By Andy McKeever
01:20AM / Thursday, June 27, 2019
Lopez introduces herself to a few dozen people who attended the open house.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Brooke Mead spent 17 years working at the Berkshire Immigrant Center and eventually became the executive director. But it came time for her to move on and she penned a farewell letter.
The news of Mead's departure was big news and it quickly made its way around the state. It made its way to Michelle Lopez in Lexington.
Lopez had only recently returned to the United States after working in Havana, Cuba, assisting with study abroad programs. She moved back with her husband and was working at Brandeis University, where she directed the study abroad programs.
"I read her farewell letter and it brought me to tears. Anyone who feels this passionate about their position at a very small non-profit and has been there for 17 years, I need that job," Lopez said.
Lopez submitted an application but wasn't expecting an interview. But soon enough the phone rang and she was invited out to the small space in St. Stephen's Church -- twice -- for interviews. Lopez said she impressed with the honesty of the staff when she pressed on questions about the job, the challenges, and the organization.
"I didn't ask just the positive questions. I asked the tough questions, too," Lopez said.
Now, she has uprooted and moved to Pittsfield to take over as executive director. She has been on the job for about six weeks and on Wednesday, the organization held an open house to allow the community a chance to get to know her.
Berkshire Immigrant Center board Chairwoman Rose Ellis said Lopez is a "self-starter" and "well rounded." Lopez is fluent in Spanish, has experience living in other countries, and a background in black and Latin studies, Ellis said.
"She did a lot of navigating in a not very receptive country to outsiders. She had to navigate the government, organizations, banks, find host families for students. She really was a director on her own," Ellis said. "I think between her education and her knowledge base, she will be very successful here,"
Lopez was picked out of 26 candidates, Ellis said, and comes at a period of growth for the center -- so much so that the board is considering adding another staff member.
"This is a small organization with a big mission and a big heart," Ellis said.
Lopez said the organization's two caseworkers last year saw 668 clients for myriad services. She said 45 students participated in citizenship classes, with 25 of them being sworn in -- or to be sworn in next week.
"We are this amazing small engine that can and I think we are just proving we are growing and thriving," she said.
She wants to usher that along by making the organization more visible and more easily accessible. That means everything from growing the word of mouth, to expanding hours, to putting a sign out front of the office.
"Right now it is figuring out how to grant more access to our population. We do see a lot of clients, almost 700 people a year is fantastic for such a small staff, only three of us are full time," Lopez said.
The center is only open four days a week and only from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. but staff will stay late for appointments. Lopez is looking to add hours Wednesday evening for those who are working until 5 p.m. and can't make it to the office.
Right now the organization is staffed by three full-time employees -- Lopez and two caseworkers -- and three part-time employees. The organization leans a lot on volunteers who provided some 700 hours of service last year.
The center offers a wide range of offerings. The caseworkers will help enroll an immigrant in English classes, help get furniture and clothing donations, orient job and educational opportunities, will help with applications for visas, green cards, changes of statuses, and family reunification. It provides legal clinics on immigration law and provides referrals to attorneys. It also provides various workshops and assistance to businesses, schools, and agencies.
"I would love to have another full-time caseworker at least," Lopez said.
That is partly dependent on funding. Half of the organization's budget comes from donations and the other half comes from targeted program-specific grant funds. The organization is now coming toward the end of a month-long fundraising push.
"It is for Immigrant Heritage Month, which is celebrated nationwide. It is great because it is at the same time as Pride Month and you are helping people have a positive mood and speaking out against racism and discrimination and oppression and feeling love and giving for the month of June," Lopez said.
Last year, the organization raised some $160,000 to support everything from the staff to waiving fees for people to get such services as translating documents to provide free citizen classes to the basics as paper and ink.
Lopez is also prioritizing an update of both the donor database and the client database. Both systems are antiquated and difficult to use, she said. The new donor database is expected to go live next week and the organization is hoping to be awarded a grant to upgrade the client system.