Spotlights

Face of the Week: Lourdes Rivera-Muniz of Northwest Academy of Health Sciences

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. “Face of the Week” introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.
09/26/2017

Face of the Week: Lourdes Rivera-Muniz of Northwest Academy of Health Sciences

The last time Lourdes Rivera-Muniz heard her mother’s voice, she could hear the monster howling just outside her family’s cement home in Yauco, a small town of 40,000 souls on the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico.

She could hear the distress in her mother’s voice, too, as the first fierce winds and rains of Hurricane Maria began to rake the walls and windows of the house where her mother, father, and two sisters had taken refuge.

“This is horrible!” her mother told Lourdes through the phone. “The winds sound like a monster outside!”

From her home in Pikesville, Rivera-Muniz counseled calm, reminding her mother of how well-equipped they were to ride out Maria, the second of two Category 5 hurricanes to bludgeon the island in two weeks. She wasn’t as sure about her in-laws, though, who lived further inland – closer to the eye of the storm – and in a much less sturdy house crafted of wood and zinc sheeting.

That was last Tuesday, September 19. Through the night and into the next day, Rivera-Muniz worried and fretted and monitored news reports between her classes at Northwest Academy of Health Sciences in Pikesville, where she teaches Spanish. As the hurricane plowed through her homeland all day Wednesday, Rivera-Muniz thought about staying home to watch news reports but realized how difficult that would be.

“I needed something to take my mind off what was happening,” she says. “So I came in and began teaching. My students, though – they knew something had happened. They knew something was wrong. By Friday when I hadn’t heard anything, I was devastated.

“These have been the worst four days of my life.”

In and out of school, hope

For Puerto Rican educators teaching in Baltimore County schools, the past few weeks have been nerve-wracking. As they welcomed a new school year and became immersed in teaching, they kept anxious eyes on two powerful hurricanes – first Irma on Sept. 6 with winds of 185 miles per hour followed 10 days later by Maria’s 155-mph gusts – that pummeled their family and friends at home.

The island, a U.S. territory already facing financial difficulties, sustained “catastrophic” damage from Maria, according to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who described the storm as the “worst hurricane in modern history in Puerto Rico.”

Since Maria cut power across the island last Wednesday, Rivera-Muniz has been unable to reach her family. But she was reassured soon after the storm when word reached her that Yauco’s mayor had reported to island authorities that everyone in his town had survived.

“I am just waiting for that (family) call to come now,” the 39-year-old educator says. Early in the week, she was also hoping to hear from a friend on the island who was trying to make it to Yauco, then back to the capital in San Juan where some cell service has been restored.

In the meantime, however, Rivera-Muniz has found support not only from her colleagues at Northwest Academy but especially from her students. “I tell them I have no news, but they tell me, ‘Don’t you worry’ and that they will keep me and my family in their prayers,” she says of her students.  

Late in the week, her students surprised Rivera-Muniz with a large, red cardboard sheet upon which each had written messages of support, including some in the Spanish she had taught them. “May luck be on your side,” wrote Xavier. Added Samuel, “God be with your family.”

“That was amazing,” she says of her students’ caring thoughts. “That was really something.”

Northwest Academy Principal Katina Webster understands. “Here at Northwest Academy we are a family. We make it a point to tell our students and teachers they are loved and appreciated each day,” she says. “Ms. Rivera is a valued member of our family and as such it was important for us to show her how much we cared for her and her family at such a difficult time. We made sure she knew her first priority should be ‘family first.’”

The support is in keeping with what Rivera-Muniz and her family discovered when they first moved to Baltimore County a year ago as part of a group of about 15 Puerto Rican educators recruited by BCPS. After 14 years of teaching Spanish and science in Puerto Rico’s schools, she and husband Luis Pons and their three sons moved to Pikesville after work dried up in her homeland.

“It was tough at first,” she says of the move. “The adaptation was hard.” Her eldest, Jorge, was in his senior year of high school and had to leave friends behind in Yauco to transfer to and graduate from Pikesville High School. Her middle son, Andres, is at Pikesville High now, while the youngest, Juan, attends Dumbarton Middle School.

“Puerto Rico has many financial problems, and they are closing up many of the schools there,” she says. “So when I received a message from BCPS (about a job), we decided to come here. . . . It’s important that these students learn a different language. The U.S. and the world need children who are bilingual.”

Depending on the post-Maria damage reports and news from home, Rivera-Muniz doesn’t plan to go home until a planned visit next summer. If her in-laws have lost their house, she adds, her husband, who works for the U.S. Census, may return sooner.

“A heart like this.”

In her waiting, meanwhile, Rivera-Muniz is throwing herself into tweeting support to others in Baltimore County’s close-knit Puerto Rican community and encouraging fellow educators and others to donate to assistance efforts.

“We will have to rebuild our country. It’s going to take a long time to do that,” she says. “Thank God we have a lot of help.”

Rivera-Muniz recalls the last time Puerto Rico sustained a direct hit from a hurricane. “It was 1995, that was the last one, so it’s been 19 years ago that we had a hurricane hit us,” she says. “We know that we have been blessed all this time. We are right in the path for hurricanes.”

Her support group of other Puerto Rican educators gets together often as well to trade information and provide emotional support for one another. And she has received plenty of online support as well from social media, where she has urged followers to donate to relief efforts spearheaded by the island’s first lady, Beatriz Rosselló.

“They need cold water, food in cans, batteries, diapers – you know, all the things you need in life,” Rivera-Muniz says. “People just need to help if they can and send their prayers, too.”

Rivera-Muniz pauses and looks down at the paper copy of the Puerto Rican flag she keeps on her desk. Lost in thought, she says softly she’ll become emotional if she thinks about her family too much. And then she brightens a bit: “I know my people, though,” she says at last. “I know we’ll be all right.”

She makes a small rectangle with her hands. “We are small like this,” she says of her compact island home. “But,” she says, throwing her arms open as wide as they will go, “we have a heart like this.”

For more information about disaster relief in Puerto Rico or to donate to relief efforts, visit www.unidosporpuertorico.com or www.redcross.org/ns/apology/disaster_homepage.html.

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to cherndon@bcps.org.  

For more photos, visit the album at the BCPS Flickr page.

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