By Brittany Polito
04:31AM / Friday, June 10, 2022
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Immigrant Center is celebrating 25 years of providing vital services to local immigrants.
BIC was founded in 1997 by the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires to resettle Russian refugees and, in October 2021, became an independent nonprofit organization.
The organization has helped more than 1,000 people become citizens, which Development Director Sheryl Lechner identified as its biggest impact.
"We're really the only local alternative offering accredited, legal immigration services accredited by the Department of Justice as an alternative to a private immigration attorney," she explained.
"If you're filing a citizenship application, a (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) renewal, a green card, and many, many other immigration status applications with the federal government, you have to either work with an immigration attorney or an accredited agency or accredited representative.
"BIC is an accredited agency and we have two full-time accredited representatives and one part-time volunteer accredited representative."
This milestone is being marked with the center's third annual One World Celebration on Sunday at 5 p.m. at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. The event is BIC's annual benefit to fund free and low-cost services to local immigrants.
Honduran-born violinist Jorge Ávila will open the event accompanied by guitarist Oren Fader and Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra will play a high-energy and dance-friendly blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms.
It will also feature food from KJ Nosh catering in Pittsfield.
Lechner said they are excited to have the event live for the first time since 2019. It was postponed in 2020 and made virtual in 2021.
The center's advocacy for immigrants doesn't stop at legal aid. Settlement services, advocacy and public education, interpretation and translation services, and voter education are among the other services offered at the BIC's office at 67 East St.
With more than 750 clients a year, Lechner said the organization's work also plays a key role in the diversity and economic stability of the region.
Lechner said there have been times when the state has seen a significant economic downturn but the Berkshires have shown resiliency and she attributes this to the county's recognition of the role that immigrants play in economic stability.
"Foreign-born residents of the Berkshires remain the only growing demographic long term in the Berkshires over the past couple of decades," she added.
"So they're really in many ways the backbone of the economic resilience of the Berkshires."
BIC is still very closely connected with Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. There were many Russian refugees in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and with many of them being Jewish, the Jewish Federation wanted to help people resettle in the Berkshires.
The project started there and developed as the needs of the immigrant community changed. There began to be an influx of people to the Berkshires from Eastern Europe, Central and South America, Asia, and West Africa. Ghana is a big component of the local immigration influx.
"We grew over time to the point where we're seeing a lot of different people and we kind of outgrew just being a project of the Jewish Federation," Lechner explained.
"We were briefly a fiscal project at Berkshire Community Action Council and then in 2012, we became a project of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and that is where we stayed until last year, and in March, we decided that we were ready after 24 years of being a fiscal project of other organizations, we were ready to become our own 501(c)(3)."
BIC is about 45 percent grant-funded with between 16 and 20 grants in process at any given time, about 45 percent individual and business funded, and about 10 percent comes from low-cost fees for service.
In April, the organization was awarded $80,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding for the expansion of legal and educational services for immigrants living in Pittsfield. It was also awarded $10,000 in ARPA funding from the town of Lee, which has many immigrants.
The center has also raised and disbursed more than $600,000 from its COVID-19 Relief Fund since March 2020 to help more than 200 immigrant families pay for basic needs.
Tickets for the One World Celebration are $100 so that BIC can continue to provide services to the county's around 10,000 immigrants. A recording of the performances will be available the following month.
Details can be found at Berkshireic.org.
The lead sponsors of the event are local attorney Sherwood Guernsey and Greylock Federal Credit Union. Lechner said BIC is thankful for their support.