Many migrant farm workers are afraid to reach out to government agencies for help, even if they are in the United States under completely legal circumstances, said Richard Fowler, director of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes.
Many other members of the Hispanic community speak only Spanish, so it’s hard for them to get help from human-service agencies that don’t have Spanish-speaking people on staff, he added.
These are the kinds of people Fowler and Osbaldo Arce hope to help through Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes’ Hispanic Community and Family Services Program. Launched in September 2003, the program is intended to provide a conduit between members of the Hispanic community and the services they need, said Arce, coordinator of the program.
“Historically Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes has been active with the local Hispanic groups in Geneva,” Arce said. “(Recently) we saw a need for connecting the Spanish-speaking population with services in our community.”
As the local Hispanic population grew, so too did the need for a service that could cater directly to the Hispanic population, advocating for them and helping them to thrive, Fowler said.
“There needed to be more social work, more human-services support for this population. There are very few human-service-providing organizations with Spanish-speaking staff,” Fowler said.
Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes can now count itself among one of those few organizations. Not only is Arce bilingual, but the program also boasts several bilingual part-time staffers.
“That has enabled us to play a lead role among the human-service providers in the community,” Fowler said.
It’s important for members of the Hispanic community to have someone they can converse with who’s comfortable with and knowledgeable about America’s laws and culture, he said. Through the Hispanic Community and Family Services Program, Arce and his colleagues do whatever is necessary to link the Hispanic community with the services it needs. This sometimes means accompanying a Hispanic person to a government office or human-services agency as a translator and advocate, Arce said. It also sometimes means translating a document for a Hispanic person or helping him or her produce a resume or secure housing, he added.
“The number-one goal is to be a conduit for services to Spanish-speaking individuals and families that we’ve identified as having problems in communication,” Arce said. Since the program began, it has also helped Hispanics deal with immigration, health, domestic violence, counseling and educational issues, he said.
Once someone from Catholic Charities has talked to a client and understands what the problem is, he is often able to refer that person to either another Catholic Charities program or a program through another local human-services agency, Fowler said.
“We clearly recognize that there is no one human-service-providing organization that can do everything,” Fowler said. “We all recognize our niches, our strengths. We refer between each other to create this collaborative network of service delivery.”
Occasionally increased communication is all that’s necessary to correct a misunderstanding. Arce recalled one case involving a Hispanic mother of three in Penn Yan. A victim of domestic violence, the woman was not a U.S. citizen, so she was told when she applied for food stamps that she was not eligible for them, Arce said. After looking into the situation, Arce discovered the woman herself wasn’t eligible for food stamps, but her three children were. The family was granted $4,100 in back food-stamp benefits and now receives ongoing food-stamp benefits, Arce said.
Earlier this year Fidelis Care awarded $22,500 in grants to both the Hispanic Community and Family Services Program and La Casa Migrant Center in Sodus, both Project Unity initiatives. That grant was used to pay for a small portion of the start-up costs of the program, Fowler said, but Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes is still trying to raise money — mostly through grants — to fund it.
So far Arce and his colleagues have helped Hispanics in Ontario, Yates, Seneca and Cayuga counties, although the greatest need is concentrated in the Geneva area, Arce said. Since its inception in 2003, more than 700 Hispanic individuals and families have benefitted from the Hispanic Community and Family Services Program, he noted.
“We did what we could to open up our doors to the community. Where were these people four years ago?” Arce asked. “This proves that once you diversify a bit, that the doors open up.”