Helping displaced Puerto Ricans celebrate 3 Kings Day

By Bianca Padró Ocasio, Orlando Sentinel
AP photo/Herminio Rodriguez

For more than 30 years, the traditional Puerto Rico Governors Three Kings Day Party in San Juan brought low-income families a way to obtain presents for their children.

ORLANDO, Fla. - Destiny Cassandra Cueto works the front desk at Star Motel on Highway 192 near Kissimmee, where she tends to the daily physical and mental needs of all her guests.

"The office is more like a therapy room than it is an office nowadays," said Cueto, who lives in the motel with her husband and three kids.

On the week leading up to Saturday's Three Kings' Day, or the Epiphany, she made calls to organizations in Central Florida to ask for toy donations. Jan. 6 is a gift-giving Christian holiday that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. It's celebrated in countries throughout Europe and Latin America, including Puerto Rico.

"I grew up in foster care, so I know what it is to have nothing during the holidays -- to not feel loved, not have anything," Cueto said. "To me, being a child and not being able to control your situation . I don't ever want any child to feel the way I felt growing up."

One of the few who called her back was Father Jose Rodriguez, who leads the service at the Episcopal Church Jesus de Nazaret in Orlando. In a matter of hours Friday night, he organized a group of volunteers to buy more than 100 toys to take to Star Motel on Saturday morning.

Three volunteers, dressed in clothing reminiscent of the three wise men who followed a star to baby Jesus, hand-delivered the toys to the dozens of children living at the extended-stay motel. Kids into their teens lined up to get musical instruments, toy cars and dolls. On the other side of the lawn, a truck pulled up with boxes of food donations.
"This is what's on the other side of Disney," Rodriguez said.
While the motel is not on the list of FEMA-approved hotels for hurricane evacuees, a handful of Puerto Ricans displaced by the September storm call it a temporary home away from home.
"They come with nothing; a lot of them don't even have hope at this point. This is a family, this is not a motel," Cueto said. "A few of them have found jobs, a few others have applied with Social Security and food stamps. But we're all doing our best so that everyone is taken care of."
Nidia Irizarry, 45, is not a motel guest, but Rodriguez insisted she come to the celebration with her two children, Keishla Betancourt Irizarry, 22, and Felix Rodriguez Irizarry, 11.
They arrived in Central Florida Oct. 24 from Manatí, Puerto Rico, a town on the northwest coast of the island. Her daughter, a cancer patient, was overheating inside their home with no power. Her condition worsened, and Irizarry was left with no option but to flee, she said. They have been staying at a Maitland hotel paid for by the American Cancer Society.
"At least for now, I'm not even considering going back. Puerto Rico no longer offers me what I need, in any way," she said.
Irizarry didn't qualify for aid from FEMA because the deed to her home is not under her name. And on the island, medical bills made it difficult to keep up with her mortgage payments. She's now facing foreclosure.
Though under less than ideal circumstances, she says they've found more than what they had back home.
"The only thing I want is the opportunity of having what they need," Irizarry said.

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