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El Centro prepares for influx of Puerto Rican transplants

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    Volunteers from El Centro and Second Harvest packed more than 250 boxes of food that will be used to feed needy Lorain County families in January.



LORAIN — Stephanie Rivera has been living in Lorain since last week and while she said likes it so far, it’s an adjustment from her hometown of Ponce in Puerto Rico with colder temperatures and a language barrier.

While she and her brother’s family have come to live with her aunt in Ohio, her parents still are in Puerto Rico and are likely to join them soon. In the meantime, she’s looking to learn English and enter the workforce as soon as possible.

“When I was at home, I worked in customer service for a pool maintenance company,” she said through a translator, Suzette Sanchez. “So that’s really all that’s on my resume right now, but I was working toward a degree in optical science and I’d like to finish that here if I can.”

Rivera said she wants to make glasses for people and eventually marry her boyfriend but because they have a lack of financial stability right now, it’s just not possible.

“We don’t want to be living off the government,” she said. “We want to be established here and have jobs before we start a family and everything.”

Rivera said one of the main hindrances to that is a lack of transportation. With few public transportation options in Lorain County, a motor vehicle is practically a necessity to getting to and from a job.

El Centro de Servicios Sociales is helping Rivera and more than 500 people to acclimate to the county, to garner English-speaking skills and to gain employment since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island six months ago today and while she’s one of the most recent transplants, it certainly doesn’t mean she’s the last.

El Centro Executive Director Victor Leandry said at a news conference Monday as more families stabilize in Lorain, more of their relatives from the island will come to join them and to prepare for new residents, they’ve been collaborating with agencies across the county, including the Lorain County Commissioners, the Lorain County Mental Health Board and the Lorain school district as well as Lorain County Community College.

“Even though this has changed in a very dramatic way the lives of those in Puerto Rico, it has also changed the landscapes of all the other Puerto Rican communities here in the United States,” he said. “We are really seeing the impact of the new families that are arriving so we wanted to educate the community on the work that has been done in collaboration with many other organizations. Even though we continue to help families stabilize, we know the struggle is still there. It is difficult.”

Commissioner Matt Lundy said he’s often heard to expect the unexpected, but Hurricane Maria and its aftermath caused him to think “how do you respond when the unexpected surfaces?”

“I reached out to Victor to see how the county commissioners could help and we both agreed that we needed to mobilize the community because the need was great. We formed a transition team,” he said. “We want our American brothers and sisters to know that we welcome you and we stand ready to help you.”

Lundy said with Lorain County being home to Lorain, “The International City,” he is proud of the thousands of Puerto Rican families who choose to call the area home.

“We are here to help you start a new life,” he said.

Lorain County Workforce Development Director Mike Longo said the agency wants to connect Lorain’s newest residents to workforce services as there are employers in the area who are interested in helping, and he wants to help “prepare people to be better prepared for those opportunities.”

“We have also worked closely with the local Job and Family Services in offering conversational English classes that would be in addition to the English as a Second Language classes Lorain County Community College offers to assist you in becoming more comfortable speaking the language,” he said.

Lorain County Mental Health Board Executive Director Kathleen Kern said her agency does fund interpreters for Spanish-speaking residents so during the stressful time of transitioning they can get the help they might need.

School district CEO David Hardy said going into the next school year, he wants to find ways to better provide educational services for Lorain students, starting at the pre-K level with bilingual preschool classrooms in addition to adding more ESL-trained teachers.

The Rev. Bill Thedan said the Latino-based Roman Catholic church in south Lorain will be hosting an event April 8 that aims at providing services to recently relocated residents, who don’t have to be of the Catholic faith to attend.

“It was the result of realizing that there are families that need connected so it’s a dinner and lots of services will be provided — haircuts, practical things — and other things like support and entertainment for the kids, some medical connections. We’re trying to welcome them to the community,” Thedan said.

Leandry said while the community has made great strides in the six months since Maria hit, there’s still a lot of ground to cover and there’s still new challenges.

“I’m so proud, though, to be the director of El Centro because of the support we have in this community,” he said. “Even though we have so many challenges here, the support for the community is going to make a difference. When you have this many people come together, it’s a great example of how we can come together.”

Contact Katie Nix at 329-7129 or Follow her on Twitter @KatieHNix.

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