Family displaced by lightning strike getting back on their feet with community’s help

Published July 3 2018
Updated July 3 2018

The Jaca family lost everything when their apartment building caught fire last month from a lightning strike, just months after they arrived in Tampa after fleeing hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico.

An outpouring of support from their new community is helping them get back on their feet.

"We feel really blessed," said Joel Jaca. He created a GoFundMe account after the June 13 fire and it has received approximately $4,600 toward its $5,000 goal.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE They fled Puerto Rico with their possessions, which they lost in an apartment fire

The family has been contacted by various people offering other forms of assistance, from a couple offering to put down a security deposit for them, to furniture for their new apartment or home.

"Sometimes it’s overwhelming, because there are lots of people calling at once," Arelys Gomez said. "But we’re grateful for that."

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last fall, it left the family without water or electricity.

The hurricane’s fallout strained hospitals and shuttered the schools, pushing the Jacas to come to Florida in hopes of a new life with all their belongings crammed in suitcases.

They arrived in Tampa in January, with four generations of family. Joel Jaca and Arelys Gomez, both 40, have three children — Nelson, now 17; Mia, 12; and Fabiola, 9. They came with Gomez’s mother, Carmen Cabrera, and 90-year-old grandfather, Jose Cabrera.

Carmen Cabrera was in the apartment with the children and Jose Cabrera when the fire alarms started going off.

She called Joel Jaca and her daughter, who were at Walmart to buy him shorts and a cooler for his first day at a new post office job.

Then, the family was running out of the apartment with only the things they could quickly grab — Jose Cabrera grabbed his wallet, the daughters grabbed their plush toys.

They stayed in a neighbor’s living room that night, and Joel Jaca left for his first day at the new job at 6 a.m. the next morning. Now, the family is back staying at the Clarion Inn where they spent their first several months in Tampa, the family of seven split between two rooms.

As their story spread, community members began to show up at the hotel with donations of clothes and food, and call with questions about how to best help.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office reached out to help secure medicine for their 90-year-old great-grandfather and to help with the housing search.

Before starting his new job with the postal service, Joel Jaca worked at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa for three months. His former co-workers from that job are now gathering donations for the family, and a few co-workers visited them at the hotel last week to bring some by.

Jaca said he was amazed to see that type of response from a place where he had worked such a short period of time.

Arelys Gomez said that a group of parents at her son Nelson Jaca’s high school have also started collecting donations for them.

Somos Puerto Rico Tampa, a local group Jeannie Calderin created to help Puerto Ricans coming to Florida after Hurricane Maria, is organizing a fundraiser for the family.

Since creating it, Calderin has helped more than 300 people find jobs, and also helps the families find housing.

Calderin first met the Jacas when she was taking food and clothes to other displaced families at the Clarion Inn shortly after the Jacas arrived.

When Arelys Gomez called her after the fire, she knew something had gone wrong.

Last week, Calderin partnered with the Mission of Miracles and a local radio station to host a donation drive, where they asked for gift cards for the family and raised $300.

"Even though they are going through this, they are positive," Calderin said. "We are a resilient people. We may buckle, but we don’t stay down for long."

While being displaced twice in less than a year has left the family with almost nothing, Arelys Gomez noted that they were not the ones affected by the apartment fire. The flames displaced approximately 100 people and claimed 24 apartment units.

The Jaca family has received a large quantity of clothing donations, and they took some that did not fit any of them to the apartment complex’s clubhouse, where they are collecting donations for all the families who were affected.

For now, Joel Jaca is enjoying the training process for his new mail-carrying job, and the family is temporarily encamped at the Clarion Inn.

Their next step is to find permanent housing, Arelys Gomez said.

"I know we’re going to make it," she said. "We’re a strong family."