By Amelia Blades Steward
When I interviewed Matthew Peters, Executive Director of Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center (ChesMRC), almost 10 years ago, he talked about the growth of the Eastern Shore’s immigrant population from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. First, it was due to the boom in the U.S. economy in 2002, causing an increased need for laborers from these countries to work in the construction, housing, and landscaping industries. Secondly, the influx was due to the Civil War ending in Guatemala. Today, as the organization celebrates its 10th anniversary, it is helping immigrants from these countries, as well as a large Haitian population.
The incredible journeys of many of the clients ChesMRC has helped have touched all of us over the last 10 years. But it was the Morales family from Mexico and Guatemala who perhaps shared one of the most poignant stories. I met them 10 years ago after they had come to ChesMRC because they needed help with job placement and needed to get their driver’s licenses. While getting assistance, the family connected with a Ches MRC board member who was moving and needed help getting rid of some things. He offered the family the opportunity to sell his unwanted items in a yard sale. The family agreed that, if they could give the money raised back to the center or to the newly formed Cub Scouts where their son Brayan was a member, they would take the items and host a yard sale. The yard sale was very successful, raising $350, and the family decided to donate the funds to the Cub Scout Pack 003.
Yadira Morales, Brayan’s mother commented at the time, “We wanted to teach our son, who is in the third grade, that if you can help with something, you should do it.”
She went on to explain the family’s journey in getting their driver’s licenses with the help of ChesMRC, adding, “After coming to this country, we didn’t have many choices or information. Through ChesMRC, we have learned about how to be a part of this community and how to use the programs of the community, like the Cub Scouts. We want the next generation of our family to integrate into this community, build a better community, and give back for what they have been given. This experience has allowed us to do this, and we are very grateful to Matthew for what he is doing.”
Today, while talking with Matthew Peters, I found out that Brayan Morales has achieved his life rank as a Boy Scout and just conferred with the ChesMRC staff about what his Eagle Scout project should be. He will be the first Eagle Scout to come out of the ChesMRC Scout Program.
“He’s an amazing scout and an amazing young man. You can look back and see now this is why we do it and that’s why we’ll keep doing it. We’ve always been helping to help,” comments Matthew.
By coordinating services and informational programs, ChesMRC empowers people from different cultures to become successful and engaged members of the community. Through education, ChesMRC strives to break down cultural barriers that arise from differences in language, appearance, or ethnic traditions. The organization envisions a community that partners to embrace diversity.
The objectives of the center were to be the trusted source of information and referrals for the immigrant community; be a central source of information to service providers about the immigrant community; through an exchange of information, to expand the capacity of churches and other community organizations interested in serving the immigrant community, and to develop and disseminate information about the current and potential impact of immigrants on the community. ChesMRC is both a direct service provider and an indirect service connector/facilitator.
According to Matthew, in the first five years, ChesMRC worked with about 1,000 individuals and now the staff is working with 7,000 individuals – experiencing 30% to 40% new clients every week. The growth represents both new immigrants to this country as well as immigrants who have just found ChesMRC after living here for a while.
“This growth is a combination of building trust with the community and then us having the experience to get things done right. We are not just giving them a phone number to call. We know what we’re doing and have the staff who can take care of the issues they are facing free of charge,” Matthew explains.
The complexity of immigration issues today is always changing, so Matthew and his staff have been trained in how to deal with many changes that have occurred. In 2016, the organization was accredited by the Department of Justice to legally provide immigration consultation and advice. There are seven full-time staff and seven part-time staff serving predominantly Talbot and Caroline counties. ChesMRC is constantly investing in staff development to maintain a stable and educated working team.
One of the largest growth areas is the Haitian Creole population in Federalsburg. ChesMRC started assisting 280 clients there a year ago and is now assisting 800 clients. In July 2022, ChesMRC was awarded $25,000 from the Rural Maryland Council to set up an outreach site in Federalsburg to work primarily with Haitian Creole speakers in Caroline and Wicomico counties. The unexpected success and number of clients lead to a much larger grant for this coming year in partnership with Caroline County Department of Social Services to build on the success of the organization’s outreach efforts in addressing the unique needs of this community.
“In 2018, 60% of our clients were from Guatemala. In 2023, only 40% are from Guatemala and 20% are from Haiti, followed by Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, Venezuela, Pakistan, Ukraine, and Vietnam,” Matthew states.
“We are expanding as we build that trust. No one wants to ask for help when they are trying to survive, as they are vulnerable. The personal touch we provide is important to building that trust. When COVID hit, we had to meet clients face-to-face. COVID also highlighted where we knew there were gaps. It made us more aware of what we can do, improving upon the process we had in place to resolve issues. This year, we will be hiring immigration specialists to help us focus where the numbers and the needs are.”
Another important program that ChesMRC is involved with is its Scholarship Program for first-generation immigrant students going to college. The program is in its third year and has awarded 16 scholarships this year to Chesapeake College, Washington College, Salisbury University, Loyola College, and Notre Dame.
Victoria Gomez, a Hispanic Outreach Coordinator, who helps with the program, adds, “These students often qualify for financial aid, but we help them fill in the gaps for funding their education.”
In serving as the outreach coordinator, Victoria also helps coordinate ChesMRC’s festivals for several different cultural groups and oversees the organization’s volunteer program. She adds, “We have a lot of volunteers. There are a lot of things that we would not be able to do without their support, including serving on the scholarship committee where they serve as coaches; working with the Afterschool Program; volunteering at Easton Middle School as tutors for each grade; and providing transportation to clients. Students also volunteer for their service-learning hours. We are always looking for more volunteers.”
Other new ventures for ChesMRC include being certified to help clients fill out applications to the Maryland Medicaid program that benefits pregnant women clients and their babies. Staff also help with Immigrant Small Business Development, helping clients find the necessary resources to operate their own businesses. Another offering is Family Nights and an Afterschool Program featuring health habits for children in grades Pre-K through grade five. Nearly 65 students at Easton Elementary School learn more about nutrition, exercise, enrichment, and academics in the Afterschool Program.
Matthew reflects on the organization’s growth over the 10 years, stating, “For me, satisfaction is knowing that you’re going to get that approval for that person – knowing that I took care of them and got that off their plate so that they can move on. That feels good.”