Local nonprofit that assists Haitian immigrants dispels myths, urges compassion

Director Casey Rollins said St. Vincent de Paul has been the target of negative messages and attitudes for its assistance to this population.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

From the start of Haitian immigrants arriving in Springfield, many have gone to St. Vincent de Paul for assistance with finding housing, clothing and other needs.

But since the death of an 11-year-old Northwestern student in a deadly bus crash in August involving a Haitian immigrant, St. Vincent de Paul director Casey Rollins said many community members have demonstrated a lack of understanding of what the organization’s role is in the Haitian community.

“People don’t truly understand what we do and why we do it,” Rollins said.

She said that St. Vincent de Paul is a Christian nonprofit that helps any person or community in need. It survives on donations and is run by volunteers.

The organization has been the target of negative messages accusing Rollins and other volunteers of bringing Haitian immigrants into the city, buying the nonprofit’s current building just to serve Haitians, and other untrue statements.

Rollins said the building was purchased before the influx of Haitian immigrants into the city. Officials have estimated there are around 7,000 to 10,000 Haitian immigrant now living in the area.

“We live by donors and we love those people. We want to accept everyone and their opinions but we don’t want to accept the venom,” Rollins said.

The director said that while the organization has received increased vitriol, it has also seen an increase in donations. She said many donors ask to fund specific needs, like food emergencies.

“We’re just a small group of volunteers with lots of donors who are watching us and who support this,” Rollins said.

Some of the assistance St. Vincent de Paul gives the Haitian community is important in bettering the community as a whole, Rollins said. This includes helping them navigate the work permit process. She said Haitians here are “working poor” and they want enough help to get a leg up and become self sufficient, rather than relying solely and nonprofit or governmental assistance — of which they receive nothing.

Many Haitian immigrants who received assistance from St. Vincent will come back to help others in their community become independent like them, Rollins said.

The nonprofit receives no government assistance to care for immigrants, Rollins said.

“We’re not paid by the government; we’re charged by God,” Rollins said.

The Clark County Combined Health District received a grant from the government to fund interpretation services and other needs, which it shared with St. Vincent de Paul to pay its interpreters, Rollins said. Their pay also comes from private donors.

Rollins also penned a letter to the Springfield City Commission regarding the impact the bus crash has had on the attitudes of some community members.

“Clark County’s recent trauma from a child’s senseless death has created a wound so deep in all of us, a wound that is as cultural as it is personal. No one feels that pain more than those grieving families,” Rollins wrote. “We are all directly impacted by stressful events unfolding, troubling community reactions, and the ensuing turbulence in our community. Sadly, it feels like it has more to do with unfortunate pre-existing agendas in our country. Venting those frustrations through controversial, antagonistic, even threatening remarks and actions is causing visible divisions among us all.”

Rollins detailed some of the challenges this population faces, including the struggle to obtain work permits in a city with “thousands of unfilled jobs” with insecure housing and no immigration lawyers or judges, along with language barriers, housing shortages, financial difficulties and more.

“Unlike people of other statuses, once Haitians arrive in this county, they receive no resources from big government. They must rely on the financial reserves they brought with them, and on the kindness of their new community,” Rollins wrote. “As they get established, they MIGHT become eligible for certain benefits, (i.e. Food/SNAP benefits, Medicaid, school enrollment, etc.) ... They must also find immigration lawyers to ensure that their status remains current. Once Haitians have secured work permits and become gainfully employed, U.S. taxes are immediately garnished from their wages through a Social Security (employment) card.”

Rollins urged the community to embrace the area’s growing Haitian immigrant population.

“Simply, ALL people, citizens, immigrants, refugees, and so on… deserve a place at the table…. God’s table,” she wrote.

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