Champions of Change Blog

  • Focusing on People and Partnerships are the Keys to Providing the Benefits of Citizenship to Employees

    Wendy Kallergis

    Wendy Kallergis is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    Nearly a century ago, at the height of the U.S. immigration boom, Bethlehem Steel became one of the first U.S. employers to begin providing free English language instruction to its immigrant workers. Today, the National Immigration Forum’s Bethlehem Project continues that mission by facilitating the citizenship of the country’s eligible immigrant workforce.

    My family and I have lived in Miami for more than thirty years. Caring about the families who live in our city has always been very important to us, so it was an easy decision to help introduce South Florida to the Bethlehem Project.

    With more than 500,000 employees eligible to become citizens, Miami is one of the cities with the most potential for the Bethlehem Project. The project’s goal is simple: Help eligible immigrants become citizens, which not only helps immigrant families but also businesses in South Florida.

    My work is in the hospitality industry, and partnerships have always been an integral part of my strategy to build a stronger organization. In South Florida, the Bethlehem Project has worked with Baptist Health South Florida, the Miami Dolphins, and Miami Dade College. Within the hospitality industry, I’ve helped connect the Bethlehem Project with numerous hotels and resorts. As the project expands, we will continue to reach out to colleagues in other cities, like the San Francisco Hotel Council.

    What we’re doing is simplifying the citizenship process: cutting back on bureaucracy, creating in-house workshops, and connecting immigrants and new citizens with employers and human resource representatives in the hospitality industry.

    The benefits are crystal clear: We’re providing our industry with an expanding workforce, and we’re creating a sense of loyalty among our workers. At the same time, we’re opening doors and generating prosperity for immigrant families and our community.

    Our board and our membership embraced this program, as our employees are at the heart of the hospitality industry. Being honored as a Champion of Change for my work on this project is truly an exciting and humbling recognition.

    The human resources director of one of our first business partners said it best: “With this partnership, we demonstrate to our employees that we care and support their best interests as much as we care for our community.”

    Wendy Kallergis is President and CEO of the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association.

  • Citizenship in the Workplace

    David Huerta

    David Huerta is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    For centuries, this nation’s economy has been strengthened by the backbreaking work of immigrant laborers who built our infrastructure and put food on our tables. This immigrant legacy makes me proud to serve as President of SEIU United Service Workers West, a union comprising workers from all walks of life who are contributing to the prosperity of our great country.

    Whether they are out in the streets demanding a living wage and decent benefits, or talking to their elected officials to stop wage theft or inappropriate police practices, immigrant workers in our union are paving the way to a better way of life for everyone in our communities. The goal is simple: provide better opportunities for our kids than what we had growing up.

    We’re accomplishing that in a unique project called Building Skills Partnership, which brings together workers, employers and building owners to give immigrant workers a fair shot at career advancement and community engagement. The collaboration has allowed more than 1,000 immigrant workers to participate in English language classes, computer literacy programs, and other educational trainings.

    Integrating new Americans into our communities has also been a priority. SEIU locals in California, including United Service Workers West, have partnered with Mi Familia Vota to assist over 5,400 Legal Permanent Residents with the citizenship process. Together, we’ve developed broad coalitions throughout California that have been instrumental in ensuring that California leads the way on legislation that respects and values the contributions of immigrants, such as enabling them to obtain drivers' licenses and to receive in-state tuition.

    Looking back at these accomplishments, I’m truly honored to be named a “Champion of Change” for promoting citizenship in the workplace, but I think the true recognition belongs to the brave janitors and other immigrant workers across California who are working to make sure that our country builds on all of our strengths to prosper in the 21st century.

    David Huerta is President of SEIU United Service Workers West.

  • Citizenship: A New Strategy for Financial Inclusion and Inclusive Economic Growth

    Bob Annibale

    Bob Annibale is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    At Citi, we are focused on innovative and practical solutions to ensure that communities have access to resources and opportunities that enable them to achieve their potential and to climb up the economic ladder. Immigrants are, historically and increasingly, a dynamic part of our neighborhoods, and their financial success is directly tied to our nation’s economic growth. That is why Citi joined the mayors of Chicago, Los Angeles. and New York, as well as The Center for Popular Democracy and The National Partnership for New Americans, as the founding corporate partner of Cities for Citizenship.

    Cities for Citizenship is a major national initiative that recognizes the contribution of immigrants and how citizenship can serve as an economic asset. It aims to increase citizenship among eligible U.S. permanent residents, as well as encourage cities across the country to invest in citizenship and financial capability programs.

    On behalf of Citi, I am honored to be named as a Champion of Change by the White House. But I must share this recognition with all of my coworkers at Citi and with our partners who have provided critical national leadership, especially Mayor Bill de Blasio, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

    Our shared goal is to increase access to legal and financial services and contribute to enabling more inclusive cities across the country. Through this program, cities and their community partners will deliver financial counseling, legal support, application guidance, naturalization test preparation, and other assistance to eligible immigrants.

    This initiative and partnership will enable immigrants to build a valuable financial identity as they also pursue a national identity. This is critical since the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation reports that about 20 percent of foreign-born households have never had a bank account, which has driven immigrants to use alternative financial services that often come with higher costs and risks. Instead, Cities for Citizenship aims to build a stronger foundation for the American Dream.

    Moreover, it is a strategy that makes good economic sense.

    There are approximately 8.8 million legal permanent residents in America who are eligible for citizenship. These are documented residents who pay taxes and work lawfully. Yet, 52 percent of them remain low-income. Their naturalization would provide access to better-paying jobs, academic scholarships, and other benefits. It would also provide billions of dollars in stimulus to the national economy over the next few years.

    This would mean up to $1.6 billion for Chicago’s economy, $2.8 billion for the Los Angeles economy, and a $4.1 billion boost for New York City’s economy, according to the report “Citizenship: A Wise Investment for Cities.”

    Cities for Citizenship considers citizenship and immigrant integration as powerful platforms to promote widespread financial inclusion and truly inclusive economic growth. We are excited to work with more municipalities on this project and share the collective efforts of our partners with The White House.

    Bob Annibale is the Global Director of Citi Community Development, which leads Citi's initiatives and partnerships supporting inclusive finance.

  • Alleviating the Burden of Circumstance

    Peter Yang

    Peter Yang is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    I believe that we are all products not only of our choices but also of our circumstances. There is a surprisingly prevalent misconception that people in adverse situations somehow deserve the hardships they face. Working in my community in Georgia, I’ve come to regard that idea as severely misguided; I have met so many hardworking individuals who, despite their best efforts, are trapped in a socioeconomic pit that they cannot dig themselves out of.

    I first became involved in my community as an undergraduate at Emory University, when I saw the incredible impact of volunteerism in the surrounding community. During this time, I met many of the leaders and visionaries of the Asian American community in Georgia. Inspired by these individuals, upon graduation, I moved on to work at the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, where I was tasked with outreach for the Affordable Care Act during the first period of Open Enrollment. Prior to this work, my sole experience with the Affordable Care Act had been learning about its intricacies in a classroom setting. As I learned more about the program and its effect on the communities we serve, I began to see the law as a huge step in the right direction to improve the lives of the individuals that struggled with adverse circumstances.

    Adequate access to health care is an essential part of human society. Some would even argue that it is a human right. Yet, the United States is severely behind the majority of other developed countries in providing that access. Georgia is home to one of the fastest growing populations of immigrants and refugees, and these individuals often lack adequate health insurance coverage. The more I worked with these individuals, the more I saw the human beings whose lives were impacted by the ACA.

    The law has been successful thus far, but we still have more work to do. I am deeply honored to be selected as a Champion of Change but also just as honored that I have had the opportunity to serve these communities by promoting the Affordable Care Act.

    Peter Yang is the Affordable Care Act Program Coordinator at the Center for Pan Asian Community Services.

  • Serious Illness Taught Me the Value of Insurance

    Cecelia Smaha

    Cecelia Smaha is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    I don’t remember driving home from work with the Georgia Department of Labor on November 19, 1999. I had flu-like symptoms and felt awful that day. My housemate was so alarmed when I arrived home that she tried to get me to call an ambulance. I refused because my insurance would not pay for the ambulance if the hospital didn’t admit me. I didn’t think I was that sick, and I couldn’t afford to pay the ambulance fee.

    Blessed by God to have such a caring housemate, I made it through the weekend. But on Monday, I ended up in the hospital in a coma and was placed in the acute intensive care unit. Three weeks later, I awoke from the coma to learn that I’d had a severe E. coli bacterial infection and was lucky to be alive.

    I was in the hospital for seven weeks, but I also had a long period of recuperation to follow that hospital stay. I never gave any thought to the cost of my hospital stay until I got the bill from the hospital. I couldn’t fathom paying almost a quarter of a million dollars! And that bill didn’t even include any of the doctors’ bills nor the aftercare with home nurses. I didn’t have that kind of money. The only thing I owned was my car.

    I was advised not to pay anything until I checked with my insurance company. As it turned out, my insurance paid for everything. Because of residual effects from this illness, I still have medical complications, but my insurance continues to pay. This was a lesson of a lifetime: Everyone needs insurance.

    On December 12, 2001, I was privileged to become an associate of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas South Central Community. In this role, I help provide services to people who are less fortunate, including the economically poor and the less well-educated. When the Affordable Care Act passed, I was jubilant. I saw this as an opportunity to put Mercy into action. I jumped at the chance to help spread information about the ACA through Get Covered America in Georgia.

    I gave my time and energy to helping get the word out at churches, on the streets, and by working 10 hours each week for more than two and a half months at our local Kmart. Through a mutual agreement with Kmart and Get Covered America, I was privileged to do an event at our local Kmart, where I set up a table and greeted customers, explaining the Affordable Care Act to local shoppers. Through these opportunities, I helped make contact with over 2,000 Georgians.

    I look forward to working with Get Covered America again this year. I am also spreading the word about my state’s refusal to expand Medicare, and I’m working to ensure its expansion—because nobody should be left without health insurance.

    Cecelia Smaha is an associate of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas South Central Community.

  • The Affordable Care Act as Viewed by a Sister of Mercy

    Joan Serda

    Joan Serda is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    As an educator, I know the importance of health care. I’ve always had the privilege of having health insurance, so I’ve never had to worry about paying a medical bill or paying for a prescription. I haven’t had to be concerned about how to pay for the care of a sick child, spouse, or parent.

    In Georgia, there is a lot of poverty, and many people don’t have health insurance. In Bibb County, where I live, there are tens of thousands of young people without health insurance.

    Emergency rooms are not the answer to good health care. They are intended for emergencies. Emergency room visits are time-consuming and should be a last resort. They result in very expensive care and no follow-up. Often, patients don’t improve, and visits simply reoccur.

    The Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction, enabling many to obtain health insurance that they can afford. If children are healthy, they will learn more, and our schools will improve. If adults are healthy, they will be able to work more effectively and help their children grow, be healthy, and contribute to society.

    I know a woman who had a possible cancer but refused to go to the doctor because she couldn’t afford it. But now, through the Affordable Care Act, she was able to get insurance and see a doctor. Another woman I know had insurance through her employer, but coverage through the ACA drastically reduced her premium without sacrificing health insurance coverage.

    As a Sister of Mercy, I vowed to serve the poor, sick, and uneducated. Working with Get Covered America gave me the opportunity to help people become better educated about health coverage. I volunteered for ten hours a week to help people understand the Affordable Care Act. Many people were unaware of the opportunities available, and many had seen and heard false information. Some were fearful of something new and did not understand how health insurance works. Much education is needed, so I will continue as a volunteer for Get Covered America during the upcoming enrollment period.

    Joan Serda is the Assistant Justice Coordinator for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas South Central Community.