Wilmarie Rosado-Lozada had a decent-paying job as a dental hygienist and a good life back in her hometown of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.
That is, until about two months ago when Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico and all but destroyed her city near the southeastern coast of the island. Rosado-Lozada lost her home and her job.
With no place to live or a livelihood on the hurricane ravaged island, Rosado-Lozada decided she and 2-year-old son Yeric Marcano would leave Puerto Rico for the mainland, even though her lack of English skills might prove to be a barrier. She prevailed upon a visitor to the island from Buffalo to help her launch a new life in the City of Good Neighbors.
"She showed me her tickets. I think she has been here like, maybe, two weeks," said Willie Olivencia Jr. of the Augustin "Pucho" Olivencia Community Center in Buffalo.
Olivencia, who annually hosts the center's Three Kings celebration, met Rosado-Lozada recently when she was applying to local charities for assistance.
"She has a 2-year-old boy. She shared with me that she was a dental assistant and that, obviously, she lost her job because the place (where she worked) was destroyed. She was renting an apartment in the back of her dad's house, and that was totally destroyed, as well," Olivencia said.
In Buffalo, Rosado-Lozado is temporarily staying at the low-income Maryner Homes complex in an apartment with the woman she met in Puerto Rico.
"She's not on the lease so that the landlord said it was OK for her to stay there for a little bit, but she can't stay there long term. She was really worried about getting an apartment. She went and applied for emergency Food Stamps," Olivencia said. "I had referred her to Catholic Charities so that she can speak with someone to assist her in getting an apartment and get her some winter clothes because, obviously, she's coming from a warm climate. So she wasn't prepared with winter clothes and stuff for her and her baby," he added.
There are thousands of families in the region like Rosado-Lozado's. That's where The News Neediest Fund comes into the picture. Last year, the fund collected more than $176,000 in cash donations to give Western New York families, including nearly 10,000 children, a chance to enjoy the holidays. The 36th annual News Neediest Fund kickoff celebration was held Friday.
Jeselyn Ramos met Rosado-Lozada at Hispanics United of Buffalo on Virginia Street, where Rosado-Lozada also sought assistance. Ramos has been helping Rosado-Lozada navigate in a new community.
"She don't have nobody," Ramos said of Rosado-Lozada and her plight.
"That's why I help her, you know, because it's too sad. It's Christmastime and she don't have family, a place to stay. She don't have nothing," said Ramos, who occasionally acts as interpreter for Rosado-Lozada.
Olivencia has been working with others to assist those still in need on the island of Puerto Rico. He said there is also a new urgency to help those who have since left the island in a bid to make Buffalo their new home.
"The issue here is you have to take into consideration that they left a place that was devastated, where they lost everything. Now they come here and they have nothing. They still have to come up with the first month's rent and security deposit while living with no money. So we're hoping that Catholic Charities will be able to assist (Rosado-Lozada)," Olivencia said.
"We put out a cry to Western New Yorkers to say, through the kindness of people who made donations the first time, send over 400 pallets of water, food, toiletries and baby supplies to the island. Then we were able to raise some money so we could send those things down there. Now, Phase III, is servicing the influx of families that are coming in which, you know, there's a couple hundred families that, so far, have been documented through Catholic Charities, who have come here (the Western New York) to seek assistance," he added.
Olivencia said those efforts are taking place through a cadre of Latino organizations in Buffalo that service the Hispanic community here. Together they formed the Hurricane Maria Relief Committee, which is hodgepodge of human service agencies and social organizations consisting of the Olivencia Community Center, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Day Parade, the Hispanic Heritage Council, the Father Belle Center, Hispanics United 0f Buffalo and the Hispanic Veterans Memorial.
Perhaps, the most immediate need for Rosado-Lozada is to find a place of her own, Olivencia said.
"It's just her and her son. I told her, ' you know, it's probably quicker for you to get like a studio or something where you don't need so many things,'"he said.
Finding employment may be hurdle, but a very necessary one for Rosado-Lozada to clear, as well.
"She's a dental assistant, but she don't know English," said Ramos.
"So we tried to find a job for her, but ... she needs to learn a little bit more English. I think Monday we're going to try to go to adult English classes on Virginia Street to see if she can apply for classes over there," Ramos added.
It's a lot to aim for in just two weeks time in Buffalo, but with a bit of help, Ramos is confident her new friend will settle into her new home just as Ramos struggled to do four years ago.
The News Neediest fund, which is administered by the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, is in its 36th campaign. Toys are distributed to needy families through the WNY Holiday Partnership. The partnership is a collaboration of The Buffalo News Neediest Fund, the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County and Greater Niagara, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo and the Northtowns, 211 WNY-Olmsted Center for Sight, FATHERS, Hamburg Youth Bureau, Ladies of Charity, Lancaster Youth Bureau, New Creation Fellowship, Niagara County Partnership, Response to Love Center, the Salvation Army, the USMC Toys for Tots and the Service Collaborative of WNY Inc.
You may make a donation online at http://buffalonews.com/news-neediest/ by sending a check to The News Neediest c/o The Buffalo News, PO Box 2667, Buffalo, NY, 14240.
For information about how to apply to receive the holiday gifts, and application locations, dates and times, call 2-1-1 or 888-696-9211.