Tri-C steps up to help Puerto Rican hurricane victims

Cleveland is a welcoming city. No one knows that better than the newly arriving families from the island of Puerto Rico. In late September, the territory suffered the wrath of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 hurricane that devastated the island’s infrastructure and displaced thousands of people.

In the aftermath, hundreds of these families traveled to Northeast Ohio, many at the urging of family and friends who were already part of the region’s thriving Puerto Rican community. To provide assistance and community support, Cuyahoga Community College joined with the Spanish American Committee, Esperanza Inc. and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to form Bienvenidos a Cleveland.

Through this collaboration, 31 community organizations — along with state and federal agencies — are focusing on the needs of incoming families, including housing, food, medical care, transportation and education.

At the outset, the Spanish American Committee — Cleveland’s oldest and largest Hispanic social service agency — reported working with more than 630 new families. The organization is providing referrals to resource and support organizations involved in the initiative.

CMSD enrolled an additional 300 students in several of its schools. Tri-C is providing financial aid support for incoming students displaced by Hurricane Maria and is working with the state to formalize a partial tuition waiver.

As a college, it was incumbent upon us to convene organizations to ensure that these citizens of the United States are welcomed to our community and provided the guidance they need to navigate our social service environment. We want to give them the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

Tri-C’s Hispanic Council identified student interns to serve as bilingual assistants at the Spanish American Committee to provide additional support and alleviate the wait time for families.

Westfield Insurance Foundation supplied funding for additional bilingual interns to provide assistance at other agencies, such as the Hispanic Alliance, the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland and the American Red Cross. In addition, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland committed direct funding in support of the project.

Support for these families has come in the form of both direct and indirect services. Businesses and organizations, including Tri-C, have held drives in collaboration with CMSD to provide coats, uniforms, school supplies and backpacks to new students. Their parents — many of whom are skilled professionals — are being connected with employment opportunities, transportation and housing resources.

In support of the initiative, Tri-C created a Bienvenidos a Cleveland website, www.tri-c.edu/bienvenidosacle, along with a Facebook page that connects the Hispanic community to various agencies and available resources.

Cuyahoga County is not alone in this endeavor; Lorain County has launched Bienvenidos a Lorain County, a similar initiative led by Lorain County Community College.

More information can be found at www.lorainccc.edu/bienvenidos/. It is our obligation to come together in times of need to provide this much-needed assistance to our fellow Americans. And it is a historic opportunity for Northeast Ohio to ensure that newcomers from Puerto Rico are integrated into the fabric of this welcoming community.

Alex Johnson, Ph.D., is president at Cuyahoga Community College.