More than three months after Hurricane Maria left widespread devastation and wiped out power across Puerto Rico, Connecticut is still seeing displaced evacuees arriving from the island in search of aid and stability.
Those seeking refuge in the state have since been met with other challenges, like securing stable housing, gearing up for the harsh weather and navigating the day-to-day in a totally new place.
Since the Relief Center for Our Caribbean Friends opened in Hartford on Nov. 1, it has served more than 1,000 Puerto Ricans who traveled to Connecticut after the Category 4 storm hit the island on Sept. 20.
The center acts as a one-stop shop for Puerto Rican and other Caribbean islands arrivals relocating to the Hartford region — providing those that come with services, food, clothing and supplies.
MaryAnne Pascone is the Relief Center’s managing director and the director of community education at Capitol Region Education Council (CREC). Pascone primarily arranges the various agencies, organizations and services being offered at the hub.
In this Sunday conversation, The Mirror sat down with Pascone to hear about the Relief Center and to get her thoughts on the challenges and conditions of the islanders it’s serving.
Can you explain a little bit about what the CREC system is and your work for the Relief Center?
CREC is a regional educational service center, and we serve the school districts in the towns in the capitol region. CREC is made up of a number of different programs and divisions, we are a school district so we have schools. I work in the division of community education, we have teaching and learning, we have transportation, it’s a very large organization.
When the center first opened I was there on a day-to-day basis doing the day-to-day coordination. So actually, my main role in the center is to be the program person. So, I am the one who organizes the different organizations that are working alongside of us in the center… if we have any special events — like we had a number of flu clinics that the UConn school of nursing students provided.
What was the inception of the center itself?
Well when the hurricane happened in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, some members of our leadership team got together and just really kind of brainstormed what can we do. What can we do to help families because we knew families were going to come to Connecticut. And so as a group of us, and this was in end of September, we were kind of talking about what could we do. Well, we have adult education programs here in community ed so certainly we could offer ESL (English as a Second Language). Others said well what could they do with regard to the schools … that was the start, and then we kind of got together again and said well what can we do as a community. So CREC took the lead and invited … probably several dozen community agencies as well as the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut to a couple of meetings to figure out what could we do.
You were in the center, so you saw the huge building that we have. We have that building available because of two schools that merged. The building was vacant, and so we offered to be able to house the center in that building and invited any community agency that wanted to be a part of [the project], to come together and either provide services directly to families in the center or indirectly, as a referral source, to be able to accept families that come through our center.
So when the center first opened, which was November 1, how did people coming off planes at the airport know about the center?
The state of Connecticut did get together with a number of different department heads as well as some highly visible organizations like 2-1-1, the American Red Cross, who are used to being involved in crisis situations, and the American Red Cross and 2-1-1 in the beginning met families at the airport when they got off planes and they handed out information around 2-1-1 and … handed out our brochures. We actually were the first center in the state to open, and so we were seeing people from all over the state. Since, there’s been a few others that have opened, so they go to wherever is closest. So we did some information on social media but by and large, because our information was in 2-1-1, that was one of the big areas and also when people got off the plane they were handed pieces of information.
How many people did you see in the beginning. What type of intake were you seeing?
The first day we had no idea what was going to happen, and then when I got up in the morning and I saw the news at 6 o’clock and saw a reporter outside our center reporting that we were opening in a few hours, I said, ‘I better get dressed and go,’ but you know we never knew… and we still don’t know … how the day is going to go, and then the next day is just completely different. To date we have served through (Dec. 20) 1,092 people. So it’s ups and downs, the first Saturday — our Saturday hours are 9 to 1, and I think the staff left at 3:30, so we locked the doors at 1 o’ clock but we serviced all the people that were in, so that first Saturday was insane, it was crazy. But there’s days that it’s just a steady flow and it feels like it’s slow, and then we look and we say oh my goodness 75 people came through today, so there just doesn’t seem to be any kind of rhyme or reason.
How many people are working at the center full-time so to speak, helping out there?
We have a couple of CREC staff that are sort of on loan to the center, Aura Alvarado, myself, and Michael Gonzalez who works in the choice program. We also have hired some case managers as well as therapist staff, so that is the core group that actually works in the center. We have lots of support from many other departments within CREC, and I mean we would never be able to keep the center open without the wonderful assistance of our many volunteers. I mean the volunteers are there every single day. They’re working in the food pantry; they’re working in the clothing boutique … yesterday we got two very large food orders delivered, and we had people there unload the trucks. We have people, I call them the angels, the angels who come at night because they sort through all those clothes, they restock the shelves, there’s just so many things that happen even after we’re closed.
How many volunteers do you think you’ve had?
I couldn’t even estimate; I mean I really couldn’t even estimate … you know we have large groups … we have people who are retired; we have people from church groups … people just come in and say tell me what you want me to do. The need is absolutely, positively tremendous, but the outpouring of support from the community it almost matches. It’s amazing.
When I was over there a little while ago, a contact from Travelers had called me earlier in the week and said I have a few school supplies and toys. When can you meet me? So I met him and he gave me the boxes of school supplies, and he said ‘well you know my colleague is coming,’ and he came with 400 toys. And so we had the three of us — and this was a pickup truck that was from the front of the cab right through the back — individual toys, so we had to unpack them onto carts and wheel them — but these are the things that are happening.
You’re getting donations of clothes, food, toys. Where are they coming from; who is bringing this stuff?
They’re coming from the person who might be your neighbor who has three bags of kids coats that their kids outgrew. They’re coming from organizations; they’re coming from corporations; they’re coming from churches; they’re coming from civic groups; they are literally coming from everywhere.
And you have enough that you’ve been able to constantly restock everything?
We don’t always have enough of what we need for the moment. Yesterday I was helping a family, and we were looking for a specific size of boots for the young man, and I couldn’t find those boots. So at every moment we may not have exactly what we need. In the beginning, we had fewer coats, now … people have really started bringing coats, hats, gloves and things like that. People seem to be getting most of their needs satisfied.
What were people’s temperaments like in the beginning? What kind of emotion did you see?
First of all, for us, just extreme gratitude that we were there to help them. But I remember one story that one of the case managers told me, and that was that there was an elderly man who came, and he was sitting down and they were having a conversation about what services he needed and whatever else, and he just started to break down, because in addition to losing his house and everything, because of all the stress his wife had a heart attack and died. And so here was his man who not only lost his home but he lost his wife of however many years, and I think he had held it in for all this time because he knew he had to figure out what he was going to do, and then all of sudden there it was.
We had a young man who was here and he had stayed in a hotel for a while and then his money ran out, so he was staying outside, and he came actually the day before Thanksgiving, and so we were trying to find him a shelter to stay in and of course there was not one shelter bed in the state of Connecticut, and we thought well maybe because he was from Puerto Rico and was here because of the Hurricane disaster we could do something. We called around shelters and basically they said, well until he gets through his 2-1-1 meeting and is put on a priority list, we can’t make a bed available. And so we called 2-1-1, well this was now getting to be 2 o’ clock on the day before Thanksgiving, and they gave an appointment for the following Monday, and so ultimately we have a foundation that has received donations specifically for this, so we paid for his hotel through Monday — but the thing that I will never forget is he looked me in the eye and he said, ‘I’m so sorry to be so much trouble.’ I mean it was amazing that after all he’d been through that this was, and I mean it was nothing, we figured it out, and the good news is he’s working, he’s all set with his hotel until the middle of January, and so there’s wonderful things that are happening.
That TSA program—if you could just explain what that is and then when that program is going to be up in January, what happens to those people?
TSA is Transitional Sheltering Assistance, which is provided through FEMA, and basically what it does is it allows families who have registered through FEMA and have checked out in every way the ability to stay in a local hotel, and FEMA pays for it. So right now I think it’s January 13 is the date, I’m understanding that within the next week or so FEMA is going to be meeting and deciding whether or not it will be extended. If it is not extended, it means on that date all of those people that are staying in hotels within Hartford and across the state of Connecticut will likely have no place to go — unless they’ve been lucky enough to find apartments or have family to stay with.
What are the daily organizations that are working at the center day-to-day?
So every day we have Capitol Workforce Partners, American Job Center staff as well as Catholic Charities – Institute for the Hispanic Family. We also have the American Red Cross. Literally they are there as much as we are there, we have Hartford Public Library which provides photo IDs as well as library cards, and we have FEMA of course that’s there, and we have the Charter Oak Health Center that comes one day a week with their mobile van. We’ve also had a lot of volunteers from the UConn Health Center. We had an event the other day that they did a number of different health screenings, they did flu shots, and actually I think we are going to set up a permanent schedule to come, not every day we’re open, but probably at least a couple of days a month so that they can be doing these kinds of health screenings as well as flu shots.
You guys have helped more than 1,000 people, and your lease is up in February for the building — are you looking to move the center anywhere else after that or get any other partners to take it on?
Well I think it’s a community decision that has to be made, the commitment to offer this building through the end of February because it’s under lease to us until the end of February. The plan was November 1 until February 28 we would be in this building. I think there has to be conversation among the community, I mean we are the only center in Hartford and so if, come mid-January, February 1, if nobody comes anymore, then clearly the center has served its purpose, and whatever happens if people are still coming, and actually over the last few weeks the number of people coming has increased a little bit every week.
I’ll tell you that when we first opened through December 1, direct flights from San Juan to Hartford were coming twice a week. Starting December 1 they’re coming every day, starting (December 22) through January 3, twice a day. So I think that certainly has a lot to do with the increase in the number of families that are coming. But you know it’s a community decision and the agencies, the organizations, the city, the state—we all have to get together and figure out if there still is a need, what’s going to happen.
What type of hope do you feel this center brings to these people that are coming and starting off fresh in a totally new place after something like that?
Well they come with nothing, I mean literally they come with nothing. We were here, it was a snowy day, and I don’t remember what day it was, I think it was that Saturday that snowed. And a family came in, and it was a big family, it was either 11 or 15, and folks were leaving with their clothes and with their food. And I looked down at the father and he had flip flops and socks, and I said ‘no, no, no, you need to come back in here because you can’t be wearing flip flops in the snow, that doesn’t work.’ One day a woman said to me, she had brought her mother in and she said it’s too cold in my apartment for my mother, and I said ‘Let me go in the other room and see if I can find a blanket.’ I gave her a blanket—she gave me a hug and a kiss. You’d think I gave the woman a winning lottery ticket. They’ve been wonderful. They’re grateful, they’re humble, they’re afraid, they’re happy. I think the emotions probably change for them on a minute-to-minute basis. I think they’re just very, very grateful that we’re there to help them — that’s the beginning and the end of it.
Can you imagine if this center had not opened here?
I can’t imagine, I think what would happen, and I think what is happening is that there’s a lot of community agencies in the city of Hartford that are doing things and there would be pockets of this, that and the other thing, but no one would really know, okay I have 20 winter coats that have been in my attic that I just haven’t gotten rid of, they wouldn’t know where to go with them. If somebody needed to stay in a hotel before their TSA was approved they wouldn’t know how to make that happen. And so it seems as though for every person that comes into our center, they probably tell five more.
Some of the people working at the center have Puerto Rican ties. How has it been for people working there that have that type of connection to Puerto Rico?
I think I can only imagine that they feel it stronger than, say, I would. I feel it pretty strongly … none of us, unless we’ve been there, we can’t even imagine the devastation, but I guess people with family, people with really close ties, of course.
You know I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve done presentations at a number of different organizations, and the only thing I can say is I don’t know that I’ve worked this hard in five years, but it probably is the most rewarding work that I’ve done in a long time, and we work with families in need a lot, but it’s just you go home at the end of the day and you’re exhausted, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.