In India, all doors are open. The savory scent of spices used in cooking easily escapes, perfuming the streets. In rainy Seattle, doors stay closed, and the smell of home cooking permeates recent immigrants’ clothes instead — traveling with them to school, to job interviews, and more. It’s a small thing, but it’s one more potential barrier to education, to work, and to acceptance in a new country.
The India Association of Western Washington removes barriers, both small and large, for King County’s immigrant communities. With six sites across the county, the organization reaches almost 15,000 people a year. That’s even more impressive when you realize that the 30-year-old organization was run solely by volunteers until just one year ago. Best Starts for Kids is very excited to support the India Association of Western Washington as part of our Innovation strategy.
Diverse solutions for a diverse county
Immigrant communities are diverse, strong, and vitally important to our region. New immigrants face a number of challenges, though, in finding their feet: isolation, for those who can’t drive or who don’t speak English; economic stability; health issues related to the daily pressures they face.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. So the India Association doesn’t try to find one. Instead, they offer a range of services, from early childhood education to women’s issues to the needs of seniors.
Whether the gap is legal, housing, health, or something else, the India Association tailors its services to the community, consulting with local stakeholders and designing programs that fit. That could mean focusing on the mental and physical health of seniors (as they do in Kirkland, Issaquah and Sammamish), or a comprehensive program that reaches from the youngest to the oldest (Bellevue and, soon, Redmond and Kent).
Best Starts for Kids funds a number of programs supporting children and families including Parent-Child Interactive Yoga, Intergenerational Lunch, Peer Networking & Navigation and a Kaleidoscope Play & Learn group. Many of their programs focused on children under 5 are new thanks to Best Starts for Kids support.
Most importantly, says executive director Lalita Uppala, they don’t turn anyone away. Despite its name, the India Association of Western Washington works hard to help all immigrants establish themselves, integrate, and actively engage in civic issues that affect them and their communities.
Taking care of the community
Uppala recalls a favorite story: A small family contacted her organization for support; the mother, recently widowed, had immigrated from India to live with her three college-age children. The isolation that a new immigrant faces was overwhelming on top of the grief of losing her husband. Her children were caring for her, but that meant less income and a threat to their education.
Recovering from depression is never easy, but with the right resources, the family was able to identify a treatment that worked. The India Association also helped connect them to a place where the mother could stay while her children were at work and school, a safe haven for them all.
Today, the same woman volunteers with the India Association’s mental health support group, and her children also volunteer, in different programs. “This is who we touch,” says Uppala, “and how deep the support goes.”
Innovation and expansion
The India Association operates in community spaces — different community centers, for example — which means they are perfectly placed to meet communities where they are. They collaborate with city governments to decrease the cost of rent, focusing on locations that are easily accessible to those who can’t drive. Their integrated, comprehensive programming is also an important innovation: a senior residence program side by side with Head Start, for example, means extended families can eat lunch together.
Though volunteers still outnumber staff many times over, the India Association is growing fast, thanks to support from the community, Best Starts for Kids, the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy, Eastside Cities (Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Redmond, Sammamish), and the Seattle Foundation. They are building an organization that’s sustainable for the long term — an umbrella for communities siloed by language, economic status, and culture.