understanding," she said. "Sometimes people forget about [this type of crisis] and right now, it's happening. People don't have water, people don't have power. Be understanding of what's going on right now."

Volleyball has a storied tradition in Puerto Rico, and there are several Division I players from the island, including Arkansas' Pilar Victoria and Okiana Valle, Minnesota's Dalianliz Rosado, and Towson's Julymar Otero, Jocelyn Kuilan and Carola Biver. Like their peers at Evansville, the players at Towson created their own initiative to help their home island, and have teamed with the United Way to collect batteries, flashlights and monetary donations since the storm.

As devastating and challenging as the last month has been for those with ties to the island, it has shown Concepción that he's fortunate to have two places he can call home -- Puerto Rico and Evansville.

"Winning and losing is very important at this level, but at the same time, the people that we work with and surround ourselves with is what makes our experiences special," he said. "I feel proud and privileged to be surrounded by so many people who care so much."

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