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From hurricane to homeownership: the reinvention of Idalis Rios
When Idalis Rios and her daughters left Puerto Rico for Springfield in 2017, in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria, she arrived with $600—a gift from her grandfather to help her survive.
For years prior, she’d weathered different kinds of storms on the island, including a domestic violence situation with her now ex-husband, who was sent to prison. “It’s not a good story,” says Idalis. “Thank God I got out. After, I got my Section 8 voucher and I was able to be with my daughters at a safe place.”
But next steps—finding a job, navigating childcare—proved hard. “As a single mom, everyone used to judge me, like ‘Oh, she doesn’t do anything for her life.’ In Puerto Rico it’s very difficult to find a job, and I didn’t have help from anyone. I wasn’t going to leave my kids alone, I needed to protect them.”
Which she managed to do, until she couldn’t: After the hurricane, there was no electricity, no water, no food. “It was very difficult, I started to get very anxious. I walked in the streets to get help, to get water. My daughters were like, ‘Mom, I’m hungry.’ I had an EBT card but the system didn’t work. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what am I supposed to do?’”
When Idalis looks back at this dark time, and the journey stateside that was to come, she’s adamant about one thing. “I’d change absolutely nothing in my past. If I did, it’s likely to change the present. And I don’t want to change my present,” she says. “I’m blessed, everything has turned out so beautiful.”
No small statement coming from a woman who started a new job at a Springfield hotel—as a receptionist—right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Who before that had been working 10-hour days at an Amazon warehouse in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, as a stower (“You had stand in the same place all the time to scan the merchandise, no matter how heavy, and quickly put it in boxes, it was very tiring”). The Amazon job was the first she landed in the area, but she wanted to find something else, something better.
After Idalis lost her short-lived hotel job in 2020, she didn’t consider collecting unemployment (“I didn’t want that for me, I needed to work”). So she talked her way into a part-time job at a laundromat (“I’ve never worked with clothes before, but please show me, I need a job!”). And kept looking for other work.
Her resolve paid off: “I got a job as an administrator for customer service at Dream Decor, a furniture store here in Springfield, making fifteen an hour,” says Idalis. “Wonderful people, I loved it there.”
Today, Idalis works full-time as a customer support administrator for a lease-to-own company, making nearly $20 an hour. In February 2022, she purchased a three-bedroom home in Springfield, which she shares with daughters Yanir and Rinay, ages 19 and 16 (“It’s the same letters for both, Rinay is Yanir backward”). She loves working from home (“My company sent me everything I need—my headsets, a monitor—I’ve been there almost a year”) and spending time in her yard, where there’s space for her two Pomeranians (“Toby and Mimi, they are my life, watching them run is my best hobby ever”).
“I’ve reinvented myself. I feel so great, so powerful,” says Idalis. “In Puerto Rico, there were no doors opening for me, not even windows opening for me. But I wanted better, I searched for better. I never threw in the towel, I was never done. I came here and received so much help from so many people. At Way Finders, they know you have a story, they take the time to get to know you as a person.”
Way Finders played a key role in Idalis’s housing story at several points: Upon arrival to Springfield, when she received help to transfer her voucher. When she was temporarily housed in a hotel, after staying with a relative. And when she received emergency financial housing assistance (first, last, security) needed to secure an apartment. “We wanted our own place so bad. I got my apartment on December 15, 2017,” she says. “It was amazing, the apartment was huge!”
Idalis later connected with FSS Specialist Evelyn Baez, who at the time was coordinating the economic mobility program Supporting Neighborhood Opportunities in Massachusetts (“SNO Mass”). The program aims to help voucher recipients with school-aged children move to communities that offer greater health and educational opportunities. “Evelyn is the most kind human being. She went with me to look at houses to rent. She used to hear me like struggling and crying. She’d say, ‘I’m with you, I’m here.’ She was my shoulder to cry on.”
Idalis kept searching for a rental through SNO Mass that suited her family’s needs (location, size, condition), later assisted by Housing Mobility Program Specialist Peter Delgado. But to no avail. Her frustration with her current rental situation—constant noise from neighbors, encounters with disrespectful residents—left her feeling desperate to move out.
Peter had an idea, and connected Idalis with a local realtor. At the second house the realtor showed her, Idalis had visions—all of them positive.
“When we entered the house, it was like a dream come true,” she says. “I could imagine where I was going to put my Christmas tree, all my decorations, you know. I could imagine my stuff at this place. I said, ‘This is the one! Yep, this is the one.’”
Congratulations to you, Idalis!