Volunteer teachers Yohan Garcia, Puri Padilla, and Adela Paredes help out at St. Jerome H.A.N.D.S.' weekly food pantry for immigrants and families in need. Photo: Allyson Escobar
Volunteer teachers Yohan Garcia, Puri Padilla, and Adela Paredes help out at St. Jerome H.A.N.D.S.’ weekly food pantry for immigrants and families in need. Photo: Allyson Escobar

A popular program for immigrants enters its twelfth year at St. Jerome’s Church

As immigrant students trickled into a classroom in the basement of St. Jerome Catholic Church on E. 138th Street, they sang “God Bless America,” ending with a resounding, “My home sweet home.”

It was a weekly Thursday night citizenship class, one of several offered as part of a new, in-demand immigration program at St. Jerome H.A.N.D.S. Community Center.

“People here accomplish something important for their lives, and that is rewarding to be part of,” said Puri Padilla, 69, a Filipina immigrant who teaches the class. “I can relate to their anxiety [to naturalize], which is normal. When they pass the test, you see them crying, sharing happiness. That’s what keeps me coming back year after year: seeing them succeed.”

Padilla teaches the 12-week citizenship class for legal permanent residents. She has volunteered at H.A.N.D.S. since the center was opened in 2008, through efforts from the church’s late pastor, Father John Grange, and the Sisters of St. Jerome congregation.

The center serves as a safe space for hundreds of immigrant families from the neighborhood. Over 1,000 take part in its free and low-cost programs, including ESL/computer classes, a weekly food bank, and Zumba nights.

The non-profit is funded largely on partnership donations from with groups like Catholic Charities and CUNY Citizenship Now!, to keep costs for services and the weekly food pantry at minimum.

Sister Julia Suarez, the executive director, says that a robust immigration program was needed at a local church level, in the neighborhood. She says it’s a space that people can trust.

“People would come to me all the time, asking information about immigration,” Suarez, 39, said. “We needed to look for good resources; plan classes, provide lawyers, and build a network with others.”

According to the city planning department, 29 percent of residents in Mott Haven are foreign-born.

With the area’s growing immigrant population came an immediate greater demand for outreach and services. Suarez brought on Yohan Garcia, a social justice advocate and Fordham University graduate student, as H.A.N.D.S.’ new immigration program coordinator.

“I believe in leadership, but I also believe in leaders forming other leaders,” said Garcia, 31, who mentors Dreamers and teaches a class on American democracy and values.  “Given the political climate we live in, it is a call to action—making sure people know their rights, so they can stand against unjust laws, and become leaders in their own community.”

Garcia added that H.A.N.D.S. is still expanding, and recently joined the New York Immigration Coalition.

Free, multilingual “Know Your Rights” workshops and legal services are also available to participants.

“It is necessary for us immigrants to feel informed, connected and welcomed. We make time after a busy day to be in this community,” shared Carmela Garcia, 41, a parishioner and H.A.N.D.S. student.

Volunteer elementary school teacher Adela Paredes says that the family-like atmosphere she feels at H.A.N.D.S. is her opportunity to serve.

“Teaching and helping others is the best profession God gave me, and H.A.N.D.S. gave me a chance,” said Paredes, 61.

For Suarez, the most important thing is for members to feel safe and accepted, regardless of status.

“When you connect with people, and they trust you, it is important to keep this trust. I think this is the most important challenge,” said Suarez. “You organize and give solutions, and they will come.”

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