The Puerto RICO Project


Cecilia Hernandez

Puerto Rico Project clients sit and eat homemade meals prepared by Melissa Hernandez every week.

Cecilia Hernandez, Writer

Cecilia HErnandez
Melissa Hernandez brings her clients her homemade meals weekly.

Cecilia Hernandez
Melissa Hernandez brings a few donated clothes to prepare for the approaching Chicago winter.

Melissa Hernandez, a student and mother of two, spotted a homeless man begging for food outside of a Mexican restaurant. With her two boys by her side, she continued to watch the man for a few seconds, observing how her society treats the poor. One by one, every single person would walk past or over him while he begged humbly for food. After a while, people stopped noticing him. Sickened by what she just witnessed, Melissa approached the man and asked: “What would you like to eat?” It took a few seconds for the man to realize what Hernandez just said. Surprised, he rushed to tell her his order: a few tacos and a drink.

“I went inside [the restaurant] and told my kids: ‘this is important. We have to take care of each other and our people’,” Hernandez said. “The Puerto RICO project basically started as a lesson for my children.”

Two years later, Hernandez now utilizes Facebook and GoFundMe to spread the awareness of her Puerto RICO Project. Every Friday, Hernandez and her kids, along with some volunteers, package and deliver the food she spent most of the day preparing. On some days, she would pick up donated food from restaurants that were willing to help her. She would make sure there’s a dessert with every meal.

“They like sweets,” Hernandez said. “I try to give them what they want–it’s a form of empowerment. I want them to know that somebody does care about them, cares about what they want, and what they are comfortable with.”

She also provides Survival Kits, which include clean syringes and Narcan, an opioid blocker that’s used to immediately reverse a heroin overdose. Hernandez also provides some food, bus passes, clothes, shoes—the basic essentials to keep warm during harsh winters and cool during blazing summers.

“I know a lot of people that feel bad for me,” Hernandez said while chuckling. “They’re like ‘Oh, my God, you go to work and school, you have kids; I want to help you!’ When they cook and all I have to do is pick it up, that helps me.”

Hernandez is a part-time student majoring in Social Science at Wilbur Wright College. She works as a dental hygienist, along with being a full-time mom; her schedule is packed. She wakes up every weekday at six in the morning to get her eldest ready for school; by seven she rushes him to the bus stop, where she continuously has to battle with the bus driver to wait for her kid to get on. After she drops off her eldest, she does the same routine for her youngest child.

With so much on her plate, Hernandez barely has time to pencil in an hour of meditation or a nap before she has to begin her own day. She spends her days either going to class or prepping the food and clothes she’ll distribute to the homeless on Fridays. She starts cooking the food around 3 p.m. and has everything packed and ready for delivery around 7:30 or 8 p.m. Her outreach can last anywhere between four to five hours, delivering food and necessities to the streets where her people live and sleep.

“There are plenty of times where I felt like giving up,” Hernandez said. “But God will help me through this. I feel like someone has to do it. I feel like they need me; too many people rely on me to just walk away from it all.”

Hernandez now has more than 150 homeless people she cares for on Fridays. These people are usually drug addicts from Puerto Rico. According to many testimonies from the addicts she works with, Hernandez has helped them all survive under a Puerto Rican program called Devuelta a la Vida which offers them a one-way ticket to the U.S.

They arrive and are sent to unregulated drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs that either don’t exist or –when they do exist– often humiliate addicts into cooperation in order to fool authorities.

“It’s suspected that they are selling them [the documents] in the Black Market,” Hernandez said. “I have a client who is paying child support for a child that’s not even his. Another client is no longer Puerto Rican but apparently now Mexican here in our city.”

She wonders why Chicago hasn’t thoroughly investigated these allegations. Tired of seeing so many people – the leaders of these unlicensed 24 hour centers, the Puerto Rican state police, and anyone helping these groups succeed—get away with such malicious crimes of fraud and identity theft. Hernandez continues with her project not just for the homeless, but for her children.

“My kids look at me as a hero,” Hernandez said. “I just started thinking my children are the future, and I’m a firm believer of leading by example. Our society is losing its way, so I have to start with my children.”

Her kids help Hernandez pack and take everything down the stairs into her car, but they do not accompany her during her five-plus hour runs throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods including Humboldt Park and Back of the Yards. If she were to run late and pack everything herself, her kids would become upset.

“My youngest would say ‘Aw! How come you didn’t tell me; that’s not fair,” Hernandez said, chuckling fondly.

To Hernandez, the Puerto RICO Project is more than feeding and aiding the homeless. It has been a “spiritual journey,” one that she couldn’t do all by herself–one she certainly did not think she would end up creating.

“When you imagine the kind of person that does volunteer work like this, you don’t see me,” Hernandez said. “You see a church-type person, not someone who smokes or has had to battle her own way out of addiction. I smoke cigarettes, [and] I curse like a drunken sailor.”

Rebelling against the status quo is what Hernandez loves the most. However, it’s the feeling of being among family members that keeps her motivated and inspired.

“It’s about family,” Hernandez said. “Everyone I come into contact with, even the people who donate—they’re family. To the people that I help, I feel like I’m their older sister. They call me their angel and they are my family.”