On January 20, 1986, America celebrated the first national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Today, the observance has become not only a day of celebration, remembrance and education, but also a day of service. The renowned Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Civil Rights leader once said, “anyone can be great because anyone can serve … all that’s required is a soul full of grace and a heart full of love.”
Dr. Johanna S. Rivera Anazagasty, who currently works as a behavioral health clinical pharmacist at VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, is one of many VA employees who continue Dr. King’s legacy of helping others. However, it is her humanitarian work in her native Puerto Rico that shows how deep her commitment is to the selfless service to our nation’s Veterans.
She recently returned to the Lone Star state after completing a humanitarian mission in Vieques, an island located approximately eight miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, and one of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Maria. Dr. Rivera Anazagasty and her team members from Warfighter Disaster Response Team distributed food to more than 1,500 families, and toys to more than 1,000 children. The VA pharmacist was also part of a team of volunteer doctors and other medical experts who performed wellness checks focusing on Veterans living on the devastated island.
Vieques has one of the largest concentrations of Veterans in the entire U.S. territory, which is due in great part to Camp Garcia, which served as the premiere training area for the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet for more than 60 years prior to its closing in 2003.
“Our special mission is to look for Veterans in need since the VA clinic and the public hospital were condemned after [Hurricane] Maria, and they have no immediate access to care,” said Dr. Rivera Anazagasty prior to departing on her four-day humanitarian mission. “We are bringing mattresses and brand-new clothes for displaced Veterans, along with generators for those Veterans suffering from respiratory conditions or illnesses that require electricity to power medical devices.”
Although Dr. Rivera Anazagasty mission is not-officially sponsored by any federal agency, her personal convictions to live up to the VA core values of Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence (I CARE), have earned her the praise of fellow coworkers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Our Veterans and their families are our highest priority at VA; the people who serve them are our most treasured resource,” said Joe A. Perez, the director of VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System. “Dr. Rivera Anazagasty is a great example of the type of caring staff members we have as part of our team here at VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend. It is the selfless spirit of volunteerism and humanitarianism shared by people like her and other VA employees that help further Dr. King’s legacy of service.”
The disaster relief effort in Vieques is Dr. Rivera Anazagasty’s fourth humanitarian mission. She has been actively involved in coordinating different relief efforts since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.
She served as an independent medical volunteer, just 10 days after the storm. The Boricua helped gather, transport, and distribute approximately 4,000 pounds of medical and first aid supplies. She also helped numerous inhabitants get in touch with families in the mainland desperately trying to receive word about their condition and statuses. She also helped a group of volunteer doctors, directed by Dr. Gustavo Laabes, provide free medical services to the community of her hometown of Aguada.In addition to using her own time and resources to help pay for her humanitarian trips to Puerto Rico, Dr. Rivera Anazagasty has serve as an intermediary, to help facilitate contacts and coordinate logistics for transportation of humanitarian aid. The doctoral graduate from Nova Southeastern University in Broward County, Florida, also found relief flights for more than two dozen organizations, and thanks to her efforts, more than half-million pounds of relief supplies have been transported and distributed to the islands residents, who despite it being more than three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall are still in great need of assistance.
Currently based out of her home in Edinburg, Texas, her community involvement has extended to work in collaboration with organizations such as Warfighter Disaster Relief Team, Puerto Rico Rise Up, Inc., and the #WeArePR and American Veterans Ball project from Home of Miracles and Embraces, Inc.
(Article by Maria Teresa Puras contributed to this story. No federal endorsement intended or implied. Mentioning of any private or public organization affiliated or not with the Department of Veterans Affairs or any U.S. federal government agency was strictly for informational and news purposes.)