Mariela Oyola-Brauch lives in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, but her true homes are Naranjito and Bayamon in Puerto Rico. She said Thursday she tries to visit as often as possible to stay connected with the food, the beach and her family.
The visits on which she embarked in October and December 2017 were different. Although she had just launched her own clothing line, Oyola-Branch departed for the island with $1,200 in her pocket and supplies in her bags to help other Puerto Ricans recover from the devastation Hurricane Maria dropped in their laps.
"I remember just looking outside and seeing the trees right off the bat at the airport, just looking outside and holding my tears," she said.
It was difficult, but Oyola-Brauch was among the most fortunate of those touched by the hurricane - - she heard from her family right away. Even during the storm itself, they called her with the wind raging in the background.
Oyola-Brauch said she decided quickly to turn her newly launched clothing line, Jibaro, into an opportunity to help people who did not have the same peace of mind. First, she put out a call on Facebook for people who had not yet heard from their loved ones; her own family in Puerto Rico fueled up and began the search.
"It gave them purpose," she said. "They woke up and they knew what they were going to do: They were going to try and find somebody's grandma at a hospital. It was incredible."
Jibaro's proceeds were always meant to benefit Puerto Rico, and the hurricane made that cause all the more urgent, she said. Ten percent of every sale made on the line's website will benefit Puerto Rican charities such as Plenitud Puerto Rico, which focuses on fostering sustainable farming practices on the island.