President’s Report for the Programming Year 2021 – 2022: Our History – Mission – Evolution
By Nils Jacobsen, President of ISCU, 2021-2022
We started six years ago as a small group of volunteers from a wide gamut of faith groups (Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Agnostics) during the 2016 Syrian refugee crisis and the deteriorating conditions for asylum seekers from Central America. From the beginning, our mission has been to assist immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in their quest to become autonomous, productive members of our communities in Champaign, Urbana and neighboring towns. Our method of getting there is unique, at least here in the Champaign metro area: We have a holistic approach to assistance – encompassing every aspect of what the immigrants need: rental and food assistance, housing, health care, education, transportation services, legal assistance, providing free furnishings and household items, and, of course, advocacy for and education about immigrant rights. And we respond to emergency situations, from house fires, to severe illness and assistance with funeral costs. All this is in the DNA of ISCU and our staff members and volunteers. But of course we also change, with growing and shifting needs: especially during the past program year [PY] our organization has evolved: we are now serving increasing numbers of client families, are receiving more and larger grants in support of our work, and are professionalizing aspects of our day-to-day operations, all made possible by the growth of a talented and dynamic staff working side by side with our dedicated volunteers to deliver consistently on our mission.
12.3 percent of the population of Champaign County are immigrants, more than 25,000! Of those approximately half are struggling economically – among them the poorest of the poor in our county – and are marginalized socially and culturally. While they live vibrant lives within their own ethnic/cultural communities, they often are invisible, shunned or discriminated against by the majority mainstream community. Among the enormous religious, ethnic, geographic, educational and economic diversity of immigrants in our area, ISCU’s work focuses – more than any other organization in town – on the poorest, most isolated and most endangered among them. These are primarily our undocumented clients from Central America, and secondarily immigrants from Mexico, several Central and East African countries, and Afghanistan, with a smattering of clients from other regions of the world. The mother tongue of the majority of these clients is a language not commonly taught in US schools and colleges – such as Q’anjob’al, Lingala or Pashtun, with sparse interpretation services available. Many of the poor undocumented Central Americans come from campesino background with little or no education. Patriarchal family values are frequent in these families. There are many families with only one parent present here. All these factors make it especially difficult to overcome their isolation and economic hardship, making our services vital for them.
We have served over 700 discrete immigrant families during the past program year. While our clients still live overwhelmingly in Champaign and Urbana, during the past year we have served more and more immigrants in Rantoul, other towns in Champaign County, as well as a few in Vermillion and Douglas Counties. Among our clients we find adults – mostly relatively young, between 20 and 40 years old – and also teenagers and younger children. There are still relatively few immigrants in need here who are senior citizens. Our services need to be age-specific, from assistance with school and physicals for minors, to legal assistance, rental assistance and many other services for the adults.
Our Grants and Donations
During the past program year, we have received more grants than during any other year. For the first time, we have received a large grant. The Illinois Public Health Association awarded us about 230,000 $ to work on COVID mitigation and vaccination support in our area between March 2021 and June 30, 2022. IPHA was so satisfied with our work that they awarded us a follow-up grant (see Ben Mueller’s report on our work for the coming year). I will mention details of the work done for this grant in the next section. Together with the other immigrant rights organizations in Champaign-Urbana, we received another, smaller sub-contract from the New American Welcome Center, part of a grant from the Illinois Department of Department of Public Health for substantially the same purpose, i.e. COVID mitigation and vaccination support. In July 2022, we received a sub-contract grant from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District for 17,000 $ for exactly this kind of COVID-rekated work in the county. Clearly these three grants are deepening our expertise in and delivery of public health services and medical assistance for immigrants. More on this work below.
Thanks to ISCU’s response to a call from the Champaign County Board for project proposals to be funded by the county’s allotment from ARPA [the federal American Recovery Plan Act of March 2021], the C-U Immigrant Cooperative [ISCU, NAWC, TIP, TRC] in March 2022 was awarded a grant of 250,000 $ by the county for mental health services for immigrants and for improving interpretation services for Q’anjob’al speakers in the Champaign metro region, where thousands of Guatemalan immigrants speak that language. As part of that grant ISCU received 30,000 $ to help finance hiring a Social Worker, together with The Immigration Project.
We are especially proud that in May 2022 ISCU received a grant of 50,000 $ from United Way of Champaign County, that also primarily supports hiring this Social Worker. Thus, for the first time ISCU will appear on the roster of organizations in United Way charitable fund drives through organizations as the University of Illinois. This may have a notable impact on donations to ISCU.
In April 2022 we were awarded two so-called VISTA members by the federal agency AmeriCorps, for one year, with a possible renewal for the two following years. We are currently in the process of recruiting these modestly compensated volunteers who will help us improve the coordination of volunteer and family assistance services.
Last, but not least, in December 2021 we received a donation of 10,000 $ from the St. John the Divine Episcopal Chapel in Champaign, as well as a number of smaller donations from other parishes in support of the Immigrant Emergency Assistant Fund that ISCU administers.
We are tremendously grateful for the agencies and parishes who awarded us these grants and donations, as well as the generous support from hundreds of individual donors. Over the past year they have allowed us to expand our services significantly, and this will continue in the coming program year.
The first year of the pandemic, between late March 2020 and the spring of 2021, had already seen a tremendous increase in the services ISCU delivered to immigrant families who were especially hard hit by the economic crisis. Close to 500 families had received regular weekly food deliveries during that year from ISCU, and some 125 families had received rental and utility assistance from us – either through our own funds or through funds from other agencies which we leveraged for our clients.
Given that our resources increased significantly during PY 2021-2022, it is not surprising that our assistance to immigrants also grew significantly. Altogether we helped more than 700 families during the past year, quite a few on multiple occasions, and over several domains of assistance (e.g. food, legal assistance, rental payments, medical supplies and connection to doctors, transportation, etc.). Our Community Navigators (more below) aided 543 immigrants and their families through the large IPHA project alone: we delivered medical supplies to them, and brought them to vaccination clinics, we helped to educate them about COVID mitigation and appropriate behavior, and while their income diminished during the isolation we provided them with rental, utilities and food assistance. We organized these vaccination clinics and educational events, each of which was attended by at least several dozen immigrants at their places of residence, community centers and places of employment. Thus ISCU contributed decisively to the fact that the vaccination rate among immigrants in Champaign County now is higher than that of the general population.
Altogether we provided about 150 families with rental and utility assistance, more than 200 families received food assistance from ISCU and 100 received furniture, bedding, household and kitchen items from our warehouse – for example the furnishings in the apartments of most of the new Afghani families arriving in Champaign-Urbana between late last fall and the winter came from our warehouse. And we always deliver these items directly to the clients in our own van. Our amazing transportation team provided rides on at least fifty occasions during the past year: the majority was to medical and other appointments locally, but ISCU transportistas provided at least a dozen rides form immigrants to the USCIS, ICE and ISAP offices in Chicago, Indianapolis and Michigan City IN. Just last week we took a Guatemalan mom and her 7-year-old daughter to Immigration Court in Chicago where, with the help of a lawyer whom we had hired at a cost of 7,500 $, they were granted asylum; and this coming Monday another transportista is taking the same Mom to the USCIS office in Michigan City for the obligatory fingerprinting. Altogether ISCU spent 133,000 $ on direct family assistance during the past PY. If we were to give a monetary value to the countless hours that ISCU volunteers are dedicating to helping immigrants this would add a minimum of 200,000 $ worth of services during the past year (estimating 30 volunteers spending an average of 6 hours per week at 25 $ per hour for 52 weeks)!
But the services that ISCU staffers and volunteers rendered to our immigrant friends during the past year go well beyond these easily quantifiable dimensions. Many of us filled out legal forms, health insurance applications, and rental applications for them; we connected them with services, intervened on their children’s behalf with teachers and school administrators or were advocates for immigrant students when they were bullied by other students. And we called the police for them when they felt threatened by a neighbor or an acquaintance. We found lawyers for them in workers comp cases when they had serious accidents at work. With the help of Project Read and Stone Creek Church, last fall we established ESL classes for French speakers from Africa. What is characteristic for the work with immigrants at ISCU is that we stay with the families as long as they need us. They begin to trust us, and we frequently get called on a weekly basis by one and the same immigrant client for a myriad different issues, often at ungodly hours. The stories we thus hear are indicative of many families’ suffering and often make your hairs stand on end.
ISCU organized several large events during the past year as outreach to the immigrant communities. The biggest one was the Immigrant Family Event on April 2, 2022 in the Immigrant Commons here in the basement of the CUPHD office complex. More than 300 immigrants attended, and there were information tables from 15 service agencies, a vaccination clinic, free food for the attendees from a food truck, free children’s clothing and shoes from our warehouse, and a raffle of a dozen bikes from the Independent Media Center and other items.
Last but not least, let me briefly mention the extraordinary assistance that we have delivered through the Immigrant Emergency Assistance Fund (IEAF). Founded by ISCU, it has received financial support from several faith-based and community organizations, but ISCU itself also contributes to the Fund. A committee made up of representatives of some of the other organizations contributing to the Fund and one ISCU representative reviews the applications for assistance. Since its inception in 2020, IEAF has disbursed over 42,000 $, of which about 49 % went to emergency rental and utility assistance, 24 % went to legal assistance, 16 % went to pay for funeral and repatriation expenses, 8 % went for medical expenses and 3 % went for administrative costs. For the past year IEAF has supported the family of a single Guatemalan mom who has a one-year-old child with a deadly genetic disease and who thus has been unable to work. IEAF has supported a 10-year-old orphan who needed an operation at Lurie Childrens Hospital in Chicago for detached retinas in both eyes. One of our volunteers also contributed funds, has gotten the boy glasses, administered eyes drops three times a day post-op and has driven the boy to Lurie for multiple follow-ups. This young student can now read and write, and is developing his speech whereas before he was legally blind, with little interactions outside of his caregivers. He has a special bond to the volunteer who has been the primary provider during this process that started over a year ago and is ongoing. In another case, an infant from a Guatemalan family did not survive childbirth. IEAF provided 1000 $ for the repatriation of the remains and solicited and received another 300 $ from another immigrant rights organization in town. IEAF also provided nearly 4,000 $ to a Mexican family who lost their apartment in a fire. An immigrant family that had just moved into a trailer at ShadowWood Mobile Home Park in the middle of this past winter found out that their furnace was not working. Through the IEAF ISCU first helped with blankets and space heaters, and then contracted with PPP Furnace Company of Mahomet to install a new furnace. Once the owners of that company found out the dire circumstances of this family generously they lowered their charges for the new furnace and labor just to the minimum cost, 700 $ paid by IEAF and another immigrant rights organization. These are just a few of the extraordinary emergency situations in which funds from IEAF have proved to be a lifesaver for immigrants. It is vital that the Fund receives growing support from the community.
Our Evolving Structure
As our organization is growing, inevitably it needs to readjust its structure, and this readjustment became more visible during the past PY. We started as a pure volunteer organization, full of enthusiasm for the importance of our mission. Given the increasing volume and complexity of the work we are doing in assisting the immigrants, inevitably we need to build a core of a paid staff that can provide continuity, stability and expertise to our. And during the past PY we have made great strides in building up a small, but highly talented staff. Until early 2021, only our Executive Director, Ben Mueller, received a salary, and he was still on half-time officially, although he was doing more than a full-time load of work. Now we have a full-time Executive Director, a wonderful Program Coordinator and Financial Manager, Abdullah Ozkaldi, five great Community Navigators (Ben will introduce them in his remarks), the indefatigable driver of our van, Mike Skinner, and his assistant. Other than the ED and the Program Coordinator, the staff is paid on an hourly basis and most are part time. Within a few weeks we hope to have in place a bilingual Social Worker who will work about 30 hours for us and 10 hours for The Immigration Project and will help us greatly to professionalize our family assistance and coordinate the mental health work that we are launching with the Immigrant Cooperative. And while the two VISTA members we are now recruiting are officially consider to serve as volunteers with a modest compensation from AmeriCorps, they will be working full time in coordinating our volunteer and family assistance services.
During the past year we have also worked to improve other aspects of our operations, at times with mixed success. We have worked hard to improve our communications. We are now publishing a Newsletter every 3-4 months, and we try to keep up our web-page and our Facebook and Instagram accounts. We have purchased new software for accounting and for automating donor acknowledgement, and this is beginning to make a difference. Our large warehouse in the basement of this CUPHD office complex is now well ordered thanks to the amazing work of four dedicated volunteers, led by Carolyn Maille-Petersen and Christina Nelson, and has a quite rapid turnover with 3 to 4 new shipments of furniture, bedding and household items coming in every week, and 2 shipments of the same range of items going out to our immigrant client families going out every week. Our Transportation team, with over 15 volunteers offering rides to immigrants, is running smoothly thanks to the meticulous and dedicated work of David Dorman.
The warehouse, transportation, and to a large extent communications are activities done overwhelmingly by volunteers. In the vital area of family assistance – what earlier we had called family liaison – we have both volunteers and staff actively working, with the largest share now done by staff. Finance and accounting currently is done only by staff, with supervision from the Board of Directors. We hope to have a candidate for Treasurer very soon.
It is vital for ISCU to evolve into a sustainable organization that has clearly defined roles both for staff and for volunteers. Without dedicated volunteers we would lose our soul or our DNA. Without staff, things would get chaotic. Thankfully, we have a steady flow of new folks coming forward to do volunteer work for us. We still have to improve our processes to place these new volunteers expeditiously within our organization.
From its onset ISCU has been blessed with wonderful partners. In fact ISCU is fully aware that we cannot successfully deliver services to the immigrants without relying on many partner organizations and agencies. Our work is like creating networks of caring communities in support of improving the lives of immigrants. I think ISCU is particularly good at this, perhaps due to the communication talents of our Executive Director Ben Mueller.
The list of organizations and agencies with whom we partner is very long - several dozens at least – and it is impossible to list them all here. Please forgive me for not mentioning the one or other specific organization.
Our partnership with CUPHD is absolutely crucial, and we gratefully acknowledge the support we have received from Director Julie Pride and her entire staff. They have given us several rooms for our offices, and a large space in the basement for our warehouse. It is gratifying that we can cooperate with them on COVID mitigation projects.
The Immigration Project, with offices both in Champaign and in Bloomington, also has been very helpful for us. They have taken on some of our clients to represent them legally before the Immigration Court, an extremely labor intensive and costly task. They have allowed us to apply for our clients for rental assistance for which they had received state grants. We are also working together with them on them on the mental health project and the hiring of a Social Worker. Thank you for all this help and cooperation.
We are happy to work together with the other immigrant rights groups in Champaign-Urbana, in what we now call the Immigrant Cooperative: these are the New American Welcome Center of the University YMCA, The Refugee Center, the Immigration Forum and the Maya Cultural Organization Pixan Konob.
A large number of faith-based organization in Champaign-Urbana have been associated with ISCU since the beginning and we are grateful for their continued support. An incomplete list includes St. Mary’s, University Wesley Methodist, St. John the Divine Chapel, First Presbyterian Church of Champaign, Stone Creek Church, Bend the Arc, Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana, Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, Avicenna, The Friends Society, Sta Patrick’s, and many others.
We have many partners within the University of Illinois. Foremost are the Community Learning Lab of the School of Social Work, Prof. Annie Abbott of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Immigration Clinic of the College of Law headed by Prof. Lauren Aronson, and various student groups, foremost SCNO, the service organization of students of commerce.
In our work on COVID mitigation the Danville chapter of the NAACP has become a reliable and valued partner. We thank them. We are grateful for our new partnership with the United Way of Champaign County.
We are also grateful to be working together and receiving assistance for our immigrant clients from the following organizations: Common Ground Food Co-Op, Healthy Beginnings of Carle Hospital, Northwestern University’s Lurie Children’s Hospital, the Courage Connection, Unit 4 and Unit 116 School Districts, Project Read, the Independent Media Center, Community Health Partnership, Urbana Park District, and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria.
A big thank you to all our partner agencies and organizations including those not listed here. We could not do our work without you.
2021-2022 has been a very active and momentous year for ISCU. We are serving more immigrants than ever, and our organization is evolving to become more professional and hopefully more sustainable. But we remain true to our roots and our mission. We are passionate about assisting immigrants in Champaign-Urbana and the surrounding areas to become autonomous and lead fulfilling, productive lives in Central Illinois. They are enriching who we are.
Nils Jacobsen, President of ISCU, 2021-2022