by Tom Sims
If you ask the Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley to describe Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM), prepare to hear stories. For Stanley, it is the story that makes the ministry, the story of short term assignment that became a life time labor of love, stories of the aspirations of new Americans, stories of hopes and dreams, and stories of the struggle to adjust to a new culture, language, and land.
FIRM is a story made up of many individual stories.
FIRM’s mission is “Sharing Christ’s Love to Build Communities of Hope with New Americans.”
Though incorporated in 1994, FIRM’s roots began with Sharon Stanley’s work in refugee resettlement years before. A Presbyterian Minister, Stanley was assigned to Fresno with the Refugee Resettlement services of the Presbyterian Church, USA and worked in partnership with Church World Service. Out of those early efforts, Sharon began to catch a larger vision which led to the development of FIRM.
Today, FIRM is truly interdenominational and serves refugee and other low-income communities in Fresno through its neighborhood and youth ministries, elderly outreach, community gardens, health, housing, immigration assistance, family mentoring, and employment projects.
“I never could have imagined over twenty years ago on that 108 degree day in August when I first moved down here into the Central Valley, to think about the number of lives, the collage of faces and refugee families who would have been impacted so significantly by this organization called FIRM,” said Stanley.
Humble and always giving the credit to others, Sharon cites the names and images of new Americans, families, organizations, and staff who have partnered with her to make a difference in lives and communities in Fresno and beyond. During her tenure, she has been the catalyst for forging numerous relationships between such communities, individuals, agencies, and government entities to advocate for and serve the refugee community.
Located in Central Fresno near Fresno Street and McKinley, FIRM occupies its own campus which includes numerous programs and a quality preschool. Each year, community events bring together hundreds of people across cultural boundaries for a huge celebration of life, culture, and faith. While a small part of the overall ministry of FIRM, these gatherings symbolize the breadth and depth of FIRM’s reach.
FIRM’s website describes the ministry this way:
“We’ve grown into a complex ministry that engages in culturally-sensitive work with issues related to health, housing, employment, child development, education, citizenship, tenant’s rights, and so much more! We partner with a wide variety of churches and other organizations to accomplish this work. We’d love to have you join us!“
The major programs include and have included:
The Employment Program builds independence through job development and placement, training, coaching, and mentoring.
The Healthy Homes Program works to educate, empower and engage neighborhood residents through community organizing for healthier communities.
The Slavic Family Support Program implements the “Parent-Child Home Program.”
The Hmong Health Collaborative, along with other Hmong-serving organizations, organizes and educates community members around Health Access issues and other relevant health concerns.
The Preschool Program offers culturally relevant, high-quality, preschool services to children from underserved refugee and immigrant families in Fresno County.
FIRM Family Festivals, an annual summer outreach program to the community, utilizes groups of volunteers locally and from across the country to give children a fun “Bible club” experience.”
Elder Services has provided daily hot lunches to refugee senior citizens through Fresno County EOC.
FIRM has provided ESL/Citizenship classes in partnership with Fresno Adult School. An elder dance group occasionally performs at cultural and community events.
The Community Gardens Project collaborates with churches to facilitate community gardens for refugee families to support food security, physical and mental health. Recently, FIRM received the vote from the County Board of Supervisors for approval of its Therapeutic Horticultural Project grant from the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health. This grant recognizes a high correlation between positive mental health and healing gardens.
According to a news release, “FIRM’s existing two garden sites, at Memorial United Methodist Church in Clovis and at Mennonite Community Church, will receive support to expand the impact of their work, and three new sites will begin development. New garden sites will be located in West Fresno, in Central Fresno (on the FIRM office grounds), and in southeast Fresno adjacent to the House of the Gospel Slavic Baptist Church. The West Fresno site will be run by FIRM’s project partner, West Fresno Health Care Coalition.”
Lead Programs have educated parents, caregivers, merchants, contractors and other stakeholders about the dangers of lead to children’s brain development.
In 2009, FIRM helped over 6,000 Southeast Asian, Slavic and African refugees. Though a Christ-centered organization, FIRM is committed to serving refugee and other low-income families of all cultures and religious traditions, and participation in religious services or adherence to a particular religious belief is not required to receive services.
Three key areas have been identified by FIRM as it continues to build a healthy and sustainable model for the future: community organizing, advocacy, and education.
Recently, FIRM has advocated for its constituency before local government with regard to the foreclosure crisis that is gripping the nation. FIRM also played an instrumental role in the faith community’s response to the death of General Vang Pao.
FIRM’s core values are:
• Spreading Christ’s love through actions.
• Sharing God’s compassion by meeting family needs.
• Building strong communities through special outreach events.
• Building respectful and lasting relationships.
• Providing tools to build family access to opportunities in America.
• Empowering communities to build and use their voice.
• Utilizing cultural competencies in education and advocacy.
• Helping different cultures in America understand each other better.
These are facts and programs, but for the Rev. Dr. Stanley, it is about the stories and faces and the people behind the stories and faces that make FIRM’s vision, mission, and work meaningful. Like all community based organizations these days, FIRM has had to tighten its belt and live within its means, but still its outreach expands because it is all about the people and their stories of empowerment, community, and friendship.
FIRM’s story continues.
You can read more of FIRM’s story and some exciting individual stories at their website, where you can also subscribe to their newsletter.