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Spanish American Committee luncheon focuses on hurricane help

By La Prensa Staff

On May 3, 2019, the Spanish American Committee of Cleveland (SAC) hosted its first fundraiser luncheon, focusing on life after Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and sent almost 200,000 people scurrying for the U.S. mainland in its aftermath.


Magda Gómez, Jorge Ramos Pantoja, and Ramonita Várgas.

“Nuestra Comunidad Hispana” held at Tremont Cityside Ballroom, 2187 West 14th Street, Cleveland, raised about $21,000, according to organizers.

Its agenda included: luncheon, welcoming remarks by its executive director Ramonita Várgas, a Lincoln West Global Studies presentation by Board Chair José Meléndez, testimonials from Hurricane María survivors, and keynote remarks by Magda Gómez.  

Guests had the opportunity to hear firsthand experiences from survivors Hermindy González, Yamilka Montilla, Daniel Vásquez, and Nancy Vásquez.

Proceeds from the event will help the Spanish American Committee replenish its accounts, which suffered a huge financial drain from the sheer number of Puerto Rican hurricane refugees who needed help.

Magda Gómez, director of diversity and inclusion at Cuyahoga Community College [Tri-C], focused her remarks on the efforts of ¡Bienvenidos a Cleveland!, an initiative that includes 25 community-based agencies to coordinate services for hurricane victims. Tri-C, SAC, Esperanza Inc., and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District initially joined together to align efforts and facilitate access to resources for Puerto Rican individuals and families who resettled in metro Cleveland following the Hurricane in September 2017.

“We, as a community, were rallying to help support the islands by doing all types of water and food drives here and, as you might imagine, there were a lot of fundraising efforts. Even the Cleveland Foundation stepped up and donated funds to the islands,” said Ms. Magda Gómez. “What we did not see immediately was an influx of individuals coming here to resettle or just to escape the devastation.”

“People do follow families and that’s how a lot of Puerto Ricans, a lot of people in general from the Hispanic culture, follow their families,” Ms. Gómez explained.  Cleveland has a large Puerto Rican population.  

The president of Tri-C had been president of Allegheny College in New Orleans when that community in New Orleans was devastated by its hurricane and the destructive forces that followed. So Tri-C became “the convener of all the supporting agencies and resources, bringing them together to form a collaboration,” according to Ms.Gómez. That collaboration would become known as ¡Bienvenidos a Cleveland!

“Cleveland is a welcoming community,” Alex Johnson, Tri-C president said at the time. “We are coming together to provide whatever these families need to bring a sense of normalcy back to their lives.”

The challenges facing those families have been enormous—securing housing, as many of the displaced families have little or no income, along with employment, transportation, medical assistance, enrolling children in school, food, household items, and other needs.

A checklist of those needs was formed, while agencies pledged to meet specific needs. A website went up with all of the available help and contacts listed. A lot of networking resulted among agencies.

“At one point we identified mental health issues had surfaced post-hurricane, six to eight months afterward and brought together mental health providers,” said Ms. Gómez. “We had to figure out how best to support families and individuals of all ages, because what we found out was young children were experiencing PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

Since then, support groups of hurricane victims have been formed, so they can lean on each other for emotional support and share how they’re coping with a new home in northern Ohio.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Cleveland City Council member Jasmin Santana also have convened a housing resettlement committee, which brings housing advocates together to find out where the housing concerns continue to be for hurricane victims and identify an inventory of housing that’s available for Puerto Rican families—from rental units to homes that can be purchased as a permanent residence.

“We had one family announce they were able to buy their first home and everyone applauded, responding with resounding joy, because they were actually able to be resilient and remain here and start a life with their family,” recalled Ms. Gómez. “Now they’re also homeowners.”

Agencies found that some of the hurricane victims didn’t just come to the Cleveland metro area straight from the islands. Some relocated there after first going to another community, finding the cost of living in Northeast Ohio more to their liking after barely surviving elsewhere.

“These are the types of things that have resulted from a rallying together, the Spanish American Committee having most of the people come to them, because they are, in fact, the oldest and largest social service agency,” said Ms. Gómez. “But everyone has had a role to play with helping these families become established and feel welcome and a part of this community.”

Community donors covered the cost of caseworkers and student interns to track and help families with a wide array of needs. RTA donated bus tickets so Puerto Rico natives could travel to appointments, job interviews, and other obligations.

“It really truly was, back then and still today, remains a huge effort,” said Ms. Gómez. “People constantly still share information on our Facebook group—job fairs, food and clothing drives, and opportunities for people to get the services that they need.”

Hurricane María ranks as one of the worst natural disasters on record after killing 64 people and causing more than $95 billion in damage to the United States territory. [Puerto Rico officials originally set the hurricane's death toll at 64, but a more recent assessment of the data yielded an estimate closer to 3,000.]

An estimated 200,000 families eventually left the island to escape the ongoing humanitarian crisis that resulted after the hurricane itself.  In a guest column published last year, Ms. Gómez estimated as many as 13,000 of those would resettle in Ohio, most of them in the northern part of the state and in Columbus where family is located, large populations of Puerto Ricans, and an existence of necessary support services.

SAC estimates it has helped 3,000 families from Puerto Rico since Hurricane María struck. But no one knows for certain how many families have resettled in Northeast Ohio and elsewhere.

“Knowing that there’s this huge population shift and it’s a historical shift for our Hispanic community, how do we figure out a way to be able to count people and know truly how many people are settled at least in the Greater Cleveland area?” asked Ms. Gómez?

The answer may lie with a MetroHealth clinical psychologist who is working on a grant that will help do just that—hone in on the number of Puerto Ricans who have arrived, work with agency partners to identify numbers, and what their specific needs are, and try to do some sort of study where they all settled and the key areas where the collaboration was able to serve.

The website — www.tri-c.edu/bienvenidosacle — continues to provide an online directory of agencies and organizations offering resources to arriving families. The goal is to ease their transition to Northeast Ohio. The website also features a half-dozen stories of individuals and families who have successfully resettled, labeled “Faces of Inspiration and Hope.”

The community partners involved with ¡Bienvenidos a Cleveland! continues to meet, with new challenges on the agenda. In addition to continued efforts to provide support for behavioral and mental health issues and ESL services, the next targets include increasing efforts for voter registration and ensuring Puerto Rican refugees get counted during the 2020 U.S. Census.

On the Internet: https://www.spanishamerican.org/  





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Revised: 05/08/19 05:20:02 -0700.




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