When several young women, who had recently “graduated” to living independently, asked the staff of Hogar Abrazo de Amor for help with coping techniques because they were struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the Executive Director, Waleska Rosario, and the Board of Directors realized that other youths could be experiencing the same kind of despair.
By the time Hurricane Maria struck the island on September 20, 2017, Hogar Abrazo de Amor had been operating as a nonprofit substitute group home for girls aged 10 to 18 for only five years. Waleska, the executive director, and Jacqueline Ramirez, the Board’s Chairperson, had met years earlier while working for Women’s Ministry Group. Waleska and Jacqueline share a strong commitment to community service born out of their faith. After much preparation, the organization built a beautiful group home and obtained all the certifications necessary to receive the first girls in October 2012. By 2017, they had “graduated’ ten 18-year-old young women to independent living arrangements.
After the hurricane and with nowhere else to turn, some of them reached out to Hogar Abrazo de Amor asking for shelter. The group home had made excellent preparations for the impending hurricane, securing a generator, ample water supplies, food and medicine to last at least a month. The organization’s outstanding planning provided the residents of the home as well as the former residents asking for shelter with the ability to ride out the hurricane’s aftermath in a secure and stable home environment with quality services for all.
The cry for help from the former residents of the group home during this crisis made Waleska, Jacqueline, and the Board of Directors realize that there had to be more college students in need. They scoped out the four main universities in the Arecibo area looking for students at high risk of not being able to continue their studies due to the new reality brought by the hurricane: no power, difficult road conditions, shutdown of businesses, intermittent telecommunications, scarce food and medicine, a depressing treeless landscape, and destruction everywhere you turned.
In February of 2018, Hogar Abrazo de Amor received a grant of $98,740 from Unidos por Puerto Rico to carry out workshops for college students and provide them with basic supplies such as food, medicine, and first aid products. The organization hired an industrial psychologist, a clinical psychologist, and a social worker to set up workshops that would help the students develop the skills needed in coping with the very difficult living conditions that were experienced on the island for months after the hurricane. The topics covered were crisis management, budgeting, drug use prevention, and emergency management. The project also provided individual psychotherapy for some students, particularly those that did not have the financial and moral support of a traditional family. The original goal of the project was to reach out to 100 students but by the time the grant expired in June 2018, 525 youths had participated in the workshops and 114 had received supplies.
Accepting the Challenge of Repairing Homes
Known for their willingness to attempt the seemingly impossible, Waleska, Jacqueline, and the Board of the Directors of Hogar Abrazo de Amor were approached by the Arecibo Chamber of Economic Development to see if they would be willing to take on the repair of homes in the town’s center where many structures suffered severe damage due to the flooding caused by the hurricane. “We took on the task of helping those most affected by the flooding of their homes,” said Waleska.
Because they had performed well with the first grant, Unidos approved a second grant of $330,383 to repair ten homes. Hogar Abrazo de Amor focused this effort on families who had not received FEMA or state funds, or who had received insufficient funds to make their homes habitable. So far, it has completed work on seven homes and the remaining three will be completed by the end of March 2019.
Now that the organization has nearly completed its second project in the recovery and rebuilding effort, Hogar Abrazo de Amor is looking to continue expanding its mission. The experience and knowledge acquired during these two projects developed with funds from Unidos por Puerto Rico have provided the organization with a new perspective on the needs of young college students and particularly those with a non-traditional family unit. “These young college students need support with their basic needs to be able to complete their studies, attain their career goals, and become the future that Puerto Rico requires for its long-term rebuilding and growth,” said Waleska.