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As she leaves the Berkshire Immigrant Center, Michelle Lopez reveals this nonprofit's challenges

Michelle Lopez in her office

Michelle Lopez, former executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, has left that position after three years. She says the organization needs to keep growing. “To be like a big YMCA, but for immigrants. For people to come in and share their cultures and not just be assimilating to the United States. To really open the Berkshires [to immigrants’] cultures, languages, food, art and music.”

PITTSFIELD — It started with a message saying goodbye.

In 2019, Michelle Lopez read a farewell post on Facebook by Brooke Mead, who was leaving her position as executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. It inspired her to seek — and secure — that job.

Last week, after sharing her own farewell text and setting up her permanent out-of-office email response, Lopez recalled how she felt called to apply to be the nonprofit’s new leader three years ago.

“[The letter] was about how she had been with this organization for two decades through all of its changes, and how it’s always been small and trying to make ends meet. But it does great work for this incredible immigrant community,” she said. “If someone can work at a nonprofit, who probably pays crap and has horrible benefits, but loves it so much that they’ve been there for two decades, I wanted to do that.”

The center has named Lorena Dus as interim director; she also serves as director of client and community services. The center lists six staff members on its website as well as an 11-member board.

While not an immigrant herself (her hometown is Greenville, N.Y.), Lopez’ husband is Cuban. This has given her a window into how difficult and often unfair the immigration system is.

A memory from when she lived in Cuba and was dating her husband stuck with her for a long time. The United States denied him a visitor’s visa, suspecting he would overstay any visa granted to him.

When reviewing visitor applications, the State Department looks for proof of sufficient ties to the applicant’s home country, like money in local banks and property ownership, to limit the risk of a visitor overstaying their visa.

“Even though I said I work in Cuba, I live in Cuba, I’m going home for summer break,” she said. “He’s just going to come with me for the summer, and we’re going to come back together and I’m going to pay for his whole trip.”

Armed with this experience but with no connections to the Berkshires, Lopez, then an assistant director of study abroad at Brandeis University, moved to Pittsfield when she was offered the job.

Three years later, Lopez is sad to be leaving her dream job.

It is largely a personal decision, as she realized that she cannot find child care in or near Pittsfield for her 4-month-old son.

“We couldn’t find childcare, we were on five wait lists for eight months. That was the problem, and we wanted to be closer to family to raise our son. My husband has more job opportunities in upstate New York,” she said. “If could bring this community and this organization with me, I would.”

Agency’s growth

Still, as she leaves she is moved by how much BIC has grown and accomplished under her leadership.

Formerly part of the nonprofit Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition, BIC has been independent for one year. This autonomy means BIC is in charge of its own finances. Lopez says that pay raises and improved benefits package she advocated for have helped limit turnover, a problem at many nonprofits. Investing in professional development, like paying employees to attend conferences, is vital in a field as fast-changing as immigration policy, she believes.

The team has also grown by 40 percent under Lopez, having added two new full-time and part-time positions to the roster.

Lopez said she took a new approach to being an executive director. “I’m not certified to do casework like my predecessor. Unlike the two previous directors, I had a lot more time to be able to go into the community and meet with schools, different immigrant groups and nonprofits and find out where our work might overlap,” she said.

In response to COVID-19, BIC expanded outside of legal services, which used to be its focus. “[We serve] over 200 households. Those folks weren’t able to get any type of unemployment or stimulus checks,” she said. “We were able to raise over $600,000 in COVID relief funds to help people pay for bills, groceries, rent, insurance, mortgages, car payments, things like that.”

Bob Bogomolny, co-chair of the center’s board, said he shared Lopez’ assessment of her leadership.

“When we hired her, we thought that she was a person of great energy and great possibility and potential. In the course of her three-year leadership, BIC has thrived,” he said. “The amount of money raised, the amount of people we serve, the quality of the service and the general growth of staff has been enormous. When we hired her, no one would ever have thought that she could accomplish as much as she did. She was at the center of all.”

Board member Stanley Shapshay agreed. “Lopez made an extremely important contribution to BIC because it was a relatively small operation or smaller operation prior to Michelle starting,” he said. “She’s expanded the scope of BIC tremendously. She worked during a very turbulent phase and responded to the COVID emergency.”

Lopez leaves believing much can be accomplished.

In her mind, the challenge BIC will face is finding a standalone building, instead of its current location in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, at 67 East St. “We’d be able to host multilingual child care, have an industrial kitchen, be able to have tutors and teachers with multiple classrooms, and be able to invite other nonprofits,” said Lopez. “To be like a big YMCA, but for immigrants. For people to come in and share their cultures and not just be assimilating to the United States. To really open the Berkshires [to immigrants’] cultures, languages, food, art and music.”

Shapshay shares Lopez vision. “We want to have our services in one place, the second language teaching, conferences, seminars. Perhaps we need to build a facility. But that’s pretty expensive,” he said.

Lopez, who helped write the job posting to find a successor, says candidates should have a vision. “[The job post is] incredibly aspirational and dreamy. It is not a bullet point list of prerequisites and requirements and work duties. It’s very open and warm,” she said adding the job post will be published this week.

Bogomolny says the next executive director will further expand the center’s programs. “We have a strategic plan that calls for growth and increase of services to the immigrant community here,” he said. “There is a lot more that can be done for the Berkshire immigrant community. So we’re looking for someone who has the desire to continue the transformation. A leader of growth, development and innovation.”

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez can be reached at aalvarez@berkshireeagle.com.

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