AJ Velazquez, a SCORE Naples Mentor, is on a meaningful mission providing hurricane Maria disaster assistance on his homeland island of Puerto Rico. AJ moved away from Puerto Rico 32 years ago. He says it has been a profoundly thoughtful experience seeing the island through new eyes, providing an empathetic ear, and supporting relief efforts there.
AJ experienced hurricane conditions personally when hurricane Irma threatened Naples and he evacuated to Nashville with this family. When SCORE asked volunteers to provide support to victims of hurricane Irma, AJ applied to help, assuming he would be working in Florida providing assistance to those impacted by hurricane Irma. He immediately received a job offer and went on to SBA training in Atlanta.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico while AJ was in the process of training to join the SBA Disaster Assistance team. With AJ’s background growing up in Puerto Rico and fluency in Spanish, SBA Disaster Assistance immediately recruited him to provide assistance in Puerto Rico. AJ is a highly valued asset to the disaster assistance efforts with his extensive government experience in the military, as a Federal civilian employee, and as a government contractor.
Since mid October, AJ has been working out of San Juan as a Public Affairs Officer with the Small Business Administration Disaster Assistance, Field Operating Center East (FOCE), headquartered in Atlanta. He travels most of the time, driving rough island roads to the southeast corner of Puerto Rico where he grew up. Southeastern Puerto Rico was hardest hit by Hurricane Maria, and AJ reports that some parts of the area look like a “war zone.” He has family there, and some of his relatives are small business owners who were impacted by the hurricane.
AJ informs hurricane Maria survivors about several types of financial assistance through the SBA Disaster Assistance - low interest loans for physical and economic injury to business owners and low interest loans to homeowners and renters impacted by the disaster. It is a very challenging time for businesses now, as Puerto Rico’s main tourist season runs from February to August, and many smaller towns and rural areas are still without power. Some businesses have shut down, unable to afford to stay open on generators waiting until power is restored.
AJ partners with Chambers of Commerce, municipalities, and local town leaders to hold meetings with business owners and homeowners and inform them of the financial assistance available to them from SBA Disaster Assistance. He recently described his experiences via phone to the SCORE Naples mentors during a monthly chapter meeting. SCORE Naples is very proud of his efforts. When AJ and his team conclude their work there in June, local government leaders will continue the efforts to sustain businesses in their areas.
The residents know they are still months out from getting power; yet they are incredibly strong. Listening to their stories, AJ is amazed by their resilience. Their island roots grow very deep, and they have lived there in the same homes for generations. This history fuels their commitment to rebuild and hopes for the future.
AJ is very proud of the entire SBA FOCE Atlanta team, under the leadership of Director Skaggs, and would like to thank Michael Lampton, and the entire SBA Disaster Assistance Puerto Rico team, for their professionalism and dedication to their mission.
Photo to left: Mayor Marcelo Trujillo of the municipality of Humacao hosts AJ Velazquez and other panelists for a Round Table attended by 30 local business leaders. This is a fortuitous reunion, as Mayor Trujillo was also AJ’s basketball coach during high school in Puerto Rico.