Neighbor’s Link, located at 27 Columbus Ave. in Mount Kisco, arose as a means to help keep the pavement from crumbling beneath the shaky footing many immigrants occupy in their daily existence. “The idea is to put them in a continuum,” says the center’s executive director, Carola Otero Bracco.
In other words, it is hoped that Neighbor’s Link moves its clients along a line toward independence and empowerment. It starts with bringing them in from across the street at Henry’s Deli and other locations around town and providing them with a place to find advice, meet friends, and deal with the complexities of the community.
Living in poverty and struggling to get two or three days a week of day labor can lead to feelings of isolation and depression. But the strength in numbers is evident as one enters, sensing the feeling of camaraderie and community among the men in attendance.
English classes at 9 a.m. “give them a reason to get up in the morning,” says Ms. Bracco. When jobs come in, becoming employed goes hand in hand with moving to the head of the class.
The desire to develop technical skills is high among the center’s clientele. Computer courses are offered two days a week. The men and women who use Neighbor’s Link also manage the daily operations of the cafe and game room as part of the group’s apprentice program. Snacks and supplies are purchased, receipts and deposit slips are filed, and the game room is kept in order.
“All of this is like running a little business,” says Ms. Bracco.
But Neighbors Link is not just a men’s club, as it may appear during daytime hours. Women are also a big part of the picture. “My general impression is that women get acclimated and integrated more quickly,” says Ms. Bracco.
She says that as the member of the family tied more closely to the children’s healthcare and educational needs, women tend to learn English more quickly and are able to form social circles independently.
At night, though, the women are also present, attending computer classes and an entrepreneurial sewing class, which gives them a chance to sell handbags and learn about the marketplace. Material imported from Guatemala gives those who take the class a chance to make an authentic handbag and sell it for a little extra money.
That requires some market research and cost analysis, which hopefully means a small profit for participants. “Money is a side benefit,” says Ms. Bracco. “The purpose is that we teach some business skills.”
At the same time, Head Start has a night program in the building, giving parents and preschoolers the proximity and security of being in the same location. It also provides the parents an up-close education in how to deal with teachers and administrators. This is a skill Ms. Bracco stresses, so parents can be on an equal footing when it comes to getting the most out of public education.
Education is one of the main challenges Ms. Bracco faces with Neighbor’s Links’ clientele. Many visitors to Neighbor’s Link have no more than a fifth-grade education, and with the lack of educational infrastructures in their countries, schooling was not on the same priority level as survival.
With a diminished amount of work in the winter months, members at the center jump at the chance to take part in many volunteer activities. “This is all part of moving people on the continuum toward being contributing members of our community,” she says.
And what goes around comes around, as the center could never run without the steady group of volunteers who make Ms. Bracco’s job possible. “Every time we put out one of our newsletters,” she says, “I’m inundated with phone calls from people asking how they can help.”
Ms. Bracco says she is not naive enough to believe that all the hostility has gone away from when immigrants first started arriving in the area 20 years ago, but she’s seen a big change. The topic continues to be, she says, “an important thing to talk about.”
Rich Monetti interview of Carola Otero Bracco