When Maria Lopez arrived in Mount Kisco in New York’s Westchester County 13 years ago, she was pregnant and had come here on a tourist visa. But when the visa expired after six months, Lopez took a risk. “I stayed here because I wanted a better future for my son,” she says. “But it was very difficult to live undocumented and not speaking the language. I was struggling to assimilate into this new culture.”
She learned there was a place she could go for help: Neighbors Link, a non-profit organization in Mount Kisco that has been welcoming immigrants from mostly Latin American countries for more than a decade.
Lopez, who was a psychologist in her native Colombia, still remembers how the staff and volunteers of Neighbors Link received her. “They opened the doors for me and made me feel like it is my second home,” she says, adding that the organization offered her English as a Second Language classes as well as training to be a home health aide. The organization helped her find fair-waged work cleaning houses and catering parties. Lopez was also given social support through programs such as family night, where immigrant families share a hot meal and listen to a guest speaker on pertinent topics such as immigration, violence and parenting. Lopez learned Neighbors Link also offers health and legal services to clients and academic assistance for their school-age children as well as accredited classes for themselves at nearby Westchester Community College.
Neighbors Link was founded in 2001 by local leaders in Mount Kisco who were concerned about hostility in the community toward immigrants at a time when growing numbers of day laborers were waiting in the streets for work and incurring negative notice from the police.
“It was very difficult for the community,” says Carola Otero Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link. “But I think Neighbors Link played a major role in helping people understand that this immigrant work force is propping up the middle and upper class population providing the services they need, like taking care of their lawns, their homes, their children and working in their restaurants.”
Part of the organization’s mission to promote understanding has included offering cultural education to the county’s police and social workers, including information on why people are often forced to leave their homelands, such as unemployment, a stagnant economy and high levels of crime and violence. Neighbors Link also provides data on how immigrants are contributing financially to the U.S. economy as taxpayers.
Bracco, who was born in the United States but is of Bolivian heritage, sees her job as being a bridge between people. “Our mission of integration is achieved not only by helping immigrants learn more about our customs and culture, but also by helping longer-term residents, who were once immigrants themselves, understand more about the people who are coming to live here,” she says.
Recruiting volunteers like Sarita Roy from the local community has also furthered understanding. Roy, a social worker from nearby Pleasantville, says, “I help train people for citizenship conversations and train teenage volunteers to serve immigrants. Our clients work all day in construction and cleaning houses and yet they come in the evening to study English or are moms who work and are trying to help their children with homework and keep families together. It is very touching. At the end of the day, I am happy and honored to be a volunteer here.”
Other “neighbors” who have volunteered their time and talent at the organization include a dozen Maryknoll Sisters such as Sisters Ramona Oppenheim, Margaret Hennessey and Anne Callahan. “There was a spirit that although we have returned from overseas mission, we would like to continue the ministry among migrants here,” says Sister Oppenheim, who served in the Philippines and Guatemala, and has taught English to day laborers at Neighbors Link.
Sisters Hennessey and Callahan currently work with day laborers at the center. “I help them learn the language, the customs and culture of being in this country,” says Sister Hennessey, who served in Bolivia and Peru. Volunteering at Neighbors Link, she adds, not only makes her feel closer to her overseas missions but gives her joy in helping immigrants take the steps necessary to achieve a better life.
Sister Callahan, who served in Mexico and Guatemala, says teaching English to day laborers in Mount Kisco, many of whom come from Guatemala, is “a privilege.”
Bracco praises the many donors, including the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, who make the work of Neighbors Link possible. “Maryknoll was very supportive and excited to be able to help us and we are very grateful,” says Bracco. “Maryknoll Sisters along with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers understand at a deep level our mission of integrating the whole community.”
“Helping local groups like Neighbors Link is part of who we are,” says Father Raymond Finch, superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. “We share our faith with immigrants and hope we create a just and compassionate system that will welcome people to join us in building the future of our country.”
Maria Lopez is striving to build that future. She is now married and has three children born in the United States. While she is waiting to get her green card, she has a work permit, Social Security number and driver’s license and pays property taxes as a homeowner in Mount Kisco. She works as an events coordinator at Neighbors Link, where she also volunteers giving workshops. “I am very grateful to Neighbors Link for letting me develop my skills as a psychologist in the work I do,” she says. “They gave me the tools I needed to improve my life.”
Featured Image: Maria Lopez (green and gray shirt) participates in Neighbors Link Family Center that helps parents prepare their children for success in school and beyond.