“I looked up from my desk one day,” says Jill Montana, executive director of the International Friendship Center. “He was one of five men standing around in the hall outside my office. Of the assorted ages of the group, he appeared to be the oldest. All of them were clad in ragged clothes, and they all wore dusty, hard-worn, work boots. In soft spoken Spanish he told me he needed to make a copy of a piece of paper.
“I invited the men to come in and said of course I would be glad to make a copy. He approached my desk and showed me the document. It was a thin, wrinkled, yellowed birth certificate. He told me this was the only form of ID he possessed in the world.
“It seemed he had been sick a lot lately, and his friends worried that if he died, they would need some way to identify him. They were afraid he might lose this precious piece of paper or it might get torn up, and they would have no information about his full name, where he was born and where they might have to send his body.
“I asked the man for the document. He held it out in a hand as thin and wrinkled as the paper. As I laid the paper on the copy machine, he stood their quietly watching, almost reverent as the copy was made. The old gentleman was so grateful you would have thought I had given him a miraculous gift. He offered to pay me, and I told him our services were free.”
One day in 2002, Hunter Coleman, then the minister of Highlands First Presbyterian Church overheard a conversation—or an attempt at a conversation—between a group of Hispanic men and another person. The Hispanics were seeking help but couldn’t speak English. The other person, losing patience, finally told the men to “just get out of the way.”
It was then that Coleman recognized a need that was only going to grow.
Meanwhile, Montana, a Highlands resident, attended a spiritual renewal retreat called Cursillo. She says, “I prayed the whole weekend that God would give me something I could do to help others. I had been blessed in my life with so much abundance; I wanted to give something back.”
Coleman approached Mike Jones, then rector of the Highlands Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, where Montana is a member. During a meeting of the Church’s Outreach Mission Committee, Jones said, “We need somebody who can speak Spanish.”
Montana, who majored in Spanish at Agnes Scott College and had lived in Texas, was fluent in Spanish. And she knew then that her prayers had been answered.
With Montana at the Episcopal Church and Phyllis Tietze at the Presbyterian Church spearheading the effort, the International Friendship Center (IFC) was born. It began operation in October 2002, with a small office at the Peggy Crosby Center, open three days a week for four hours a day. Montana was named executive director, a position she still holds.
As the need for its services has grown, the IFC is now open five days a week, eight hours a day. In 2003, Faviola Olvera joined the organization as Director of Services.
“We help connect people to the services they need,” says Olvera. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of helping people with paperwork. Applications and forms to fill out are not so simple when you’re in an unfamiliar country and you don’t speak the language.”
Montana says that people think the IFC is just for Latinos, but that isn’t the case. “In the last year or so, we’ve assisted people from 21 countries. We’ve helped people from Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Colombia, Taiwan, Nepal, Viet Nam, Belarus, Macedonia, Moldova, Great Britain, Zambia and others.”
The IFC does not give money to any of the people it serves. “We never have; we never will,” Montana said.
It does help people who are having financial difficulty, however. For example, the IFC will help people who are behind on their power bill to make arrangements with the power company, thus keeping the heat on in the cold, winter months.
“There is really never a typical day at the office; we never know what kind of story will walk through the door.” said Olvera.
“One afternoon recently, a lady walked in needing help trying to locate a missing cousin. The family was very worried. Her cousin had not shown up to work in two days, and no one knew where he was. Since he lived alone in another town, the only thing I could do was call the hospitals and police stations in the area to see if they had anyone by his name. After calling many places, I still hadn’t located him.
“Finally I called the Red Cross and was told that there had been a news story earlier about a young man who had been in an accident. He had been moved by helicopter to another city. The news story didn’t mention his name, just his age. I tracked down the news story and called the hospitals where he could have possibly been taken.
“After several calls, I found a hospital that had received a patient the day before with severe head trauma; he had been trying to cross the street when he was hit by a vehicle. After checking the name on the patient’s ID, they confirmed that the young man had died earlier that day from severe head trauma. I told the client the news, offered my support and gave her a much needed hug.
“Although extremely saddened, the young man’s family now had closure, and the arrangements were started to get his body sent back to his native country.”
Phyllis Tietze’s husband Bob now serves on the IFC Board. He also teaches English at the Literacy Council, one of many organizations with whom the IFC partners. Other partners include the Community Care Clinic and Southwestern Community College.
The IFC operates the Food Pantry, utilizing the facilities of Highlands First United Methodist Church. It is also an agency for TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), which it operates at the Highlands First Presbyterian Church. Bob Tietze is in charge of that.
During the period from July 2006 to June 2007, IFC auditors gathered data, which shows the organization’s value. First, for that period, its sources of support:
• Business support - $4,876
• Church support - $49,772
• Functions - $12,582
• Individuals - $41,520
• Other Inc - $863
• Foundations & Trusts - $5,000
• Public Organizations - $1,000
• Service Donations - $1,654
Total Sources of Support $117,267
Second, utilizing that support, its salaries and other resource were spent as follows:
• Employment/Housing/Childcare/Schools - $26,315
• The Food Pantry - $15,911
• Medical/Dental Assistance - $14,034
• Tax Returns - $16,694
• Taxpayer Numbers (ITINs) - $26,200
• Auto Registration/Licenses - $8,862
• Immigration/Legal Assistance - $9,251
Total - $117,267
IFC refers to the people it serves as clients.
During the data gathering year, it served the following number of clients by quarter:
• July to September - 320
• October to December - 410
• January to March - 615
• April to June - 600
The Tietzes, like typical American have immigrant forefathers. They are both first generation natives. Phyllis’s father was from Scotland; Bob’s father was from Switzerland.
“We had 400 people at last year’s Feliz Navidad celebration,” said Phyllis. “Someone in Highlands donated enough money to give every child there a gift—a very nice bag of goodies.”
Rosalia Velaso Lopez arrived in Highlands from Mexico in 1997. Her first language was Chatino, her native dialect; her second was Spanish. After the IFC got her enrolled in a Literacy Council class, English became her third. Today, she works at the Highlands Falls Country Club. One cold, winter day, her son was driving home in his truck and slid off the road in the ice and snow. It was necessary to call a wrecker to tow the truck on down the mountain. While the wrecker was pulling the truck, the truck flipped and was totaled.
The wrecker company claims no responsibility in the matter, and, according to Montana, is taking advantage of the young Latino. The IFC helped the young man obtain a lawyer, and the court case is pending.
Oscar Banegas also came from Mexico in 1999. He, too, learned English through the Literacy Council. Over the years, the IFC has helped him with such things as a plan to pay his power bill. Today, he is the sexton at the Episcopal Church. Recently Montana accompanied Banegas and helped him obtain a mortgage and purchase a home in Franklin.
Jose Soto came from Mexico and has been working at the Summer House and Tiger Mountain Woodworks for 11 years, making furniture. Montana describes Soto as quite an artisan.
When Soto speaks of Montana and the IFC, he does so for hundreds of international clients who have found their way to Highlands: “She is a wonderful lady. The International Friendship Center has helped me with everything.”