From Hurricane Maria, to homelessness, to independence

When Julio Cruz’s home in Puerto Rico was wiped out by Hurricane Maria in 2017, he and his family were forced to live on a basketball court in the outdoors for nearly a week.

He, and his wife and two children were among the earliest evacuees off the devastated island. The Cruzes traveled to live with his sister in western Massachusetts temporarily. He had just $2,000 in his pocket, the clothes on their backs and little else.

Trying to rebuild a life on the mainland extended far beyond their limited financial means. Cruz’s wife fell ill with a chronic brain condition and their plans quickly collapsed. They became homeless.

“I couldn’t believe what our lives had become, that quickly. We lost everything. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do,” Cruz said recently.

He sought help from a local social service agency, which referred Cruz and his family to the Center for Human Development to connect them with safe, emergency housing. Their journey out of homelessness started at the agency’s Diversion, Shelter and Housing program in Palmer.

They family moved into a furnished, two-bedroom unit.

“What struck me from the first day I met Julio was how grateful he was. He thanked us every single day he was there,” program supervisor Datsy Aponte said.

She added that Cruz was quick to offer help with clean-up and odd jobs around the complex, and was a regular presence on the basketball court and playground with his children. Once his wife’s medical problems stabilized and his children were settled in school, he began looking for work in earnest.

“I told him to meet me at my office one day, bring a resume, even it was handwritten, and I would help him start looking for a job. I’ve made those offers to clients before and some haven’t even shown up for the meeting. Julio came early,” Aponte said with a laugh.

Included in his job hunt was a series of applications for positions within CHD. Cruz had worked a maintenance and security job in Puerto Rico, and there was an opening in the maintenance department there. Cruz applied and was called for an interview. Then, he was invited in for a second.

“They offered me the job on that second day. And I’ll be honest, I cried,” he said. 

Cruz has been a full-time employee for CHD since November and his family recently moved in to a market rate apartment in Monson. He said they enjoy the quiet community and he is thrilled to have regained his independence.

“He’s such a good guy. And he went from being my client to part of the CHD family,” Aponte said. 

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