The Charles W. Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, named after a former Montgomery County executive, partners with other organizations to help immigrants to the county adjust to a new way of life and understand their rights and responsibilities, as well as explore paths for the future.
Wednesday night the center celebrated this 10-year tradition with music, dance performances, food and awards to volunteers.
Maryland Delegate James Gilchrist (D-Dist. 17) had high praise for the center, which is named after his father.
“People come to get what they need, and I think it’s a really good service,” Gilchrist said. “It’s one my father worked for, making Montgomery County a welcoming place.”
The Gilchrist Center opened its doors in 2001 on Elkin Street, but moved to the second floor of the Mid-County Regional Services Center last year due to county budget cuts.
“We’re having a little funding difficulties, but we have big dreams,” said Bruce Adams, the director of the county’s Office of Community Partnerships. “When they had the budget cuts, I was feeling down and out,” but the enthusiasm and hard work of the staff and the volunteers brought his hopes up again, he said.
Councilmember Nancy Navarro gave opening remarks, commending the center for its service to the immigrant community.
“This is a place where so many questions are answered and so many doubts and fears are alleviated,” Navarro said.
In an interview, Navarro said that her involvement with the center goes “way back” to when she was involved with Centro Familia. She said that the center was invaluable as a partner with the Wheaton-based nonprofit in providing services to Latino women. Navarro said she hopes that as the economy improves, a larger space can be found for the Gilchrist Center.
County Executive Isiah Leggett arrived late, but gave closing remarks and posed with volunteers for photos when they received their service awards. Leggett spoke admiringly of the center’s namesake, Charles Gilchrist.
“Montgomery County is richer because of the legacy of his leadership,” Leggett said.
During the ceremony, Karla Silvestre, the center director, praised the strong network of partners that support the programs at the Gilchrist Center, partners such as Circle of Rights, the Wheaton Regional Library and more.
Silvestre, who is also the Latino Liaison to the county executive, presented certificates to volunteers who had logged more than 100 hours of service, such as Kris Hunigan, of Gaithersburg. Hunigan is currently the store manager of a Macy’s in Towson. But in February, when he was managing the J.C. Penny’s at the Wheaton Mall, he volunteered to start teaching a beginning computer class and an English conversation course.
“These people are hungry for opportunities and to learn,” Hunigan said. “It’s a large need in the community.” Hunigan plans to take an ESOL training course the county is offering in January.
One full-time employee, one part-time employee (in a permanent position), four part-time hourly employees and two AmeriCorps members work at the center and its satellites in Germantown and Silver Spring. But volunteers like Hunigan contributed 4,130 hours to the center in fiscal year 2011, according to the center’s annual report. Silvestre called these volunteers “the backbone of our center.”
Vicky Wood, a retired English teacher, also volunteers at the center, teaching English conversation classes. Wood said that though the immigrants at the Gilchrist Center come from all over the world, and though the time that they have lived in the U.S. ranges from days to decades--they all have one thing in common: “They want to become better citizens.” And for that, she said she admires their courage and tenacity.
Among these core volunteers, there are the retirees--and then there are the high school students. Cecilia Paqui, 17, is a senior at Gaithersburg High School. This semester she volunteered an average of 10 hours a week, helping with a citizenship class as part of an internship program called Liberty’s Promise.
Those gathered at the Gilchrist Center for the 10th anniversary celebration also heard testimonials from students, such as Carnisah Calim.
Calim, 26, came to the United States from Indonesia about three years ago. She lives in Silver Spring. After finding out about the Gilchrist Center from a friend, she started taking classes in English and civic engagement.
Partway through her short speech, she halted, embarrassed, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English well,” but the audience immediately reassured her that, in fact, she was doing just fine.
Not all of the volunteers who have served more than 100 hours of service at the Gilchrist Center could be present for the ceremony, but the full list is below:
Rose Marie Akoumenze
Jonathan B. Hershdorfer
Adan D. Herrera
Sergio A. Posada
Manuel A. Romano
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of employees at the Gilchrist Center. We regret the error.