March 22, 2 a.m. – Eleven backpackers met at SCVi to begin their long journey, most of them on just a couple of hours of sleep. After a few quick pictures, the team loaded up the vans. While each traveler carried a small bag of their own belongings, the team also carried 11 large duffle bags filled with the supplies that iLEAD families and supporters had generously donated, and were on their way.

The caravan stopped briefly to collect an iLEAD Pacoima family on the way to LAX. Now 13, the backpackers continued the first part of their trip. Baggage check, security screening (apparently pistachios are a red flag!), breakfast, and take off! As the team settled in to the eight-hour flight, excitement was high, but energy was waning.

Fortunately, we had plenty of time for sleep, something we all know will be in short supply this week.

The plane stopped for more passengers in Houston before we continued, and as dozens of Puerto Ricans boarded, for some the trip became real for the first time. As we began our descent to San Juan, the backpackers began to stir. Completely unexpectedly, one of the members of the crew announced our presence to the rest of the passengers:

“We would like to thank the group of students from iLEAD Schools in California who have come to help rebuild Puerto Rico…” and proceeded to call each student by name.

The plane erupted in applause and the energy and excitement was restored.

We landed in the late afternoon, loaded our bags into the vans – our method of transportation on the island – grabbed a quick bite, and began the drive across the island to our “home base” in Aguada on the west coast of the island. We drove as the sun set, one van fighting the sleep, another bopping to Puerto Rican hits, and the third somewhere in between.

A long and winding road led us into the coastal jungle, to the house where we will be staying. It’s amazingly serene, but remote. The calls of the night birds and the famous Puerto Rican coqui frog – “Co-QUI, c o-QUI, c o-QUI…” surround us.

“It was a beautifully painful journey,” reflected Ollie. The kids blew off some of the excitement and steam of the long day before we settled in to sleep. Call time is 5 a.m. We will be on the highway at 5:30.

Tomorrow we are replanting native vegetation in Ciales. We fade in to sleep wondering what the week ahead holds for us, each of us excited, all of us here to help, as Adrian put it, “…to lift up our friends in Puerto Rico and let them know that they’re not alone.”