17 Aug PUERTO RICO’S STUDENTS FLED IN HURRICANE’S WAKE, MIAMI WELCOMED THEM
In the midst of a crisis that looms larger than life, what seems minor can make a major difference.
Take, for instance, the Puerto Rico high school senior who, last fall, found herself attending Miami Edison Senior High School. One of the hundreds of students forced to evacuate hurricane-battered Puerto Rico and temporarily resettle in South Florida, she had to navigate a different school system, enroll in new classes, take state exams and submit college applications, all while trying to graduate on time. Add to that the more ordinary, but no less important, elements of being a student – the book bag, the quiet place to study, the pop quizzes – and it amounts to a nearly insurmountable challenge.
Enter Communities In Schools of Miami, a county-wide program that helps at-risk students stay in school and succeed in life. The local nonprofit stepped in to help meet the needs of some 50 student evacuees from Puerto Rico who landed in Miami-Dade County Public Schools after Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the island. “What we do is surround the children with support,” said Elyssa Linares, president and CEO of Communities in Schools and a 2016-2017 Miami Leaders class member. “We look at them holistically, try to truly understand what they need, everything from little items like supplies to big stuff like meeting new academic requirements. We follow them and become their advocates.”
The program is one of various initiatives and organizations that received grant dollars from the Knight Puerto Rico Fund for Hurricane Relocation, set up last year at The Miami Foundation to help Puerto Rico residents who came to South Florida, either permanently or temporarily, re-establish and rebuild their lives.
Last year’s brutal hurricane season pummeled Puerto Rico. First came Hurricane Irma, which left 1 million people without power. Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria plowed through, sinking the island and its 3.4 million inhabitants into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. While 200,000 Puerto Ricans fled the U.S. territory and resettled on the mainland, an estimated 11,000 of those were students who transferred to a Florida public school, 600 in Greater Miami alone. “When we saw what was happening,” Elyssa said, “we knew we had to do something.”
Her organization moved quickly to secure funding to hire site coordinator Sharlene Castella to work one-on-one with each of the students arriving from Puerto Rico, making sure they got the help and attention they needed. “In some cases, the kids were here without their parents and staying with relatives,” Sharlene explained. “It’s a traumatic experience and they just need support.” One of her biggest challenges, she said, was that senior who came to Miami Edison because. “We just had to make sure she got to graduation. We did not want her to fall behind.”
They even helped her get to prom. “We helped her get her dress and her hair and make-up done,” she said. “It’s important…and she looked beautiful.” The student not only graduated with a 4.0 GPA, she also nailed her SATs and got accepted to Miami Dade College’s honors program.
Today, on the eve of the storms’ one-year anniversary, most of the students from Puerto Rico who Communities In Schools helped have returned to the island – and to school. And that, says Sharlene, is what success looks like. “I consider them my children, all of our children. It’s up to us to do the best we can to help them and love them,” she said. “To get them all the tools they need.” And when that happens, no storm can throw off their education.
Betty Cortina-Weiss is a Miami-based journalist, storyteller and content producer.
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