Chicagoland

Puerto Rican evacuees receive help from Catholic Charities

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
December 20, 2017

Catholic Charities makes Christmas brighter for Puerto Rican evacuees

Catholic Charities distributed toys to parents and children Dec. 18 at the Puerto Rican Evacuee Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse. The families fled the island following Hurricane Maria. The center is a joint effort of the City of Chicago, led by the Office of Emergency Management and Communication, and Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, both of which were already active in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.
Volunteer Otilia Galarza helps a little girl pick out a toy as Antonio Lugo assembles a toy behind them. Catholic Charities distributed toys to parents and children Dec. 18 at the Puerto Rican Evacuee Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse. The families fled the island following Hurricane Maria. The center is a joint effort of the City of Chicago, led by the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, and Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, both of which were already active in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Santa (Francisco Morales) waves the Puerto Rican flag while waiting for children to arrive for a visit as Justin Agrelo sorts through toys. Catholic Charities distributed toys to parents and children Dec. 18 at the Puerto Rican Evacuee Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers Antonio Lugo and Otilia Galarza look over some stuffed animals that just arrived at the Puerto Rican Evacuee Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse Dec. 18. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A little girl makes sure she picked out the right toy at the Puerto Rican Evacuee Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse Dec. 18. The toys were distributed by Catholic Charities, one of the partners in the center. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers Antonio Lugo and Justin Agrelo sort through a new shipment of stuffed animals at the Puerto Rican Evacuee Resource Center at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse Dec. 18. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

It was almost a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico that Lisandra Perez was able to get herself and her two children off the island and to Chicago, where she was raised.

Perez and her children Jayden Sanchez, 7, and Lineyshka Rodriguez, 13, arrived in Chicago Oct. 18 and have been staying in her mother’s apartment ever since.

Both children are attending Esmeralda Santiago School, a charter school in Humboldt Park, but the adjustment has not been easy. Jayden especially began to suffer from anxiety and a social phobia.

“It was because of what happened after the hurricane,” Perez said.

The physical effects in their home city of Lares were bad enough — “We would wait for it to rain to take a shower,” Perez said. “And we would boil the water three times before we could drink it” — but there were long days of waiting in crowded lines and traveling under military escort.

“It was devastating,” Perez said.

After arriving in Chicago, she and her children were among the nearly 1,300 people evacuated from Puerto Rico to receive help at a multi-agency resource center set up in the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse. Open two days a week, the center serves as a clearinghouse for people who have arrived from Puerto Rico.

It is a joint effort of the City of Chicago, led by the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, and Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, both of which were already active in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. People who come can do everything from getting flu shots and Illinois identification cards to help enrolling their children in school and finding a job. They can register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency or talk to representatives from the Social Security Administration about getting their benefits.

“The way this is different from most multi-agency resource centers is that people can get what they need right here,” said Angel Guttierrez, vice president of community outreach for Catholic Charities. “Usually, at a place like this, people leave with referrals. Here, they leave with a bag of food, a winter coat.”

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has been responsible for organizing volunteers to keep the resource center running. It also has winter coats to distribute to people who need them, and can connect people in need with any of Catholic Charities’ other programs. On Dec. 18, it had expanded its offerings to toys for families with children as part of the agency-wide “Celebration of Giving.”

“When people are dealing with crises, maybe the last thing they are thinking of is getting ready for Christmas,” Guttierez said. “We can help with that. But we’re also following up with people who need long-term assistance.”

Thomas Sivak, deputy director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said the city initially responded to people arriving from Puerto Rico after the hurricanes by having them call 311 to get referrals for help. After a couple of weeks, it became clear that wasn’t enough.

The city wanted to offer assistance while being culturally sensitive. It chose to work with Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army because of their existing community ties.

The “one-stop shop” opened Nov. 2 and is scheduled to close Jan. 2, Sivak said, although the city is working to develop a plan to continue to offer assistance to those who need it.

The resource center has been recognized by FEMA as a “best practice” for responding to people in need in the aftermath of a disaster, and the experience of creating and operating it will benefit Chicago residents in the future, Sivak said.

“We will be better prepared for the next disaster,” he said.

“This kind of reminds me of the 1960s, when Catholic Charities nationally was involved in Operation Peter Pan, bringing children from Cuba,” Guttierez said. “We’re doing what we do best, which is welcoming the stranger. Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, but to the people coming here, this is a foreign land, in climate and everything.”

It’s too soon to know how many of the 665 families who have been helped will settle permanently in Chicago, and how many will return to Puerto Rico, Guttierez said. Many of the families may not know themselves.

Perez said she isn’t sure what she will do, but she knows what she wants to do.

“I want to go home,” she said.

Topics:

  • catholic charities
  • christmas
  • hurricane

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