Hector Garcia, Jr., has been the CEO and executive director of FIRN —which was founded as the Foreign-born Information & Referral Network — in Columbia, for more than four years. His duties include overseeing the operations, fundraising, strategic planning and community relations for the nonprofit.
All told, Garcia has 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Before taking the reins at FIRN, he worked in marketing and operational management with the American Cancer Society and the American Red Cross at national, divisional and regional levels.
Today, he has also parlayed that work experience into extra-curricular service with the Howard County Public Transportation Board, the Local Health Improvement Coalition, the Equity Council for the Howard County Public School System and the Community Emergency Response Network. He also supports various other county organizations.
The native of Puerto Rico holds a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry and zoology, as well as a master’s degree in business administration, with a concentration in marketing, both from the University of Florida. He has been a resident of Howard County for more than 15 years. In his spare time, he has been an active participant in local, national and international triathlons.
What was the highlight of the last year for FIRN?
We became the official welcome center in Howard County for foreign-born residents. That meant we added a group of individuals who are doing outreach in the community so they can direct residents to whatever they need, from health care to getting an apartment to finding employment to enrolling kids in school and English language learning — and maybe even directions to the dairy in the grocery store. In order to do that, we doubled our staff to 12, which led to us serving close to 20,000 clients.
We’ve also instituted programs during Thanksgiving and Christmas where we provide food baskets on Thanksgiving, and food baskets and presents for the kids during Christmas. We served approximately 200 families during that time of the year. We can’t make every wish come true, but we come close.
What will the expansion of your headquarters on Harpers Farm Road, in Columbia, allow your organization to accomplish?
It enables us to serve more clients. We are booked about a month out, at which point we have to determine what cases are priorities. Everyone falls in a different category as they move along their path to citizenship. We also have a program that addresses health concerns, to keep individuals away from emergency room and bills that they can’t afford.
Also, the new renovations allow us to heighten our training offerings, by way of technology and language barriers. And also we have people who are licensed for certain skills in different countries, like nurses from Argentina, who can get credentialed here so they can work at their level and don’t end up sweeping floors.
How does FIRN secure its funding?
We operate with a budget of close to $1 million. About 70% of our funding comes from Howard County government. The rest comes from foundations and organizations that support us, such as The Horizon Foundation and the Community Foundation. Plus, we have fees for certain services that we bill on a sliding scale.
Why do so many people not learn to speak English?
That answer is two-pronged. Many of the organizations that teach English charge for the courses, and the foreign-born population usually doesn’t have much money to pay for them. Also, they tend to work many, and often odd, hours; so it can be a question of availability.
Some stay within their group or community, especially if they have a job where their boss speaks Spanish, and they can work, get paid and get by. Certain cultures have come here, worked hard and assimilated into our culture more, but many people from other cultures who come here just want to escape to the U.S. to survive. They can work extremely hard and still get stuck with a lower-end jobs.
How do you work with the local and federal governments?
We deal with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services to secure applications for our clients for green cards, work permits and changes of status, but the government charges for the applications, sometimes in a cost-prohibitive fashion.
For every step people take, money is required. At FIRN we have a high rate of approvals. We have minimal fees, but are known for doing things right. Our counselors are experienced and accredited.
What’s on the “to do” list for FIRN in fiscal 2016?
To increase and expand our services, and since we are normally booked a month out, we need to make better use of technology. We get about 150 calls a day and make appointments, so we can easily have a line out the door.
Not all individuals are forthcoming when they meet with us, but FIRN needs their trust to help them avoid obstacles and make them feel welcome, to get them acclimated and to make them become contributing members of society.
How many nationalities has FIRN served in the past year?
We serve people from 85 countries that speak 73 languages.
What percentage of your clients end up getting deported?
About 15%–20% of our clients might face deportation for one reason or another, like failing to comply with the immigration process, having been victims of fraud or for something as seemingly minor as not complying with a traffic ticket. Our counselors work very hard at going to court for a stay of deportation.
What do you think most people don’t know about FIRN?
That we are here, and are the only agency in Howard County that does the work we do and offers a variety of services. We don’t just present information and referral, but we also offer immigration services, interpreting and translating services, English learning assistance at elementary schools and access to health care workers who promote healthier living in the community.
What kind of technological enhancements have been made in recent years? What do you still need?
We still need more capacity to increase the number of clients served, as well as more public contributions. On that front, we need to do a better job promoting what we do to the public and raise money within that sector, especially since we have a number of successful foreign-born residents in the business community.
However, we have to get better at fundraising, which is difficult because most of our clients lack money; and, in our case, other members of the community might not necessarily want to support our cause.
What are the biggest challenges FIRN faces today?
Obtaining resources to be able to serve everybody that we need to serve. It’s sad to set an appointment for six weeks from now and not be able to get to that person sooner. If someone has a toothache now, they don’t want to wait that long for treatment.
But also know that, in five years, I haven’t had anyone quit. That means our staff believes in what we’re doing.
What’s in the five-year plan?
We plan to continue to expand our facility, as well as hire two more immigration counselors, to continue to improve our technology and to heighten the lines of service. We also want to increase our capacity to diversify income sources.
On one hand, I am extremely delighted with our relationship with Allan Kittleman, who has been supportive since long before he became our county executive. I also believe, however, that we can find other sources for funding and support. FIRN will never be a self-sufficient organization, but we have to work towards increasing our budget in order to expand our capacity and serve more people.