For almost 35 years, I worked at for-profit businesses. After recovering from breast cancer in 2005, I decided to move to a non-profit human services organization. That decision has changed my life on many levels.
As the senior human resources person, I’ve been given the opportunity to share my years of HR experience in setting up employee programs and a people infrastructure that supports our phenomenal growth. When I started in July of 2005, we employed about 200 people. We now employ about 520 people.
Our mission is to prepare and empower people with obstacles to independence to be self sufficient and contribute to their families and communities. And, while I’d like to think that my job is to help disadvantaged people, the truth is that they often help me.
The other day I found myself in a meeting with a group of non-English speaking employees who work in our manufacturing division. Some are refugees and some are immigrants. All are gainfully employed and have a strong work ethic. They come from many places. Some are from China, some from India, some from Burma, some from Cuba, and some from other middle eastern countries.
The purpose of the meeting was to explain a new employee benefit, specifically, a new retirement plan. Fortunately, one of our Industrial Engineers is Indian and knows six languages! So, as they would watch me intently, I would say a couple of sentences about the program. Then, Ridhi would translate. Then, they would turn to one another and talk in smaller groups. It was a long process. They were very interested.
When I was done with the formal part of the meeting, I wanted to get to know a bit more about each of them. With the help of the translator, I learned what type of work they did in their native countries, when they came to America, and what some of them hope to accomplish. They all love living here. They all love working for the agency. You could see the level of satisfaction in their faces. We all talked for a while, there were lots of smiles exchanged, and, in the end, handshaking all around.
Later that afternoon, as I sat at my desk, I stared out my window and thought about all of them. I thought about one gentleman who is a teacher back in his country and now is a sewer in our production area. He feels privileged to live and work in this country. He lives in a poor section of the city, and he makes low wages. He is happy to be here! There are likely people who discriminate against him because he is middle Eastern.
The memory of my immigrant grandparents came to mind as I sat there at my desk. They, too, came to this country hoping to start a better life, as if the streets of America were lined with gold. In the summer of 2006, while visiting my grandparents’ villages on the coast of Italy, I could not understand why they would leave such a beautiful place. They would come to this country on ships, traveling in steerage class and would work the jobs no one else would work. I live the good life today because my grandparents worked hard to be sure they and my parents could have a better life.
I could not appreciate the sacrifices made by my grandparents until I was an adult. A visit to Ellis Island and the museum helped me realize the incredible obstacles they faced when they arrived in New York. Still, they persevered and lived their own version of the American dream.
Now, today, I have the privilege of learning about the immigrant experience. The immigrant experience is what has built our country. We are great because of the diversity of cultures. We are a melting pot.
So, how did these employees help me? They helped me remember my Social Studies lessons, they helped me remember my roots and that I am proud of my Italian heritage. They helped me realize that ignorance is a terrible thing. So many people in our country are quick to speak with disdain about immigration. Yet, most of us can trace our ancestry back to a group of people who traveled great distances at great risk to live a better life.
I don’t have the eloquence or political savvy to be more than cliché as I write this blog entry. But, I do feel a strong sense of pride for my country. Pride that people want to come here in the hopes of living a better life.
After almost six years of working for the agency, I continue to marvel at how many ways all of us can positively impact the lives of others. Sometimes I wonder why I spent so many years in the for-profit environment, especially when you consider how many ways we can serve others. On the other hand, I know that timing is everything. At a different time in my life, I might not have been ready for this experience.
So, let me end this blog with a note about The Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty is a beloved friend, a living symbol of freedom to millions around the world. I can only remember the first few words. Maybe it’s time I learned them all.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teaming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!