Oak Parker organizes disaster relief for Mexico

Middle school teacher raises funds for Mexicans ravaged by earthquake

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The devastation left in the path of hurricanes Irma and Harvey has dominated the headlines nationwide for the last couple of months, leaving less room in the media for coverage of the catastrophic earthquakes that rocked Mexico in September.

The disaster hit close to home, however, for one Oak Park resident who grew up in Cuernavaca, a city about two hours south of Mexico City, which suffered extensive damage along with other municipalities in the region.

"The entire town got leveled," said David Reyes, an Oak Park resident and bilingual teacher at Mannheim Middle School in Melrose Park. "In that town there are a lot of poor people. The more we heard from people in that state we started getting a little desperate because most of the news was focusing on Mexico City."

Reyes said his entire family – aside from his brother, who also lives in the U.S. – is still in Cuernavaca. Though no one in his immediate family was hurt, hundreds were killed in Mexico City and elsewhere and dozens of buildings were destroyed by the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck on Sept. 19.

Many who escaped with their lives lost everything, according to Reyes.

"After watching the news for a day and half, I told my wife that I need to go and do something," he said.

Reyes launched a Facebook page "Familias Sin Fronteras (Families Without Borders)" and began raising funds to buy food and supplies. His goal: gather enough in donations to feed 100 families.

"The amount of people who wanted to help was incredible," he said, noting that friends, family – some as far away as Germany, Reyes said – and even students at his school gave donations.

He's been posting photos of the trip nonstop since landing in Mexico City "not because we wanted people to praise us (but because) we wanted for the people who were donating money to have a personal connection to the people in Mexico."

Within days of establishing the Facebook group, Reyes said he exceeded his goals exponentially, raising about $10,000 in disaster relief – most of which has already been spent. His wife, Emily Reyes, coordinated the effort stateside on money and supplies.

"It went from hundreds to thousands – by the end of this thing we are going to be able to provide food for easily 3,000 to 4,000 people," he said.

Reyes, who travels to Mexico frequently to visit family and friends, said his trip to help distribute the relief was emotional "because I was not prepared for what I was going to see."

His first encounter with the disaster came a few miles from the airport, where he saw an 8-story building that was collapsed.

Reyes described Jojulta as one of the hardest hit areas, noting that an estimated 1,500 houses collapsed during the quake.

"When I got to the town my brain couldn't comprehend what I was seeing," he said. "It's a pretty big city – it's poor but it's pretty big. Every single block had either hard damage or a house collapsed."

He said the downtown area of that municipality was closed off because "every single building got damaged."

"After a week (of living in the aftermath of the earthquake) people were just shocked – they started losing hope," he said. "After every single day we finished working – when we left these people – all of us started crying … on the way home.

"We didn't want to break in front of them, but once the adrenaline wasn't there, on every day we started sobbing."

During the trip he distributed food and supplies to Colonia Emiliano Zapata in Jojutla, Cuernavaca, Ocuituco, Hueyapan and Santa Cruz. After five days of non-stop work, Reyes returned to Oak Park. He calls the effort "Operation Hope" for the many Mexicans who only have hope left.

"Sometimes we feel that when (disasters) happen, you feel powerless and you can't do anything," he said, noting that it was his first time to engage in such a disaster relief effort. "That might be true if you want to do everything on your own. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and do the work."

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com


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