The aftermath of Hurricane Maria has been overwhelming to the Hispanic community in Central Florida. It has impacted me personally as I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and still have my parents, family and many friends living on the island, amongst many others who were also affected.
The need is not only in Puerto Rico, but in Central Florida as well. In the year 2000, the population of Puerto Rico was 479,000 people. Since then, it has grown to over a million people, and keeps increasing exponentially. After Hurricane Maria, approximately 168,000 Puerto Ricans have flown into Florida, and an additional 100,000 are booked to arrive before December 31st. That is a total of 268,000 Puerto Ricans coming into Florida to escape the aftermath of the storm.
As a result, my agency, Hispanic Family Counseling, Inc. (HFC), has taken on a leadership role. We have been working not only with those back on the island, but with the Central Florida community to assist the many displaced Puerto Ricans arriving to Central Florida.
In early October 2017, HFC became a donation collection center for Puerto Rico and Mexico. Anyone donating items had the option of specifying where they wanted their donations to go. These donations were sent in a private plane to Puerto Rico and HFC covered the shipping costs. Other donations were channeled to those on the island through the Disciples of Christ Hispanic Church in Casselberry.
HFC also collected school supplies and other donations for students, and their families, returning to schools without water and/or electricity in Puerto Rico. An HFC team took over 800 pounds of donations directly to the schools on a mission trip to the island!
Thank you to the many individuals who donated. We couldn’t have done this without you. A special thank you to the organizations who also donated: Azalea Elementary School for donating food and materials, Rose of Sharon Life Changing Ministries Inc. for donating backpacks, US FDRC for donating gas cards.
We wanted to do more than just provide donations. We wanted to provide financial assistance as well. As a result, HFC sold #PRSeLavanta t-shirts in November 2017 to help raise funds for hurricane relief.
On January 31st, 2018, HFC held a fundraiser for our sister nonprofit, Hispanic Counseling Services Inc., to continue to raise funds for hurricane relief for Puerto Rico. We raised $107.32! Funds will go to rebuilding houses in the Tetuan district of Utuado. Thank you to everyone who participated!
At HFC, we have been offering support groups free of charge at the office and schools, such as Boggy Creek Elementary and East Lake Elementary, for anyone experiencing acculturation issues as they arrive in Central Florida. HFC has also had groups for current community members who now have an increased amount of responsibility for caring for family and friends arriving here.
We have also been a part of various community events that are receiving Puerto Ricans, helping newly arrived families, and offering support in other ways:
At HFC, we want to be more than our word. We want our word to turn into action. This is why we made sure to welcome 11 professionals from Puerto Rico, who moved to Central Florida after the hurricane, into our ever growing HFC family.
In addition, HFC has met with several government officials to advocate for ways to help Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the Central Florida community after Hurricane Maria, including:
Currently, HFC is working with U.S. Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith on a bill to help provide hurricane relief to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria.
Last, but not least, HFC went as an agency, with a team of therapists, on the second week of December to Puerto Rico to provide services free of charge to those in need. The team consisted of myself, along with our Director of Operations, Richard Centeno, and three therapists – Katherine Pilarte (then an intern), Elba Rivera, and Cecilia Hernández.
It was an exhausting, but meaningful trip. We found ourselves plunged into the way of living after such an intense hurricane – gas guzzling generators, minute long showers in cold water, meals from cans, surrounded by rubble and houses half standing – all while simultaneously working to help in any way we could.
We ran support groups at a Disciples of Christ church, lending our counseling skills to help participants process what they had gone through. We literally got our hands dirty as we assisted in cleanup of fallen trees and abandoned pieces of homes. We continued to visit and offer services at “La Perla de Gran Precio” and “El Gran Joshua.” We handed out donations, running out of gas gift cards sooner than we thought possible. Finally, we even advocated in an effort to help Puerto Rico get back on its feet on the government level.
We are honored to have been able to provide these services during such a difficult moment in the island’s history and will continue to assist moving forward.
The work is far from over, we know, but HFC will not be deterred. We are a family – as an agency, as a community – and we will continue to come together, our hands and hearts joining as we stand once again, saying in unison with powerful voices, “#PRSeLevanta!”
With peace and love,
Denisse Centeno-Lamas, LCSW
Hispanic Family Counseling, Inc.