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Midstate nonprofits seek to help displaced Puerto Ricans still struggling after hurricane

Written by Rachel McDevitt, All Things Considered Host | Dec 18, 2018 7:27 PM
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Puerto Ricans gather for an information session and dinner at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg on December 11, 2018. (Photo: Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

(Lebanon) -- More than a year after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, life hasn't returned to normal. So, people continue to make their way to the mainland in search of a better life.

But many who have been here for months are still working to get back on their feet.

About 30 Puerto Ricans gathered this month at at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) in Harrisburg. The dinner for survivors of Hurricane Maria was meant to foster a sense of community and let them know they have a resource to help them solve the problems they still face.

As LHACC's executive director Gloria Vazquez Merrick took questions from the group, it became clear two major issues are healthcare and housing.

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Volunteers serve dinner to Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg on December 11, 2018. (Photo: Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

The center has been helping clients with these needs, and even more basic items such as food and clothing, as they try to reestablish themselves in the midstate.

But now, Merrick said, they now have some extra help: a grant from Lutheran Disaster Response has allowed the center to hire one full time and one part time bilingual social worker for the next year to help people navigate this new landscape.

The United Way of Lebanon County also received a grant to help fill a big need.

The nonprofit is using the money to connect the dots between resources in the community because there is not a single point of contact for the Latino community in the county.

Admary Vargas is the new community navigator, the year-long position created through funding from the grant. 

She moved from the island in 2016, well before the hurricane. She said her experience in both places has her well-suited to help newcomers adjust, even to minor changes like how to write a resume.

It means a lot to her to be able to help fellow Puerto Ricans.

"I feel satisfaction when I can help other people grow, other people that have a hard situation in their lives," Vargas said.

For the women she works with through the United Way and its partner P.R.O.B.E., the biggest challenge is employment in their chosen fields.

"The only thing I need is to speak English fluently," said Yaretza Fernandes, speaking in Spanish. She moved to the midstate five months ago on the advice of a friend.

At the time, she was working for a company selling perfume and, she said, she was good at it. So good, the company once gave her a car for her top performance.

But here, she's struggling.

"I can't express myself well enough to make the sale," she said.

She said the fact she can't create the relationships necessary to make a sale because of her limited English is what's hurting her the most. She's taking language classes now and working on her interview skills with Vargas.

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From left, Stephanie Reyes, Maria Diaz, Yaretza Fernandes, Milagros Vialez, and Carmen Velez pose for a picture at the United Way of Lebanon County offices in downtown Lebanon. (Photo: Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

Another of Vargas' students, Milagros Vialez, said she hopes to find work in an office, an area where she's familiar. Before moving to Lebanon for eight months ago, she worked as an administrative assistant in an elementary school for 25 years. She decided to leave the island when the school closed because of hurricane damage.

Vialez's limited English is also a barrier. Vargas is trying to help her find something outside of the warehouse and factory jobs that are more prevalent and don't require a strong command of English.

But Vialez is up against a deadline. Her unemployment benefits will run out at the end of the month and she has a 15-year-old daughter to take care of.

"You have to pay the bills," she said, adding she's not afraid to take another kind of job to support herself while she improves her language skills.

Kenny Montijo, executive director of the United Way of Lebanon County, said helping people find employment is one of their top priorities through the grant, along with housing.

"I think that builds community, but it also helps bring back the pride that people had, especially when they come here with just a suitcase," Montijo said.

There's not a firm count on the number of Puerto Ricans who have moved into the region. School enrollment offers a clue: about 200 children of displaced families have joined the Lebanon School District, alone.

Montijo said the number has fluctuated as some families move elsewhere or return to the island.

"I am waiting for the 2020 census to really understand the impact that this is going to have and is having in Lebanon County," Montijo said. 

The United Way is bracing for the arrival of more people from Puerto Rico.

In the meantime, it has set a goal of assisting 100 Puerto Rican adults reach self-sufficiency in the next year. They are already working with a dozen.

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