Over the years, Juan Trujillo (’90 Spanish) has worn several hats: first responder, Spanish teacher, and amateur radio operator. All three came into play when he volunteered with relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017—and again, when he returned to the island earlier this year after the series of earthquakes.
The hurricane response
In the immediate aftermath of Maria, all communication between hospitals and clinic over the island were interrupted. Trujillo and other volunteer HAM radio operators brought in their own equipment to help reestablish those links while the phone lines were being repaired.
“I was assigned to the only trauma center in Puerto Rico that was open,” explained Trujillo. “I lived and worked in a little trailer that became the communications hub for that hospital.”
With his radio equipment, he linked the doctors in San Juan with the sick and injured in far flung communities across the island. Together they would triage and, when needed, arrange for helicopter transport to the trauma center or the USS Comfort.
“It was a month of hard, hard work,” recalled Trujillo. “I saw a lot. I learned a lot. I even slept on a floor with a blanket and pillow, but I could see that our work was appreciated.”
That dedication to service and intense drive started early in Trujillo’s life. At 16, he became a firefighter in his hometown of Santiago, Chile. In 1977 he moved to Fort Dodge, IA in response to an international student recruitment ad in his local paper by Iowa Central Community College.
“They needed students, and I wanted to learn. It took a long time for me to get that first degree,” recalled Trujillo. “I had to work as a firefighter and save up money for tuition and books. I did a lot of training and teaching other firemen. Little by little, I got it done.”
With money being tight during those days and international phone calls expensive, Trujillo soon found an inexpensive way to stay in touch with his family in Chile: amateur HAM radio.
“With the radio, I could stay in touch with friends and family almost every day,” said Trujillo. “It made being far apart not so bad.”
What started out as a financial convenience became a lifelong hobby for Trujillo.
With his associate degree in hand and the moral support from friends and family back home, Trujillo transferred to Iowa State to achieve his ultimate goal: a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and teaching certification.
Trujillo loved being on campus at Iowa State. One of his fondest memories was taking classes with Professor Berardo Valdes in what was then called the Foreign Languages and Literatures department. The class would often meet over a meal at a café while they discussed academics.
“Professor Vales was from Cuba originally, so he related his experiences back home and in the US and what he went through to get ahead in life,” recalled Trujillo. “He was my mentor in my career. He really cared about us.”
Those were lessons Trujillo kept with him when he returned to Fort Dodge to be a high school Spanish teacher.
“To be a good teacher, you have to be patient with students,” he explained. “Sometimes they don’t really want to learn what you’re teaching that day. Sometimes you have to go the extra mile and get the mission accomplished.”
The extra mile in Puerto Rico
When a series of 11 earthquakes hit Puerto Rico earlier this year, Trujillo was ready to help out again—this time via the Red Cross.
“I accompanied a health team of American nurses that went into remote areas to help out,” said Trujillo. “We would inventory what they needed where and bring supplies to the people.”
While a few of the folks on the team were bilingual, Trujillo encouraged the others to keep learning.
He joked, “during my three weeks, I became translator, communications guy and Spanish teacher to them.”
Trujillo had each of the nurses load a Spanish “word of the day” app on their smartphones so they could build their vocabulary. He encouraged them to keep learning little by little even once their deployment in Puerto Rico ended.
“I think they still do it, too,” said Trujillo. “We still keep in touch.”
These days, Trujillo is happy at home with his wife in their Webster City home. But he knows that when the Red Cross calls again, he’ll be ready to lend a helping hand.
“I like to help people in need, and I like to teach people,” said Trujillo. “It’s as simple as that.”