HAINES CITY, Fla. - Haines City High School rolled out the red carpet for the new members of its Hornet Nation family, high schoolers who just moved from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
“I know you all went through something that was traumatic, life-changing and we want you to feel comfortable,” said Haines City High School principal Adam Lane.
Comfort feels like a luxury for these teenagers after what they’ve lived through. Hurricane Maria did away with the Puerto Rico they knew.
“I started crying,” said Abigail Gascot about her reaction to watching the devastation left behind by the hurricane. “When I went out, everything was gone.”
Power and running water were also gone, so they couldn’t go back to school. It's what brought most of them here.
“My mom decided we should come here because it was better for me and my sister,” said Alanis Matos, a Puerto Rican student now attending Haines City High School.
Leaving home wasn’t an easy choice for any of them.
“I lived with my dad, so I had to leave him back there and I had to come here with my mom,” said Claudia Vázquez, now a senior at Haines City High School. “I felt really bad because I was going to come out here and have light, have education, have water, have food, and they were just still there still struggling.
"I didn’t want to come because I didn’t want to leave them.”
One Haines City High School student immediately saw the need to bring a smile to their faces. She planned a welcome celebration for the Puerto Rican students, and handed them gift cards for groceries and school supplies.
“This is honestly the least I can do for them. Just help them feel welcome to our school,” Natasha Goodall, a senior at Haines City, said. “I really want this to be their second home.”
The students say all the faculty’s and classmates’ efforts are working. The district appointed additional ESL teachers to help with the influx of Spanish-speaking students.
“The teachers, they try to speak to you, like ‘do you need help?’” Gascot said. “I feel really supported by them.”
Their one complaint is that it’s ‘cold’ in Florida compared to the island. However, the warmth they’ve been getting from classmates and teachers has been making up for the winter’s chilly weather.
“They make me feel like I’m from here,” Matos said.
So, is this their new home? The answer is "kind of" because -- for them -- Puerto Rico will always be home.
“That’s my island,” Vázquez said.
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