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Liza (Rivera-Russe) Fleming part of Tampa’s COA Puerto Rico Relief

Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla:  What is your background, and where were you raised?

Liza (Rivera-Russe) Fleming:  I am a proud Puerto Rican, born in San Juan and raised in Morovis, la Isla Menos.  As far as background, I am a marketing professional with almost 18 years of experience in the discipline, and almost a decade in the telecommunications industry.   As a Senior Marketing Manager for the Verizon Florida Region, I was responsible for the oversight of the following areas:  Advertising, Campaign Execution and Messaging, Sponsorships, Events, Channel Marketing, Competitive Intelligence, and Cause Marketing for mass media and multicultural markets.  Prior to the recent transition to Frontier Communications, I led the regional initiatives that changed the trajectory of the Florida Region making Verizon the #1 TV and Internet provider in the FiOS Tampa Bay area.  I was also a recipient of the Verizon Credo Award, the highest accolade in the company endowed to less than 1% of the employees.

Being Latina and a female in an environment highly dominated by males, and inspired by my corporate career, I went off to start my business:  z•aa dress up studio (zaastyle.com), an online boutique created to empower women to find their authentic self and have the confidence to show it, fearlessly push the envelope when they want to, and love how they look and feel when at work and play.  At the end of the day, to be successful and shine, you must be true to yourself.  There are ways to be trendy, unique and professional.

Prior to this, I held marketing management roles with CBS Radio and Telemundo.  I received a BA degree from Florida International University (Miami, Florida) and a master’s degree in Communications, specializing in Public Relations from University of the Sacred Heart (San Juan, Puerto Rico), as well as professional trainings from the School of Business of the European Forum at the University of Navarra, Spain and the Advanced Management Program of the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California.

I am active in the community, volunteering for two non-profit organizations:  Leadership Tampa Bay and the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.  Married and living in St. Petersburg, my passions include travelling, discovering new cultures, meeting new people, and the Tampa Bay sports teams.  As you can see, I like to have fun!

Jolie: Take us back to the days leading up to September 20th, 2017 as Hurricane Maria made its way toward the Island of Puerto Rico.  – how did you feel, and what went through your mind during those hours when the storm was ravaging the island?

Liza:  That was a tough time.  I knew we were lucky enough having a much lower impact from Irma.  I was monitoring the news – – thank God for Ada Monzón, a meteorologist from Puerto Rico, who did a phenomenal job keeping us all informed regarding Maria’s trajectory.  And the more I listened to her reports, the more I realized the inevitable would happen.  I felt powerless because I couldn’t do anything for my family and friends.  At the time, my dad had gone through surgery and I was highly concerned for my parents not being able to fully prepare for what was coming.  Well, and it happened…

Jolie: Tell us about September 21st, 2017 for you…. Were you able to reach your family?

Liza:  It was a long, long week not knowing or hearing from them.  Thankfully, I had a sister in the metropolitan area that was able to communicate “relatively” faster with us to give us the scoop of the Island.  And finally, after almost two weeks, I cannot describe the feeling when I finally got THAT call… the moment I heard my parents on the other side of the phone was EVERYTHING.  I knew they were ok, but it’s not the same.  You just need to hear them.  Until then, I prayed… I prayed ALL the time and of course, I joined this amazing group of people locally and statewide to start doing what we needed to do from the distance:  we all had to step up for Puerto Rico!

Jolie: How did you get involved in relief efforts in Tampa?

Liza:  I knew I had to take action, so I reached out to local radio stations, colleagues and other media outlets to start a movement to fundraise for Puerto Rico.  That’s when Sarykarmen Rivera from Rumba 106.5 connected me with Retired Colonel Evelio Otero and Course of Action.  I immediately joined the team of about 15 other folks that also had the same initiative and that’s how Course of Action PR was created.  We quickly became a family.  But this was bigger than us, so the help received from every single person along the way was critical and that included all Puerto Ricans and many Latinos in Tampa Bay, Central and South Florida.  Our desire to do something for our Island was so big and strong, we tapped every single connection we had to create a movement that out of the sudden became so big we were getting calls from other states.  It was amazing to see how friends from high school and college here, in Texas, everywhere in the US, got together to make it happen.  The list is long, but they all deserve as much or more credit.  As it was alluded in our social media posts, #enladiásporanadiesequita.

Jolie: Tell us about the Tampa team, the people and organizations behind the efforts;

I know it was a big team of people that jumped in immediately to help; who would you say played a major part in the relief efforts.

Liza:  EVERYONE!  There was no small task.  Richard Trela and Brenda Irizarry not only jumped in to lead the efforts, but they allowed us to use their 25K sf warehouse to house all donations.  Retired Colonel Evelio Otero co-led the efforts and allowed us to use the Course of Action umbrella as our non-profit organization.  His military expertise along with other key players in this arena, such as Walter González, Kelvin del Valle, Luis Oliva and Andy Serrano, contributed greatly to ensure we had resources and the right logistics in place for the operation.  But it was not only about military resources and logistics…  we needed key players in house to ensure all the operation was running as smooth as it could given the uncertain scenarios of the circumstances…  Linda Pérez, Antonio Soler, Edwin Santana, Luis Laracuente, José Daniel García, and Edwin Irizarry were all instrumental to ensure that our in-house operations and logistics were sharp.  Arlene Oliva was tireless securing resources and serving as one of the spokespersons for the organization.  Mariann Persad who provided direction by developing the plan to transport all donations to Puerto Rico ensuring all the right documentation was in place.  At last, but not least, all the volunteers and organizations that took countless hours to work hard to source, organize and pack all the goods.  Keep in mind, it’s hard to stay on top of things when we were adjusting our plans on the fly and while communications were so challenging.  And every single one of these folks really stepped up their game.

Jolie: What role did you play in these efforts?  

Liza:  I was responsible for all the marketing and communications efforts.  I helped secure interviews and advertising support from local media outlets such as Clear Channel Outdoor, Telemundo, Fox 13, Channel 10 and others to spread out the word about our efforts.  For me, it was critical to inform the Tampa Bay community and everyone involved.  Not only they needed to know what we were doing as an organization because we wanted everyone to contribute, but also because transparency was a big focus since we were getting so many donations.

Jolie: What obstacles did you encounter, and how were you able to overcome them?

Liza:  Particularly at the beginning, when communications were challenging and it was hard to figure out the best ways to identify the transportation process and run operations in Puerto Rico given the circumstances, I believe team work and communication on our end were key.  It takes a village, and the fact that we were open to work with others certainly turned into even more opportunities along the way.  Resources double when you leverage your networks and when everyone is and feels involved.  In a nutshell, I believe this and the strong will of those involved were key to the success of the operation.

Jolie: Have you visited Puerto Rico since the Hurricane? 

Liza:  I was fortunate enough to spend the Holidays with my family in Puerto Rico.  At the time, things were still rough, but getting better every day.  If you look at San Juan and the metropolitan area, things started to look a bit more normal because there were businesses up and running.  However, it was chocking to see that there are still no traffic lights.  It’s interesting to see the driving trying to overcome this challenge.  There are still a lot of rural areas that need a lot of help.  It will take time.  It’s great to see, though, how people continue to help each other and become resourceful.  My family was fine and for that I’m thankful.  It was still a bit tough to see my parents going through some of the hassle, but there are so strong, and they continue to show me how you have to figure it out in life and not give up no matter what.  I was even surprised to see my 95-year-old grandma going through all this.  Puerto Ricans are truly amazing people.  It’s great to see how in a situation like this, we manage to celebrate.  Enough to say, we had a very special Christmas.  Unique, but truly special…

Jolie: What’s next for Puerto Rico?

Liza:  We will get back on track.  Puerto Rico will recover.  We’re strong and resilient.  The government in Puerto Rico is working hard to get us back on track.  It’s a matter of setting priorities and the right expectations.  Meanwhile, there’s a lot of us on this side of the water.  We must continue to fight for our Island.  And how do we change things?  Get out there and vote!

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