A helping hand from Florida to Puerto Rico

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Central Florida residents could easily be forgiven had they simply pulled back and tended to wounds in the wake of Hurricane Irma's deadly force. That hasn't been the case in places like Orange County, where members of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association are mixing warmth with mettle and extending a helping hand to displaced Puerto Ricans—a remarkable show of generosity from fellow Americans still dealing with storm-battered neighborhoods in their own backyards.

The AFT affiliate has partnered with local volunteers in Orange County, the AFT, CASA (Coordinadora de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Ayuda), and the union-affiliated Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico to collect and transport donated supplies to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. Now, with as many as 100,000 displaced Americans predicted to arrive in Central Florida from the hard-hit Caribbean islands, OCCTA has also joined forces with the Foundation for Orange County Public Schools and is collecting school supplies to fill backpacks for new students arriving from Puerto Rico to Central Florida, where many have relatives and family.

This type of community engagement "is what our union is all about," says local president Wendy Doromal, and it's not the first time OCCTA members have stepped up for neighbors in moments of need.

Orange County Puerto Rico task force

From the homeless who had immediate food needs following Hurricane Irma, to the needs of seasonal migrant families, the union has long been involved in this type of community building, Doromal says. Even before the storms, when teachers arrived from Puerto Rico after an ongoing debt crisis forced them from their neighborhoods, schools and livelihoods, OCCTA was there too, establishing a Puerto Rican Task Force (pictured above with Doromal in the middle) to help teachers jump-start their lives and careers in Florida's public schools.

Today, the union effort extends to every school. Building representatives are organizing school-level Hurricane Maria relief drives and schoolwide fundraisers to collect donations. From canned food to toiletries, diapers and batteries, the items are being taken to the union office for volunteers to organize, box and label. A shipping container full of these essentials will be shipped to Asociación offices, so they can be distributed immediately to families in San Juan and across the island. The Puerto Rican Task Force, chaired by OCCTA Secretary Carlos Lebron Rivera, met recently with Maria Gutierrez from the Asociación to gain valuable insight about the needs of those struggling to regain their lives after the storm.

Even now, following the hits that Puerto Rico took in a devastating fortnight of storms, and following the ordeal of rebuilding Florida's own homes and communities, the generous Sunshine State spirit shows no signs of flagging.

"I know they're excited. I'm receiving a lot of calls" from members wanting to help with Hurricane Maria relief, says Doromal, who conveyed that spirit and determination in convincing fashion—while waiting for an insurance adjuster to inspect a tarp-covered hole in the roof of her Orange County home, damage courtesy Hurricane Irma.

[Staff and affiliate reports]