By Michael Kinney
Gileysa Penzo is not hard to miss. Watch any Oklahoma women’s basketball game, and the redshirt junior stands out from almost every other player on the court.
From her animated reactions to slapping the floor with her hands, Penzo is always looking to carry the Sooners with enthusiasm and sheer joy, even during the toughest times.
“I just wanted to be an impact,” Penzo said. “I wanted to be an impact, even on the court or off the court. I just wanted to reach the people and talk to them and give them energy and be joyful. “
However, that joy was put on hold Sept. 20. That was the day Hurricane Maria hit Penzo’s home. Puerto Rico. At that point, all she could think of was her family, her friends and what they were enduring.
“At the beginning it definitely was tough just not knowing, not being able to come in here to my parents, my family,” Penzo said. “It was tough because Senado was bad and then I didn’t know if they had power or not, if they have water supply or not. So it was tough, especially before the season started. It was hard.
Penzo had every right to be worried. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricanes Maria and Irma totaled $90 billion and $50 billion in damages
The official death toll for Hurricane Maria has been reported at 64 as of Jan. 1. However, several news organizations have estimated that the real count is anywhere from 500 to 1,065.
Experts believe those numbers will continue to rise due to lack of medical care and basic services, such as power and clean water.
Fortunately for Penzo, her family were not any of those who lost their lives to the natural disaster. But that didn’t lessen the impact of watching her home being torn apart and not being able to do anything about it.
“You know that’s really tough when catastrophes happen like that and usually they don’t directly affect you,” said OU senior Gabbi Ortiz. “And knowing that directly affected one of our teammates and her family personally was pretty tough. And it sucks because you can’t really do much. I mean you can donate money and you know she started that fund and everything but it’s just hard seeing that because she’s just worried about her family and you know how much that impacts her while she’s trying to focus on school and basketball, so you know all you can do is be there for her and talk her through and they made it out fine so that was great.”
One of the ways Penzo said she coped was using basketball as a safe haven from the outside world and the news coming out of Puerto Rico.
“My teammates and the staff took such great care of me they always asked how my family was. We pray before every practice, so they always pray for my family and their safety,” Penzo said. “So, just trying to keep that off the court and I come on the court and kind of be like a relief, like a safe place. And then I can worry about it whenever I’m off the court.”
But Penzo didn’t want to hide from the tragedy. Just like when she is on the court, she wanted to have an impact in helping rebuild her home.
So Penzo started a Go Fund to raise money for her former school, which had been severely damaged during the hurricane. Casa Montessori holds a special place in Penzo’s heart she wants to make sure it will be around in the future so it can affect other young girls like it did for her.
“I went to that school from pre-school all the way to sixth grade and my sisters went there, my cousin goes there, and my other cousin also graduated from there,” Penzo said. “So, it’s like a family for us. They’ve always been there. That’s where I first started playing basketball. That’s where I had my first coaches. Just all the teachers there just so involved. Some Montessori schools so they’re just really involved in the students’ life. So I just have so much respect and so much love for them that I just wanted to give back in any way that I can, because they’ve given so much for me and my family.”
Penzo’s efforts didn’t shock Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale.
“No, it didn’t surprise me at all,” Coale said. “She’s a very caring individual and a very involved person. She gets herself invested and she’s invested in our program, she’s invested in our university, she’s invested in her country and her school that she went there. So it didn’t surprise me at all. That’s what we recruit and that’s what we want to be our ambassadors. She’s it.”
Penzo ended up raising $5,000 for Casa Montessori. But she admits it took a while to get going.
“At first I started the fund then I posted it on social media and it was kind of slow at the beginning and then we had our pre-season banquet and coach gave me the opportunity to speak in front of the Stilettos and the Fast Break Club,” Penzo said. “That’s where everything just got going. And I was just so thankful for everybody that just donated and gave their money to a cause for me. Some of them knew me personally, some of them don’t and I’m just so thankful for every single one of them. It filled me up because I felt like I was able to give back to them like I said ’cause they’re just family to me.”
During Christmas break, Penzo had the opportunity to go home to Puerto Rico and check in on her family. Despite it being more than three months since Hurricane Maria hit, the devastation was still evident.
“There was some crazy like light posts, like concrete light posts just split in half,” Penzo said. “There were some designated areas for like waste and there was like zinc roofs there. There were cars that were just messed up. There were trees everywhere.”
Penzo also got a chance to go visit Casa Montessori and see exactly how bad the school had been damaged.
“One thing is that I went back to my elementary school, the one that I raised money for, and it just kind of seemed that the whole second floor was just gone,” Penzo said. “As soon as I got there, obviously, I went in and I say hi to like my family because they’re my family. And there were just all so thankful that I was able to raise that money for them and they’re going to start constructing now in December before the next semester starts.”
Without even knowing it, Penzo also had an impact on the University of Oklahoma campus. Like many around the country, there were those who had no idea that Puerto Rico is part of the United States.
It wasn’t until they learned of Penzo’s story that some began to realize the truth.
“It was crazy how like people on campus that might know that I’m Puerto Rican, they’d be like, ‘Oh wait, is your family okay?’” Penzo said. “And that’s when they kind of came up to me and where like, ‘Wait. Ain’t you from Puerto Rico? How are you doing?’ And it’s kind of like a light bulb went off and they’re like, “Hold on wait. These are like our people too.’ It was crazy to see the reaction from like everybody else that’s not our immediate basketball staff.”
Since Hurricane Maria hit, the eyes of the nation has slowly moved on to other interests. Yet, Puerto Rico is still dealing with the after effects.
But for Penzo, the tragedy is chance for Puerto Rico to show the rest of the United States what they are made of.
“(I want people to see) that we’re strong and we’re going to get back to where we were,” Penzo said. “It’s obviously not going to be the same, but I feel like with the perseverance and like people getting involved as far as celebrities and like programs, like other basketball sports programs that are getting involved with us, we’re going to get back stronger. And I just have so much love for my people from Puerto Rico ’cause they’re just so resilient. And this happened and some people left because their house was just destroyed, but like my family, they said that they were just not going to leave they were going to stay and endure it out and make sure that they take care of our house and our home, and making sure our families were okay.”
Story first appeared in The Sooner Spectator
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Writer with Eyeamtruth.com