After seeing the devastation of Hurricane Maria, local sixth-grader Javier Llano-Cruz wanted to help. And with the assistance of his family, his Oyster-Adams Bilingual School classmates, private donations and even the toy industry, Llano-Cruz got to help make Christmas better for thousands of children in Puerto Rico.
With his mother, Llano-Cruz traveled to the beleaguered island from Dec. 15 through 19 to help sort and deliver 36,000 donated toys that he helped collect. The toy drive was run by Friends of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that his father Javier Llano co-founded.
“What made me do it is that I wanted to give back to the world in a positive way,” Llano-Cruz, a Columbia Heights resident, told The Current. “My family is from Puerto Rico and after Maria it was bad, so it was a way to give back.”
After the hurricane struck the island on Sept. 20, Llano-Cruz’s mother Ruth Cruz said that she realized parents on the ground wouldn’t necessarily have the resources to buy their children toys for Christmas. Starting in late October, the toy drive began.
“As a Puerto Rican mother of two, it’s overwhelming because Puerto Rico is home for us,” Cruz said. “Javier and his brother were born here in the States, but we go to Puerto Rico often. My husband and I are both Puerto Rican, born and raised there.”
Many of the toys were donated by the toy industry, as well as other partners. Additionally, Friends of Puerto Rico gave money to buy toys on the ground in Puerto Rico, Cruz said.
Llano-Cruz himself worked at Oyster-Adams to get donations. Parents gave books that they purchased at the school’s book fair and Llano-Cruz and his classmates had a bake sale to raise additional money. Meanwhile, Cruz said students at Sidwell Friends School also bought toys from an online registry that were then shipped directly to Puerto Rico.
Once on the island, Llano-Cruz and his mother spent several days in a warehouse sorting the toys by age and sex with 20 to 25 volunteers. Six local organizations then picked up pallets of toys to distribute across the island.
Llano-Cruz got to visit a few of the places where the toys were being handed out, including a center for disabled children. He said that the children there were appreciative and showed a lot of emotion as the toys were distributed.
“I enjoyed it … because I could help people and I could see what Puerto Rico was like through a different perspective,” Llano-Cruz said.