Four Questions for Mark Medin

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, UJA participated in a massive relief effort, arranging for the transport and distribution of desperately needed supplies to the islands that had been ravaged by the storms. Helping to spearhead this effort was Mark Medin, UJA’s executive vice president of Financial Resource Development. On multiple trips to the region, Mark saw the devastation firsthand — and also the gratitude and appreciation of the people we helped.

(Q) How did you come to start arranging these flights? In your role as UJA’s head of fundraising this isn’t exactly business as usual…

(A) It most definitely wasn’t business as usual. Following the hurricanes, colleagues at the Afya Foundation reached out to me, saying they were getting urgent calls from humanitarian organizations in Puerto Rico in need of critical supplies. Afya had an abundance of supplies; what they didn’t have was a way to get them to the island. There were no commercial flights, and so they wanted to know if we had donors who owned private planes and were willing to fly them down.

I reached out to some major donors who I knew had planes and was overwhelmed by their generosity. When others heard about what we were doing, they called us up and offered their planes, too. Later on, we had some donors ask about shipping supplies. And so we helped arrange a container on a cargo ship. Over time, we dispatched 29 planes and a cargo ship container, with over 100,000 pounds of supplies, valued at more than $4 million.

(Q) What kind of supplies did you bring?

(A) Humanitarian supplies included water bottles, non-perishable food, baby formula, diapers, feminine hygiene products, sunscreen, insect repellant, flashlights first aid kits, and more. For the medical supplies, we partnered with the Greater New York Hospital Association, who was responding to the specific requests of hospitals and medical centers on both Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. We helped them bring over insulin for diabetics, tetanus shots, oncology medications, and a whole range of prescription medicines that were either running low or had been totally depleted.

(Q) How was the local Jewish community in Puerto Rico involved?

(A) The leaders of the local Jewish community were our partners on the ground. Thankfully, they didn’t have enormous need themselves so they adopted a poorer community on the outskirts of San Juan in the town of LoÍza, and helped us distribute our supplies there, as well as in other areas. At every distribution, we flew an Israeli flag so that local residents were aware that the Jewish community of Puerto Rico was helping facilitate this aid.

(Q) What will you remember most about this experience?

(A) At one point, we partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Puerto Rico and various other law enforcement agencies on an effort to bring supplies to isolated nursing homes. With no electricity and limited food and water, elderly people are far more susceptible to grave illness. You can’t imagine how heartbreaking it was to see these men and women literally withering away in the immense heat with no water and no air conditioning, and then, the joy and gratitude they expressed when we came bearing water, adult diapers, and other supplies.

Really, I’ll also never forget the overwhelming gratitude of all the local people — the local Jewish community, local municipal officials in various neighborhoods, local providers in hospitals and medical clinics, and the ordinary people who stood in long lines to get supplies. We jokingly called ourselves the “Jewish FEMA,” but UJA was just trying to help people live through incredibly difficult times. And we couldn’t have done it without every one of our donors.