Editor’s note: The family’s last name is omitted to protect minors in the family.
MELBOURNE | A united and merry Christmas didn’t seem like a possibility for Gilcer Marie, who, along with her family, witnessed devastation in her hometown of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
But the kindness of her stateside family and a faith community on Florida’s east coast has offered her refuge after the storm, hope for her future and a Merry Christmas.
“For me, this Christmas will be the first time in 20 years that the whole family is together,” said the Puerto Rican teacher who now serves as a substitute teacher at Melbourne Central Catholic High School. “Although we had tried to do this for years, God chose this moment for that to happen.”
Before the storms hit, Glicer Marie and her husband, Andrés — parents of three children — lived and worked on the island. Glicer Marie was preparing to start a new teaching job in Puerto Rico, and Andrés was also working a new job after three years of unemployment. He credited the intercession of the Virgin Mary in his finding a job.
“My mother-in-law has a great Marian devotion and told me stories of how the Virgin Mary had granted her requests,” Andrés explained. “So, I sat before the painting of the Virgin Mary that we have at home and said, ‘Please give me an opportunity to carry my family forward; to provide for them economically so that I can make a holy place for you in our house that is worthy of you as you deserve.’”
Soon after, he was offered a new job, but the elation would not last long. Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island and left it reeling. Workplaces were destroyed; schools were closed. Both Glicer Marie and Andrés, along with so many Puerto Ricans, were without work.
The couple had pondered the idea of leaving for the U.S. for several years due to the waning economy on the island. Now faced with the devastation of the hurricanes, the issue was even more pressing.
“I thought what do I do now? How do I pay the bills? Everything had come to a standstill in Puerto Rico,” Andrés said.
Two weeks later came the opportunity to move to Florida.
“I thought, OK. These are mysterious ways,” Andrés recalled.
Glicer Marie’s family in Florida could see the magnitude of what had happened in Puerto Rico and began efforts to get her family off the island. Her aunt was able to procure humanitarian flights, but they had to decide quickly.
“I had 10 minutes,” Glicer Marie recalled. “I sat the kids down and explained everything to them.”
But the decision to leave was not easy, including for their youngest son, 13-year-old Jesús. Even he debated about staying and leaving.
“I knew I would miss my friends, but we thought about the future and decided to leave,” Jesús said. “If we stayed, we didn’t know what would happen in the months ahead. If we left, new doors would be open.”
The decision was made for Andrés to leave the island with their children: Jesús, 17-year-old Andrea Marie and eldest son Joseph.
“Leaving mom at the airport was the most painful because we had never been separated,” Jesús said.
The family stayed with Carla Fernandez, Glicer Marie’s sister, a Spanish teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Melbourne. Both Andrés and Joseph immediately sought work.
Fernandez’s parish welcomed the family, providing for their every need. Father Karl Bergin, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, immediately granted Jesús a scholarship to continue seventh grade. Andrea Marie started school at Heritage High School, where her cousin also attends.
“I was nervous about the first day of school,” Jesús said. “I took it a day at a time until I gained confidence. Now it’s great. Some students helped me out, translated some things, and showed me the ropes.” Jesús joined a local baseball team and said he has made several friends.
Glicer Marie worked another week before rejoining her family in Melbourne thanks to the help of her brother, Marcos, who secured a flight for her and their sister, Ruth, with the help of his company.
“It was hard for me to come like this, but it has been a joy to see how my family has responded,” Glicer Marie said. “I feel that God has taught me to say, ‘Here I am. Do your will.’”
Three months after the hurricanes, the family is finally feeling settled. They hope to have enough for a home in January. Glicer Marie said the family is “extremely grateful” to Our Lady of Lourdes, Melbourne Central Catholic and their own family because “they have truly gone above and beyond for us.”
“We are thankful to God that we are alive,” said Gilcer Marie. “What we lived through in Puerto Rico was not easy. We are also grateful because coming here has been a dream of ours and it’s finally reality. … We have been so loved. It’s something hard to put into words. My husband said he has never seen so many people united. Arriving here there was nothing but blessings.”