RELATED: Hurricane Maria forced year of change for Mahoning County service
By GRAIG GRAZIOSI
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Rios family. Eric Rios, 34, and his wife, Clarariz, 26, knew shortly after Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20, 2017, that it wouldn’t be just another storm.
Their home in Ciales, Puerto Rico, was just under 13 miles from the island’s northern coast. They hunkered down with their two children, Karlys, 6, and Ihan, 5, trying just to survive a storm they had previously hoped to ride out as they had so much inclement weather in the past.
The world as Clarariz knew it had been reshaped by the storm, both figuratively and literally.
“The landscape was completely changed. Trees were everywhere. Neighbors’ roofs had been blown off. Everything was without power,” Clarariz said. “It used to take us three minutes by car to get to my grandmother’s house. After the storm, it took three hours because the roads were so littered with trees. We weren’t surprised at all to see the number of deaths from that storm.”
While others fled the island, the Rios family decided they would stay in Ciales, hoping that once the storm passed, the worst was over.
But normalcy did not return.
It still has not for much of the island.
Each day that passed brought more realization that destruction and uncertainty would be their new normal.
The coastal restaurant where Eric worked as a chef had been washed away. Day after day without a wage began to chisel away the family’s savings.
Apart from buying the necessities, the Rios family had an additional expense – Eric is diabetic. His medication needed refrigeration. Ice wasn’t cheap.
“We prepared the best we could. Eric talked to his doctor before the storm and stocked up on his medicine, but keeping it cold without power was hard,” she said. “Even small bags of ice cost us $5 each.”
Leaving THE ISLAND
After two months, Eric and Clarariz knew they needed to make a decision. With their savings dwindling, they had just enough to make the journey north and try to establish themselves in the continental U.S.
“I think it was the right decision,” Eric said. “We had to think of the kids. I could bear with the hunger and thirst, but it was hard seeing my children go hungry and thirsty. So we left.”
Eric had heard about Youngstown from a cousin who lived in the city. It was the closest his family would have to a support system. They spent the last of their savings on the trip to Northeast Ohio in December.
Luckily for Eric, he had spent three years living in New Jersey when he was younger, so he was familiar with frigid conditions. For Clarariz and the children though, the abrupt change in climate was a shock.
“It was really hard getting used to the cold,” she said. “When we first got here, we didn’t have the money to get the kids the clothing they needed for the weather. That first month was the hardest.”
After arriving, the Rios family dug in and prepared for an uphill battle to establish themselves.
Eric managed to find a job at Churchill Motors in Youngstown working as a mechanic, and at the Fresh Mark plant in Salem. Clarariz, who studied to be a pharmacy technician in Puerto Rico, also began searching for work.
Right Place, Right Time
In March 2018, three months after the arrival of the Rios family, Christopher Tenant, a local social worker, and Justin Mondok, an environmental planner at Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, launched a catch-all website listing the contact information for a variety of public service organizations throughout the county.
Named “ThriveMV,” the site – which has both English and Spanish labels and descriptions – lists social service organizations and their offerings in an easy to read, mobile-friendly format. The services are arranged by type: family services, education and food, for example.
Mondok and Tenant modeled the site after a similar service in Cleveland called “Bienvenidos [Welcome] a Cleveland,” which was built to help the incoming Puerto Rican hurricane refugees.
ThriveMV launched with the same mission.
“We had learned from OCCHA [Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana] that there were a significant number of people and families from Puerto Rico who moved here to live with their families,” Tenant said. “Our target population is anyone coming here for the first time and who doesn’t know who to talk to or where to go to get help.”
Though ThriveMV was not intended to be a direct-service organization, Tenant found himself in a position to test how useful he and Mondok’s brainchild was at providing aid.
Tenant’s grandmother told him she had made space in her home available to a family who would soon arrive from Puerto Rico — the Rioses. She agreed to give them a few months rent free, but thought they could use some additional help as they had little more than the clothes they brought with them. So, she approached her grandson and asked if he could do anything to help.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to use some of those resources that we have on our site,” Tenant said. “So I called around and told them that we had a family coming from Puerto Rico with two kids who had nothing. A lot of our resources stepped up and provided clothing, mattresses, household goods, and a lot of private donations like appliances, toys for the kids, dishes; basically everything you’d need to get started here.”
With that, the Rios family became the first to benefit from the services compiled by ThriveMV.
Luck and Labor
While the showering of support from donors and service organizations was a welcome change from the restrictions and sacrifices they had to make in Puerto Rico, Eric and Clarariz wanted to get back to work – and some sense of normalcy – as soon as possible.
Fixing cars was a passion of his, so Eric was happy for the work at Churchill Motors.
After a few paychecks, he had saved enough to buy himself a car. It was long overdue for the scrap heap – its engine ran rough and loud – but it stopped when it needed to stop and went when it needed to go, so Eric made the best of it.
Three weeks later, Eric received a call from Pep Boys, where he had applied for a job before getting hired at Churchill Motors. They wanted to bring him on, and Eric accepted the position.
The same week, Clarariz, who had been searching for work since arriving in the United States, received a call from the DoubleTree hotel downtown. Though the job wasn’t in her field, she quickly accepted the position.
While the Rioses were answering happy phone calls, Tenant received a happy call of his own. Jessica Robinson, the executive director of the Mahoning County St. Vincent de Paul, had an interesting donation she hoped to pass along to a family in need.
“They called us a couple of weeks later and said that someone had donated a car. They were asking if anyone we were working with had use for a car,” Tenant said. “Mind blown.”
Though ThriveMV wasn’t designed to be a direct-care organization – the entire organization was just Tenant, Mondok and Lorene Swartz, who was providing English-to-Spanish translation for the page’s content – Tenant’s mind immediately went to Eric.
“It was the best week,” Eric said. “We got a car, we both got jobs. We got hope that things really could get better for us.”
The car’s owner, Domenico Sciaretta, retired shortly before giving up the red Cadillac and said he didn’t need the car any longer. So, rather than selling the vehicle, he decided he’d help someone.
“Once we get settled, I want to help all the people who need it,” Eric said. “One day, we want to pass along the car we were given to someone else in need.”
Eventually, Eric would like to open his own garage, and Clarariz hopes to find her way back into pharmacy work. For now, however, the pair is happy that they’ve seemed to survive and thrive in their new northern home.
Though the Rioses haven’t ruled out returning to Puerto Rico one day, they recognize the recovery may be slow going, and the island transformed beyond their recognition.
For now, they’re happy to have their children enrolled in Wilson Elementary School and the opportunity to start their new lives with a safety net provided by local organizations and donors.
“We’ve been really lucky to meet Chris and his group,” Clarariz said. “Without them, I think we might really be struggling right now.”