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Puerto Ricans line up to get water provided by a unique partnership.

How a lesbian union president and Christian aid leader teamed up to get Puerto Rico clean water

In an era when those on the opposite side of the political or religious aisle tend to avoid each other, it’s nice when two polar opposites come together to bring desperate aid to those in need.

The Operation Blessing humanitarian organization founded by Pat Robertson and which specializes in disaster relief, has been working with the president of a liberal union to help with relief in Puerto Rico. Even better, instead of being criticized by the extremes, the effort has been applauded.

“We may be strange bedfellows, but it’s rare that people can just park whatever their political persuasions and ideology may be and try to help people in trouble, and that’s what happened here,” said Bill Horan, the recently retired president of Operation Blessing, in an article by Rebecca Ruiz, a features writer at Mashable covering gender, sexuality and equality.

Horan was speaking of his cooperation with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who, Ruiz pointed out, “happens to be a lesbian married to a rabbi.”

“If you meet people where they are, and if you work on a values proposition — that in America we care about families and we care about their health and safety — then you can work with all sorts of strange bedfellows,” Weingarten said on her part.


Randi Weingarten (left); Evelyn DeJesus, vice president of AFT; and Bill Horan (right) at the Operation Agua hub.

It starts creating trust and lessening the divisiveness in this country.”

The two groups joined forces in the wake of Hurricane Maria last year, which devastated Puerto Rico and the surrounding region.

Operation Blessing, which was founded by Robertson in 1978, had been supplying residents with water filters and alongside other necessities since power failures had stopped water treatment plants from operating.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz introduced Horan to Weingarten, who was on the ground looking for ways to reopen schools that had been closed due to hurricane damage.

The meeting was the first of several encounters and, eventually, the two understood the love each had for the kids and the community.

A partnership was formed.

Horan and Weingarten created Operation Agua, a joint campaign aimed at delivering 100,000 water filtration systems to communities throughout the territory, including clean drinking water to schools. Without the water, the schools would never have opened.

Weingarten had a plan.

She suggested raising money for the effort through AFT’s disaster relief fund, donating it to Operation Blessing, allowing the Christian group to purchase more filtration devices, which it was already obtaining at a discount from the bath and kitchen manufacturing company Kohler.

Weingarten wasn’t sure of the response but she appealed to union members to pitch in.

Her plan took the pressure off Operation Blessing to fundraise, which along with other relief organizations was having some trouble. Following Irma and Harvey and then Hurricane Maria, by mid-September last year, the nonprofit began to see a “donor fatigue” dip in contributions for hurricane relief. Horan says the $2 million raised by AFT’s fundraising doubled Operation Blessing’s impact in Puerto Rico.

As AFT explains on its website, “this unique coalition brings together relationships with manufacturers, experience providing clean water across the globe, partnerships with shipping and transport workers and corporations, and access to a regional and school-based infrastructure across the island to deliver clean water to people.”

aidThe union group argued that the government has “failed in its responsibility to provide the resources, infrastructure and distribution efforts our fellow citizens need.”

It added that Operation Agua is not a “handout,” but a “hand up for our fellow Americans suffering and dying in Puerto Rico.”

Operation Blessing is also promoting the partnership on its website. It notes that the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the Seafarers International Union, and The Hispanic Federation have all joined in the effort, which is aimed at helping “create safe water solutions for the hurting island.”

SIU representative Amancio Crespo, the son of a Pentecostal minister, hailed the large-scale cooperation between the different organizations.

“The job was done right because it wasn’t just depending on one agency or one group of people — everyone deserves recognition,” Crespo said. “I think we touched a lot of lives.”

Operation Blessing has been showing members of the teachers’ union how to assemble and clean the water filters, allowing classrooms to open up again. By last year, over 270,000 students had been helped by new water filters. The group now expects to have another 6,500 filtration systems in use on the island by the end of August.

Weingarten said that the success of the effort comes down to Operation Blessing’s logistics expertise and AFT’s vast union network — a mission that’s easy to understand because it is directly helping people and you see the result. The article says in a situation like that “the political fault lines are much easier to avoid than developing an alliance around, say, policy.

“We are a family, and caring is an important aspect of being part of a union,” Weingarten said. “We’re fighting for things like wages and parental leave, but it’s also about caring and showing up.”

Horan reflected that there was “cooperation at every level.”

“No one cares who’s voting for who in the next election when it’s that type of cooperation,” he added.

Ruiz pointed out that others can learn from the example set by Horan and Weingarten.

“Weingarten and Horan forged what they hope is a lasting bond — and a model that people on different points of the political spectrum might consider emulating to help those in need,” she wrote.