Last Tuesday night, January 10, 55 people turned out for a presentation on an immigrant resource center in Elkhart County. I presented on the model of Indianapolis’s Immigrant Welcome Center, which works to both connect recent immigrants to resources in the community to help them integrate and works to educate Indianapolis on the many contributions that immigrants make to the city to help it prosper. I presented the model of the Immigrant Welcome Center as one that could be helpful in Elkhart County. I wanted this event to continue conversation in the Goshen/Elkhart community on how we could work together as informed residents to meet the needs around us by looking at another community’s model.

The mission of the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis is to “empower immigrants by connecting them to the people, places, and resources that enable them to build successful lives and enrich our community.” On the website, they list three ways the center hopes to help the community. These include:

  • Equip members of the immigrant community to help one another.
  • Broaden awareness of immigrant contributions to our community.
  • Serve as a catalyst to enable neighborhood and community partners to reach the immigrant population. [1]

The Immigrant Welcome Center does this through their “natural helpers” program. “Natural helpers,” are trained volunteers who are long-term immigrants in the community who are already leaders and are the people that other “naturally” turn to in order to find the resources they need. These volunteers go through an intensive training program that takes place over four Saturdays. The center then connects recent immigrants or refugees with a natural helper who speaks their language or is from their country/region of origin. They do not give out any resources but instead connect people with the resources they need such as health care, legal services, government agencies, public transportation, education, housing, jobs and job training, and more. The natural helpers meet with clients over the phone, by email, or in person. The center also runs neighborhood branches in locations such as libraries and cultural centers where immigrant populations live and work and have weekly times when anyone can show up and meet with a natural helper.

The Immigrant Welcome Center also hosts many different kinds of educational events, both for immigrants and the broader Indianapolis community. They have a monthly integration class for immigrants and refugees with topics such as financial literacy, legal workshops, know your rights, the Affordable Care Act, etc. They also have bimonthly meetings for their natural helpers to connect them with service organizations and work on leadership development. For the broader community, staff from the Immigrant Welcome Center provides sessions for community groups to speak about how immigrants are changing communities for the better, as well as attend fairs, festivals, and other community events to talk about the work of the center.

The Immigrant Welcome Center is also part of a movement called “Welcoming Indianapolis,” that works to ensure that:

  • Immigrants are viewed by their fellow community members as vital members of the community with whom they live, work, and play
  • Greater Indianapolis is enriched by the economic, social and cultural contributions of immigrants
  • New and established residents engage their community and create greater cultural understanding
  • Community leaders, elected officials, social and public service professionals are educated about issues important to the immigrant community[2]

This is part of a nationwide movement called, “Welcoming America,” that works with communities to be more inclusive of immigrants in order for communities to be more prosperous.[3]

I believe that we could use this model of Indianapolis’s Immigrant Welcome Center as a starting point for a similar organization working in Elkhart County. I received a very positive response from the people who came to the meeting on Tuesday night and was excited to make more connections and host conversation about how an immigrant resource center could work in our own community.

One idea that was introduced by a community member was using local youth as natural helpers. There were several students from Goshen High School who came to the presentation and stuck around wanting to meet me and find ways they can be included and work to get other Latino youth involved. A parent at the meeting was excited about the youth idea because it would not only empower young people, it would also give them leadership skills and connect them with their roots. A note that I received after the meeting reiterated this idea of including youth as it could help “reform/address ideas of self-identity and its relevancy to different communities and cultures.” The note also read, “Youth = Path toward family engagement.” As this idea moves forward, I want to make sure that youth are included and find ways to engage local high school and college students.

Other people wrote down the needs they see in the Goshen/Elkhart community that an immigrant resource center could help address. These include education on rights, healthy care, owning a business, English as a new language. Others brought up the need for resources on scholarships and how to validate education earned from home countries. It was exciting to see the many different conversations happening as the people truly engaged the idea of an immigrant resource center and how it could work in our own community and context.

The idea of an immigrant resource center here in Elkhart County is still in its infancy. I believe in using a bottom-up approach by including as much input from the community as possible. I want to have the community involved in creating a center in order that it truly works to meet the needs that are here. I believe that Indianapolis presents a model that we could use here and can be adapted to meet our own context However, I want to see this as a community led initiative and I am happy to keep these conversations moving forward and facilitating spaces to make this idea a reality.