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Bridging the Cultural Gap for Berkshire Immigrants
By Nichole Dupont, iBerkshires Staff
07:19PM / Friday, July 29, 2011
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GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Finding resources in this country is hard enough, but when you tack on a language barrier and culture shock, access can be nearly impossible for immigrants.

Berkshire County is no exception. Immigrants are the fastest-growing demographic in the area according to the most recent Census. This population increase (there are people from 27 different countries now living in the Berkshires) has created the demand not only for more resources but also access to these resources.

In an effort to reach out to the many immigrant families living and working in the county, Multicultural BRIDGE in Housatonic is offering two informational workshops on Saturday, July 30, and Saturday, Aug. 6, for immigrants with questions about insurance, financial planning, housing and higher education to name a few. BRIDGE board member Estervina Pimentel said providing access to information is a primary need within the immigrant community.

"Basically we want to talk about benefits for immigrants — housing, insurance, food," she said. "Sometimes people don't have papers and they think that they have no rights or that they don't need to know this information but this is not the case. The community has to know what their options are. There are a lot of opportunities in this country, a lot of open doors. We just need to show them to these doors."

Pimentel said one of the primary concerns of many immigrants living in the area is housing, specifically being able to go through the hoops of purchasing a house.

"A lot of immigrants would love to have a house here," she said. "Many who come to BRIDGE want to know what the expectations are for buying a house and how they can do that. I know for myself that this can be very difficult. We came here six years ago from the Dominican Republic. I am lucky because I have my family here, my children are all with me. Some people don't have this. And the language barrier is doubly hard. My daughter is going to college in September and she had to do everything, all of the paperwork, by herself. I couldn't help her because the process is so different here. Sometimes people get lost in the process."

John Bortolotto is hoping to make that process a little easier. As the Lee branch manager for Berkshire/Legacy Bank, Bortolotto will be one of the presenters at the workshops addressing financial planning for immigrants and their families as they try to build a life in the Berkshires.
 
"I'll be addressing some of the many financial concerns of the immigrant community," he said. "I'm going to try to make it as easy as possible. It's mostly about services. Immigrants want to know what they can do to financially protect their children, especially if their children are citizens but they are not. Also, what are some safe ways to save money? You'd be surprised at how far $25 a week will go. Undocumented immigrants want to know what they can do in terms of banking. It boils down to what they are entitled to or not."
 
Bortolotto himself knows firsthand what it is like to set down roots in a new land. A native of Brazil, he came to the United States 10 years ago speaking "next to no English" and with little knowledge of the culture.
 
"Fortunately, I was good in math and I always carried a dictionary," he said. "I've done a lot of volunteering and tutoring in addition to working at the bank and I've found that immigrants' concerns aren't that much different from other people's financial problems. They are trying to live a somewhat normal life, a lot of times they just lack the access to this information. Many are scared because they don't speak the language and that is really a barrier."

BRIDGE co-founder and director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant is seeking to break down this barrier, both for immigrants and for the many organizations (schools, hospitals, nonprofits) that work closely with the immigrant population.

"At almost every cultural competency training that I've done in the community people have asked why immigrants do not have to go through the same training," she said. "I want to be able to say that they do, that's how these workshops came to be. We want to show immigrants how to actually integrate into this community and get what it's like to live here. That means helping them figure out what resources are available to them. I've noticed that there are a lot of resources in the cities but that's still our federal and state dollars and some of that should be coming our way as well."

Cultural Competency workshops will be held at Multicultural BRIDGE on Saturday, July 30, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. as well as Saturday, Aug. 6, also from 3 to 5:30, at 207 Pleasant St. The cost of the program is $10 and this includes materials. There will also be a potluck dinner held directly after the program.

For more information or to reserve a spot call 413-274-1001 or visit www.multiculturalbridge.org.
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