Students like Kemuel Quinones, Gildaly Villanueva, and Edgardo Rodriguez have had to uproot their lives after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the place they call home. They’ve had to leave their families and friends and start fresh at a new school. The three ended up living with relatives or friends in the Tampa Bay area and attending East Bay High School in Gibsonton.
Since September, Hillsborough County Public Schools has opened its doors to 640 students displaced by Hurricane Maria. Another 91 students have come to the district because of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
"When Hurricane Maria came, it was the most hectic hurricane I've ever been through," said Edgardo Rodriguez, East Bay High School Senior from Puerto Rico.
"The overall living conditions were pretty bad. For the gasoline, we had to make long lines. The water was scarce. The food was scarce," said East Bay High School Senior from Puerto Rico, Kemuel Quinones.
"We have approximately 17 students who have come to us from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. One of the beautiful things about East Bay is our diversity," said East Bay High School Principal Maria Gsell.
The U.S. territory is still recovering from the disaster. Although the students' homes didn’t sustain significant damage, they didn’t want to miss valuable class time, especially during their senior year.
"Schools in Puerto Rico, public schools, haven't started. So, I didn't want to lose my senior semester," said Gildaly Villanueva, East Bay High School Senior from Puerto Rico. She’s now living with her uncle.
"I came with my mom. My dad stayed home to watch the house. Adjusting has not been that easy, but I'm getting there, because there's no turning back," Quinones said.
Rodriguez is staying with his parents’ friends. He won’t see his family until his graduation from East Bay this spring. "It was a really big decision, since my parents were going to stay. They had to take care of the house. Luckily, they sent me here. They supported me. I really love them for that," said Rodriguez.
Schools have had some challenges getting the students’ proper paperwork, but that didn’t delay their enrollment.
"We always welcome students at East Bay High School and try to find the exact spot where they will be successful," Gsell said.
Students are looking at the obstacles that they’ve overcome as opportunities.
"They gave me the classes I needed to get to graduate," Rodriguez said.
"I know here in East Bay, I'm going to get a better education," said Villanueva.
This Thanksgiving, they are especially thankful.
"Did you celebrate Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico with the turkey and cranberries," asked Principal Gsell. "Yes, oh yes," the students replied with excitement.
"My father is in Puerto Rico, so I'm not going to be able to have Thanksgiving with my father and sister. I'm thankful for my family that are here with me right now," said Villanueva.
"I'm really happy that Hillsborough County and here at East Bay opened the doors for me and my family," Quinones said.
"I'm thankful for my parents. They call me crying and they miss, and I miss them a lot," said Rodriguez.
Fellow classmates and staff are also grateful to be able to help the displaced students in their time of need.
"It's enriching for our students to get to know people who have survived such a tragedy, teaching them to have some compassion for others," said Gsell.
Hurricane Maria changed the paths in life for Quinones, Villanueva and Rodriguez, who all plan to get their diplomas as East Bay Indians in May.
"I'm hoping to graduate here and hopefully be accepted to one of the universities," said Quinones.
"It's going to be something to remember the rest of my life," Villanueva said.
Schools are providing direct monetary support for displaced students through the HCPS School-to-School Philanthropy Program. If you'd like to help, ask your local schools about ongoing efforts.
The Hillsborough Education Foundation has established a fund to help students affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico: https://www.educationfoundation.com/puertorico
Supplies are being collected by a third party entity and can be dropped off at:
4916 S. Lois Avenue
Tampa, FL 33611
For a full list of supplies needed, please visit: http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/doc/2055/community-engagement-philanthropy/resources/puertorico
For the latest events happening at East Bay, follow the school on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EastBayHS
For more information about East Bay High School: http://eastbay.mysdhc.org/View Full Album