The holidays are times when traditions are born, when gathering together holds more sentiment and when houses become homes. Whether your welcoming in generations of family and friends, or your traveling hundreds of miles to spend time with your loved ones, the phrase “Home for the Holidays” stirs emotions in all of us. However, for those dealing with the chaos caused by a sudden change in their living situation, the holidays are often accompanied by constant reminders that their sense of home has been washed away.
Surviving the utter destruction that swept through Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria was just the beginning of an arduous journey that led Yolanda and Osvaldo to Central Florida and ultimately to Habitat for Humanity. “The experience was horribly devastating,” says Yolanda. “We lost our electricity, we lost food and there was no water. A lot of lives were lost on the island.” In fact, nearly 3,000 deaths we’re caused by the hurricane.
With the help of a church located in the states, the couple fled their home in Puerto Rico, destined for Sanford, Florida, with only the belongings they could carry in two suitcases. After spending their first month in a hotel in Sanford, they were able to find an apartment in Casselberry. However, after their first year in the apartment, the rent was set to increase to a point that would challenge their means.
“I started searching in August for other options, rental opportunities, but none suited our economic abilities,” said Yolanda. “I turned on the news and an interview that mentioned a community being developed by Habitat for Humanity caught my attention.”
The community was Habitat for Humanity’s Veteran’s Village in Umatilla, Florida. Veteran’s Village is a collaborative project that provides access to affordable quality housing and holistic wraparound services through a partnership with Combat Veterans to Careers.
“There’s our House!” Yolanda remembers saying to her husband. What she didn’t remember was hearing any contact information. A week went by and, while in prayer and searching the internet, Yolanda found the information she was looking for and, after confirming her husband Osvaldo was a Veteran of the Vietnam war, they began the process.
The couple celebrated their first Christmas in their new home with their children who traveled to spend the holidays with them. “Our new home was full of joy, many emotions and gratitude,” said Yolanda. They also brought with them the tradition of “Three Kings Day,” a Latin-American celebration akin to the “Feast of the Epiphany,” along with songs from the island and traditional holiday cuisine.
“In Puerto Rico, everything is decorated with lights during the Christmas season and that’s exactly what we did here,” said Yolanda. “We decorated the outside of our house as well as the inside with our Christmas Tree.”
The couple says the warmth of their new community has contributed to them feeling at home. They’ve developed “marvelous friendships,” sharing meals and great conversations with their new neighbors.
Having a “home” again was more than just finding an affordable place to live for Yolanda as Osvaldo. “In this stage of our lives, my husband and I are enjoying the peace and tranquility which God has gifted us through our new house,” she said. “And a house becomes a home by the love that is shared in it.”