PORTSMOUTH — As part of Portsmouth High School’s annual exchange program, a group of students from Puerto Rico are spending time in New Hampshire to practice their English speaking skills, meet friends and experience New England.
On Jan. 26, eight students in 11th and 12th grade and two teachers from La Escuela Central de Artes Visuales in Santurce, Puerto Rico arrived in New Hampshire for a week-long stay with their peers in Portsmouth. This year’s exchange is especially significant for students, some of whom were unsure if they’d be able to make it after Hurricane Maria, but were able to as a result of donations from PHS.
The exchange program began three years ago when PHS partnered with La Escuela Central de Artes Visuales — the only magnet school on the island that is available for students in grades six-12. Students choose an art major — drawing, painting, sculpting, printmaking, graphic design or photography — and take that class daily, along with all their other academic subjects.
In 2016, PHS Advanced Placement Spanish students traveled to Puerto Rico for six days for a cultural and language immersion trip. While there, they lived with host families, visited the art school and traveled around with their peers.
The trip was so successful that teachers at La Escuela Central de Artes Visuales wanted to give their students the same experience and worked with PHS to plan an English immersion trip to Portsmouth. In January 2017, they made their first visit to New Hampshire, and returned again this month.
“This exchange program provides Portsmouth and Puerto Rican students with a unique experience to apply and improve their language skills with their peers who are fluent,” said PHS Spanish teacher Helaine Wemple, who coordinates the trip with La Escuela Central de Artes Visuales. “After everything students in Puerto Rico have gone through over the last few months, we’re so happy they were able to make it here this week.”
While in the U.S., each student lives with a PHS host family and, on Jan. 30, they visited the high school and middle school to explore the art and career and technical course offerings.
In September, after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, leaving much of the island without power, PHS students were concerned about their host siblings. To help out in whatever ways they could, they reached out to their Puerto Rican host to families to see what they needed.
Since then, with support and donations from Portsmouth and its surrounding communities, PHS has sent five suitcases to Puerto Rico to provide essential items — insect repellent, batteries, headlamps, solar chargers, water purifiers and hand sanitizer — along with tarps and rope for homes without roofs, and more than $1,500 in cash. Additionally, by partnering with Luci Lights, PHS was able to purchase 60 solar powered lights for families without power in Puerto Rico.
Monetary donations were partially used to install tarps on homes without roofs through a nonprofit organization called Toldos Pa’ Mi Gente (Tarps For My People), which English teacher Amarilis Gonzalez founded following the hurricane.
The suitcases full of essential items were separated into care packages for students’ families and also to community members in need. The insect repellent proved to be especially helpful, as the island experienced an uptick in mosquitoes after the devastating storm.
“We are so thankful for everyone at Portsmouth High School and the surrounding communities for their donations,” Gonzalez said. “Students have especially appreciated everything their peers have contributed to the relief efforts, and this trip has been a much needed escape from their daily challenges back home.”
Portsmouth High School is still accepting donations to help Puerto Rican communities in need. Checks can be made out to PHS Puerto Rico (with donations in the memo) and sent to Portsmouth High School, 50 Andrew Jarvis Dr., Portsmouth, NH 03801.