New leader sees Berkshire Immigrant Center as 'this amazing small engine that can'

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PITTSFIELD — In her first month and a half on the job, Berkshire Immigrant Center Executive Director Michelle Lopez has been preparing to herald in the new fiscal year with her staff.

With that work coming to a close at the end of the week, the center hosted an open house reception Wednesday to introduce their new director to the community.

Lopez, whose career has been in international education, discovered the job opening this year when a goodbye announcement from former Executive Director Brooke Mead had been shared on Twitter.

"I read the farewell letter and it brought me to tears," Lopez said Wednesday.

If an organization could cause someone to be as dedicated as Mead appeared in her letter, she had to work there, Lopez said she thought at the time.

Lopez, 29, had been living in Lexington while she was working in the study abroad office at Brandeis University. She considered her application for the position a long shot and was thrilled to have been hired, she said.

The Berkshire Immigrant Center offers a variety of immigration-related assistance to 600 to 800 families a year. The services can range from helping people navigate the citizenship or residency process, to reuniting family members and basic legal consultations.

Mead joined the Berkshire Immigrant Center in 2002, and over the past few years, while she was executive director, the center expanded. Mead decided that it was time to leave her role and turn it over to someone more interested in the increasing administrative and fundraising duties that come with the job.

Lopez, who lives in Pittsfield with her husband, started the job May 13. In addition to preparing the 2020 budget, she also has been working with staff to coordinate the organization's Immigrant Heritage Month fundraising drive.

Because Immigrant Heritage Month shared June with Pride month, Lopez hopes that people who are in a positive, giving mood and looking to speak out against all forms of discrimination will consider donating to the immigrant center.

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Almost half of the organization's budget — about $160,000 a year — comes from donations, according to Lopez.

On Wednesday night, while guests visited the center, which is located in St. Stephen's Church, Lopez spoke of the organization's work over the past year.

There are six staff members, three of whom are full time, and more than 100 volunteers.

In 2019, staff worked with 668 clients during 728 appointments, according to Lopez. Senior Case Manager Lorena Dus helped 500 of those clients, Lopez said.

In January, the organization hired Maureen Blennehassett as a second full-time case manager. Blennehassett had worked as a paralegal on death row cases in California before deciding she wanted to pursue immigration work. To prepare for the career change, she spent the past year living in Mexico, where she worked as a captain of a sailboat.

Now, she is getting accredited by the Department of Justice to work on immigration-related legal work for clients seeking assistance at the center. Dus already is accredited.

So far this year, 45 students have taken citizenship classes at the center, with 25 of them becoming citizens and registering to vote, Lopez said.

Her biggest goal for the next year is to get transfer client and donor information into more searchable databases. The donor database will be up and running next week, and Lopez expects to have a client database ready by the fall.

She also hopes to increase the center's visibility and access by adding a new sign and extending hours on Wednesday night so staff can see clients who work after 5 p.m. If the budget allows, Lopez also is hoping to add an additional full-time caseworker to help clients.

"We're kind of this amazing small engine that can," Lopez said, "and I think that we're just hoping that we are growing and thriving, and I'm really looking forward to this next year."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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