Program helps new immigrants blend into their communities

By Maria Elena Fernandez, American Heart Association News

Geralde Gabeau is the executive director of Boston-based Immigrant Family Services Institute. (Photo courtesy of Geralde Gabeau)
Geralde Gabeau, who emigrated from Haiti 26 years ago, started the Boston-based Immigrant Family Services Institute. (Photo courtesy of Geralde Gabeau)

Social justice warrior Geralde Gabeau has worked for over two decades advocating for and developing public health initiatives for immigrants, especially for women and children.

But while working on her doctorate degree in strategic leadership several years ago, Gabeau learned something that moved her in a new direction and, in turn, is impacting the lives of thousands of immigrants in the Boston area.

"I came across some articles on immigrant integration and how long it takes for a new immigrant to integrate into the U.S.," she said. "So that really pushed me to research more and realize that it can take five to 10 years for an immigrant to fully integrate and that time means a lot of challenges for families, a lot of barriers to accessibility. And if they are children, most of the time, they are left behind."

That understanding motivated Gabeau to create the Immigrant Family Services Institute five years ago to help reduce the challenges faced by Caribbean, African and Hispanic immigrants in the Boston area. Adopting a "village model," the nonprofit organization provides academic support for children, advocates for immigrant rights, and acts as a bridge for employment, health care and education services. With a staff of 15 and a team of 200 volunteers, IFSI serves about 5,000 clients.

"We embrace the concept of the whole family, which means that we work with children, parents and grandparents," said Gabeau, who emigrated from Haiti 26 years ago. "So when we serve the children, we also serve the family. We also do a lot of educational programming for adults regarding the different issues immigrants are facing. The idea is to facilitate the integration of immigrating to their communities a little faster than usual."

One Dorchester family turned to IFSI for help when the youngest child faced difficulties in school. Restless and unfocused, the 4-year-old girl was having trouble learning and following directions. A friend referred her mother, Alice Therlonge, to the program, and things began to turn around quickly. After enrolling in IFSI's after-school tutoring program, Carla, now 7, is learning to play the violin and thriving in her classes.

"I can tell you this program is a miracle for me," Therlonge said. "She's sitting down and doing the work. She's listening. She does everything they ask her to do. I think the music program really helped her. She really enjoys the violin. She can play 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' by herself. Imagine that!"

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has moved its tutoring programs online. "She's doing well, just like when she's in the classroom," Therlonge said. "But she does keep asking me when she can go back. She misses her friends."

IFSI also is supporting Boston-area immigrants by identifying social determinants of health and educating clients to make healthy choices. It recently received a grant from the American Heart Association's Social Impact Fund, which supports enterprises in several cities that are helping to overcome social and economic barriers to health equity.

"When we talk about health, if you don't know what's going on around you, you're going to make poor choices," Gabeau said.

In light of the nation's recent civic uprising and Black Lives Matter movement, staff and volunteers also have been working with the organization's youth on channeling their emotions and educating them on the best ways to express their anger, sadness or fears. The children are encouraged to write, draw or play music.

"Since we are an immigrant organization, anything that affects the community through our Black and brown children affects us directly," Gabeau said.

"We invite them to create something new that could be used as a symbol in the fight against injustice and against racism so that it doesn't follow the same pattern that we are dealing with now in our society."

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