SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico --
About two dozen Puerto Rico Air National Guard airmen used what was the first or second day off most of them have had since Hurricane Maria hit the island some three weeks ago to team up with other volunteers to deliver food and water to as many as 1,000 people in the island's mountainous interior.
Traveling in their personal vehicles through the sparsely populated regions of the Orocovis municipality in the center of the island, the airmen went door to door offering jugs of water, bags of food and -- perhaps most important of all -- a compassionate ear and a kind word.
"I feel like today I am really doing something -- something that matters so much it is hard to describe," said Air Force Senior Airman Andrea De Jesus of the 156th Airlift Wing's 156th Operations Support Squadron.
De Jesus was partnered with four Puerto Rico Air National Guard airmen, an air guardsman from Michigan and four local volunteers as they traveled steep mountain roads -- most only one lane wide -- to seek out residents. At each home, a similar scene was repeated: volunteers would shout out "Hola" or perhaps tap on the car horn, looking for residents.
Time and again, a resident would appear in the doorway of a home in the remote Barro Damian Arriba region, curious at first at who was calling, before a large smile would appear as the airmen and other volunteers offered up cases of water and food supplies. Many of the homes included children who were delighted to learn that a small bag of candies was included in the food kit.
"We are so happy to see you," called out Maria Madera, a resident who received some water and food packages. "My son is a U.S. Army soldier right now, so he is not home to help me."
A team of citizen-airmen from three states is helping to keep track of the more than 1,200 members of the National Guard who in the San Juan region of Puerto Rico as part of the relief efforts following Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which hit the island territory in September. Many Orocovis residents have been using mountain springs as their primary source of water.
"One of our core values as airmen in the Air Force is service before self. I can't think of a better way to live out that value," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rafael Pena, 156th OSS, and one of the organizers of the day's trips.
The airmen worked with the Foundation for Puerto Rico to plan out the route for the day's deliveries. The nonprofit organization plugged in the airmen with some of its own volunteers for the day. The supplies primarily came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is working with the military and other agencies to coordinate relief efforts. A few of the supplies were personal donations made by the airmen. Once assembled, the group fanned out in several areas of the island to maximize their reach.
"Over the years, we have been able to perform relief missions in many parts of the world," said Air Force Capt. Ricardo Ortiz, a C-130 pilot with Puerto Rico Air National Guard's 198th Airlift Squadron. "It feels great to be able to do this right here, at home."
Pena said many of the airmen who are part of the 156th Airlift Wing at Muniz Air National Guard Base -- the largest unit in the Puerto Rico Air National Guard -- live in the San Juan area. The island's largest city, San Juan was spared a direct hit from the hurricane. While the city suffered damage, it was not hit as hard as the island's interior.
"San Juan is getting better," Ortiz said. "But we are one Puerto Rico, and we need to ensure that the people in the mountains also have relief."
Lillian Wood, a 28-year resident of Puerto Rico, was one of the local volunteers who worked side by side with the airmen. "Everyone had such a positive attitude," she said. "They all just came to work and to give."
As the day wound down and the volunteers prepared to return to their own homes, De Jesus was asked what she learned from the day's experience.
"Not to take things for granted. … I am 30 years old. I think my generation is seeing this as a time to stand up and make a difference for Puerto Rico," she said. "It is getting out there and making things better. I hope that is what comes out of this."