Welcome Plan aims to be a living document that adapts to New Americans’ changing needs

On June 13, Kent County welcomed new hire, Hollin De La Cruz, as welcome plan coordinator. The Kent County Welcome Plan Steering Committee, made up of Kent County, City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Samaritas, and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, aims to create a more inclusive community for New Americans. 

To address barriers immigrants and refugees face in the community, including civic engagement, economic development, safety, education and access to services, the Welcome Plan was released in 2020. 

Kent County Chief Inclusion Officer Teresa Branson says the plan was years in the making, with research and surveys beginning in 2018.

“Our community came together and formed a task force, applied for some funds and did some research through a national initiative called Gateways for Growth to develop a local welcome plan for immigrants and refugees, or New Americans, as we refer to [them], in Kent County,” Branson says.

Multiple partner organizations formed a Steering Committee, which met to discuss the research findings from participants’ experiences and needs identified. “The Welcome Plan is completely formed by listening to the voices of the community through 25 focus groups,” Branson says.

De La Cruz says that in addition to those 25 focus groups, communities received surveys. “There were close to 500, or maybe a little more, fully-completed paper or digital surveys that went out to different organizations. They were sent to anyone who identified as a New American, to discuss their sense of belonging and their top priorities.”

The work was done in partnership with the Center for Social Research at Calvin University, Branson says. The surveys were sent to get a big scope of the needs of New Americans as they start, re-start or advance their lives here in Kent County.

Branson’s previous work as Kent County Deputy Health Officer means she knows the harsh reality of disparities and inequities, made even more evident from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The work continued, especially during the pandemic, to make sure New Americans had access to information and resources, and essential needs—whether that’s food  or receiving information in a timely manner,” Branson says. “One of the things the County did specifically during that time was making sure we were providing information in multiple languages. We had communities here in Kent County where the language barrier was, and still is, a big issue.”

De La Cruz says The Welcome Plan identifies five main priority goals, many of which are tied to language barriers. Kent County hired several community connectors who traveled to refugee populations, and the Latinx community, to help translate and offer guidance. 

“We really wanted to highlight priorities that were gathered in the foundation of the Plan, which was a ton of hard work and effort on behalf of my previous coordinator, Elvira,” De La Cruz says. “What we heard was that New Americans wanted to work in their desired profession."

Previously, De La Cruz worked as a program navigator for the IELCE grant for Kent ISD Adult Education, working with adult English language learners. Through that program, she witnessed many New Americans getting help with job training so they could be in a field they desire. 

“We have a ton of New Americans in our county and beyond that are highly-trained individuals that just need to get their foot in the door somewhere so they can start putting those skills to use,” she says.

Another goal The Welcome Plan addresses is the freedom to maintain culture, religion and traditions. “A lot of times, there can be some negative connotations with the word assimilate or integrate because we really want people to still bring their true selves to the table,” De La Cruz says. “We’re so enriched when we can all value each other's differences, and value those different perspectives. From just a language standpoint, every single language you can speak is going to bring a different way to think about the world, and that’s so valuable.”

The third goal of The Welcome Plan is achieving the desired level of English, which De La Cruz says is paramount for access to surveys. Without being proficient in English, many residents find it hard to interact with their communities. Programs and classes at Kent ISD and The Literacy Center of West Michigan help overcome this barrier.

“We need to have more New Americans at the table where policy is being made, because they do represent a significant part of our population,” she says. “When that voice isn’t heard, we’re really missing a big part of our picture.”

So far, just about two weeks into her job, De La Cruz’s main priority is to get out into those communities and show her genuine support. Branson says she’s already impressed by The Welcome Plan Coordinator’s drive. “[With] the passion that she has and the relationships she has in the community, I’m really excited about having her spend time really getting to know communities even more. We want to make sure that they know this is one of the faces we have at the Welcome Plan and that we’re really going to deliver on what the community has asked us to do.”

Part of that delivery, De La Cruz says, is all about being transparent with what’s being done in regards to the goals and vision of the organization. She invites anybody in the community to become a part of the Kent County Welcome Plan and ensures accountability through the task force. 

“We will put a system in place to track the progress that’s being made towards those five priorities [and] make sure we have an annual report back to the community on what’s being achieved collectively,” she says.

“Because this is a multi-sector plan, it’s going to take multi-sector organizations, communities and residents to make sure we’re delivering on the work that’s in the Plan. It’s about transparency, continually receiving feedback from the community and inviting the community to be a part of that.”

De La Cruz knows that inviting the community to be a part of it isn’t a small ask, and therefore, believes in compensation for their efforts. “We want to engage the community, so they’re going to need to be part of the task force and help us better serve them and, of course, be compensated for their time. We can’t just ask people to give you their experiences, we want to reciprocate and share any way we can,” she says.

De La Cruz also realizes that this Welcome Plan is likely to shift, and adapt accordingly, to feedback and needs of the communities served. 

“I tell people this is a living document,” she says. “It’s going to shape and change throughout the years, the months, the weeks, as we learn more and more and figure out what is working well and how we can be most efficient and effective while reaching as many people as possible.”

For more updates and community engagement survey opportunities, visit the Kent County Welcome Plan website and Gateways for Growth Facebook page.

Courtesy of Kent County Welcome Plan Steering Committee

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.