Tri C Hispanic students help Puerto Ricans Settle in Greater Cleveland
By Michael Sangiacomo, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Hispanic students at Cuyahoga Community College are putting their bilingual skills to work helping newcomers to the Cleveland area who are fleeing the devastation of Sept. 20 Hurricane Maria.
Diana DelRosario, a Tri-C associate vice president, oversees the "Bienvenidos a Cleveland," (Welcome to Cleveland) initiative.
"We realized that the people coming here need the help of agencies here to get settled, and that those agencies needed help as well," DelRosario said. "We sent bilingual students to work as interns with various agencies to help with the influx. We are now getting ready to choose up to 10 more interns to continue the assistance."
The students will mainly serve as translators helping Puerto Ricans who do not speak English navigate the often-confusing forms they need to fill out to qualify for food, housing and other benefits.
Tri-C, which counts many Hispanic students among its 31,000 student population, was given a $24,000 grant from the Westfield Insurance Co. of Medina to help the estimated 13,000 Puerto Rican people expected to relocate to Ohio. That number means the state ranks eighth in the nation for Puerto Rican relocations, according to the Westfield Insurance Co.
The company said it also awarded a $50,000 grant to the Spanish American Committee to increase the speed of its client intake procedures.
"We're very proud of how everyone is coming together to help these people," said Gretchen Long, of Westfield's community investment department. "Cleveland Metropolitian Housing, the Mayor's office, Senator Sherrod Brown's office, everyone cares and is empathetic to their issues. We're looking at people displaced after a disaster and they need help getting settled. We got involved because it became clear that people were not being serviced because of language problems."
DelRosario said the internships help everyone, including the students.
"We would rather our students get an internship at one of these agencies putting their bulingual skills to use than working at a fast food place that leads nowhere," she said. "Working with groups like the Spanish American Committee and the Hispanic Alliance, they get real world experience and a chance to move ahead."
She said the internships will last at least 100 hours. In many cases the students will work with incoming families finding food, shelter and jobs. They will be a welcome, understanding voice able to communicate with people, some of whom have lost everything they own.
Luz Rodriguez, 19, of Cleveland, did an internship from September to December with the Spanish American Committee during the first influx of people from the island. She also understands the heartache of losing everything, which is what happened to her relatives still in Puerto Rico. She said the experience will help her in her desire to become a social worker after graduation.
"I have two aunts and my grandparents who lost their houses during Maria," she said. "They moved in with other relatives over there, but it has been very difficult. We have tried to talk our grandparents into coming over, but they said they will stay where they are. Luckily, FEMA has just contacted them and said they will begin rebuilding their house."
Rodriguez said during the time she spent helping the people who came to Cleveland, she has helped more than 200 people.
"They were relieved to talk to someone who understand Spanish," she said. "I've helped them get food stamps, health care, a place to live, things that families need after all they've been through."
Besides helping people with the basics, Rodriguez said one of the greatest experiences was helping to organize the "Three Kings Day" celebration at Christmas.
"One of my tasks was to call each Puerto Rican client and personally invite them to the Three Kings Day celebration, (at the Spanish American Committee) which is a very big holiday in Puerto Rico," she said. "We gave toys to the children, gifts to everyone. They were so grateful and happy and I found it so rewarding. It was my way to give back. If I could not directly help my own family in Puerto Rico, at least I could help these folks."
Rodriguez also had some personal experience with hurricanes in Puerto Rico, though she was far too young to remember it.
"My mother told me when I was a month old we had a terrible hurricane on the island," she said. "It was nowhere near as bad as Maria, but it caused a lot of destruction. I'm sure it was part of the reason my family moved to the United States with me a few years later.
JUST THE FACTS:
-- Hurricane Maria, with 155 mph winds, hit the island causing widespread devastation on Sept. 20. Almost 95 percent of the island was left without electricity. It was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years,
-- As of this month, power has been restored to about 84 percent of Puerto Rico and about 99 percent of the country has running water. But as of mid-February, more than 400,000 customers still lack electricity.
More than 300,000 people have fled the ravaged island of Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria.
Officially, 64 people died in Hurricane Maria but Puerto Rican officials expect that number to climb dramatically as more bodies are found.
-- The 2015 U.S. Census said that there are 30,240 people of Puerto Rican descent in Cleveland; 4,668 in Lorain and 110,348 in Ohio.