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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn chefs come together to support Puerto Rico

The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center held a fundraiser on Thursday to benefit those in Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricane Irma.

The Taste of Puerto Rico fundraiser raised over $13,000 to go towards ¡ADELANTE!, a charity initiative started by Ricardo Calderon, a 15-year-old Puerto Rican who lives in a suburb outside of San Juan.

Hans Van der Reijden, managing director of hotel operations, said he heard about ¡ADELANTE! through his best friend Emmanuel Kemiji, Calderon’s stepfather and a master sommelier, and decided to get involved.

“I was just inspired,” Van der Reijden said. “I saw a video of a 15-year-old young man who was making things happen on an island that was devastated, and I used to live there so it definitely made me want to do something.”

Van der Reijden then began talking to Miguel Figueroa, a chef at Amsterdam Cafe as well as a Puerto Rican native who had been making trips to the island after the hurricane, about getting local chefs involved in Calderon’s initiative.

“That’s the great thing about the chefs community here in Auburn is that though we are competitors, we are friends, and when one wants to do something everybody else jumps in and we all help each other out,’” Van der Reijden said.

Chefs Figueroa, Leo Maurelli, Brandon Burleson, Fernando Justiniano, David Bancroft, Caleb Fisher and Robbie Nicolaisen from local restaurants including the Auburn Hotel, Acre and Amsterdam Cafe served dishes inspired by Puerto Rican cuisine including whole roasted suckling pig, escabeche and pastelitos, arroz con gandules and Alabama tamales.

Figueroa, who came back to Auburn for the event after volunteering in Puerto Rico, said that conditions there were horrible.

“The most pressing concern is that the government is not doing anything about it, only the good people are doing something,” Figueroa said.

Figueroa said he hopes the fundraiser will help set an example for those who want to help others so negatively affected by the catastrophe.

“When other catastrophes come, don’t sit and wait for help,” Figueroa said. “Do it yourself and go out there and make it happen. Rise up yourself and don’t wait for anybody to do it because if you wait then they’ll probably never get that help. You’ve got to do it.”

Kemiji, who donated bottles of his finest wines for the event’s auction, said that the governmental response to Puerto Rican recovery was lacking.

“People just don’t understand how bad it is,” Kemiji said. “When you say, ‘Well this is hurting our budget,’ I mean, there’s people that are starving, there’s people who are getting diseases and they’re talking about a budget? Really?”

Kemiji said the money raised at the event at the Auburn Hotel that night would make a real difference in the lives of Puerto Ricans who still struggled.

“All of these people that have come here today have no idea, they have no idea how much they are helping,” Kemiji said. “Out of every $125 ticket, $100 is going straight to ¡ADELANTE! … That’s probably food for ten families for a week, so it’s great. They don’t realize how much they are helping those people.”

Calderon was unable to fly out from Puerto Rico to Auburn because he had to go to school, but a video compilation of photos he had taken of the ¡ADELANTE! initiative helping other Puerto Ricans was shown to those in attendance.

“What you all just saw is nothing more than a fraction of what the American citizens of Puerto Rico have gone through, what we have lived through,” Calderon said in the video. “With your donations, we will continue to help Puerto Rico through ¡ADELANTE!, and all the way from San Juan — War Eagle.”

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