'It doesn't seem right:' Charlotte teens say if U.S. won't help Puerto Rico, they will

'It doesn't seem right:' Charlotte teens say if U.S. won't help Puerto Rico, they will
Ranson Middle School teacher Justin Clark and seventh-graders Dakota Holbrook, Lamont Vasquez and Aaron Terry (left-right) are among 23 teens and adults who will travel to Puerto Rico in June. (Credit: Ann Doss Helms | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September, some of the students at Charlotte's Ranson Middle School didn't like what they saw.

"Our president didn't do anything," said 12-year-old Lamont Vasquez, who has family there.

"Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory," said 12-year-old Dakota Holbrook. "It doesn't seem right to leave our fellow citizens hanging."

Lamont and Dakota will be among 14 Ranson students traveling to Puerto Rico in June to work with relief efforts and meet fellow teens. Local communities on the island, private relief groups and federal teams have been working since the monster storm hit, but tens of thousands remain without power six months later, ABC News recently reported.

Ranson, a public school in north Charlotte, hosts an International Baccalaureate magnet program. That makes global connections and public service, which are emphasized in all Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, doubly important.

And about 25 percent of its students are Hispanic, including many with Puerto Rican heritage.

But planning an overseas trip isn't as simple as asking parents to write big checks. This is a school that's often on the receiving end of aid, whether that's the $50 million local philanthropists pumped into Project LIFT or the federal Title I money that goes to high-poverty schools.

Teacher Justin Clark and fellow faculty organizers didn't want income to determine who could take part in an adventure like this. Instead, Clark said, they chose students who have "showed us moxie," including some members of the school's Adelante club. It started as a group for Latino students but has expanded to include others interested in the culture.

Clark sought support from the Charlotte Hornets Foundation and Target's field trip grant program. He was disappointed when he didn't land those grants, but the group didn't give up.

They launched an array of small projects — taking $1 donations from classmates who want to dress down on "Fly Fridays," selling snacks, hosting a Chipotle fundraiser. Students agreed to pay $75 toward their plane tickets and cover their own food, with the school covering hotels, the rest of the airfare and ground transportation.

The Ranson crew also scaled back on plans to collect bottled water, clothes and first-aid supplies, which would be costly to ship. Instead, the students will stuff school supplies from Charlotte's nonprofit Classroom Central into any available space in their suitcases.

When school let out for spring break the school had about $4,000 of the $6,000 needed. Once they return the group will make a final push, including through a GoFundMe page.

The students and the nine adults who will accompany them realize they can't fix the massive damage the island sustained. But they'll work with a group called Connect Relief to find projects they can work on, and will go through a Department of Defense school to connect with local counterparts. They hope to have an ongoing correspondence and partnership with a Puerto Rican school when they return next school year.

The group will leave June 3, after final exams are done. About two months before departure, some were a bit nervous about the travel. Aaron Terry, 13, says he hasn't been on an airplane since he was too young to remember it. Lamont says he's worried about the wildlife.

"I've never seen a snake in my life," he said.

"What makes you think you're going to see a snake?" Clark asked.

"It's hot," Lamont replied.

But they're also serious about their quest to represent the mainland to their fellow Americans.

"I'm going to just try to help everybody else," Lamont said.