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Harrisburg referral center works to get hurricane evacuees on their feet

HARRISBURG, P.A. --- The Latino Hispanic American Community Center is working with more than 230 individuals from hurricane-affected areas, particularly Puerto Ricans forced to leave their homes after Hurricane Maria hit in September.

"We are, every day, seeing someone new," said Gloria Vazquez Merrick, executive director of the LHACC.

Since the end of September, more evacuees are finding their way to the intake-referral center that serves Perry, Dauphin and Cumberland County.

Vazquez Merrick said when a person comes to their office, generally with next to nothing to their name, they look to get them back on their feet.

"First thing we do is try and stabilize them by meeting their urgent and eminent needs, those being food, clothing, shelter and then the jobs," said Vazquez Merrick.

She said the nonprofit relies heavily on donations and sponsors to keep up with the need.

With the influx of people following the hard hurricane season, she said resources become stretched.

But she said their partners keep stepping up to the plate.

"All these little donations add up and they help us to be able to provide even more support to the families that are coming in," said Vazquez Merrick.

Those donations find their way into the hands of Puerto Rico native, Paula Lewis, 24.

She's been a Harrisburg resident for a week now, living with family from the area.

Her visit to the center on Friday included getting a coat for the cold weather.

"We don't have that type of clothes in a tropical climate. So we come here and we're definitely not prepared for the weather and the Christmas season," said Lewis.

Her siblings and parents are currently in Philadelphia but she took a train to the capitol seeking job opportunities.

"I thought I had maybe more possibilities and opportunities to get around and look for those opportunities," said Lewis.

She's looking to start from scratch in Harrisburg with home still on her mind.

"When I feel like maybe things are getting better down in Puerto Rico, I would love to go back to my island. Beautiful, paradise island," said Lewis.

With her family both near and far, she said she's thankful for the LHACC for being there for her in her new home.

"Knowing we have help outside of Puerto Rico, it gives so much hope to people that are really struggling now," said Lewis.

Vazquez Merrick said the items most needed by the LHACC is monetary donations, as well as adult presents for the holiday season.

For more information, visit their website here.