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HCC Program Helps Hurricane Evacuees from Puerto Rico Build New Lives, Careers

HOLYOKE — In Puerto Rico, before Hurricane Maria forced thousands to flee the devastated island, Maria Crespo Santos had been working as a medical technician in a pathology laboratory and blood bank. 

“I like to work with people,” she said recently. “I like to work in the medical field.”

The storm, however, had caused too much damage, and, like so many others, she left.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I don’t live in Puerto Rico; I survive in Puerto Rico.”

Crespo Santos, 58, moved to Western Mass. about a year ago. She now lives with her sister in Chicopee and works in retail, but thanks to a Holyoke Community College ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) program for Puerto Rican evacuees, she is on the road back to a career in the medical field. 

She was one of more than two dozen students recognized for completing the five-month ESOL program. With her improved English skills, Crespo Santos has already been accepted into a medical assistant training program at HCC that begins in February.

“It’s a pleasure and an honor to be part of this group,” she said at a Dec. 20 celebration that included a feast of traditional Puerto Rican food. “The teachers and advisers have a commitment to us, and I don’t quit. I have to follow my dreams. Follow my goals. I have challenges, but I try very hard.”

The Puerto Rican New Arrivals Program started July 23 and concluded Dec. 20 with a recognition ceremony and feast at HCC’s Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center (PAFEC) in downtown Holyoke. The HCC division of Business and Community Services offered the free ESOL program specifically for residents of Puerto Rico who left the island after Hurricane Maria and relocated to Western Mass.

Classes were held Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and funded through a National Dislocated Worker Grant administered by the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board in partnership with the MassHire Holyoke and MassHire Springfield career centers.

The program focused on much more than just English language skills, however. Students received lessons in computer literacy at the Gill Technology Center on the first floor of PAFEC, and they received job-search and résumé-development support from advisers at HCC and counselors at the MassHire career centers. 

Community integration and civic engagement was also part of the curriculum. Guest lecturers included state Rep. Aaron Vega and Holyoke mayor Alex Morse, who provided lessons on state and local government. Classes took field trips to the Holyoke Public Library, the Nuestras Raices farm, and Springfield Museums. 

The students came in with different levels of English-language skills, and they are heading in different directions. Some have found jobs; others will continue to participate in HCC’s regular, free ESOL classes; while some, like Crespo Santos, have enrolled in one of HCC’s workforce-training programs. Many have expressed an interested in continuing their education as students at HCC.

“I admire you so much for focusing on your next steps,” HCC President Christina Royal said. “Our purpose at Holyoke Community College is to serve the community, and you are part of our community. Thanks for being part of this, and as you move on, we hope you’ll think about the skills you need for the jobs you’re looking for and just know we are here to help.”

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