CAMAS — Westley Mejias took to swim coaching because he enjoyed helping others and having an impact on their lives.
About two years ago, he was on the receiving end of quite a bit of help after Hurricane Maria devastated his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Mejias, 41, had lived there his entire life. He coached swimming and helped in his family’s restaurant, where he wife also worked. Together, they had three kids, including a 4-month-old baby, when the hurricane hit in September 2017.
With no income and no timetable for when he could get back to work, Mejias started applying for jobs elsewhere. In December, he was hired as a swim coach at the Lacamas Athletic Club in Camas. When he arrived, he was welcomed to an apartment full of household items donated by families of the 150 or so kids on swim teams at the club, and club staffers.
“The welcome they showed me was awesome,” he said. “Everyone was so caring about helping me out.”
Mejias told his wife about his beautiful new city and friendly community. Three months later, Juana Santana and their three kids joined Mejias in Camas.
“It was a huge move for him. It was a big change for he and his family,” said Denise Croucher, owner of Lacamas Athletic Club. “His kids spoke no English when they got there. They’ve all acclimated really well.”
Santana now works in the kids club at Lacamas, and the couple’s three children take swim lessons there. They recently moved to a bigger space, and are hoping to stick around until their kids — now ages 6, 4 and 2 — are done with high school.
“He loved it immediately here,” Santana said. “It’s a little too cold for me, but the people here are so kind. We want to stick around.”
Life after the hurricane
Mejias remembers lots of storms throughout his time growing up in Puerto Rico. So when early warnings about Maria came in, he didn’t think much of them. But as the hurricane approached, it was clear Maria would be bigger than any storm he and his family had experienced. They prepared as much as they could, but the storm left them without power for a month.
“Once you have a month without power, it doesn’t matter how much you have at home,” he said.
He spent his days with his family and neighbors, who teamed up to help each other lift fallen trees off their homes. At midnight, he would wake up and sit in line eight hours overnight for ice at the ice plant, never sure if there would be any delivered or not. Mejias said there wasn’t much of a way to spread official information.
The same went for stores, which he said would open sporadically for four or so hours at a time. If he heard one was open, they’d have to go there to see if it was true and to see what was available.
If he heard a rumor that somewhere had some Wi-Fi, he would go there and try to apply for jobs on his phone. That’s how he found the job at Lacamas. He knew nothing of Camas or Southwest Washington. He heard it was close to Portland, which he only knew of thanks to the Portland Trail Blazers and Clyde Drexler.
His family’s restaurant, El 21 Familiar, is located in Ponce on the La Guancha Boardwalk, which was severely damaged in the storm. It reopened about a month after Maria with a gas stove and electrical power from a generator.
Mejias had been coaching swimming since he was 21, and by the time Maria hit he had moved up the ranks from youth swimming to coaching at the collegiate level and internationally. He coached at University of Puerto Rico and brought a Puerto Rican national team to Doha, Qatar. That made it all the harder to leave his home behind after Maria.
“Swim coaching is about relationships,” Mejias said. “You have to build trust swimmers have in you, and telling them you have to leave is tough.”
Mejias had been to the continental United States a few times as a swimmer and a coach, but didn’t have any family in the Pacific Northwest.
“Everyone you know is (in Puerto Rico),” he said. “It’s hard saying goodbye. I had to make a decision to make a better life for my family. You have to take risks.”
Life in Camas
Croucher had been looking for a new swim coach for about two months when she got Mejias’ resume online. She wasn’t sure if he was serious about moving to Camas.
“He was much more qualified than a lot of other applicants I got,” she said. “I pictured he’d want to be at a university or somewhere more like that.”
She was curious how the transition would work for Mejias, who not only moved from his home but took over for a longtime beloved coach, who had moved to Arizona after getting married. But so far, so good.
“The program is starting to grow again,” Croucher said. “Every coach has their own way to help kids, and they’re starting to really understand his way of coaching. The team is really buying in and they believe in the new program.”
Mejias said he’s feeling more comfortable in Camas, and he’ll always remember showing up to that first apartment and seeing a bed, bunk beds, a crib and kitchen equipment. Croucher said she had sent an email to families with a bunch of items listed for what she thought a family starting over in a new home would need.
“I said, ‘I know this community. You have nice things. You have a new Crock-Pot, but there’s an old one that works. If we all get together, we can really help this new family,’ ” Croucher said. “They all agreed to help, and we had every item on the list either donated or purchased.”
Mejias said it was overwhelming.
“It was too much,” he said. “I was not used to that sort of thing. They didn’t have to do that.”