We have long been aware of the worthy actions of Ms. Kelsey Fischer, Program Manager at HOLA. We wanted to know more about her and what motivated her to devote so much of her time and energy to this cause so we made a date to sit down and talk with her at Starfish and Coffee, a delectable coffee house in Painesville.
Particularly in light of the highly controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policies of the Trump administration, and the two recent immigration raids in Ohio, Kelsey has been very busy indeed but she graciously made time to talk with us. We learned that Kelsey was raised in the Mentor area and first started taking an interest in social justice matters while attending high school. In 2008 she earned a B.A. in English from Youngstown State University, where she also studied violin performance..
Upon graduation, however, her career focus gravitated to fields reflecting her social consciousness, starting with a term in AmeriCorps. She worked in West Virginia with the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team providing technical training to grassroots environmental groups. It was then that Kelsey developed an interest in grassroots organizing as an effective and empowering model for communities to create social change. After her AmeriCorps term ended, she returned to Cleveland and took a position organizing the inaugural season of the former Downtown Farmers Market at Public Square in downtown Cleveland. She also spent several years working for the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities
What really sparked her interest in immigration matters was well-founded outrage over the passage of S.B. 1070 in Arizona in 2010. According to FindLaw.com, this was requirement for “law enforcement officials to enforce existing federal immigration laws in the state by checking the immigration status of a person they have ‘reasonable suspicion’ of being in the U.S. illegally. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 and a settlement with plaintiffs in 2016 have effectively gutted the law.”
Eventually, Kelsey connected with HOLA whose mission is “to empower the Latino community through community organizing, advocacy, civic engagement and education” and whose vision is “for an empowered Latino community to use their own voices and actions to improve their lives, to build bridges among all Ohioans, and for Latinos to become an active and informed part of the greater community with equal opportunities.”
“HOLA is a truly grassroots organization with a formidable local impact,” she says. Kelsey first learned about HOLA through newspaper articles detailing grassroots campaigns organized by HOLA that successfully stopped several local parents from being deported.
“These are local people, all of them volunteers, and some undocumented themselves, organizing, protesting outside of detention centers and immigration offices, going toe-to-toe with the federal government – and winning. The more I learned about HOLA, the more I knew that HOLA was the real deal, and definitely an organization I wanted to support.” said Kelsey. She saw HOLA members sending young people to DC on buses funded by completely by tamale sales and registering hundreds of Latino voters at their workplaces, and in their neighborhoods.
“Importantly, HOLA has uncovered for me, and many Ohioans, the devastating effects that our immigration policies have on Ohio families and communities.” said she said thoughtfully. She continues to be especially concerned about policies that cause families to be separated.
Moreover, Kelsey was moved by the dedication of its founder, Ms. Veronica Dahlberg, whom she describes as a tireless advocate who has devoted her entire life to working on behalf of Ohio’s Latino immigrants. “Veronica simply never tires of this work. You’ll never hear her say ‘Nothing can be done.’ She is always pushing all of us at HOLA, saying ‘We can’t give up. We have to try.'”
In late 2016, after the very contentious U.S. Presidential election in which immigration policy was a key issue, the HOLA office started to get a lot of phone calls from concerned Ohioans seeking ways to get involved in order to challenge the forthcoming ominous actions pertaining to the foreign born.
So, in early 2017, Kelsey was instrumental in launching “Friends of HOLA,” a network of over 600 volunteers who support HOLA in various ways. Friends of HOLA members are instrumental to many of HOLA programs. They assist with voter registration, fundraising, coordinated outreach to U.S. Congressional offices, and provide hands-on assistance to clients, transporting them to hearings and doctors appointments and helping them prepare for their naturalization interviews.
The Friends of HOLA have proven invaluable to the organization’s growth. In fact, the Friends of HOLA helped HOLA raise the funds needed to grow HOLA’s staff from one to two permanent staff positions, through a fundraiser the group organized with HOLA. In August of 2017, HOLA hired Kelsey as its full-time Program Manager.. In July 2018, HOLA hired a third staff person, Ms. Sidia Hernandez, who is now the Norwalk/Willard Area Outreach Coordinator.
Kelsey laughed and said she was very grateful for the opportunity to work full-time for HOLA because, at the time she was hired she was already volunteering for HOLA at least 30 hours a week “It is truly a privilege to be able to work for an organization that is making a tangible impact in people’s lives everyday.”
For all of us, including those involved with HOLA, 2018 was quite a year,. Kelsey shared with us that she, Veronica and Sidia spent many nights this year working until midnight and later trying to assist families affected by the well-publicized ICE raids and current “zero tolerance” immigration policies. HOLA has seen a continuous rise in the number of requests it receives for legal and medical assistance since the implementation of these policies started in early 2017.
Accordingly, HOLA initiated the establishment of a “bond fund” to help individuals in immigration detention pay their immigration bonds so that they can be released to their families while they await their court hearings. Immigration bonds in Ohio are often as high as $25,000, and the individual must pay in full, in cash. HOLA also has a team of volunteers available to pick up individuals when they are released from detention and drive them home to their families. To be sure, this effort attracted a lot of contributors; so much so that so far the fund has helped 34 people obtain release. From this, 51 children were re-united with their parents.
HOLA also provides an array of other programming, including monthly community meetings in immigrant communities across the state, medical and legal casework, and a citizenship preparation program that connects individuals preparing for naturalization with free weekly tutoring. Ultimately, Kelsey said that she would like to see our immigration laws be overhauled in a progressive fashion (as do we). Importantly, she would like to see initiatives enacted that would allow the undocumented people who have been working and living here and who have deep roots in our communities to have a pathway to citizenship.
When we asked Kelsey about HOLA’s future, she told us that a lot of time in 2019 will be devoted to the establishment of the Hispanic Community Center in Painesville. Kelsey described the Center as a “safe place” where people of all ethnicities can come and get assistance in all sorts of matters including legal issues, education, and job training. Especially promising is its inclusion of a “kitchen incubator,” which will be available for anyone in the community to rent by the hour. Individuals can start or expand a food-related business by having access to the center’s certified commercial kitchen. HOLA is currently in the middle of a capital campaign to fund the project. The center is expected to open in January of 2020.