Nonprofit Spotlight: FIRN

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Hector Garcia, CEO and Executive Director

FIRN (Foreign-born Information and Referral Network)

Hector Garcia took over as CEO and Executive Director of FIRN in 2010 when the organization itself was in need of recovery. Founded in 1981 as an informal support service for students at Howard Community College, FIRN now serves immigrants from over 75 countries and is well known as the key resource in Central Maryland for the foreign born.

However, resources and funding have proved challenging, and in today’s political climate there are urgent needs for legal assistance to protect families, as well as the provision of assistance with schools, health care, food, community resources and more.

Hector is a member of the Premier Class of 2012 and credits the network he developed with his ability to serve the community in a variety of ways, in addition to leading FIRN. Hector is a member of the #OneHoward steering committee, an initiative of the county executive designed to promote community dialogue and reinforce the county’s shared goals of diversity and inclusiveness. He has also served with the Howard County Public Transportation board, the Equity Council for the Howard County Public School System and the Community Emergency Response Network.

Hector provides some insights into the accomplishments and challenges of serving new immigrants to our community.

What was it about FIRN that inspired you to take on a leadership role?

I joined FIRN in 2010 after working on a national level with both the American Cancer Society and the American Red Cross. I was looking for a way to spend less time traveling while using my experience in  nonprofit leadership. At the time, FIRN had run out of reserves and was looking for a change in direction. Friends and associates who were prominent in the community encouraged me to consider the job and I realized my passion to help new immigrants become integrated in the community would be a great fit for the position. We increased efficiencies and built up the board, and since that time have achieved many of our original goals to become the key resource in our area for the foreign born.

In 2015, we became the official welcome center in Howard County for foreign-born residents. This meant doing more outreach in the community to provide information and referral assistance to residents for everything from health care to finding an apartment, to enrolling their children in school – whatever questions people needed help with. We increased our staff to 12, along with many community volunteers. We also provide immigration counseling and citizenship classes, interpreting and translation services, English tutoring, and a variety of workshops. Our annual American Success Awards, which recognize significant contributions of immigrants, also raise awareness of the need to bridge culture and build community. FIRN also hosts Howard County’s annual Naturalization Ceremony which takes place close to the Fourth of July.

How have your priorities changed in the last year?

Obviously with the change in policy from the current administration, our focus has taken on more urgent legal and immigration assistance. We triage the most critical cases but are challenged with the capacity to handle all the requests for service. We have found that people are fearful about their future status, and we are seeing an increase in younger clients.

What do people need to know about FIRN?

We are the only agency in Howard County that does the work we do. In addition to information and referral, our counselors work very hard to make sure small issues don’t become larger ones that threaten to break up families. We are normally booked about 30+ days out for client requests, so we need to increase our capacity to serve everyone who seeks our services.

What are your biggest needs and how can people help?

Howard County and other organizations have been extremely supportive but we need to find additional sources for funding and support in order to expand our services. We need financial donations as well as volunteers who can assist in a variety of capacities.

If people have a connection with the immigrant community or would simply like to help us further our mission, we would love to hear from them.

You can search for volunteer opportunities on volunteermatch.org and volunteerhoward.org or call 410-992-1923 x120 or email [email protected] .

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