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Amherst community welcomes families from Puerto Rico

(Amherst Family Center/ Facebook)

Six weeks after the storm, residents of Puerto Rico are still dealing with Hurricane Maria’s aftermath—many displaced and unsure of what to do next.

Last Thursday evening, about 40 Amherst community members sat alongside bookshelves at the Amherst Middle School Library. The group consisted of social workers, local college and regional school teachers, support group officials and several Puerto Rican refugees who discussed how the community could welcome and support families coming from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

The event was hosted by Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Family Center, and was open to the public. Dr. Marta Guevara, a Puerto Rican native and director of student and family engagement at the center, arranged the event that she emphasized was “in the true spirit of community building.”

The meeting began when Guevara thanked everyone for coming, before handing the mic to superintendent of schools, Dr. Michael Morris. He said that the goal of the night was to organize ways the community could welcome and support incoming families.

“It’s two-fold in making sure people understand the different stories of people who will be coming here and people who already began to come,” said Guevara in a phone interview with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, “and then [we can] outline the support available for them because there isn’t one story, there [are] many stories.”

She said the idea for the meeting came about after reaching out to other school districts in the area, and hearing that the Public Schools of Boston had a meeting engaging the community to brainstorm about incoming families—and the ways in which community members can help.

At the beginning of the meeting, each person in the room told their individual story. Many attendants were there because they had resources they hoped to provide to Puerto Rican families. Others were simply community members looking for any way to support the effort.

Robin Harris, an independent clinical social worker, offered her trauma services for those affected from Puerto Rico.

Amherst Senior Center director Nancy Pagano said the center wants to help people coming from Puerto Rico 55 and older to live independently and enjoy life at the center, which recently added bilingual nursing services.

Steven Connor of Central Hampshire Veteran Services said he will work to bring housing assistance to any Veterans.

Mindy Domb, Amherst Survival Center executive director, is offering free food for families and job support service. She also welcomes volunteers to come in and help out at the center during this time.

Beyond those four were many other community members offering various resources to help with incoming families and others willing to volunteer within those services.

“I’m here to support the town,” said Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

At the meeting, there were several Puerto Rican families that were already in Amherst after coming from the island post-storm. They spoke on the reasons why they chose to come to Amherst, and how grateful they were for the gathering. One couple met in Amherst when they went to school at UMass. They lived in Puerto Rico for several years, and came back to Amherst when the storm hit. That same couple is planning to go back to the island once power returns to their city.

Francine Rodriquez is the program manager of community service at CHD, one of the largest social service organizations in Western Massachusetts. She says it’s important to think about the difference between short term and long term help for the families coming to Amherst.

“What’s the housing piece?” asked Rodriquez, addressing one of the major unresolved issues for incoming families.

Kelly Thibodeau of the Amherst Family Resource Center commented on the lack of federal funding to help these refugees.

“There [are] no shelters. There will be no shelters,” Thibodeau said. “This network is what is to be done.”

A refugee from Puerto Rico put together a PowerPoint to show the attendees in preparation for a case-study activity at the meeting, in which the large group broke into five smaller groups to discuss details of a particular person or family coming to Amherst from Puerto Rico.

The five case studies allowed members of the community to discuss the particular issues facing different families, and what resources the community could work to provide for these families. After the 15 minute small group discussions, everyone came back to discuss solutions for each of the cases. Major priorities included finding housing for these refugees, the importance of more Spanish-speaking therapists, getting sponsors for families, finding health care, more coordination between organizations and being sure to get the list of resources to incoming families.

Following the meeting, Guevara emphasized the importance of the community being aware of both empathy and problem solving.

“People who are coming to us are coming to us after a month of not having basic necessities so understanding that is one,” Guevara said. “Two is that people didn’t necessarily want to leave the island. Also, being bruised by the hard way they’ve been treated by the federal government.”

According to the family center’s website, their mission is to “connect students, their families and the community to partner for academic achievement and overall success.”

“The existence of the family center is to support all families in the district, and providing differentiated assistance to those in most need,” Guevara said. “The bulk of our work is supporting families coming from other parts of the world.”

 

Caeli Chesin can be reached at mchesin@umass.edu or followed on Twitter at @caeli_chesin.

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