America, made a bit easier

Organization that helps newcomers find their way throwing a 25th birthday party

October 27, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On Halloween night in 1979, Columbia resident Pat Hatch opened her door to a young Korean family of trick-or-treaters. While the mother waited at the end of the sidewalk, the two children collected their candy.

Hatch, who had lived in Korea for 2 1/2 years when her husband was stationed there, greeted the mother in Korean and invited the family in to talk.

The young mother wanted advice. "She very much wanted to go to English classes but didn't know how to find them," said Hatch.

Before long, the mother - who has since moved back to Korea, Hatch believes - was bringing other Korean families to Hatch. Some needed to find doctors for their children. Others wanted help finding work.

"It appeared there was a great gap between available services and the knowledge of those services by newcomers," said Hatch.

She decided to do something about it.

Hatch created FIRN, then known as the Foreign-Born Informational and Referral Network. The 25-year-old organization, now simply called FIRN, has helped thousands of people from other countries find the services they need, easing much of the alienation and confusion of not speaking English or knowing how to get around.

On Monday, Hatch will be honored at a 25th anniversary celebration of the nonprofit organization, with a day-before-Halloween dinner at Jesse Wong's Hong Kong in Columbia.

Hatch's experiences teaching at the Seoul Missionary School in Korea helped her understand the importance of providing such a service. "It was my introduction to what it felt like to be the odd person out in a different culture," she said.

People were friendly enough, she said, "but if I took a bus I was generally the only American on the bus, and that had a different feeling to it."

Hatch, who lived in Seoul and not on a military base, felt isolated by her inability to speak Korean. She has a clear memory of staring at an enormous phone book, with no idea how she would find the numbers she needed.

By the time she left, she said, she was proficient enough to have "a good conversation with a 3-year-old."

Hatch grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and met her husband, David, at the State University of New York at Buffalo. After their time in Korea, they moved to Maryland in 1973.

While raising her two children, Hatch became active with the Refugee Resettlement Committee, part of the Columbia Cooperative Ministry, which brought together members of different local churches with similar interests.

Hatch knew that her experiences of feeling alienated and alone in Korea were minor compared with what the refugees were going through. "Refugees, of course, are people that don't have a choice in leaving that country," she noted, and most likely would never return.

While she was helping the refugees enroll in schools and find housing, she began collecting material from the federal government, written in different languages. That was the start of her resource center.

"I got excited because I discovered some resources that were not known that could be of use," she said.

In 1980, she applied for a grant from the Columbia Foundation, and FIRN was born. For the first three years, FIRN was a program at Howard Community College, run in conjunction with the English as a Second Language program. In 1984, the organization officially became its own nonprofit entity.

The first year, she helped 90 families from a dozen countries, she said. Last year, according to Roy Appletree, the current FIRN director, the organization tackled about 5,000 cases, helping people from about 85 countries.

"Basically, we grew by grants," said Hatch, noting that funding has come from the Columbia Foundation, the Horizon Foundation, Howard County government, individual contributors and other sources.

In the early days, about one-fifth of FIRN's clients were refugees, she said. That is no longer the case, but the diversity of Howard County has meant that the organization has needed to search for material in an ever-growing roster of languages.

FIRN helps people who are new to the country with services such as employment counseling, legal services for those who want to become citizens, English tutoring and referrals to other agencies.

The organization has the equivalent of eight full-time employees and a network of more than 120 volunteers, Appletree said. FIRN's offices, about 2,000 square feet, are on Harper's Farm Road in Columbia.

One person who was helped by FIRN was Abel Folarin, who grew up in Nigeria and moved to Maryland from England in 1995.

Folarin, who now lives in Ellicott City and works as an environmental engineer, could speak English, the official language of Nigeria, but his first language was Yoruba. When he arrived in Maryland, he sought out FIRN for help getting his child into the school system and finding a job.

FIRN, he said, was "extremely helpful."

"They explained to me about the school system," he said, and he was given advice about conducting a job search. He found work at Howard Community College, and was so grateful that he volunteered for FIRN.

"Now I don't use their services," he said. "Now I refer other foreign-born people to there for assistance in any way."

Appletree said he expects the restaurant to reach its capacity of 200 for the event. Celebrants will include clients, partners, past and present employees and local politicians, he said.

"This is really a celebration of Pat," he said. "This really grew out of a compassion for wanting to help a stranger in a strange land," he said. "To be able to conceptualize it and do it takes just an amazing person, which is what Pat is."

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