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.