Sofia Garcia Reyes has been through a lot in the past six months. But she is finally starting to settle in.
After leaving her home in Puerto Rico – and moving to Orlando – she now is starting to feel like she’s ready to take the next steps. In early February, she moved into an apartment with three new roommates, students at UCF.
With the help of her dad, who’s an auto mechanic back in Puerto Rico, she found a used minivan — and now she is starting a job, working the front desk at a Holiday Inn near Disney.
The hours may be long and she is far from home, but Sofia is making plans.
“I have always been independent,” she says, “but I’ve had to become more independent, more like an adult. I’ve grown up very much these last few months.”
Indeed, when Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico in September 2017, Sofia, her two siblings and her parents huddled in her parents’ bedroom –occasionally peering out the window at the category 5 winds raging outside.
As the storm raged outside, water began rushing inside their home. By the time the storm passed, they were standing in knee-deep water.
In the hours and days after the hurricane, they cleaned the house, sweeping the water and mud outdoors. They also began the arduous task of trying to remove the many fallen trees that littered streets and landed on houses in their neighborhood.
With no power, they ate canned food – until, after four days, their supplies ran out. Sofia’s parents ventured out to the nearest market, but when they arrived, they found very little food. “There was no food. Only a few canned items. And everybody was waiting in long lines just to go in the market,” says Sofia.
It was an ugly time on the once-beautiful island.
In the weeks after the hurricane, tempers flared and fights broke out routinely – over ice, water, food, and especially gasoline, as people lined up to buy gas for generators. Sofia’s family was luckier than many. They used their generator to power two window-unit air-conditioners and the refrigerator. For light they were grateful to Sofia’s aunt, who works for an airline and managed to send them a package of batteries, which helped them power flashlights.
Financially, however, Sofia’s parents were trying to weather the storm. The hurricane winds blew down the bay doors at her father’s automotive garage and damaged several cars in the process. Before the cars could be returned to their owners, Sofia’s father had to repair the body work. And, to make matters worse, they’d parked Sofia’s mom’s car in the garage – because they felt it would be safe from the storm – but it, too, was damaged.
Sofia’s parents were slow to get back to work. Although her dad could repair cars, her mom works for an exterminator – and though there were plenty of bugs, people were more focused on getting food, water and gasoline than on hiring an exterminator.
Meanwhile, there was no indication when the University of Puerto Rico would begin classes again. Sofia, a freshman, was already behind because of a strike that had interrupted classes last year. So when Sofia read news articles that said that Valencia College and UCF were offering in-state tuition to students fleeing Puerto Rico, she was interested.
The valedictorian of her high school graduating class, Sofia plans to study medicine and become a doctor. So staying on the island – and hoping that she could complete her freshman year over the course of the next year – seemed like a waste of time.
Her parents agreed that it would be the right move, though Sofia would have to leave the island. But, Orlando, she says, felt like home.
So her mom contacted a family friend who lives in Orlando, and Sofia began making plans to move. She enrolled at Valencia and in January 2018, she moved in with a family friend who lives in Lake Nona – where she shared a bedroom with the woman’s 20-year-old daughter.
But the two-bedroom apartment was cramped, because the woman has also taken in her nephew and his wife, who also fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
“I don’t want to make them uncomfortable,” said Sofia, “so I cook and clean a lot. I try to help out.”
Now Sofia is juggling her coursework and a new job. “My parents can help me but they can’t afford an apartment for me,” says Sofia. But right now, she’s not worried about the school-work balance.
“My classes right now are not hard,” says Sofia, “but my priority is studying.”
Meanwhile, she’s grateful to people in Orlando, both at Valencia and those she has met. “Everyone has been so nice,” she says. “Honestly, if there was one place in the country where I wanted to end up, it was Orlando.”