Governor on hand as state’s first immigration resource center opens


For 23-year-old Homer Sarmiento, Thursday was a day of many firsts.

It was his first time graduating from a formal education program, and the first time he shook hands with Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Abercrombie, who attended the ceremony at Sweetwater Health Education, recognized Sarmiento and his accomplishments in front the graduates’ families and friends.

“He’s symbolic of those who have ambition, those who want to better themselves, those who have confidence that they can succeed,” Abercrombie said of Sarmiento.

Two years ago, Sarmiento ventured from the Philippines to Hawaii with hopes of making a better life for himself.

“I wanted to have a better future. I wanted to be able to give back to my family some day,” he said.

With little knowledge of the language, culture, where to go or what to do, Sarmiento, with the help of his sister and Sweetwater Health Education staff members, found a way.

That way was made possible through a grant funded by the state and distributed by Goodwill Industries Inc.

Susan Tita, of Sweetwater Health Education, said Sarmiento’s graduation is a first for Hawaii, as well.

“Gov. Abercrombie passed an immigration funding situation to make funds available to those that need it, and he is the first student to go through that process,” she said.

The grant is part of Abercrombie’s initiative to assist immigrants moving to Hawaii. Another part of that initiative was recognized Thursday at the grand opening of Hawaii’s first Immigration Resource Center.

Operated by Catholic Charities Hawaii, the center will assist immigrants through its acculturation classes, help them file for immigration benefits, and offer English as a second language and citizenship classes. All services are funded by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Office of Community Services.

Jerry Rauckhorst, president and chief executive officer at Catholic Charities Hawaii, said the Hilo-based center will help meet a demand.

“It’s been a struggle for immigrants over the past 15 years,” he said. “It will still be somewhat of a struggle, but at least there’s a first stop for anyone that’s an immigrant or migrant to come and figure out what resources exist, what benefits can be acquired.”

Linda Spencer has been assisting in immigration resource work for the past 23 years and said the center will be effective in helping immigrants transition into the community.

“I think it will make a big difference,” she said. “Acculturation is a big issue. This will help them feel more comfortable about where they are.”

Sarmiento said getting comfortable in Hilo took time. He’s still struggling with English and has yet to pass one final exam to become a CNA. Aware of the challenges that lie before him, he was nothing but smiles at Thursday’s ceremony and thankful for a place to call home.

The Immigration Resource Center, located at 62 Kinoole St. in Hilo, is the first of four offices to be opened statewide. The other centers are scheduled to open next month in Honolulu and on Kauai.

Services include:

c Acculturation classes

c help to file immigration benefits

c free English as a second language classes

c free citizenship classes

c help with interpretation and translation

c information and referral services

The center at 62 Kinoole Street Hilo, HI 96720, can be contacted at 961-7030.

For more information about the center, visit catholiccharitieshawaii.org.

Email Megan Moseley at mmoseley@hawaiitribune-herald.com.