Dunkirk Catholic school opens doors to hurricane victims

by PATRICK J. BUECHI
Thu, Jan 18th 2018 09:00 am
Staff Reporter
Second and PreK Northern Chautauqua Catholic School classes with both of their teachers and aides. (Courtesy of Northern Chautauqua Catholic School)
Second and PreK Northern Chautauqua Catholic School classes with both of their teachers and aides. (Courtesy of Northern Chautauqua Catholic School)

Northern Chautauqua Catholic School learned the word "amiga" in November, when two sisters who lost their home to Hurricane Maria were welcomed to the Dunkirk school. Amiga is the feminized Spanish word for friend.

Darlynis and Evangeliz Santiago came to Dunkirk with their mother after losing just about everything they had to the devastating September storm. Through a family member, they learned NCCS was offering a year's free tuition to anyone displaced by Maria.

The Santiago family saw their house destroyed, a tree crush their car, and the loss of both parents' jobs. Jenny Tilaro, principal of NCCS, has spoken to Jomis Santiago, who left her husband and the remains of her home to take care of her children. Her long-term plan is to go back to Puerto Rico, eventually.

"She wants to return back to Puerto Rico. She says that's where her home is, where her heart is, even though she really doesn't have much of a home left," Tilaro said. "They don't have any electricity, and she lost her job due to the hurricane. Her husband has lost his job. She said her number one concern was to make sure her children were being educated. She didn't want her kids to be behind. She cries a lot. She says, 'My home is over there, my heart is over there, my husband is over there, but I have to do this for my kids.'"

Evangeliz, 4, is in pre-K and doesn't speak any English. In class, she learns her colors and numbers in English, but mostly she learns social interaction from her new friends.

"The students in the classroom have embraced her," Tilaro said. "They've learned a little bit of Spanish, like the word 'amiga,' to communicate with her. They've taught her how to say, 'I love you.' The teacher is mostly hands-off at this point because the kids just want to interact with her and learn from her and teach her. They've kind of adopted her."

"It really fits their mission because these kids are embracing one another, they're taking care of one another," Tilaro said. "That's what we teach them through our faith, that we are a family."

The second-graders take Spanish classes, which helps Darlynis, who also knows some English. "They're using their Spanish skills to interact with the 7-year-old. Kids from other grade levels are trying to communicate with her in Spanish and also teach her English," Tilaro explained. "She understands a lot more than she speaks, but she seems to be integrating pretty well, making friends."

Tilaro, herself, is bilingual and helps translate documents needed for class, as does Darlynis' teacher. Tilaro hopes to bring in an English as a New Language teacher from Dunkirk public schools to help.

Darlynis came to the school with only first-grade transcripts. She is being graded as any student would be, to search for academic deficiencies.

"The language hasn't been a huge issue because of the background she has with the English that she had. We've been assessing her in both English and in Spanish to see if there are any discrepancies," Tilaro said. "We're confident that we can assess her as any kind of student."

Tilaro said the new students have had a "smooth transition," and have not taken attention away from other students.

While in New York, the Santiagos have been thankful for the community which helped out by offering clothes and school uniforms for the kids. Although not a requirement for pre-K students, young Evangeliz wore a uniform for several days because she had no other clothes.

"Everybody in the school building has been helping the family as much as they can," said Tilaro, who added that Jomis accepts what she needs and declines what she does not.

Shortly after talking to the Western New York Catholic, Tilaro said the Santiagos returned to Puerto Rico after Jomis and her husband got their jobs back.

In late November, more than nine weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, many residents of the island are trying to pull their lives back together somewhere else. For at least 400 of them, that somewhere else is Buffalo. That's why Holy Cross Parish on the city's lower West Side assembled a daylong outreach in the parish hall to provide counseling from agencies offering social services, housing, employment counseling, medical insurance, food, furniture and schooling.

"Almost everyone is saying there are more people on their way," said Deacon Miguel Santos, who has been a member of Holy Cross Parish for 36 years. "People are arriving here, not because they want to be here. They are distraught."

Organizers of the event are already considering holding another outreach in the future. "Catholic Charities has been amazing to work with," said Nadia Pizarro, co-chair of the local efforts subcommittee of the Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria Relief Fund. "They have the diversity of services and the willingness to work with the clientele."

Those willing to contribute can donate things like pots, pans, window dressing, towels, coats and boots at Ladies of Charity, 1122 Broadway or the Catholic Charities location at 525 Washington St. Furniture donations are being accepted at St. Vincent de Paul at 1298 Main St., in Buffalo.  

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