Shore Story: The Rodriguez-Matos success story showcases Holland at its best

The way that the city of Holland welcomed and supported the Rodriguez-Matos family following their immigration from Cuba is a source of pride for our community. In 2015 St. Francis de Sales and Grace Episcopal churches partnered together with Bethany Christian Services to sponsor the family after they made their harrowing journey to Holland, Michigan — a city of generosity planted in a land of opportunity. With their four children in tow, Amaurys and Yusleydi arrived on a snowy winter day, and were welcomed by a large contingent of Hollanders to a festive celebration at St. Francis where they were enveloped by people who would become their friends.

A small army of people committed their time and resources to help Amaurys and Yusleydi find work, help the children enroll and grow adjusted to school, help the family learn English, and support them through their presence and friendship. Our Holland area churches, social services agencies, schools, health professionals, and so many people all linked arms to make sure that the family would succeed.

The children prospered in school. Their parents settled into a rhythm of working hard and making the community their own. The next step in their transition to the American Dream would be to work for their own home. Habitat for Humanity to the rescue! The process of qualifying to become a Habitat homeowner was long and rigorous. It was going to take a lot of Hollanders to link arms to help make this a reality. 

CourtesyThe Rodriguez-Matos family came to Holland from Cuba.

A horde of Holland-area friends descended on the neighborhood where the new home would be built. Dozens and dozens of people donated funds, made meals, pounded nails, installed drywall, and painted walls. In 2021, the house was theirs.

The cost

Nobody leaves home forever without carefully counting the cost. Nobody steps across the border of their homeland with whatever meager possessions they can carry — leaving family, customs, and friends behind forever — nobody does this easily, casually, or without being pushed across that line of no-return. The Rodriguez-Matos family counted the cost: The cost of Amaurys’ forced separation from Yusleydi and the children, working in Brazil to simply be able to put food on the table back in Cuba; the cost of living in a country where your neighbors will turn you in to the secret police to stay out of trouble themselves; the cost of getting to Mexico from Cuba, riding a bus through the length of that country with four children — one a babe in her mother’s arms — all the way to the U.S. border; the cost of 24 hours of questioning by border agents while pleading for asylum; the cost of being turned out into the streets of Loredo at 2 a.m.; the cost of living in a very un-Cuban winter.

But then, Holland came along. The Rev. Jen Adams and the Rev. Charlie Brown came along. And the people of Grace Episcopal and St. Francis de Sales churches came along. And Bethany Christian Services and Tuliesha Signs and Deb Hoekwater came along. Sr. Noella Poinsette and Tom Eggleston came along. The Holland Rotary came along. The Brown family came along. The Colburn family came along. The Nowaks came along. Prescott Slee came along, and the Zaineas, Averys, and the Kuipers, and the Lewisons. The Holland Public School District came along. And a hundred others came along. And each of them said, “I can help a little.” And Habitat for Humanity and its team of “regulars” came along and they said, “We can help a little.” 

And the cost — still very high — began to be reduced by the goodness of the saints residing in Holland, Michigan. Friendship and generosity and uncommon decency make leaving home forever just a little less costly.

Everyday saints

Saints aren’t halo-wearing, cloud-ascending perfections. And miracles aren’t magic. Saints are people who have faith enough to say “I can help a little.” And miracles are what result when they do. 

It felt a bit daunting to get involved in this project when the idea was presented to me. Would I have enough time? Would I be able to see it through to a happy conclusion? Did I know enough to help the family overcome the inevitable obstacles they would encounter? All of these questions gave me pause. 

Once the family arrived, what I originally thought of as a “project” was somehow transformed into something altogether different. “Friendship” isn’t a project. “Love” isn’t a project. These things are conditions of the heart that are hard to anticipate and begin to take on a life of their own. Once “project” morphed into “friendship” and eventually into “love” my lack of knowledge about the immigration process, my sputtering Spanish, and my calendar conflicts faded in importance. We just figured it out together and enjoyed each other as we did.

It’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since Holland’s heart grew by our six new Cuban friends. It’s hard to believe that their oldest has already graduated from high school and that the other three are flourishing in school. It’s hard to believe that the family are permanent residents of the United States of America, with citizenship on the horizon. It’s hard to believe that there have been baptisms, first communions, and confirmations. It’s hard to believe that Amaurys and Yusleydi have helped more than two dozen family and friends emigrate from Cuba to settle in as valued members of our community. It seems like a happy dream.

Would any of it have been possible without hundreds of Hollanders of good will putting out their hands to say “Welcome?"

Richard Ray has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1982. He is co-director of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program, provost emeritus and professor of kinesiology at  the college
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