LORAIN — Each morning, Keralys Gonzalez, 15, gets up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for her classes at Lorain High School.
Living in a house with two bathrooms — only one with hot water — and 10 other people requires a balancing act for a teen who wants to fix her hair, wash up and prep for the classes in a language she’s only now starting to understand. She lives in the house with cousins, aunts, grandparents, great-grandparents as well as some of her immediate family.
“By 6 a.m., everybody’s awake and make me wait to go to the bathroom so I have to wake up before them,” she said through a translator.
This wasn’t the life she and her parents chose. They had little choice as they were living in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 when the Category 4 Hurricane Maria made landfall.
She and many others relocated to Lorain.
El Centro de Servicios Sociales Executive Director Victor Leandry said his organization has counted at least 126 families who have moved to Lorain since September. Leandry believes that total is much higher.
“There’s a percentage of that population that’s always revolving, always moving. And I’ve never been able to figure out how much of that percentage is,” he said.
El Centro is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the Hispanic/ Latino population in Lorain County. He said the local influx is mainly because there are family ties here.
Of the Hispanic/Latino citizens who make up a third of the city’s population, 22 percent of them are of Puerto Rican descent, according to the 2016 United States Census Bureau’s 2016 survey.
The influx is impacting every segment of society in Lorain — from the schools the children attend to the local housing and employment agencies trying to help them.
Keralys came to the mainland with her family, bringing nothing but her dog and a backpack full of clothes.
She gets home from school about 3 p.m., feeds her dog, showers before everyone else comes home and prepares dinner. With the time she has left, she does homework and relaxes before going to bed in one of the four bedrooms — with siblings and cousins also in the room.
Making the move
Keralys and her parents, Idis Vargas and Luis Gonzalez, as well as her 17-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother moved to Lorain on Nov. 24 after the devastation from Hurricane Maria showed no sign of abating. Much of the island remains without electricity — their house in Barceloneta, a city on the north end of Puerto Rico, was flooded and the roof partially caved in.
Although the death count due to the hurricane was first set at 64, on Dec. 7, the Center for Investigative Journalism published a new estimated death toll of at least 985 additional people.
The hurricane was bad. The aftermath was not much better.
“Every two days, we would go out and look for drinking water and we had to wait for big lines to wait for gas for the cars,” she said through an interpreter. “We waited from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. just to get gas.”
Gonzalez said she could barely sleep after the hurricane. The standing water attracted swarms of mosquitoes.
“My mom couldn’t sleep, either,” she said. “She would wake up every 10 minutes to check on everyone because we were scared,” she said.
It became routine for her mom and dad to take shifts watching her and her brother and sister at night and refilling the generator with the gas. Her father’s legs became so swollen that he could barely stand or walk. His health concerns are what finally pushed the family to move to Lorain to stay with her aunt.
Upon arrival, Gonzalez enrolled in Lorain Schools — joining 130 new students from Puerto Rico since September. She hadn’t been to school since the hurricane hit the island.
She takes gym, history, English, American government, Spanish, English as a Second Language and biology.
“Here, they make it easier to explain the subjects than in Puerto Rico,” she said.
Susanne Silva, supervisor of the district’s English language learner program, said the district has been doing its best to accommodate the influx of students. The peak of students coming in was around the beginning of October, she said, and most have successfully transitioned into the school.
When students enroll in the school, they are tested to see how much help they need learning English and to determine what other services are needed. A majority arrive speaking mostly Spanish and without any supplies. They are given backpacks, pencils, folders and binders to get them started.
Students receive help through a team of educators and translators: two teachers who can translate, eight paraprofessionals and two school and one district secretaries who work closely with students who are learning English.
The students don’t have the help of translators in every class, but the school tries to provide what they can in the classes needing more communication. As a last line of communication, students often use the Google Translate app on iPads and smartphones or translation dictionaries. The ultimate goal for the school, Silva said, is to teach the students to be more fluent in English.
Jojo Rolon, a 17-year-old senior, helps the newcomers study and is always open to translate for the students in classrooms and acts as an unofficial interpreter for teachers, too.
“As I tell them all the time: Don’t be scared, because I was in your shoes one time,” he said. “I feel what they’re feeling right now, their pain.”
He moved to the United States from Puerto Rico in May 2012. At the time, he barely knew English and dedicated himself to learning as fast as he could. He left the island nation under far different circumstances, but he said he understands how they feel living in a new place and not understanding what is being said.
Other than the language barrier, Silva said, students are also having a hard time adjusting to being away from family. A sizable amount of the students, Silva said, were sent on their own to stay with extended family members, some they might never have met.
“You don’t know this person you’re in this house with and now you’re not only with your family, you have two other families living there so you have three different families living in a household,” she said.
Leandry said there hasn’t been a surge like this in Lorain or even Northeast Ohio in his 13 years working in El Centro.
Within weeks of news about Hurricane Maria ravaging Puerto Rico, Leandry coordinated with institutions, organizations, government agencies and other groups to provide the newcomers with anything they needed.
El Centro worked with Lorain Schools, the county commissioners, Mercy Hospital and the Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority. It created a pamphlet in Spanish informing them about the area and those organizations/ agencies to contact for help. Through this network, El Centro can help families apply for government assistance, housing, education, health care, employment and getting appropriate clothing for the winter.
One of the most important things he wanted to help provide was mental health care.
“What they experienced there with the hurricane plus now the change of culture and trying to adapt to a new place is a big challenge,” he said.
Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority Director Homer Virden said his agency is working with more than 50 families looking for housing. The best the agency can do now is put them on a waiting list with everyone else in the county, but anything helps, he said. The waiting list is first-come, first-serve. At the present, public housing is at a 96 percent to 98 percent occupancy rate — meaning squeezing in more families is a challenge.
Lorain Schools CEO David Hardy said he’s cooperated with El Centro to help the new arrivals. The district has been working to hire more paraprofessionals since December. In total, the district plans to hire two paraprofessionals for the high school, one for General Johnnie Wilson Middle School and two for Washington Elementary School.
County Commissioner Matt Lundy, meanwhile, has helped the new residents and arranged for resumes to be prepared for them and uploaded at Ohiomeans jobs.com, the website for the state’s leading public workforce system. Even for families living with relatives, income is needed, he said.
Mike Longo, director of Ohio Means Jobs-Lorain County, said his agency has helped members of 20 to 40 families find employment.
Job searching in Ohio can be daunting when you can’t speak English, Longo said, but his agency has looked for workarounds such as jobs where language is less crucial and trade specializations like painting or manufacturing.
The agency also has linked some with the Lorain County Community College Aspire Program, which helps them learn English.
“Whatever it is that we can do to help overcome the language barrier, that’s basically the Ohio Means Jobs system is trying to contribute as part of the partnership,” he said.
When Gonzalez and her family first moved, she lived with 13 family members. That number has dropped to 10 as her father and sister returned to Puerto Rico in January and another aunt moved out.
Her 17-year-old sister struggled in Lorain — she couldn’t assimilate into a new school with a new language for her senior year. And her father, who worked construction in Puerto Rico and sometimes sold food on the streets, was not able to find work in Lorain County due to age-old injuries that made it difficult to stand for long periods of time.
The two of them returned to Puerto Rico so Keralys’ sister could graduate and he could sell anything salvageable from their home. Meanwhile, Keralys’ mother, who worked as a recreational leader at an afterschool program in Barceloneta, works here as a homecare nurse caring for the elderly from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Her father and sister returned to a town that now partially has power and water service; it was restored three weeks after the family arrived in Ohio. Communication is getting better, too, but the family has decided that that is no longer their home. The murder rate in Puerto Rico has soared, and that is too scary to return to, they decided.
They will now make Ohio their home.
And, in a short while, her entire extended family plans to move to Lorain, too. Some of them moved to Florida and Columbus after the hurricane, but they all plan to resettle here.
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