For nearly three decades, the largest city in western Massachusetts has held a flag raising ceremony on the first Monday in November to celebrate Puerto Rican heritage and the cultural contributions of the people from the Caribbean island. Today’s Puerto Rican flag raising at Springfield City Hall was especially poignant.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno dedicated this year’s annual Puerto Rican flag raising to the volunteers from western Massachusetts who raised money and relief supplies after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. He also pledged to help and support people who have evacuated Puerto Rico and relocated to Springfield.
"They are our citizens, our brothers and sisters and in times of tragedy Springfield has shown we come together as one," said Sarno.
The New North Citizens Council social service agency has been designated as the official welcome center in Springfield for families and individuals who have recently evacuated Puerto Rico.
The mayor’s office has also published a resource guide to help the new arrivals.
"It gives all the Qs and As and where to go for help," said Sarno.
New North Citizens Council Executive Director Maria Ligus said her staff has, so far, helped 172 families who have relocated from Puerto Rico in the last two months.
"The basic needs we take for granted is what they need and housing is a big issue," said Ligus.
The Springfield Public Schools have enrolled 202 children from Puerto Rico as of last Friday and is expecting more, according to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Lydia Martinez. Half the new students are in elementary schools.
" We make sure the children have their uniforms, a coat, and backpack with school supplies," said Martinez. " We are making sure they connect with the New North Citizens Council."
The school department is not receiving any additional state or federal financial support for the new students.
A group of volunteers from Springfield, Holyoke, and Westfield called Western Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico was recognized at the City Hall ceremony for organizing the collection of relief supplies and money.
Waleska Lugo-DeJesus, one of the leaders of the coalition, said 500 boxes of supplies such as cleaning products, bottled water, and canned food were donated locally and sent to Puerto Rico on three relief flights.
A relief fund set up at Freedom Credit Union has $100,000.
" Are next phase in the coalition is to allocate those dollars to help not only the island but the families here," said Lugo-DeJesus.
Gumersindo Gomez, Executive Director of the Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts, told the crowd gathered for the flag raising that he believed there would be positive outcomes from the natural disaster, including the realization by a majority of Americans that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
" Probably 60 percent of the people here are not Puerto Ricans, but they are here because they know we are one of you and we are brothers and sisters in his city," said Gomez.
Monday’s ceremony drew a large number of candidates who are on Tuesday’s ballot for City Council and School Committee in Springfield.