It’s been over a year since the Lincoln County YMCA was asked by YMCA of the USA to add YMCA Immigration Integration services and New American Welcome Centers to its offerings. While many of the immigrants and refugees in the Lincolnton area are Hispanic, other communities, including the eastern side of the country, have individuals from other countries living in the community. These centers are open to all immigrants or refugees.
“The area around this Y is about 12 percent Hispanic, as they identify,” executive director Joe Kovalcheck said. “In the past four or five years, this branch has gone from a very low number of Hispanic-Latino members. Now, our membership base is about 14 percent identified Hispanic-Latino.”
The YMCA is a nonpartisan organization and Kovalcheck explained that the work the organization is doing is not political.
“We know immigration is a high politicized issue,” he said. “We’re not taking a stance on it. We know the numbers can be skewed out of fear of what’s going on. We’re not getting into that, we’re here to serve.”
Since last May, Kovalcheck, membership director Javier Salazar and others at the Y have been working on their offerings under the umbrella of YMCA’s Immigration Integration Services. They’ve launched a partnership with Gaston College to bring one of their ESL classes to the YMCA. It’s still Gaston College’s program, their students and instructors, but it’s held at the Y.
“One of the challenges is that newcomers may not have a great network and many have childcare needs,” Kovalcheck said. “Gaston College doesn’t provide childcare but the Y does. By bringing the program over here and opening up our child watch program to all those families, it increases our ability to serve.”
Before the class came over to the Y, it was averaging five to six students. Now it’s averaging around 20.
“What we’re starting to see now is the students spending time at the Y and feeling at home, which is what it’s all about,” Kovalcheck said.
The goal of the YMCA’s new American Welcome Centers is to pave the path to language and education, economic integration and employment, health and wellbeing, citizenship and civic engagement and community development.
“We’re not staffed to be able to do all of these things,” said Salazar, who is an immigrant from Costa Rica. “Right now we’re honing in on ESL and making sure that’s a home run. We work with others in our community to make sure that our resource hub which is located in the front lobby has information available to anyone who needs it.”
Salazar was initially hired to be the membership engagement director but that he’s an immigrant and bilingual helped drive the implementation of this new service.
“When he started working here in 2015, there wasn’t a large representation of people in color here in general,” Kovalcheck said. “We wanted to change that and to do that, we started to build a staff and team that reflects the community we are serving.”
Another partnership that the Lincoln County Y has developed is with Tenowo Textiles in Lincolnton. They’ve made a three-year commitment to help fund the work the Y is doing. Tenowo recently went to Puerto Rico to recruit staff and brought four men, who are highly specialized in some of the machinery that Tenowo uses, from Puerto Rico to Lincolnton to work at the company.
“Javy (Javier) has been the welcome wagon for these families and we’re looking at using it as a pilot for how the Y can support our industrial partners as they look to bring people into the community to work and live,” Kovalcheck said. “How can the Y serve as that welcome wagon? How can the Y help integrate them into the community? The whole model is based on welcoming our newcomer community while bringing them together with what we call our receiving community.”
Another project, which was originally separate from the immigration services, is one that YMCA of Greater Charlotte initiated with Atrium Health for mobile health units. “Wellness on Wheels” comes once a month to the Y in Lincolnton and to Gaston College. They are open to anyone.
“We know that for newcomers, access to healthcare can be a challenge, sometimes due to lack of trust or knowledge of the system,” Kovalcheck said. “For the summer, since Gaston College is closed, we moved the mobile health unit over to St. Dorothy's Catholic Church, which we know is a Hispanic-Latino Catholic parish as well as a large community of newcomers.”
Kovalcheck and Salazar have many more things planned to expand their services such as a potential mobile tech lab, additional ESL classes and expanding their partnerships with other members of the community.
“The coolest thing about this work is that it grows organically,” Kovalcheck said. “You can tug, nudge, push and kind of guide it, but you also want to be ready if an opportunity comes up like the one with Tenowo. We’re the only welcome center that’s in a rural community so we have the opportunity to test different approaches to this work.”