Lillian Vazquez rode out Hurricane Maria in her mother’s cement house in Puerto Rico, concerned that her own coastal Vega Baja home would not survive the onslaught of wind and rain.
“It was terrible,” she said. “I could see everything flying, you know, the roofs of the houses flying.”
Her mother’s sturdy house shook in the wind as trees fell all around them. Her own home lost its roof.
Lack of water and electricity brought Vazquez to Pennsylvania. Her cousin, Gloria Vazquez Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg (LHACC), invited Vazquez to stay with her.
Like Vazquez, many Puerto Rican families are coming to stay with family on the mainland, and when those families land in Harrisburg, one place they come for help and guidance is LHACC.
“We are the go-to place right now,” said Vazquez Merrick.
An energetic Vazquez Merrick juggles calls about providing families with Christmas gifts, details about Thanksgiving turkey deliveries, and a plethora of other tasks as she talks about LHACC’s increased workload. Since early October, LHACC has served more than 40 newly arrived families in Harrisburg, with more coming daily.
“We anticipated the exodus [from Puerto Rico], because we knew what conditions were,” she said.
Some fathers have sent their families to the states while they handle the cleanup until living conditions improve and schools reopen. Vazquez Merrick said that education is a driving force for people leaving Puerto Rico, as they want their children to get back into a routine as quickly as possible.
“They are afraid that the kids will be left behind from an educational standpoint,” she said.
People come to the center for a variety of needs—food, clothing, housing, transportation, jobs. Warm clothing tops the list because Pennsylvania’s chilly winters seem almost unbearable to folks accustomed to living in a tropical climate.
Recent arrivals share the need for basic necessities, but their needs vary considerably.
“There is no cookie-cutter approach to accommodating their needs,” said Vazquez Merrick.
Some need help getting children into school, finding a doctor, translation services or legal assistance. For example, people have left cars behind and want to transfer the title so that the car can be sold or given to someone else. Transferring that title in Puerto Rico while living in Harrisburg poses logistical problems, and people come to LHACC for assistance with the process.
Vazquez has been volunteering at LHACC since her arrival.
“I am helping my people,” she said. “I feel proud of that.”
Others want to give back, too. One woman, a music teacher, said she doesn’t speak English well but wants to help the center. She’s going to work with the seniors teaching piano, said Vazquez Merrick.
She said that LHACC’s small, dedicated staff of six does a lot of listening.
“Even to refer, you have to understand the whole story,” she said.
Those stories involve tears and showing pictures of their homes before the storm. Some people report nightmares. One little girl panics when it begins to rain. An LHACC supporter has volunteered mental health services for those who survived Maria.
The holidays offer the possibility of a “positive distraction” for displaced families.
“We want to do whatever we can do to help get them through the holidays,” Vazquez Merrick said.
People have offered to “adopt” families and children for Christmas and Three Kings Day (El Dia de los Reyes Magos) on Jan. 6, a special day to the people of Puerto Rico. All families at the center register with Toys for Tots, but Vazquez Merrick said she is concerned that, as families continue to arrive, some children will miss the registration date.
Vazquez Merrick would like to make LHACC a hub for connecting people with services—similar to a model used in New York City—a one-stop shop where people could get registered for school, fill out housing applications, find jobs or connect with a local church food bank. The Harrisburg School District and Christian Churches United HELP Ministries are already on board with the venture, Vazquez Merrick said.
LHACC continues its work helping the all people in the Harrisburg community as it receives those displaced by Maria. Vazquez Merrick said her staff is “stepping up and going above and beyond.”
Those on the receiving end of help show tremendous gratitude, which lifts the spirits of staff and volunteers at the center.
“You give somebody a pair of gloves, and you see how much they appreciate that,” Vazquez Merrick said.
Lending a Hand
LHACC needs a variety of goods, as well as cash donations, to better serve the people displaced from Hurricane Maria. These include:
- Office supplies, Staples or Amazon gift cards (copier paper, five 2018 desk calendars, one 2-drawer file cabinet with lock, tri-fold presentation board, 3-inch, three-ring binders, tape, large scissors, two staplers, ESL flash cards); medium storage container bins
- Coffee pot, pots and pans, cupcake and cookie sheets (baking items) and a hand mixer
- Cleaning supplies/paper towels/trash bags
- A dolly for moving boxes and heavy items
- Craft supplies for children and adults in “Sharing Wisdom Program,” or AC Moore/Michael’s gift cards
- Get It Now Print gift cards (or other print shop in close proximity to 13th and Derry streets)
The Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) is located at 1301 Derry St., Harrisburg. To donate, call 717-232-8302 or visit www.lhacc.org, where you also can make cash donations.