Grant Provides Crucial Support for Pioneer Valley Immigrants

When Center for New Americans received an emergency relief grant through the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, “We immediately decided we needed to give it to undocumented workers,” said Director Laurie Millman.

The education and resource center had been welcoming and serving immigrants to the Pioneer Valley for more than 28 years, and Millman saw that many people with undocumented status were in crisis.

“The very essential workers who were the first to get laid off—the dishwashers, the house and hotel cleaners, people who do jobs that our economy depends on…there was no safety net for them at all. No stimulus check, no unemployment assistance. Nothing.”

Millman sent an email to the Center’s e-list announcing the grant and inviting others to lend a hand. A concerned friend of the Center then donated $25,000.

“We live in a generous community and we have good values here. We wouldn’t want to live and work anywhere else. And fortunately, our community rallied. We had $10,000 to give away and then we had $35,000. And that makes a big difference.”

With programs in Northampton, Amherst and Greenfield, Center for New Americans teaches English, civics, technology, and U.S. culture to Pioneer Valley immigrants from all over the world. The Center also provides legal assistance, help with citizenship applications, and more. The Center’s free English classes are its most popular offerings.

Many immigrants come to the Pioneer Valley to fill farming or service sector jobs; others are resettled refugees from countries torn apart by war.

Center for New Americans classroom. Photo taken before the pandemic. No person pictured has undocumented status.

When the coronavirus crisis hit, Millman’s staff sprang into action. They moved nearly all classes online, but many people they serve couldn’t afford an internet connection. So, staff members drove around Western Massachusetts connecting people—lending computer tablets and identifying hotspots (which were being turned on thanks to local activism).

Still, said Millman, “These are challenging times and people without too much of a safety net to begin with had been pushed to the absolute brink.”

That’s why the Response Fund grant and the anonymous donor gift were lifelines for the Center’s undocumented clients. The Center paid their utilities and rent and bought them gift cards to grocery stores.

More than $4.3 million Response Fund dollars have flooded in since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, with remarkably generous businesses, philanthropic partners, and individuals contributing to the fund. The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts is covering all staff and administrative costs, so 100% of dollars donated can be granted out to nonprofits serving residents affected by the pandemic in Hampden, Franklin, and Hamden counties.

Millman points with pride to the history of the Pioneer Valley as welcoming waves of immigrants, including those drawn to jobs in Holyoke’s thriving paper mills in the late 19th century. She cites research showing that the region’s economy has benefitted enormously from the influx of immigrants—and international cuisines, music, and dance have fueled tourism and interest in our cities.

Concludes Millman, “People have sent many emails with gratitude. It’s amazing to be able to support people like this.”