Life at eBay

Sabbatical Stories: Paying It Forward

Francesca Hellebrandt, eBay News Team

A Software Engineer from Bellevue spent his sabbatical helping to rebuild hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico.

Volunteering has always played an important role in Paul Son’s life. In college, Paul volunteered as a tutor and science fair mentor at a school near the University of Washington. In 2011, Paul first experienced disaster response when he was deployed to Batrop, TX, where a fire had scorched 40,000 acres and destroyed over 1,000 homes. Together, these experiences inspired Paul to spend his sabbatical doing what he does best — give back to the community.

Having seen Puerto Rico suffer a lackluster response in aid after the devastation left behind by Hurricane Maria in 2017, Paul knew this was exactly where he wanted to help. After speaking with friends who worked in disaster response, they recommended he look into All Hands and Hearts, a non-profit organization that provides relief to residents in areas affected by natural disasters in the U.S. and internationally.

With his mind made up, Paul set off on what would become an adventure of a lifetime.

As the plane descended over San Juan, it became more and more apparent that the city was far from recovery. Many roofs still looked like work was needed, the airport had hurricane-torn structures and the terminal runways were still under construction. After touching down, Paul made his way to Yabucoa, where he would volunteer for the next two weeks.

“Every day, we would wake up at 7 a.m,, prep gear, load trucks and spend our time on a hot roof or inside Tyvek suits,” he said. “We were going to sweat either way.”

His responsibilities as a volunteer spanned three primary tasks: sealing roofs, sanitizing homes and hurricane-proofing schools and community centers. Many roofs in Puerto Rico are flat and made of concrete and, in Yabucoa, many had never been sealed in the first place. Paul and team patched up any holes and cracks with concrete before carefully cleaning and drying the roof before they applied two thick coats of silicone seal. Water would then bead up and pool to be drained away or evaporate in the hot Puerto Rican heat. After sealing a roof, Paul took care of sanitation (aka “sani”) of the mold that sprouted from the leaks by scraping away the paint from the ceiling and treating the affected areas. In addition to roofing, he worked on various projects like hurricane-proofing a school roof, demolition projects, building rebar-reinforced concrete walls at a community center and renovating baseball fields.

“Later in the evenings, we’d continue getting to know each other after dinner by playing games, singing songs and sharing our experiences,” he said.

On the weekends, the volunteers had free reign to explore the island. One weekend, Paul visited the El Yunque National Forest and discovered an area with natural water slides, with rushing water scouring a path through the mountain and swimming holes with rope swings.

Another adventure took him to the island of Culbera for the idyllic tropical beach day. While there, he explored old beached marine tanks spray painted with colorful graffiti.

On his final weekend, he toured the island of Vieques by visiting its beaches, connecting with locals on their experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and spotting wild horses throughout the island. After Viques, he spent his few final days in Old San Juan exploring the cobblestone streets and visiting the historic museums around the city. 

Following Puerto Rico, Paul spent the remainder of his sabbatical visiting friends and family in Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix and Los Angeles. He took the Coast Starlight up along the California coast and through the Cascades in Oregon, and finished his trip in Seattle.

At the end of his sabbatical, Paul concluded that “getting face time with those you are working for makes your work all the more rewarding.”

“Having homeowners thank us for repairing their leaky roofs and sharing how much better their children were sleeping as a result motivated me to work harder, despite the difficult work environment,” he said. “Sometimes working on software, we get lost in the details and forget what we're working towards and who we are building these experiences for.”

After five years of service with eBay, employees are eligible for four weeks of time off with pay. This sabbatical is intended to provide a break from the pace and intensity of work and allow employees the opportunity to recharge and pursue areas of interest.