Reflections | June 11, 2024

A change of trajectory

Carrie Miller served as long-term disaster project leader for the Brethren Disaster Ministries (BDM) Hurricane Maria recovery project in Puerto Rico from August 2018 to June 2020. BDM invited her to reflect on her experiences, hoping to encourage others to consider serving with BDM or another service ministry.

BDM: What were you doing before you learned about the opportunity with BDM?

Carrie Miller: It was a very unfortunate situation that turned into an incredible opportunity for me to join the BDM team in Puerto Rico.

I entered US Peace Corps volunteer training in Nicaragua in February 2018. Just a couple months later, in April, what started as peaceful protests in response to a social security tax reform that increased taxes and decreased benefits turned deadly for protesters when police responded violently. The country very quickly shut down as violence ensued, and all US Peace Corps volunteers had to be evacuated through the southern border into Costa Rica. It took two months of being on standby with the US Peace Corps for the determination that it was unsafe for the Nicaraguan post to continue.

After learning that I would not be fulfilling my two-year volunteer service in Nicaragua, I began looking for other similar opportunities. Family friends Jerry and Jan Warstler, from my parents’ church—Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite in Michigan—approached me about an upcoming service opportunity that I might be interested in, which they learned about at the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference.

A BDM rebuilding site was going to be established in Puerto Rico, and they were in search of a long-term disaster project leader who could speak Spanish. I was not immediately convinced, as it seemed a bit intimidating to help establish a program in such a rural area in Puerto Rico, and my Spanish was still shaky.

Jerry persuaded me to call BDM staff and just speak with them. Of course, we know where that call led to, and I will be forever grateful to the Warstlers for connecting me with BDM.

Carrie (right) and former Puerto Rico district disaster coordinator José Acevedo at the first house blessing of the Hurricane Maria Recovery Project in Puerto Rico in November 2018.

BDM: What drew you to serve?

Three things convinced me. The first was the history of work and communication between BDM and the local Brethren in Puerto Rico. There was trust and rapport that made establishing a rebuilding site incredibly easy compared to what it would have looked like without that.

Second, the BDM staff were so supportive and made sure that sufficient training, a local support network, adequate facilities, and other materials were all provided. Everyone who has volunteered on a BDM rebuilding site knows to expect structure and organization, which I can definitely appreciate!

And lastly, there was an intense need for housing on the entire island after hurricanes Irma and Maria passed through. Being able to help people in this way is what eventually convinced me to continue extending my time with BDM, even forgoing a planned return to work with the US Peace Corps in Peru. I absolutely loved the work, loved the people I worked with, and loved Puerto Rico.

Carrie (left) with BDM volunteers and leaders at a home being built to replace a structure destroyed during Hurricane Maria. The homeowner is fifth from the left.

BDM: What were your main responsibilities?

My responsibilities as a long-term disaster project leader (DPL) involved overseeing volunteer groups; supporting other DPLs who served on a month-long basis; collaborating with local partners; overseeing project purchasing and inventory; and also assisting case managers with client outreach.

A bit more complex responsibility was helping to adapt the “template” of a BDM rebuilding site to the context of rural Puerto Rico, but it was also one of my favorite aspects of my position.

Carrie Miller (second from left) joins in celebrating a repaired home. Others pictured are pastor Carmen Mercado, the homeowner, a local pastor, and former district disaster coordinator José Acevedo.

BDM: What skills did you possess that helped you as a DPL? What skills did you have to develop?

Luckily, I was not a stranger to either rural living or to traveling abroad. I incrementally increased the length of international trips (two weeks to one month to a semester abroad to US Peace Corps), and that helped me realize that I was both capable of living abroad and that I enjoyed it! I ended up serving almost two years with BDM and stayed in Puerto Rico for another year and a half.

I also tend to thrive in novel, intense work environments, as long as there is some structure. I have a strong work ethic, and enjoyed having an outlet to put that towards a cause that was making a real impact in underserved communities.

When it comes to skills I developed—wow, where to start? I have gained so much through my service with BDM. What first comes to mind is that I quickly had to take a crash course in Puerto Rican Spanish, which is very different from Nicaraguan Spanish. This was perhaps the most uncomfortable experience, but very rewarding, as I eventually was able to connect with locals much more easily.

I also learned a lot about leadership, which was challenging at times as a young female, but helped me to gain so much confidence in what I was capable of doing. There were also soft skills specific to working in a cross-cultural setting that I don’t think I would have gotten even from the US Peace Corps. I loved learning more about construction and enjoyed the days that I got to work on site. And finally, I have gained administrative skills that I use in every aspect of my life still today.

Carrie with BDM leaders and volunteers on a building site in Puerto Rico.

BDM: What parts of your work and the project were the most impactful for you?

I could answer this question in so many ways. I think a zoomed-out answer would be that it has impacted how I view myself within the world. Putting yourself in a position of service is a beautiful way to get to know a community and to get to know yourself. It will reveal both your strengths and your weaknesses: Your strengths will be appreciated by those you serve or serve alongside, and your weaknesses will be voids that others will fill with their strengths.

This seems obvious, but working in such a collaborative environment necessitated this sense of trust that was necessary to move the project forward. I had not had the opportunity to practice this kind of trust before in my life. I think that has helped me become a better person both professionally and in my relationships.

Women holding pies
Carrie believed in nurturing a sense of community. She gathered her friends and neighbors together to pass on the skill of pie-making that she learned growing up.

BDM: How did your faith affect the work you did?

I have always felt that service is such an important part of faith. What an incredible joy to be able to live out the values we believe, and to share the love that we have received. With this opportunity, I feel that I have been given the chance to be challenged, to grow, to serve, and, often, to just listen.

It was an amazing experience to also see how everyone involved in this project—from DPLs to volunteers to local partners—created an environment of purpose and love, as each one shared their faith as acts of service.

Carrie Miller and Carmen Mercado
The Puerto Rico churches embraced Carrie wholeheartedly, so much so that they honored her with a special service and a plaque. Here she is with Pastor Carmen Mercado, with whom she worked very closely. Photo by José Acevedo.

BDM: What has your life looked like since the project closed? How has your time in Puerto Rico influenced your current life?

Working with BDM has changed the trajectory of my life. First of all, it has inspired me to pursue my current career path within the field of historic preservation. I absolutely loved project management and working within the construction industry. I knew I wanted to be a part of the industry, but in an area that focused on sustainability and saving cultural resources in our built environment—both deep passions of mine!

After moving back to my home state of Michigan, I began working as a conservation technician with Buildings Arts and Conservation in Saline, as well as pursuing my master of science degree in historic preservation at Eastern Michigan University.

Additionally, I cannot exclude the fact that I met my fiancé, Safuan, in Puerto Rico! He is a wonderful man, and I feel so lucky to have met him during the unlikely time of the pandemic. Though we are currently living in Michigan, we look forward to creating a home in both places in the future.

In the meantime, we still make plenty of trips back to the island to visit his family, as well as community members we both keep in touch with in Castañer. I am so excited about the possibility of returning to work in Puerto Rico, this time in the field of preservation.

BDM: What are some recommendations you would give to someone considering a long-term volunteer role with BDM or Brethren Volunteer Service?

Carrie Miller holding a guitar in front of a microphone
In addition to her highly respected role as project leader and BDM representative in Puerto Rico, Carrie participated in the church community, including sharing her musical talents during services and other events.

My number one recommendation is to not let self-doubt get in your way. Doubting my abilities almost prevented me from pursuing long-term service, but the act of service dissolves that sense of doubt very quickly. You will always be provided with the support and training that you need, and you will surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish alongside team members.

But also be prepared to devote your time to the project. Service is not easy, but it is one thing I know I will never regret.