Throughout several generations, local family creates positive impact in Blue Water Area

The Blue Water Area has grown over the years due to the hard work and dedication of people from all walks of life.

Irene Michels (right) poses for a photo with her youngest sister, Maggie Toole.Sisters, Irene Michels and Magdalena “Maggie” Toole are two examples of such. Michels, the second eldest of nine siblings, and Toole the youngest, are the children of migrant workers that relocated to the Blue Water Area in the late 1960s.

Moises Reyna Sr., a second-generation Mexican American, was known as a hard worker by his family and community. He, along with his wife Juanita, who is also a second-generation Mexican American met in the early 1950s in Croswell, Michigan during Moises’ time in the U.S. Army where he served during the Korean Conflict.

After getting married in October 1956, he and Juanita traveled across the country as migrant workers and started a family. They found themselves living in Phoenix, Arizona for some time where Moises picked up valuable skills in carpentry and masonry that would be beneficial to him later in life. 

“My grandpa Jose Reyna was into masonry work,” Michels says. “He built the Assembly of God Church back in Arizona where he was also a Pentecostal preacher. Our family attended the church along with other members from the community at the time. It was my grandpa Reyna that taught my dad masonry work and how to build things, my grandmother Zenaida Reyna was also given the Key to the City there.”

One day Moises Sr. decided he wanted something different for his family, a place to plant his feet and call home. In 1967, he and his wife Juanita packed up their eight children — Moises Reyna Jr., Irene Michels, Thelma Craze, Alexander Reyna, Cindy Hopp, Jose Reyna, Alfonso Reyna, and Edna Cooley — and set out to make their dreams come true. Their youngest, Magdalena "Maggie" Toole, was born later on.

Siblings Cindy and Alexander Reyna at the former Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission in 1971.Upon their arrival to Port Huron, a city where they had no family and knew no one, they reached out to St. Stephens Church for help.
“I was in second grade (8 years old) when we moved into the basement of the church where we ended up staying for two weeks,” Michels recalls. “We used to go outside and play often, it was fun and new to us as children. The church eventually helped us find a home in the housing projects located in South Park.”

Aside from St. Stephens Church, Michels also has fond memories of her family being members of the former Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission in Port Huron. Our Lady of Guadalupe was instrumental in helping Hispanic families and residents not only spiritually, but it also played a large part in assisting the community with resources, programs, and activities centered around Hispanic culture and traditions.  

Juanita and Moises Reyna Sr. in 1982.Although Moises Sr. never received formal training, his family says he was an excellent builder. Moises landed a masonry job where he helped construct and renovate several buildings in the area including the North Tower lobby section of Port Huron Hospital, now McLaren Port Huron.

“Dad never went to college, but he was always a hard worker and willing to learn,” Michels says. “He once applied to work at a factory in his early years, he wasn’t of age, but he applied anyway to help support his family. In an attempt to make himself appear older than he was, he found a piece of coal and rubbed it on his face to make it look as if he was older with a mustache. The foreman told my dad that he knew he wasn’t old enough to work there, but he admired his tenacity and desire to work, so he got the job.”

Irene Michels at the Assembly of God Church.
Moises Sr. was also a Board Member at the Assembly of God Church in Port Huron where his skills in carpentry and masonry would be called upon again as he and his sons, Alexander and Jose, helped with restoration projects on the building. At some point during the restoration, Moises Sr. made a trip to Arizona to pick up the sign for the church from his father that can still be seen hanging to this day. He and his sons spent approximately five years on the projects in total.

Moises Reyna Sr., along with his wife, Juanita, and their family.Prior to his death from a long illness in 1998, Moises Sr. also helped build St. Clair County Community College’s (SC4) Main Building, which also happens to be the college his youngest daughter attended. With their parents as their example, Michels and Toole carry on the legacy of caring for the community and its residents through their careers, volunteer work, and activism. Their other siblings have settled elsewhere in Michigan and across the country including, Florida, Las Vegas, and Utah. Their brother Jose passed away three years ago.

Michels attributes her involvement in the community to her mother, who not only looked after and cared for the neighbors, but also had her and her siblings involved with community programs offered to the residents living in the housing projects at the time.

Siblings Irene Michels (top left), Maggie Toole (top middle), Alfonso Reyna (top right), and Edna Cooley (bottom right) pose for a photo with their mother Juanita Reyna (middle bottom) and Alfonso's daughter Rose (bottom left).

“My mom got us involved in the classes they used to offer when we were kids to help us better ourselves,” Michels says. “We learned things such as sewing and knitting, as well as the importance of healthy eating habits and exercise. During that time it was very community-oriented, all the neighbors looked out for and took care of each other, my mom and dad always kept a closet of extra potatoes, sugar, beans, and other items to help those in need.”

Irene Michels and her mother Juanita Reyna in September 2023 at Marwood Manor in Port Huron, Michigan.When she’s not taking time out to visit her elderly mother, who celebrated her 88th birthday this year, Michels spends time doing what she loves most, serving her community. She is currently an active volunteer with SONS Outreach where she served as the only female Board Member for 16 years, and one year as Vice President.

In 2002, Michels got involved with the Port Huron Police Department’s (PHPD) Citizens Police Academy where she participated in ride-alongs, as well as learning how to use non-lethal firearms, how to perform traffic stops, and more. 

“I was reading the local newspaper one day and I saw the first offering for the Citizens Police Academy, so I decided to look into it,” Michels says. “That was my first time stepping out and becoming involved in the community. I learned a lot of interesting things about what it takes to be a police officer through their program.”

Later that year Michels would also go on to participate in the Department of Public Works (DPW) program where she learned how the city’s water is cleaned and filtered, along with being a part of Port Huron Fire Department Academy where she was one of the only students to successfully reverse the fire truck as instructed.

Michels is currently a member of the newly-formed nonprofit organization, the Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan (HASM) whose mission is to represent and build a united Hispanic community that preserves and honors traditions, celebrates their diverse heritage, and educates the greater Southeast Michigan area about Hispanic culture.

“I love to celebrate all of the people who have contributed so much, not only to the City of Port Huron, but to the entire country as well,” she says.

Festival of International Cultures at the Seaway Terminal in Port Huron, Michigan in October 2015.

Toole is the only one of the Reyna siblings born in Port Huron, and much like her older sister, she too has been a part of bettering the community through her work with SONS Outreach, Boy Scouts of America, and the PHPD. Toole was also a panelist at the first-ever Hispanic American Heritage Celebration hosted by SC4 in 2022. This January she was appointed as a member of the Grants Committee for the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, as well as helping to guide the Community Foundation’s staff to a better understanding of what the needs in the community are for the Hispanic population.

“When I was a part of the community leadership program through the Port Huron Police Department, we learned things like how to develop and start neighborhood watch programs,” Toole says. “My time with SONS Outreach saw me volunteering to help the Boy Scouts of America, by sewing on badges and things of that nature, and it was such an honor to be a part of the inaugural Hispanic American Heritage Celebration. As a Mexican or other Hispanic ethnicity, we sometimes get looked over or not recognized as much, so it was definitely nice to be a part of that.”

Toole works as a Business Development Officer for Michigan Women Forward and is involved with programs that help not only women but also minorities, take the necessary steps to become business owners. Their statewide Microloan Program provides up to $50,000 to women and minority entrepreneurs who don’t qualify for traditional loans through banks or other financial institutions.

“My passion is helping individuals achieve their dreams in owning a business, I strongly believe in the mission of supporting our underserved communities,” Toole says.

On what her heritage means to her, Toole says, “It isn’t just about recognition to me. It’s about remembering our past along with the struggles and stories that have been passed down from our ancestors. In an ever-changing world, sometimes looking back is just what we need to keep us moving forward.”
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Read more articles by Harold Powell.

Harold Powell is the Community Correspondent for The Keel and owner of Phantom Pen Media offering multimedia services to individuals and organizations across the Blue Water Area. He is a current board member for the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and the most recent Chamber Choice recipient at the Eddy Awards. Harold is an avid volunteer for the YMCA of the Blue Water Area as well as Bridge Builders Counseling & Mentoring and in his spare time, enjoys spending time with his son, writing and listening to music, playing video games, and not folding laundry.