Nearly a month after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, James Schenck wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he stepped off the plane.
No running water. No street lights. No flushable toilets. No traffic lights. And a scarce supply of drinkable water and food.
“I’ve been in 29 countries and this was the worst humanitarian disaster I’ve ever witnessed,” the president/CEO of PenFed Credit Union tells the CUNA News Podcast.
The $23.5 billion asset credit union in Tysons, Va., has three branches in Puerto Rico—one on Fort Buchanan and two in San Patricio. Schenck went to the island to check on the status of not only the branches and the ability to serve members, but also the 49 PenFed employees who work there. What he saw was those 49 employees banding together—some having to drive two hours one way to get to work—in order to continue serving needs of the credit union’s 180,000 members in Puerto Rico.
It’s an act that gains significance given the barter economy that currently exists in Puerto Rico, where stores operate without power and the only way to purchase items is by using $20 bills.
“Our credit union is there, day in and day out. It’s people helping people,” Schenck says. “To be there on the island, being able to provide services to our members without interruption is extremely important, but taking care of the employees’ well-being is absolutely vital in order to sustain.”
The trip spurred Schenck to take action and assist PenFed employees on the island. Upon returning home, he immediately drafted a proposal to present to the credit union’s board of directors for a disaster relief package for employees consisting of a cash stipend to help with daily expenses, prepackaged meals, and a generator.
He says PenFed will continue the aid until power and running water is restored at employees’ homes. While Schenck knows PenFed employees are being taken care of, he knows that there are others who need assistance as well.
The National Credit Union Foundation is accepting donations through the online disaster relief system CUAid.coop to raise money for credit union individuals—including those in Puerto Rico—affected by Hurricane Maria, but Schenck says more can be done.
“Let’s make sure all their employees needs are being met and that the credit unions can operate business as normal,” Schenck says. “It’s a community effort, the credit union community should band together and ask these 30 plus credit unions, ‘What additional help do your employees and members need?’ and ‘How can we as an industry step up?’ Every day counts.”