The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and the slow pace of recovery, have prompted thousands of residents to leave the island and head for the U.S. mainland.
Cleveland is among the cities nationwide seeing an influx of Puerto Ricans arriving from the U.S. territory, eager to reestablish their lives, after living in a disaster zone for several months. Their arrival presents an opportunity for individuals, employers and organizations, big and small, to assist a community that is in need of help.
“People arriving from Puerto Rico are kind of lost,” says Ramonita Vargas, executive director of the Spanish American Committee, a social service agency on Cleveland’s West Side. “They need to feel welcome. They need hope and to know that everything is going to be OK.”
As of Dec. 7, 205 newly arrived families have sought assistance from the Committee in the months since Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Vargas expects the number will exceed 300 by the end of the year, as more and more families leave Puerto Rico.
Many families are in need of basic services, like food, shelter and clothing, in addition to employment. Local community organizations are doing their best to respond. To enhance their coordination and responsiveness, Cuyahoga Community College recently launched a website that provides a directory of 25 agencies available to help new arrivals transition into Northeast Ohio.
The Spanish American Committee has emerged as a gateway to Cleveland, steering families that arrive from the island to the resources they need to stabilize their situations. In addition to connecting them to education, employment, financial, health care and housing services, the agency refers families to local food banks and donation centers for clothing and household goods. Many also have been offered counseling services to address symptoms of emotional trauma, according to Vargas.
For those relocating from Puerto Rico, employment and housing are the most critical needs to fill. While new arrivals often stay with family and friends in the area, finding longer-term, affordable housing solutions can be challenging, especially when individuals are unemployed or low income. Public housing available through the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority is limited and sometimes too small for the families in need of housing. Tapping into other housing options, such as privately owned apartments and homes, depends largely on word of mouth in the community, among residents, landlords, businesses, churches and neighborhood development corporations.
To expand the range of possible housing options, the Spanish American Committee, and organizations like El Barrio Workforce Development Center on Cleveland’s West Side, are working hard to provide job training and placement services to families in need of employment. The Spanish American Committee is hosting a job fair every other week, and El Barrio screens for public assistance and temporary aid eligibility. In recent weeks, El Barrio has seen at least 10 new families a week, most of them victims of Hurricane Maria.
“It is extremely important that we provide people with the stability the (public) system offers,” says Ingrid Angel, executive director of El Barrio, which is part of The Center for Families and Children.
For Puerto Rican children arriving from the island, the transition into school is equally important. Of 160 that have enrolled in the Cleveland Municipal School District, 120 are now students at the Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy on 46th Street in Cleveland. The school is home to nearly 1,000 students, most of them migrants, immigrants and refugees.
In the past, students who arrived from Puerto Rico adjusted easily. Now, many of those newly enrolled are processing emotional trauma and lack school administrative papers and basic necessities, like food and clothing, says Kaleb Garcia, dean of engagement at the school. To ease their transition, the Newcomers Academy, which has bilingual staff, has provided these students with food, school supplies, backpacks and clothing, including winter coats – something it has not had to do previously. At the rate in which new students are coming from Puerto Rico, overcrowding may ultimately become a concern, he says.
The support of external organizations has been essential to the school’s response to families. St. Ignatius High School recently delivered 70 bags of winter clothing to the school. Similarly, employees from A-Brite Plating Co., a Cleveland-based chrome plating company, donated more than 300 pounds of non-perishable food items, which were distributed to families at the school before Thanksgiving. A-Brite also hosted a glove and scarf drive to benefit the school and plans to hold a sock drive in January. The company’s community outreach group chose the school as the sole beneficiary of its community outreach activities this year.
Moving forward, it will take efforts like these, and much community collaboration, to help Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria. “This is going to be an ongoing process,” says Vargas. “It will take everyone pulling together.”
Even with the availability of such resources, living far from the island, and heading into Northeast Ohio’s cold and blistery winter months, is a tough adjustment. To help newly arrived families feel more at home, the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center on Cleveland’s Near West Side is hosting a holiday celebration on Dec. 16.
The “Parradon Navideño” is a free, annual Christmas event in Cleveland’s Hispanic community, but this year it is being hosted exclusively for families that fled Puerto Rico in wake of the hurricanes. Hosted under the auspice of “Abracemos a Puerto Rico! Bienvenidos a Cleveland!” or, “Let us Embrace Puerto Rico, Welcome to Cleveland!,” the celebration aims to help families feel more at home in Cleveland and to introduce them to the center, says Letitia Lopez, the organization’s executive director.
“We want to give them a day to take their mind off of things and give them a piece of home,” says Lopez. “We want them to feel at ease and know that hope is on the way.”
An estimated 500 people, 200 of them children, are expected to attend. The event will include, food, music, entertainment, children’s activities and Puerto Rican flan (custard) and “Coquito” (Puerto Rican eggnog) contests. Santa and the Three Kings are set to make appearances as well. Information about local resources also will be available.
Named after the late Puerto Rican poet, Julia de Burgos, the arts and cultural center is in need of new, unwrapped toys, to be given to children at the party. The center requests that donated toys have a value of $15 or less. It is also accepting gift cards with a $15 value, or less, for teens. Donations can be delivered directly to the center, located at 3800 Bridge Ave. in Cleveland, through Dec. 13.
Throughout the holiday season and beyond, several other Cleveland organizations also are accepting goods that will benefit families arriving from Puerto Rico:
- El Barrio Workforce Development Center, part of The Centers for Family and Children, accepts new and gently worn business attire. Donations can be brought to the Gordon Square office at 5209 Detroit Road in Cleveland.
- Esperanza Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the academic achievements of Hispanics in Cleveland, offers a range of educational services, including tutoring and English as a second language classes. Located at 3104 W. 25th, Esperanza is accepting new coats, school supplies and backpacks. Monetary donations are also welcome. Volunteer mentorship opportunities are available.
- The Spanish American Committee, 4407 Lorain Ave. in Cleveland, serves as a gateway to other social service and health care resources in the area. The agency accepts hats and gloves to be distributed among clients. Monetary donations can be made by going to spanishamerican.org. In addition, anyone interested in helping a family this holiday season can contact Yeymi Cedeño at 216-961-2100. Likewise, one of the most difficult needs to fill is housing. Individuals or organizations with affordable housing to rent, or a willingness to host a family or individual, are encouraged to call the agency.
- The Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy, at 3145 W. 46th St., is home to nearly 1,000 students, many of whom come from immigrant, migrant and refugee families. Most of the 160 students who’ve arrived from Puerto Rico and enrolled in the Cleveland Municipal School District attend the school. To help the students and their families, the Newcomers Academy is accepting school supplies and backpacks, in addition to new and gently worn clothing and winter coats, for students and their families.
For the families relocating to Northeast Ohio, every bit of help they receive can be life-changing, in spite of their challenging and emotional circumstances. Long-term, adapting to life in a new city will be “an ongoing process,” says Vargas.