“I had a vocation to serve others, but I had no idea ten years ago where it would lead me.”
This call to serve eventually led Michael Fernandez-Frey to Saint Louis University, where he was honored in November as one of three 2019 Opus Prize finalists. While in St. Louis, he spent a week inspiring and interacting with students and faculty by telling the story of his work back home in Puerto Rico.
The Opus Prize recognizes individuals working to address persistent and pressing social problems. Each year, the Opus Prize Foundation chooses one American Catholic university to help it present the world’s largest faith-based, humanitarian awards for social innovation: a $1 million prize and two $100,000 prizes. Saint Louis University (SLU) was the Opus Foundation’s university partner in 2019.
As soon as he arrived on the SLU campus, Michael knew he was among kindred spirits. During the awards ceremony that capped off the week’s activities, he challenged the audience: “You can make the choice to live an extraordinary purpose-driven life. You don’t need to be a missionary, although we can never have enough missionaries, but you can also make change where you are.”
Michael Fernandez-Frey has dedicated his life to making change for and with the people of Puerto Rico, where he was born. He now serves as the founding director of Caras con Causa, a nonprofit organization serving economically poor families in communities bordering the Bay of San Juan. Under his inspirational leadership, Caras con Causa is committed to children’s education, restoring the wetlands after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and organizing communities to protect themselves against the destruction of their homes by the government.
Caras con Causa also has roots in Colegio San Ignacio, the Jesuit middle and high school in San Juan. Michael is a graduate, former teacher and current board member. He credits his commitment to service and social justice to the formation he received there. “I received a formidable Jesuit education,” he said. “It’s how I learned about being a person for others.”
In 2007, as associate coordinator of the school’s Community Service Office, Michael developed the Magis Program, a service-learning capstone curriculum for 12th graders grounded in the Jesuit value of “the faith that does justice.” With Michael’s vision, the program guided students in conducting social analysis in San Juan and creating and implementing more than 20 new service projects that ranged from building homes to planting mangroves, and from studying contamination and doing community clean-ups to teaching art and music in poor and violent neighborhoods.
One of the poor neighborhoods he accompanied students to was Vietnam, where Michael helped to establish Caras con Causa’s first after-school tutoring program, Vietnam Estudia. It was a modest beginning. “It was one tutor in a private yard under the shade of a mango tree,” he says now.
Today, that tutoring program has expanded considerably, with neighborhood parents and Colegio students volunteering to work with 35 students most afternoons.
Caras con Causa has expanded in other ways as well. It now has 11 professional staff members who recruit and train more than 150 volunteers each year. Caras con Causa volunteers have offered more than 4,500 hours of community service. It has expanded after-school programming to four sites.
It was through his work in the Vietnam neighborhood that Michael first learned about government officials expropriating land and homes from residents in poor neighborhoods. Beginning in 2012, the community was dealing with a takeover of waterfront land and housing in an area where they had lived for many years. With plans to develop a multi-million-dollar tourist complex that would include a luxury hotel, housing and recreational areas, the city began buying up housing and relocating residents. Then it moved on to demolishing residents’ homes and businesses, including a community center run by an order of Catholic women religious.
Led by Michael and community leaders organized through Caras con Causa, residents fought back and ended the demolitions. Community leaders demanded an investigation into what turned out to be illegal expropriations that led to a years-long legal battle over protecting this “Special Community” which should have been exempt from such expropriation maneuvers. A court decision eventually sided with the Vietnam community.
In order to assist Vietnam residents in their fight, Michael enrolled in law school at the University of Puerto Rico. He obtained his Juris Doctor in 2013 after attending classes at night while teaching, running the Colegio’s Community Service Program, and starting Caras con Causa during the day.
He left Colegio San Ignacio in 2012 to become the full-time director of Caras con Causa, but he continues his loyalty to the school by serving on their board. He continues to be a voice for the importance of the school’s commitment to the “faith that does justice.”
As the executive director of Caras con Causa, Michael directs all operations of the organization, including strategic planning, fundraising and extensive collaborations with public and private universities and schools, community-based nonprofits and private entities. Recognizing the need to develop his managerial skills in order to grow, Michael went on to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration, which he received from Rutgers University in 2017.
Michael is so much more than a man with multiple degrees. He is a valued leader in the community, one who recognizes that social change does not come about from the top down but from the bottom up. His friend and mentor, Fr. Mario Alberto Torres, SJ, who was in the administration of Colegio during Michael’s tenure, describes Michael as a “servant leader: Michael doesn’t have any qualms about suffering with the people or getting his hands dirty. He can keep the vision, but still roll up his sleeves to do the work.”
Patrick Jones, a Saint Louis University Opus Prize student ambassador who visited Michael and Caras con Causa as part of the Opus selection process, saw these same leadership qualities in Michael. “Michael is such an incredible leader,” Jones said. “Everywhere we went people knew Michael. Still he has unwavering humility.”
Michael’s leadership and commitment were put to the test in the days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017. He vividly describes wading through chest-deep water in the communities served by Caras con Causa to touch base with people, bring them food, medicine and water, find out what they needed, and simply make sure they were still alive. He suffered from rashes and infections from the days spent in that infested water, and also suffered the “wrath” of his loving wife who was desperately worried about him.
Instead of throwing up his hands in despair after the storm, Michael and the communities he worked in got down to work expanding the reach of Caras con Causa. The story of how the Connect Relief project came to be is a perfect example of Michael’s creativity and tenacity.
Michael and a work group from the entrepreneurial project Propel B1 had been working to develop a virtual platform designed to address a community’s needs after a disaster. Shortly before Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck, Michael convinced the Banco Popular Foundation to invest $15,000 in a seed fund to test the platform’s application. In fact, while Hurricane Irma was passing over Puerto Rico in late August 2017, Connect Relief was trying to reach the U.S. and British Virgin Islands to launch the application. Knowing that Hurricane Maria was forming and heading toward Puerto Rico, Michael and the team worked frantically to finish developing a mobile application and train community leaders in how to use it. It was finished three days before Hurricane Maria hit.
Between September 2017 and January 2018, Connect Relief trained more than 600 volunteers to use the mobile application to identify the needs of communities, shelters, schools, non-profit organizations and individuals. The project makes use of social networks so that information on needs is kept up to date and they are able to connect donors, aid organizations and volunteers with the greatest needs on the island.
Connect Relief was able to assist 70 municipalities, 277 communities, 93 non-profit organizations, 471 health brigades and 278 humanitarian missions – clear evidence of how the platform enabled effective coordination of resources and volunteers.
Still, Michael and Caras con Causa have recognized that hurricane “relief” was just one way to respond to the ravages of storms and other environmental threats to the island. Especially after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Caras con Causa considers ecology to be vital for the economy, public health and quality of life of Puerto Rico. They are developing a new generation of leaders who share and act on this belief. Together with local schools, community organizations and volunteers from around the world, Caras con Causa is working to “reforest” area marshlands. The reforestation of mangroves and other coastal species is an important step in helping to stem off damage and flooding from future hurricanes.
The organization has planted more than 500 trees, and they are currently germinating more than 2,000 red, white, black and button mangroves in their Vivero Antillano nursery.
Caras con Causa staff have also taken the educational component of reforestation to area schools so that students can learn about the ecological history and significant environmental challenges of Puerto Rico.
Caras con Causa hosts student and volunteer groups from around the world to help them understand the island’s complex crossroads between development and environmental health. Participants in the ecotourism programs learn about the environmental hazards affecting Puerto Rico’s beaches and mangroves and help with the reforestation projects. They also have opportunities to meet and advocate next to local workers and activists for environmental improvements.
The ecotourism initiative is social entrepreneurship: visiting groups pay fees to Caras con Causa for their service immersion experiences.
Michael and Caras con Causa continue to look for ways to provide innovative educational opportunities for the youth of the San Juan region. Their latest project is the establishment of the Rosalina C. Martinez School, a free public alliance (charter) K-12 school that has as its goal “the human development of students and their families through a comprehensive curriculum focused on a framework of sustainable development.”
The school will have a special focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. It is currently working to install science and technology laboratories.
This new school is a big goal, but one that is quickly being realized in spite of all of the difficulties that Puerto Rico has faced over the past years. It is a dream spurred on and sustained by Michael Fernandez-Frey’s daring entrepreneurship.
As Fr. Torres says, “Michael is a visionary. He has a bold vision, is able to articulate it, and sell it to people from rich banks and poor communities. He knows how to make visions practical and how to empower people to carry out their visions. When he was in Colegio San Ignacio’s Community Service Office, he drew out visions – and steps to achieve those visions – from people. He has a great capacity to listen to people and use what is best in people, as well as a great capacity to be empathic and compassionate.”
As an Opus Prize finalist, Michael had the opportunity to share his vision with a much broader audience, including the Saint Louis University community. In his closing words at the Opus Awards ceremony, Michael characteristically turned the attention from himself to those gathered to honor him and the other finalists.
“When I look at you, I see hope in the world,” he said. “This week I felt your curiosity, your passion, your courage to make a difference. I encourage you to, as San Ignacio would say, go forth and set the world on fire with Christ’s love.”
In his own humble but bold and visionary way, that is exactly what Michael is doing.
Mary Baudouin is the provincial assistant for social ministries for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.