LAWRENCEVILLE, Georgia — Cesar Sanchez and his family heeded Broward County’s Irma evacuation order as soon as they could and left their home in Weston, Florida, on Thursday.
They had no idea where they would end up. They had no friends or family outside of Florida. Only one thing was certain: Their daughter would turn 6 years old on Saturday, September 9, and they would not let it pass without a celebration.
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, they found a place to celebrate among new friends in a cross-cultural exchange in the exurbs of Atlanta.
“God brought us to safety and he found us a home with a beautiful family,” Sanchez told CNN, speaking in Spanish. “God bless America.”
The Sanchez family is one of many turning to informal networks of community-based coalitions forming to help evacuees in Irma’s path. Sanchez’s wife found out about one such group from a WhatsApp group chat consisting of extended family and friends.
The Atlanta Hurricane Solidarity Project began as a Google doc of people willing to host evacuees. Through word of mouth, community groups, mosques and churches joined the effort, and the coalition formed a website where people can sign up as hosts, and evacuees can request shelter.
Ordinary people welcome strangers
Since Friday, the group has placed more than 100 people and 20 pets, said volunteer Mary Hoyt. Most of the requests come in when people are on the road in frantic search mode after being turned away from hotels and shelters.
“It’s been an exhausting but thrilling couple of days,” Hoyt said. “We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of Atlantans. It has been very moving to speak with people on the phone while they were driving, just be an encouragement for them when they were in crisis.”
That’s how the Sanchez family came across the group. They only arrived in the United States from Venezuela in 2016, after fleeing the country’s political and economic instability. They had no friends or family outside of Florida to stay with. After leaving Weston, they had spent two nights in a Tampa hotel that was booked to capacity and could not keep them another night beyond Friday.
Fellow volunteer Nabil Taha got the call from the Sanchez family around 10 p.m. Saturday night. After learning more about the needs of the Spanish-speaking family of four, he reached out to Kathie Butler in Lawrenceville, a suburban community northeast of Atlanta.
The retired nurse and her husband don’t speak Spanish, but they have a 5-bedroom house with a backyard, perfect for hosting an impromptu party.
Sanchez and his wife arrived with their two children, whom they requested not be named, late Saturday. A bond of mutual gratitude instantly formed, members of both families said. The Sanchezes were relieved to have a place to stay with warm, welcoming hosts; the Butlers were thrilled to help a family in need — especially when they saw the little girl wearing a pink, bedazzled birthday tiara.
“I was a little nervous not knowing what was coming, but when they came through the door, they’re just the most beautiful people,” Brett Butler said. “We instantly knew we were going to be friends.”
Their first request was to celebrate. All the Sanchezes had brought with them were cases of water, some personal effects and the essentials for a child’s birthday: a white, vanilla-frosted cake with rainbow sprinkles, a balloon and a Moana doll for a gift.
They brought the cake into the house and sang “Happy Birthday” in Spanish, then in English.
‘Friends for life’
The revelry continued through Sunday, as three more Sanchez relatives arrived — first, with a waffle breakfast, followed by grilled steaks and caprese salad for dinner.
Sanchez’s 17-year-old son initially served as translator. As the day went on, it got easier for the Butlers to communicate through gestures and glances and a bit of broken Spanish, they said.
Monday, it was Sanchez’s turn to make breakfast. Eager to share the cuisine of his homeland, he prepared Venezuelan arepas, or cornmeal patties, stuffed with one of two options: scrambled eggs, tomato and ham; or reina pepiada, chicken salad with avocado and onion.
It’s not clear when they’ll leave, but Kathie Butler said she’s happy to play host as long as necessary. After that, she’s looking forward to visiting them in Florida one day.
“We’re friends for life,” she said. “For the time being, we’re celebrating the fact we have new friends and guests to entertain.”