Hector Rivera and Betty Kuntz joke during a lull at the Kenai Post Office. Rivera has worked at the facility since last fall after moving here with his family from Puerto Rico.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
With dismal gray skies overhead, slick ice underfoot and the temperature hovering around freezing, it’s hard to imagine someone giving up the azure skies, white sand beaches and tropical jungles of Puerto Rico to move to Alaska for warmth.
That’s exactly what Hector Rivera did when he moved to Kenai with his family wife, Zoe, and their two sons, 15-year-old Jose and 10-year-old Aliober six months ago. The warmth he was seeking isn’t measured by mercury, but by what’s in people’s hearts.
“Coming to Alaska, especially the (Kenai) peninsula, the weather may be cold, but the people are warm,” Rivera said.
That’s not to say it was easy for Rivera to give up his homeland, but the place Puerto Rico is becoming is not the place Rivera had always known. Nor is the island what he wanted his children to know.
“Puerto Rico is a small island and really crowded,” Rivera said. About 3.9 million people roughly 1,000 people per square mile inhabit the island, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. With these crowds come conflict.
“Being between North and South America there was a lot of drug running and crime. There were maybe three to four killings every week. Things were getting pretty bad,” Rivera said.
Rivera helps back a truck out of the post office s garage. "It's a nice place with a lot of good people, really good people, " Rivera said of the post office.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Puerto Rico’s murder rate typically far exceeds that of any U.S. state or city. In 2004, with 790 murders, the island had a higher murder rate than any of the three largest cities in the U.S. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Rivera said this wasn’t what he wanted for himself, his wife or his children.
“I wanted a change for them. I wanted them to see something different,” he said.
Rivera began to look for opportunities elsewhere. He had lived in Alaska in 1988 when he was stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.
“That was when I fell in love with Alaska, but it was different for me then. I couldn’t enjoy it as much because I was in the Army,” he said.
After his enlistment ended he returned home and got a job with the post office. He worked his way up the ranks from a letter carrier to a supervisor, but he longed to one day return Alaska.
“I always wanted to come back, but it’s a long way from the Caribbean and I didn’t have the time or money,” he said.
Rivera didn’t discard the idea of coming back, but he did shelve it temporarily until the time was right. That time was mid-2005 when he saw a job advertised at the Kenai Post Office.
“I saw a position open, applied and got it,” he said.
But being offered the position didn’t mean Rivera jumped at it. Family comes first to him and they were foremost in his mind when he received the offer.
Rivera began making calls to find out about the area in regard to housing, economy and schools. He decided to fly up and see if everything was as good as he was told.
“I came up in August to look at the place. It was better than what I thought. So, I went home and began packing to move back with my family,” he said.
They arrived in August, but with summer’s end fast approaching and winter on the way, Rivera said the contrast to what his family had always known was immense.
“It was a big change at first, especially for the kids. They had never seen snow before. It was very different for them,” he said.
They adapted quickly, though. Rivera said their new home just feels like home now.
“My wife goes to (Kenai Peninsula College) and she likes it. The kids enjoy school and play basketball at the Boys and Girls Club. They love it here,” he said.
Zoe, Aliober and Hector Rivera pull dinner from the stove while Jose holds Mia at the family s home last week. They say they enjoy living in a quiet, private neighborhood after the crowding of Puerto Rico.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Rivera also enjoys it here. He said he likes working at the Kenai Post Office and enjoys spending the day with the other employees there.
“It’s a nice place with a lot of good people, really good people. I’m thankful the postmaster gave me this opportunity,” he said.
Rivera moved to the Kenai Peninsula seeking a safer place to raise his family.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Rivera said he was happy that, at least so far, the feeling has been mutual. He came into his position at a rocky time when the post office had been shorthanded for quite a while, and the existing staff was feeling the pressure of pulling double duties.
“The office needed some human relations,” he said.
Rivera, just a few credits away from achieving a master’s degree in labor relations, felt he was just the person to improve those relations.
“I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary. I have just tried to treat everyone nice because that’s really me. I try to thank them and let them know when they are doing a good job, and whenever I point at them for anything, I try to remember there are always three fingers pointing back,” he said.
Of course, bosses can tend to cast themselves in a better light than perhaps their employees would, but in Rivera’s case, the people working under him seem sincerely happy he is their supervisor.
“We’re really glad to have him here,” said letter carrier Mary Rhyner.
“I don’t come to work stressed anymore. I use to have to sit in my car and take deep breaths before coming in, but not anymore. After the rough year we’ve had, he’s been a godsend,” Rhyner said.
Rhyner explained that while her shifts are still long and she may have to work on her day off, Rivera makes this tough task a little easier to bear.
“He lets us know he appreciates our efforts, and sometime that’s all you need to know someone appreciates what you’re doing,” she said.
As to how Rivera expresses his appreciation, Rhyner said he does this with his words as well as his actions.
“He’s always doing random acts of kindness,” she said.
From bringing in cookies at Christmas to leaving Hershey’s Kisses on Valentine’s Day and ordering pizza after everyone worked overtime on a Saturday, Rhyner said these acts put everyone in a good mood and contribute to a positive work environment overall.
“No one around here has ever done anything like that,” she said.
Fellow letter carrier Forrest Nelson shared similar sentiments about Rivera.
“He’s just done so much for us,” she said. “This is a stressful job, but I think the overall blood pressure of this place has gone down since he started.”
Like Rhyner, Nelson could attest to the tasty treats Rivera has used.
“He’s even come out to find us on our routes on rainy days to give us a hot chocolate,” she said.
Nelson said Rivera’s kindness has won over even the toughest nuts to crack at the post office. She said the best example of this occurred over the Christmas holiday, just a few months after Rivera arrived.
“We decided to get him a gift basket. Everyone and there’s 20 people in this office contributed to it. And not only that, they wrote nice things on the card,” she said.
Nelson said in her 18 years as a postal employee, that was the first time she has ever seen everyone contribute to something for their supervisor like that.
“It was an expression of how he had touched everyone so quickly,” she said.
Nelson said Rivera’s kindness goes beyond his interaction with postal employees. He also extends it to postal customers.
“He is excellent with people. He really cares about them and treats them well. Even diffusing angry customers, he’ll let them talk and he’ll listen to their individual needs. He’ll apologize for the inconvenience rather than being cut and dry or eager to argue back,” she said.
“He’s always polite and professional,” Rhyner added.
Nelson said she’s seen customers go away and upon their next return ask, “Who is that new supervisor? He’s a really nice guy,’” she said.
Perhaps that is why Rivera fit in to the community so quickly. As Rhyner said, “It’s just his nature. He’s happy and enjoys what he does. He’s a good guy.”
Rivera said he is happy to be so accepted since he and his family intend to stay for quite a while.
“We plan on sticking around. Everyone here seems they just want to live a good life and that’s what I’m looking for, too.” he said.
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