Orange County

‘It changed my life’: School supports students who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Five years have passed since Hurricane Maria destroyed parts of Puerto Rico and killed thousands.


The damage forced families to leave the island and move to Central Florida.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, Channel 9′s Alexa Lorenzo met with one of the students who made that move.

For thousands of students at Colonial High School, it was just the start of another typical day.

But for a handful of them, it was the start of what felt like another life.

Read: Puerto Rican UCF grad student paving way for women in aerospace industry

“It’s OK to be sad,” said UCF student Zuleyka Avila. “It’s OK, it’s OK to cry.”

Avila was one of the roughly 3,000 students who enrolled in an Orange County Public School after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico in 2017.

She remembered how frantic everything was and the fear she and so many others felt when arriving in Orlando.

Superintendent Dr. Maria Vazquez helped register students, but once they arrived in the classroom, the dread and doubt remained.

Read: New data shows Hispanics twice as likely to be killed by gun violence in Florida

“Just that sense of loss and not feeling like you belonged was very impactful,” she said.

Orange County School Board member Johanna López was a teacher at Colonial High in 2017 and she saw the struggle.

Once students started enrolling from Puerto Rico, she set up a class with nearly 70 kids from the island to make them know they belonged.

“They need that type of a familia environment, like a home,” López said.

Read: WATCH: ‘Hurricane Maria: Power & Perseverance’

And for Zuleyka, that was all the difference.

“It changed my life,” she said.

Zuleyka graduated from Colonial High School, received her associate’s degree at Valencia College, and is now a few months away from graduating with her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from UCF.

“I always look back and see what they did for me,” Avila said. “When I’m now at the classroom, I see those kids that came here for different reasons, and I say, you know, I feel empathy with them.”

Avila is now interning at an Orange County Public School and hopes to secure a full-time job with the district.

Many students found success in Central Florida like Zuleyka.

But Superintendent Vasquez said that if they find themselves in that situation again, they are now better prepared to support those who seek refuge, both academically and from a mental health standpoint.

“I think that the coordination of agencies has gotten much better,” she said. “We have systems that we’re able to deploy much quicker.”

Five years after Hurricane Maria, Zuleyka knows this journey is going to lead her to the most rewarding moment in her life when she walks across the stage as a UCF graduate and hopefully an OCPS educator.

“Thank you, God, I made it,” Avila said. “Incredible.”

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