Female student standing in empty school hallway

Hurricane Maria forced Paola Rios Rosario and her family to leave Puerto Rico. She is now a student at Lincoln High School.

“The sound is really ugly and scary,” reads a personal narrative written last month by a student in Nicole Ellis’s ELL language arts class at Lincoln High.

Paola Rios Rosario was newly arrived from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and she was describing her experience of Hurricane Maria, a natural catastrophe she survived with her mother, Alma.

Eight people drowned in Toa Baja, which is about 20 miles west of San Juan. Paola saw one of them get swept away by the rampaging storm surge that reached as high as the 8th floor of some buildings in the town where she has lived all of her life. The next day she saw the man’s body lying in the street like sediment.

The ferocious storm became the only source of power on the island and nothing has yet replaced it in many areas.

“The ceiling fans stopped when the electricity went out,” Paola remembers. “But then the winds came and turned them back on. It was like they were running again.”

In the wake of the disaster Paola’s family, like thousands of others in the beleaguered US territory, enacted a contingency plan they’d discussed before Maria hit. She came to the mainland to live with the family of her Uncle Harry and Aunt Rosa and her cousins Adaliz, Arieliz and Amaryliz who are DMPS students ranging from preschool to middle school. Having already lost her father when she was five, it was doubly hard for Paola to separate from her mother. But they both recognized the importance of her getting back into school – and they talk every day. Paola will return home next summer but now plans to finish high school here.

“Paola is extremely studious and motivated,” said Ellis. “Even though she was the newcomer to our class, she reaches out and helps the others however she can.”

Maria wreaked her havoc in Toa Baja on September 19th and 20th. The following week, students at Lincoln were fundraising for the Salvation Army to help with hurricane relief. Otherwise, it was a typically busy fall week, full of golf and swimming meets, volleyball matches, band practice, etc. They didn’t know they would soon feel the force of those 150+ mph winds in the person of a new student blown all the way to Des Moines.

Despite that Paola describes school here as more structured and organized than the public school she attended in Toa Baja, she brought enough credits with her to be placed as a junior. She was on an accounting track back home, but there’s been a change of plans and classes. Besides her core ELL classes in math, science and language arts, she chose electives in chorus, gym and theater.

“I am going to become a DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agent and make the world a better place,” she said, with Ellis acting as interpreter. “I want to fight evil.”

In the month since she arrived, Paola marked her 16th birthday. She’s certainly had sweeter ones, but this one did not go uncelebrated in her home away from home. When she told us about it through Ellis, the two shared a laugh over a mistranslation.

“Puerto Rican Spanish is a slightly different dialect,” Ellis explained. “So when she was telling me that a bunch of balloons fell on her, I was hearing bombs.”

Ellis grew up in Waukee and went to Iowa State University. She’s a homegrown Iowa girl who found her life’s purpose during an extended stay in Peru while still in college and loves the job she’s had for three years on her way to becoming a principal. At a glance, she and Paola appear to have little in common. But the rapport that quickly established between a hurricane refugee and the teacher she found in the eye of her storm is readily apparent.

Sometimes the ‘S’ in DMPS stands for sanctuary, too.

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