Graphic design alumna launches relief effort for Puerto Rican island

Amy Milgrub Marshall
November 09, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From her childhood home of Galeton in northern Pennsylvania, Penn State graphic design alumna Kelly Thompson launched and continues to lead a relief effort for her adopted home of Vieques, Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in late September.

On Sept. 20, while the category-five hurricane was battering Vieques, an island located 8miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland, Thompson established ViequesLove, knowing the island would need help — and quickly. What started as a crowdfunding effort to raise $50,000 grew into a fund capable of providing immediate support to the island before government relief arrived, as well as volunteers with strong connections to the island. The organization has now raised more than $830,000 — and counting.

ViequesLove organized one of the first flights to land on the island runway post-hurricane, armed with communication tools and much-needed satellite phones that allowed communication within the island and also between the island and the continental United States.

“Being among the first people from the outside world to successfully get help into the island thrust our team into a level of responsibility that none of us anticipated — but all of us embraced,” said Thompson, who has lived on Vieques for the past 14 years. “We took leaves of absences from work, put aside family and other obligations, and worked intently on the needs communicated to us by our team on the ground. Our sole purpose is to work for a better tomorrow for Vieques.”

Kayla Corazzi works on her ViequesLove logo with guidance from Professor Kristin Sommese.

IMAGE: Turner Blashford

In early September, Thompson, founder and publisher of Vieques Insider magazine, had left Vieques with her daughter in order to work on the magazine, after Hurricane Irma brushed the island and left Vieques’ fragile electric grid without power. So when Hurricane Maria hit, she knew she had to do something — from afar. Her husband had remained on the island to manage rental properties, and it was days before she connected with him.

“When I started the ViequesLove GoFundMe page, I was thinking of family, friends and neighbors still on the island needing help in any possible way. Having lived on Vieques for 14 years, I was paralyzed with the fear of knowing the level of destruction a category-five hurricane would likely have on the delicate infrastructure of the island. I set a goal of $50,000, a target I thought was ambitious at the time. I was completely unaware of just how much faith and trust the world was about to place in my hands.”

ViequesLove now has a team of volunteers on the ground and in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., still servicing immediate needs on the island and also looking for ways to better prepare the island for the future. “We’re not disaster relief experts — we’re full-time workers, single parents and other people who simply want to help Vieques and have a vision for a better tomorrow,” said Thompson.

As the fund grew and the team started to coalesce, Thompson realized she needed a logo for the organization, something that visually expressed the group’s love for the island and also symbolized sustainability. So she contacted her friend and former professor at Penn State, Kristin Sommese.

“I was not in a creative space to create my own logo, although I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted,” Thompson explained. “I called Kristin, because I have always had great respect for her and for Lanny (Sommese).”

Thompson made the call on a Saturday afternoon. By Sunday afternoon, Kristin Sommese had gathered some upperclassmen for a conference call with Thompson, who explained what she was looking for in a logo. The students had until that evening to submit drafts to Sommese, who provided critiques, and the students had to submit their final drafts by midnight. At 2 a.m., Thompson selected a logo designed by Kayla Corazzi, and then worked with her throughout the week on revisions.

Sommese said she was proud to see her students gather so quickly to help others in need through their design work.

“They definitely had a real-world problem and gained real-world experience working on this project. The students were so professional and felt a great sense of satisfaction knowing they were using their abilities for a good cause,” she said. “I’ve never art-directed a group of students with a 12-hour turnaround — 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., and revisions via text at 12:45 a.m. — before, so it was a unique experience for me as well. Kelly is an amazing woman, and to work with her after all these years was wonderful. I was so honored she thought to reach out to me.” 

Students who worked on ViequesLove logo

Students who submitted logo designs for ViequesLove, left to right: Mále Reguero, Colleen Witkowski, Dana Lipshutz, Frank Kleinsorge, Taylor Shipton, Professor Kristin Sommese, Lauren Gorsky, Kayla Corazzi, Colleen Wade, Stefan Pelikan, Sean Merk and Nick Wilson.

IMAGE: Turner Blashford

With the tagline “Community Empowered for a Better Tomorrow,” the logo, Thompson said, “will serve as a symbol of a more sustainable future.” The group was art-directed with the theme to convey the power of nature, water, solar and a helping hand, breaking out of a circle.

Thompson explained that while she knew there would be students interested in designing the logo, she was surprised at the number of students who turned out for the last-minute project. “I was amazed at what the students produced, with minimal art direction, and under stressful conditions,” she said. “It was like having a team of professionals on my side.”

As the money continues to come in, ViequesLove is still working to find solutions to the ongoing issues and waiting for more communication with the island residents and existing non-profit groups in order to best determine how to use the funds. “A disaster like this shows just how important effective communication is. With no telephone, cell service, or internet to allow the island to provide input, it is difficult to effectively and responsibly determine a path for Vieques.”   

Thompson said that when she formed ViequesLove, she and the other volunteers had no idea what lay ahead.

“None of us on the ViequesLove team woke up on Sept. 20, 2017, knowing that fewer than 24 hours later, we would become the volunteer guardians of the enormous level of trust and expectation that you have bestowed upon us," said Thompson. "That said, we are proud to have stepped into this role and we take this responsibility very seriously.”

For more information, visit ViequesLove's Facebook page.

Last Updated March 30, 2018