For Puerto Rican families, move to Lebanon is an escape from chaos

Written by Daniel Walmer/Lebanon Daily News | Jan 5, 2018 12:01 PM

Marie Olivero poses with two of her daughters, Adrielys Rodriguez, 6, and Nairielys Rodriguez, 5. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- Marie Olivero had a reasonably good life, raising three children with a husband who holds a top banking position in their hometown of Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico.

Then the hurricane came.

Like most island residents, Olivero was prepared to ride out a normal storm - but Hurricane Maria was different. Millie Hernandez, a registered nurse and a Red Cross volunteer who translated a Lebanon Daily News interview with Olivero, saw the devastation first-hand when she spent five weeks in her native Puerto Rico providing medical assistance in Maria's wake. Some people had lost their homes and were living in cars or staying in parks.

The storm completely flooded Olivero's home, destroyed their house and property, tore off the roof and forced her family to move into her mother's house.

Suddenly, her husband couldn't work and earn money - the bank was closed. Her three children couldn't go to school - it was cancelled, since the buildings were being used as shelters for people who lost their homes in the storm.

But worst of all, without electricity there was no way to provide the necessary food for her 5-year-old daughter, Nairielys Rodriguez, who requires a special diet because of a metabolic disorder. Nairielys was dangerously close to becoming comatose.

When Olivero contacted a Puerto Rican hospital about her daughter's health, it responded that they could put Nairielys down for an appointment with a specialist - in 2019.

In order to save her Nairielys's life, Hernandez boarded a plane on Nov. 29 with her three daughters - but without her husband, who stayed behind to earn money at the reopened bank - to find a new life in Lebanon, where her husband's brother lives.

She had escaped Maria's wrath, but was thrust into an oncoming Pennsylvania winter, cold and almost alone.

How many people are coming to Lebanon?

Olivero's situation is far from unique, as hundreds of Puerto Rican residents have ventured to Lebanon in recent months, mostly to stay with relatives.

Lebanon School District reached 176 hurricane-impacted students, mostly from Puerto Rico, before Christmas break, and continues to see a daily influx, said Lebanon superintendent Arthur Abrom. Given that number, and the fact that some of the migrants are not accompanied by any children, Lebanon City Councilman Cornell Wilson estimated the total number of people who have come to the city since the hurricane at a minimum of 600.

"They're coming from all ages, from elderly to recently born," he said.

For Olivero, Lebanon also made sense because of its proximity to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, where there is a doctor who specializes in Nairielys's disorder. Her husband is planning to come up to Lebanon in about a month.

What challenges do they face?

Winter Clothing

Many Puerto Rican residents aren't prepared for the bitter cold - but fortunately, many have received help from Lebanon School District.

"We are grateful for the support the community has provided," Abrom said in a written statement. "As of (late December), we have received a total of $3,880 in monetary donations.   In addition, we have received hundreds of winter coats in S, M, L youth sizes and S, M, L, & XL adult sizes, many hats, scarves, gloves, a few boots and misc. clothing items such as snow pants and sweaters.    An anonymous donor sent us 9 boxes of coats for small children that were ordered through Amazon.  The giving response has been overwhelming."

Olivero is also thankful for the quick help her family received, including winter clothing from the district.

"In the short period she's here, she can see that Lebanon is going to be a good town to live," Hernandez said.


Many places in Lebanon don't allow people to stay with relatives on an emergency basis for more than two weeks, Hernandez said. When her mother came from Puerto Rico to the mainland, Hernandez let her stay at her home in Lebanon Village Apartments. Her mother was only allowed to stay there for two weeks, so she is now staying with Hernandez's brother in New Jersey.

For the most part, Wilson said, people are coming to Lebanon in groups of only a few people at a time, so there aren't a lot of situations that he's aware of in which a large family is attempting to live in one relative's house or apartment.

Mayor Sherry Capello did not respond to a telephone call and three emails requesting comment on the extent to which Lebanon is enforcing building occupancy codes when people come to stay with relatives on an emergency basis.

The Lebanon County Housing Authority expected people from Puerto Rico to apply for long-term, low-income housing, and adjusted selection preferences so it could help a limited number of disaster victims. So far, though, almost no one has applied with the authority, said Bryan Hoffman, executive director of the Lebanon County Housing Authority.

Medical care

Wilson, who is a case worker for the Welsh Mountain Medical & Dental Center in Lebanon, said he met with 16 Puerto Rican families in December alone who needed assistance accessing medical care. Some people are out of their medications, while others need help obtaining insurance, getting medical records, or meeting behavioral health needs.

In some ways, the biggest need of Puerto Rican migrants is mental health support, community leaders said. Many are experiencing symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, said Kenny Montijo, CEO of the United Way of Lebanon County.

"We are a happy people, so people are smiling, but I can see in the eyes, you know, how they (are) feeling," Hernandez said.

How can I help?

Here are just a few of the ways:

  • Donate to a special United Way fund for Puerto Rico. The United Way of Lebanon County launched a special fund in December to raise finances for families and children resettling throughout Lebanon County from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The Helping Hand fund is open to gifts through Jan. 31, and 100 percent of donations will be distributed to support immediate, tangible needs like school supplies and winter clothes. To make a gift, visit
  • Donate clothing to Lebanon County Christian Ministries. For LCCM, which is working with the Lebanon School District to support new families, winter clothing is the biggest need, director Troy Williams said. People can donate winter coats for children and adults, sweaters, blankets, and other winter items to LCCM at their main building, 250 S. Seventh St., between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
  • Support the Cedar Foundation. Businesses can earn tax credits by donating to the foundation, which benefits Lebanon School District students.  Tax credits range from 75 percent for a one-year commitment to 90 percent for a two-year commitment. Donations can be earmarked for students who are victims of the hurricanes and have relocated to Lebanon schools. For more information, call 717-270-6711.
  • Spread the word about the 2-1-1 hotline.  Individuals and families are encouraged to call Lebanon County's 2-1-1 human services hotline by dialing "2-1-1." The phone line is staffed 24 hours per day and bilingual support is available.


This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The Lebanon Daily News


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