The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that seeks to help those in need, including immigrants and refugees, with improving their lives and socioeconomic status. Philadelphians who are foreign born often find themselves at a disadvantage in the job market and require additional assistance in getting the education, language skills and connections they need in order to succeed. The Welcoming Center has been a provider for these services for the past 15 years. Peter Gonzales, the president and CEO, continues to play a vital role in the organization’s success.
What is the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians?
The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians is a private, nonprofit organization. It was founded a little more than 15 years ago by an immigrant who recognized that there was no central place where immigrants could go for information and resources that they would need to enter the workforce. The program was organized initially around providing a centralized resource center and referral center for immigrants looking for services from English language classes to how to find a job and how to build a business. Over the 15 years the organization has evolved from a central resource center to actually providing services directly.
What are some of your primary responsibilities with the organization?
My role is president and CEO of the organization. I’ve been in this role for a little over six years now. Our mission has been clearly stated now that we are accelerating immigrant integration and economic advancement to alleviate poverty and add to the economic vitality of the region.
Can you speak more on the services that the organization provides?
We help people who come from all different backgrounds and have arrived at our door through all different means. Our services are focused on providing education and training to help people enter or advance in the workforce, start or grow a business, or become more engaged civically in Philadelphia. Our services include providing education, language and cultural support, technical assistance, a whole long list of things.
When foreign-born residents come to the Welcoming Center, are they having to pay for these services or provide proof of documentation?
No, no. It depends on what kind of service you’re looking for. We will help people with their documentation to figure out what they’re eligible for. We do a free legal clinic once a month for people who have issues with documentation. It does depend on what the program is and how it’s funded. Some programs, the funders are adamant about not requiring documentation and others are. It depends on the funding source. If it involves employment and it’s a federally funded employment program, there’s work authorization that’s required so you have to be able to establish that you have work authorization. For any of our education and training programs, that’s not required. We also serve people who are born in the United States; we serve and assist people from everywhere.
Does the organization work with the city, or are these services provided by the organization’s staff?
We work closely with a lot of partners. The city, the state, the Philadelphia Works, Inc. PWI is one of our biggest partners/funders. We work with the Office of Immigrant Affairs with the city. We work with the Department of Commerce in the city. We have worked with lots of other nonprofits that provide all kinds of services. Some are specific to supporting immigrants and refugees and some are more generally focused on economic development and workforce development. We partner with lots of different organizations, including the city. Our programs, we have about 30 staff and the programming we offer is delivered by our staff and sometimes it’s funded by the city or the state.
What are some of the ways that the Welcoming Center goes about maximizing its engagement and communication directly with immigrant communities in Philadelphia?
A few years ago, we started a participant advisory council which is made up of participants in our programs who are working in a more formal structure to provide input, guidance and feedback to our organization as we developed our programs and our curriculum. And out of that we formed the Immigrant Leadership Institute. Essentially it’s a five-month training program with cohorts of 25 people participating in this leadership institute. They learn all kinds of skills for how to help each other and how to help other immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia overcome various barriers to the integration experience that they’re having in Philadelphia.
At the culmination of the five-month training, the immigrant participants form teams where they have to do a public action project that involves conducting outreach into the immigrant communities to fundraise for an event that is around engaging, more broadly, the immigrant and refugee communities of Philadelphia, particularly those that tend to be isolated and disconnected. This helps them participate in dialogue and be welcomed into and have access to programs that would support them in their journey to successfully integrate into the local economy.
How can Philadelphians go about getting set up with assistance and services with the Welcoming Center? Is it as easy as just walking in?
Yes. Or calling or emailing. The majority of people that find us, about 75 to 80 percent, it’s word of mouth. Other immigrants and refugees in the community talk about the support they received at the Welcoming Center, and they refer other people to come in.
-Text and image by Dylan Long.