Amazon “Sleigh” Delivers

Allan Appel PhotoMove over, Santa’s Sleigh. Amazon got here first, giving new humane resonance to the term “fulfillment.”

A 53-foot-long truck, otherwise known as the Amazon Giving Tour, showed up at Junta for Progressive Action on Grand Avenue Tuesday bearing $15,000 worth of not just toys but bed sheets, deodorant, towels, diapers galore, and winter clothing.

These are being distributed to the nearly 600 people who have arrived in New Haven from Puerto Rico since the Sept. 18 devastation of Hurricane Maria.

They include the Perez family, comprised of parents Efrain and Demaris, and their three kids, Efrain, Jr., Wilfredo, and Diego. They family came here after the Hurricane because of Diego’s serious medical condition.

At a press conference with city and Amazon staff at Junta, one of the point organizations of the city’s task force helping refugees, Efrain Perez said, “We lost everything, but my main concern is my son who has epilepsy and cerebral palsy, and the hospitals there [in Puerto Rico] are on generators. My kids [as a result of assistance provided in New Haven] are able to get an education. I want to thank everyone for welcoming us to Connecticut.” (Perez spoke in Spanish; a translator repeated the remarks in English.)

The Perez boys are among 157 kids from Puerto Rico now enrolled in New Haven schools, said Deputy Director for Emergency Operations Rick Fontana, who is heading up a citywide task force charged with easing their transition.

Junta Director of Community Outreach Paola Serrecchia said people continue to arrive everyday, with these most recent stats:  246 adults, 202 children, and 97 elderly people. Many have demanding medical needs, as well as, of course, the basic requirements of shelter, food, and clothing.

Both Serrecchia and Fontana praised the 25 agencies citywide whose members meet, under Fontana’s leadership, once a week to address the complex and immediate needs of the new arrivals on an individualized basis.

The chief challenge in the emergency is housing, added Junta Interim CEO Alicia Caraballo. The Perez family, for example, while receiving help filing paperwork for various housing options,  had been living in an apartment on Warren Street in Wooster Square. It proved to be too small for the five of them, Fontana said. Now, while an application is being expedited with the housing authority, the family is living in two rooms at La Quinta Suites at Long Wharf.

He said the proximity to bus lines there makes it better.  “You can’t separate a family,” he added.

Junta has been working with all these families since September helping to fill out FEMA applications, getting the process of housing under way with, for example, the Housing Authority of New Haven, and coordinating with the Fair Haven Community Health Center and Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Both of those medicalorganizations have taken in the newcomers with a range of pressing problems—from heart attacks to renal failure to chemotherapy—immediately, bypassing or expediting the paperwork involved, Fontana added.

Remarkably, Junta, a portal for the families, has been doing much of the initiating work with a single case manager for all those families. Mayor Toni Harp praised Yale University, which recently gave a grant of $50,000 to enable Junta to hire a second case manager.

All told, the city expects in the end about 2,000 refugees from the hurricane to arrive in town, Fontana estimated. He said to that end the task force is looking to raise about $1.1 million, with the Yale grant, and other amounts recently contributed by United Way a part of this effort. Other uses of the money include assistance for down-payments on new housing, Fontana added.

Then there are traumas that the new arrivals are facing that shelter, medical care, and warm coats don’t address, said Serrecchia. “We are going to die in a land we don’t know,” Serrecchia paraphrased the sentiments of many of the elderly new arrivals.

Tuesday morning’s arrival of the 53-foot “sleigh truck” was an occasion to celebrate New Haven’s welcoming spirit and a sense of humanity in action during the holiday season.

Amazon spokesperson Lauren Lynch said this is the second season of the tour truck and the first in which the truck is going nationwide. The company chose New Haven, one of 33 stops, both because the area is home to Amazon employees who work at a facility in Wallingford, and also because a new fulfillment center is coming to North Haven next year, along with 1,500 jobs.

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