While many might think of the Caribbean island of Barbuda as a place to vacation, for Martha Lerski, the connection goes much deeper. She taught a one-week art camp on Barbuda this past January and made a second trip two weeks before the Hurricane Irma decimated the island in September.
The Category 5 storm forced many of Barbuda’s 1,800 inhabitants to evacuate to nearby Antigua, and now the island has to virtually start from scratch.
That’s where Lerski has stepped in to play her part. The Lehman College business librarian organized a book drive at the school, which to date, has pulled in more than 1,000 donations.
The books will go to various grade schools on the island.
“People want to do something,” Lerski said.
The donation will serve as supplemental reading materials for Barbuda’s school libraries, which the government is rebuilding, she said.
Lerski’s efforts are not just about giving books, they’re also to help the island preserve its culture, which includes culinary traditions, art, music and archaeological sites.
“It’s not food and water and all those basic things they need,” she said.
Lerski, is working on her master’s degree at The Graduate Center at City University of New York, where she is studying cultural heritage preservation when people are forced to migrate because of climate change.
As part of her research, she was studying Barbuda before the hurricane hit.
The sea level around Barbuda is rising, and the island — which has one main point of elevation — is essentially flat. Barbuda also sells its famous beach sands to help its economy, which depletes the supply for the island, making it more vulnerable to seawater seeping into its water supply.
Additionally, the increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes over the years — which some blame on climate change — makes the situation even worse, Lerski said.
Alexis Villafuerte doesn’t know anyone on the island, but she wanted to help after seeing flyers on campus.
“I feel very fortunate to have been able to bring two networks — my college and my job communities — and being able to use one network to help another,” the Lehman senior said.
Villafuerte initially donated two boxes of books and later reached out to St. Peter’s School in Yonkers — where she is a teacher’s aide — for additional help.
“Working at a school, there are tons of books,” she said. “There could be some wiggle room for us to give up a few books that we may not use.”
She spoke with her principal, who created flyers and spread the word to the school’s parents.
“I didn’t think the contribution would be so large,” Villafuerte said of the more than 10 large boxes of books the school put together.
“The fact that people actually had that thought in the back of their minds and was really working with me to make this happen. I was very surprised, but pleasantly surprised, which was great.”
Lerksi, who met Villafuerte through the drive, even went the extra mile — literally. She, along with the Lehman’s community engagement director Amanda Dubois-Mwake, drove to Yonkers to pick up the boxes.
“My car was literally dragging on the ground,” Dubois-Mwake said.
“It was awesome.”
She added donations like the one Villafuerte organized are “yet again the amazing work when people come together.”
Dubois-Mwake’s office is creating a catalog listing of all the books and working with Lerski’s contacts in Barbuda to arrange the shipping.
Lehman’s cultural nutrition club held a bake sale to help cover the shipping cost.
Some of the donations included 2015 chemistry textbooks, an encyclopedia set, children’s picture books and young adult novels.
Others purchased items from the drive’s wish list on the Amazon website.
Hurricane Irma struck Barbuda on Sept. 5, destroying more than 90 percent of the island, damaged its infrastructure, and resulted in the death of one child, according to news reports.
What does Lerski take away from this experience? “It’s the multiple acts of kindness,” she said.
It’s “people realizing that if we each take a step that we could really make a big impact.
“We all don’t have to save the world individually.”