Amherst Survival Center makes a community for immigrants

By Sorelle Mbakop

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As a Venezuelan immigrant, Niri Azuaje knows that being an immigrant in a country with a different culture and language from that of your native land can be a very frightening experience. Having access to an organization like the Amherst Survival Center helps immigrants integrate into the community. She now calls the center “a second home.”

The center has been providing the infrastructure and organization for transforming the community’s generosity into services for those in need for over 35 years. Its mission is to provide food, clothing, health care and community to those who live in Hampshire and Franklin County through volunteers’ efforts.

When Azuaje came to America two years ago from Venezuela, not only did the language barrier separate her from the town she lived in, but she also could not afford food, furniture or the necessities to keep herself warm for the winter. Then a friend told her about the Amherst Survival Center.

Azuaje said she was “really surprised by the way they actually treat and receive people.” She was overwhelmed by the love and welcome she experienced during her first visit at the center. Not only did the center help Azuaje meet with many of her needs such as food, clothing and health care, but it made her feel like a part of the community.

Mindy Domb, the center’s executive director, said “community is just as important as food to the Survival Center.”

“When I say that the community is so supportive of us, that includes the University community. … Students play a role as volunteers: they launch specific donation campaign for us. Fraternities and sororities are always volunteering at the center one way or another,” she continued.

Mindy also said when she went to Dash and Dine last year, she “saw hundreds of students running to support the Amherst Survival Center,” something she said was incredible to create community awareness.

The center has lunches and dinners that provide food but also give an opportunity for people to come together in the community. Other programs available in the center that are specific to building a community include movie nights, music nights, exercise classes and field trips. It is this community aspect of the Amherst Survival Center that made the town that felt foreign and cold to Azuaje begin to feel like home. She was so moved by the help she had received that she started helping at the center as a way to show her gratitude for all the many resources the center had given her.

Domb hopes the center does a better job to “sustain donation of food.” The center often faces periods of shortage in food, which leads to many of the participants facing food insecurity. An ongoing supply of food throughout the year will help them provide more food to more people, especially parents with children in school, who often face the worst food insecurity without free or reduced price lunch programs during school breaks.

As the center’s food pantry coordinator, Azuaje is now working alongside other staffs of the center to implement the recent program, which gives families with school age children extra food during school vacations. This will mean parents of school age students will not have to incorporate meals that were taken care of by the schools into their already tight budgets; this program will lead to less food insecurity among these families when school is not in session.

Sorelle Mbakop can be reached at [email protected]