Orlando's HOLA office is the first stop for many Puerto Rican evacuees

HOLA coordinator greets newcomers with a smile, compassion and support

ORLANDO, Fla. – Ana Cruz, coordinator of the City of Orlando's Hispanic Office for Local Assistance, is this week's Getting Results Award winner. 

HOLA is one of the first stops for evacuees coming to Central Florida from Puerto Rico.

Many walk through the doors nervous, uncertain and with little more than what they can fit in a suitcase.

"It's been hectic, it's been crazy, it's been emotional," Cruz said, reflecting on the past month since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. "Sometimes they come and you can see the sadness on their face, and that really hits me." 

Cruz and her team are there to meet them with a smile and a familiar voice.

"Sometimes, I try to start off with a joke," she said. "I ask what town they're from and I try to tell them something about it. Their face changes, and they light up and then they feel a bit comfortable."  

Cruz moved here from Caguas, Puerto Rico, 20 years ago and said she sees herself in the families sitting across from her.

"My situation was different when I moved here but one day, this was new to me as well. One day I needed guidance, one day I needed a friend to tell me in my language where to go and what to do, and that's what they can get here when they come to HOLA," Cruz said.

Cruz has images of the island posted around her office, and her thoughts are often with the people there. 

"Because I'm from Puerto Rico, I know their pain, because I'm feeling that pain too," she said. "But I always tell them things are going to get better, things are going to get better. You have to have faith, you have to work hard, but you can make it here as well."

When Cruz gets to work, there's usually a stack of voicemail messages to return and hundreds of emails. Many of the messages are coming from people who are still on the island and are thinking of coming here.

"They're letting us know, 'I'm going to be arriving on this date. Where can I go? What should I do? Where can I get the help?,'" she said.

Cruz said that between the theme parks and the holidays approaching there are enough jobs. Housing, she said, is the problem.

"I'm telling these people, 'Please have a place to stay when you get here,'" Cruz said.

Cruz was nominated by the City of Orlando Director of Multicultural Affairs Luis Martinez. 

"She has done an amazing job," he said. "Her personality and character are perfect when dealing with people who are suffering."

Martinez said it's the first time the HOLA office has had to deal with a tragedy of this size.  

"People from all levels are coming. I have seen doctors. I have seen attorneys. I have seen nurses. I have seen realtors," Cruz said. "A lot of people are coming from all walks of life because this affected everyone on the island."

About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.