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Beyond Borders

Volunteers help immigrants adjust to an alien world by giving them resources, education and time.

En español | Jeanie Cronin knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider. At the age of 9, she came to the United States from Nicaragua. "I remember the struggles people from other countries had," she recalls. "There was the language barrier and the cultural differences."

Cronin has translated that experience into a life of working on behalf of other immigrants. For the last 20 years, she has gone to bat for those born elsewhere, aiding Hispanics in detention centers who don’t speak English, acting as an interpreter for abused women, advocating for homeless Latino women, and presently volunteering as president of Centro Hispano de Frederick, a nonprofit that helps immigrants with education, information, and resources.
 
That’s in addition to her day job at a small college in Maryland, where the 58-year-old coordinates faculty services. "I might be tired from my full-time job, but I get fulfilled and energized by seeing how eager the immigrants are to learn," Cronin says.

Twice a week the students, many of whom hail from El Salvador, take classes taught by volunteers at the community center. Besides striving for proficiency in English, they learn how to fill out a job application and other tasks that will "help them be self-sufficient like we are," Cronin says. "They just need the tools to better their lives."

Sam Cron has also pledged his allegiance to assisting immigrants through his volunteer work at Goodwill Industries in Boston. While he worked as director of human resources at Stop & Shop, the behemoth supermarket chain, Cron also advised Goodwill on its work training and job development programs. After retiring, Cron decided to continue helping struggling immigrants. He also convinced Stop & Shop to donate an authentic grocery checkout stand so that job candidates would be prepared for "the real thing." 

The mostly 18-to 28-year-olds that Cron meets at Goodwill are unemployed but willing to work—and work hard. He may meet individually with immigrants, many who are Dominican and Cape Verdean, screening them to make sure they’re appropriate for the position and coaching them on résumé writing, proper business attire and job-interview conversation skills. The 66-year-old doesn’t want the candidates to be offered a job that they can’t handle, only to be fired down the road. It will destroy their confidence, he knows, so he makes certain their skills are well matched to the position.

Cron soon came up with an ingenious idea: He decided to bring employers who had businesses located in the immigrants’ neighborhoods and who needed staff directly to the prospects at Goodwill. Retail companies also attend the job fairs—primarily Stop & Shop, because they have so many stores, but also Staples, CVS, T.J. Maxx, and others. "If they can walk to work, they’re more likely to go to their job every day than if they have to take public transportation," Cron reasons. "We’ve had tremendous success with these kids."

He remembers one young woman from Cape Verde who had a significant learning disability and was hard to place. The only work she could find was in the Goodwill cafeteria. "I talked to her and knew she was excellent in food preparation, which was her job at Goodwill," Cron says. He also knew that Stop & Shop had a store in her neighborhood with a restaurant inside it where she could use her food preparation skills. "I saw her ability, I set up an interview with the supermarket, and she got the job," Cron recalls. "She’s now working there, gets benefits, and the store loves her."

His volunteer efforts are "such a high," Cron claims. "I couldn’t feel better. I’ve changed somebody’s life!" That’s why he doesn’t mind driving an hour into Boston from his home in the suburbs once or twice a week. Cron feels a special kinship to the men and women he helps to place. "I come from immigrants," he explains. "My mother is an immigrant from Poland and so was her whole side of the family. So, it’s important for me to be doing what I am. It allows me to give back." In addition, Cron grew up in the same Boston neighborhoods where the immigrants live today. He’s come full circle.

"I’ve had a terrific career and a wonderful life. It’s really important to give to immigrants so they can prosper and make something of their lives, too. It’s a group that really needs it," he says.

To locate a program or organization that helps immigrants prepare for and find employment, call Goodwill at 1-800-741-0197, or go to their home page at www.goodwill.org and type in your ZIP code. Catholic Charities also offers some immigrant employment services, or you can Google "helping immigrants work."

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