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Community shows its giving spirit to hurricane survivors who made their way here

Kim Meissner was in the central office of Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy about three weeks ago when the secretary told her that six new students from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico had enrolled at the school that day.

Eight students from Puerto Rico arrived at the school on Monday, then seven each on Tuesday and Wednesday. The week before that, 20 kids from Puerto Rico enrolled at the pre-K through 8th grade school on South Elmwood Avenue.

"I came home and cried," said Meissner, a middle school teacher. "I know these kids don't want to be here. They have no choice."

Throughout this year, when tragedy struck and lives were turned upside down, Western New Yorkers rallied to do whatever they could to help. They delivered dinners every night to the family of a Grand Island woman seriously injured by a hit-and-run motorist. They set up a gofundme.com account for 90 people left homeless by a West Side arson. And they raised more than $90,000 for the family of a Buffalo police officer who died in a tragic diving accident.

Two months after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, dozens of families are arriving in Buffalo to stay with relatives and start new lives. Many are arriving with nothing but a suitcase.

Meissner, whose mother is from Puerto Rico and who lived there for several years as a child, wanted to help the new students at her school as well as their families.

She posted a message to West Side Alive!, a Facebook group of about 3,100 West Side area residents, asking for donations of new and gently used coats, scarves, gloves and mittens.

"These kiddos have been living in third world country conditions for the past month," she wrote.

The donations started pouring in. Bags of coats were dropped off. One woman ordered 25 children's coats through JC Penney. A week later she ordered 27 pairs of boots, then 17 more.

Kim Meissner helps Camilla Figueroa, 12, of Guyan, Puerto Rico, try on a coat, at Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy #76 in Buffalo, N.Y., on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. Figueroa came here a week ago with her mother Jennifer Sanchez. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Meissner learned about other families in need. One extended family of seven had just moved into an apartmentthat  had no furnishings, just three air mattresses and a cooler.

She posted another message on the Facebook group about their situation and by the end of the week, "I had their apartment furnished."

Meissner has organized three clothing pickups already, the latest this past Saturday. The need continues. On Tuesday she put out a call for gently used clothes for three girls sizes 14 to 16 (girls sizes).

She's blown away by the kindness the community has shown for the new students, up to about 90 at Herman Badillo as of this week.

"I think it's amazing," she said. "The Western New York community is so amazing and giving."

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