Immigrant Welcome Center- Natural Helpers

It’s easy to start up a new organization. But keeping it going? That’s the real challenge.

The group of Indianapolis leaders who launched the Immigrant Welcome Center a decade ago knew they needed to build an organization that would sustain itself.  And what better way than creating a means for immigrants to help immigrants navigate the maze of services available in the Indianapolis area?

The Immigrant Welcome Center, the brainchild of Amy Minick Peterson, was founded to meet the real-life needs of foreign-born newcomers to our community.  Her team learned about a program through the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where immigrants worked with fellow immigrants to access resources and services in their new communities.  The Casey Foundation program, which operated in a number of other cities, was called Natural Helpers

The Immigrant Welcome Center Natural Helpers program is straightforward- people who have been through the experience of moving to a strange city in a foreign country help fellow immigrants figure out how to get a job, an education, medical services, access to transportation, and more.  And when that helper has come from the same part of the world as the newcomer, the transition is smoother because of their shared language and culture.

Beth Casselman, Executive Director of the Indianapolis-based Clowes Foundation, said her board was willing to commit to the Immigrant Welcome Center after seeing the Natural Helpers program in action.  “what really resonated with us is there are so many needs in the immigrant community,” she said, and her board believed it was critical to develop leaders within that community.  Immigrant Welcome Center and the Natural Helpers program proved to be a great fit with that goal.

With funding from Casey, Clowes and other sources, Immigrant Welcome Center was up and running as a 5012c3 nonprofit operating out of the John H. Boner Community Center with Terri Morris Downs as its Executive Director.  And in October 2006, the first group of Natural Helpers was trained and delivering support and services throughout Indianapolis.

Today, the Natural Helpers program is a centerpiece of the Immigrant Welcome Center with 80 Natural Helpers working to make Indianapolis a truly welcoming community for all newcomers.

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To learn more about the growing foreign-born population in Indianapolis, Join us on September 10th for Live Local, Think Global

The Immigrant Welcome Center- building connections and community

Imagine traveling thousands of miles to a city in a new country where you don’t understand the language, the culture and customs seem strange, and where the simplest tasks are overwhelming. Immigrants to our community face those challenges every single day.

How do you navigate the public school system? What about a job? Housing? Learning English? Yes, there are services in Indianapolis to help immigrants, but they aren’t in one place and they aren’t always easy to access.

That was what Amy Minick Peterson realized about a decade ago when, as first lady of Indianapolis, she witnessed the challenges faced by foreign-born newcomers.  She was visiting an organization that provided services to the Latino community when a young couple with two small children carrying their possessions in grocery bags walked in asking for help.

She asked questions about how the family got there and what was going to happen to them after she left. And she continued asking questions as she met with members of her staff, including Terri Downs, and with Mike Carter of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee.

Out of those conversations the Immigrant Welcome Center was born. Their goal – do as much as possible to make Indianapolis a welcoming city. They were going to do this by providing the resources to link foreign-born newcomers to the people, places and resources they need to build their lives in a new community.

But where to start? Enter the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funds initiatives to help disadvantaged children and their families. Through the Casey Foundation they learned about a program that trains immigrants to help each other navigate the web of programs and resources. They traveled to Seattle where a similar program operated so they could learn what works and adapt the model to Indianapolis.

With initial funding from the Casey Foundation, the Clowes Fund in Indianapolis and others, the Immigrant Welcome Center was launched as a 501c3 organization with the Natural Helpers Program as its centerpiece and Downs as its executive director.

Carter summed up their mission best when he said that they didn’t want to repeat what other groups were doing and wanted to build an organization that would last.

And that’s what they’ve done.