Staff Stories - September 29, 2021

The Gift of Citizenship – Realizing American Dreams

by Valerie Burke

When we are blessed to find work that is rooted in a meaningful mission, we are gifted with incredible moments that make work an absolute delight. I enjoyed one of those moments recently thanks to my work for the Goodwin House Foundation.

On September 17, we hosted two celebrations—one at Goodwin House Alexandria and another at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads. Both events brought people together to honor and recognize staff who are realizing their goals of becoming citizens of the United States. The day was chosen specifically—it was Constitution Day.

I could sense the feeling of joy as everyone gathered for the events. We were there to celebrate colleagues as they reached an incredibly important milestone in their lives.

Pursuing American Dreams

Ngoc Nguyen works as a cosmetologist at Goodwin House Alexandria. She was one of eight staff members who shared their stories with us.

“I was born in the North of Vietnam, where my father was an army officer and my mom was a schoolteacher,” Ngoc shard. “Growing up, I was inspired by the American spirit through the stories of William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James …and I always had a dream of one day I could go to America. And the chance came suddenly in 2015 when the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, where my husband worked, announced that the dedicated employees who had been working at the embassy more than 15 years could apply for special immigration visas for themselves, their spouses and any kids under 21. He had worked there for 20 years, and our children were 11 and 8, so we decided immediately to take that opportunity for our children to get out into the world and head to America for a better education.”

Eric Frimpong works as a maintenance technician. He grew up in Ghana, came to the U.S. in 2014 and started working at Goodwin House Alexandria soon after. Eric worked in dining services initially, then went to school for HVAC and other technical training. He moved from dining to facilities management and has been promoted twice—first to maintenance assistant and then to maintenance technician.

“I always loved America and wanted to come here,” Eric shared. “In America, there are good resources for learning, which was not the case where I grew up. In my home country, there might be only one computer for over 400 students. Here, in America, there are so many tools for education. Goodwin House was my first job in America, and they have done so much for me – education, now citizenship. I tell all my friends to come here for work. I want to work here until I retire.”

Belinda Baisie also hails from Ghana. She came to the U.S. on a G5 visa. “I came here for a very specific reason—to take care of my aunt,” Belinda told us. “I did that for 11 years. After taking care of someone privately for so long, I found work as a CNA for Goodwin House, and I’ve been able to study to become a cook and now a chef.”

Belinda became a citizen in April. She shared why she came to the U.S.

“There are lots of opportunities,” she shared. “I have access to education, and I have greater freedoms to travel to other countries. Thanks to my U.S. passport, I won’t require a visa to travel places. I feel like it’s an open door.”

Paving the Way

Ngoc, Eric and Belinda are just three of several stories we hear across the Goodwin House family, where many of our nearly 900 staff members are immigrants. We come from more than 65 different countries, and nearly one in three GHI staff members do not yet have their U.S. citizenship.

This is common in our field. Studies indicate roughly 25% of long-term care workers are immigrants. What is uncommon is how we found a way to support staff who wish to become citizens. As a senior living and healthcare organization, Goodwin House Inc. serves more than 2,200 older adults throughout Northern Virginia. We took our queue from one of them—a resident at one of our communities.

Rita Siebenaler has been a resident of Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads since 2010. In 2018, Rita took note of how much costs to apply for U.S. citizenship had increased. “We found out the cost was over $700,” she remembered, “and I immediately thought this was wrong. The people I know are very hard working, often working two or more jobs. They don’t have the money to take away from buying food or paying rent in order to pay for citizenship.”

Upon learning of this challenge, Rita was inspired to do something about it. “I thought that with Goodwin House being a place with such a bond with its employees, and the residents have such a bond with the employees, I thought I bet there would be people willing to help.”

And she was right.

How Goodwin House Helps

Rita approached the human resources department and pitched the idea that we should find a way to offer financial support for staff members who wished to become citizens but might not be able to afford the fees. What came next was the launch of the Citizenship Application Fees Grant program, which is funded through generosity to the Goodwin House Foundation.

Three years later, we have started a tradition that is part of the program. Every year, we gather to celebrate the grant recipients and their journeys to becoming citizens. We celebrate their unique stories and accomplishments.

“While becoming a U.S. citizen is a dream of many team members and their family members, the costs are simply too high,” shared Rob Liebreich, President & CEO of Goodwin House Inc. “Because of the generosity of residents, members, staff and other friends who contributed to our Foundation, we have offered more than 90 employees grants to pay for their U.S. citizenship. And we have achieved this in just three years.”

What Inspires Us

I am truly honored to be part of the great work we do at Goodwin House. I am able to write this article and share these stories with you, because my colleagues Ngoc, Eric and Belinda are amazing and brave enough to tell their stories as part of our celebrations.

Another colleague, Haja Kamara, shared her story also. Haja came to the U.S. as an infant, has been here for nearly 17 years and has lived on her own since she was 16. Now at the age of 20, She is making her way through CNA certification as well as pursuing her citizenship, all while supporting family back home in Sierra Leone.

“I would not be able to pay for my citizenship application fee because of all my responsibilities, bills to support myself and the money I send back to family in Sierra Leone. It would have taken me another two years to save enough money for the application fee,” Haja shared. “I had tears in my eyes when I found out that Goodwin House would pay for my citizenship application. I immediately called my dad who is in Sierra Leone and both of us were very excited.”

I am profoundly grateful to Haja, Eric, Belinda and Ngoc for becoming part of the Goodwin House family, and for sharing and pursuing their American dreams with us. I am also profoundly grateful to our donors who generously give to the Foundation and make moments like these possible.

I am excited that these moments will soon multiply! When an article in the Washington Post featured our Citizenship Program, we received calls and emails from individuals and organizations across the entire country asking how they, too, could start such a program in their community.

One person in Texas who read the article reached out to Rita Siebenaler and said, “I was so moved that I wanted to thank you and everyone there for your kindness and generosity. It is easy to get depressed about the state we are in, but what you have accomplished is an inspiration. You all are amazing people.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Valerie Burke serves as chief philanthropy officer for Goodwin House. She leads the overall fundraising efforts of the Goodwin House Foundation, a philanthropic organization charged with providing financial aid and support to Goodwin House residents, employees and the greater community. Valerie works to encourage generosity and foster partnerships to advance the mission of Goodwin House.  She believes that there is profound joy in the act of giving; it is how we share our values, our beliefs and our hopes for the world.

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