Pat Hatch never planned to found a nonprofit, but she well knows that life rarely conforms with our plans. In the 1960s, Pat was working as a teacher in Buffalo, New York and her idea of international travel was hopping in the car and driving up to Canada. That all changed when her husband was stationed in Seoul, Korea.
Pat moved to Seoul with her husband, where she started teaching English in a Korean high school. Pat found that normal tasks, like going to the grocery store or navigating the transportation system, were almost paralyzingly difficult. She knew she was a capable person, but in a country whose language she did not speak and whose culture she did not understand, Pat was overwhelmed.
After her husband’s tour ended, Pat carried that feeling with her and believes that “God used that experience to really make me understand immigrants and refugees.”
Back in the United States, Pat joined a resettlement council. Initially, the council focused on Vietnamese refugees, but over the council’s three years in operation, they resettled over 20 families from Vietnam, Cambodia, Czechoslovakia, and Ethiopia. Pat found herself continually frustrated by the fact that, despite the good intentions of individuals within the system, the resettlement system “was a one-size-fits-all program. Except the one size didn’t really fit anyone.”
After the resettlement council disbanded, Pat continued to ask herself how she could help. It was then that she saw an ad in the newspaper, saying that the Columbia Foundation was looking for grant proposals. Pat had never written a grant proposal and did not have a 501(c)(3) organization, but she was curious. Pat reached out to the ESOL program at Howard Community College, where teachers had been struggling to answer questions that had lots to do with being an immigrant in the United States but not so much to do with learning English. HCC agreed to file a grant proposal on Pat’s behalf.
When Pat got a call asking her to go to the Columbia Foundation and answer questions about her proposal, she was surprised. When she received the $10,000 grant, she was even more surprised. That $10,000 is how the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) was born.
FIRN started as a referral network that connected immigrants and refugees to existing community services. However, patterns of need started to emerge. Pat saw highly educated people who wanted to work struggle to find jobs, so she started an employment counseling program. She saw individuals dedicated to learning English without transportation to English classes, so she started an ESOL tutoring program.
One of the hardest things for Pat was realizing she could not do everything. The issue was that “the needs of any one immigrant could take up all the time of the entire staff of Luminus for an entire month, and we still wouldn’t be able to do everything”.
Early on, a FIRN board member told Pat that she needed to think of FIRN like a colander filled with rice and popcorn. When she shook the colander, the grains of rice fell out—those were the services that other organizations were already providing in the community. The popcorn that remained were the services that did not exist, and they were the things that FIRN needed to focus on.
Over time, Pat found FIRN’s niche. She learned to write grant proposals, organize volunteers, and run programs. She realized it was easy to find initial funding for a program but harder to find sustained funding for the long term. And Pat continued to watch the one-size-fits-all policy solutions fail immigrants and refugees.
That was why, in 1997, 18 years after founding FIRN, Pat took a job working at the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Pat found that policy allowed her to help people in the systemic way she had always hoped. She said, “The reason I care about policy is because I’ve seen policy devastate people’s lives.”
It has been over 25 years since Pat left FIRN. The organization has changed leadership, changed programs, and, in 2021, changed its name to the Luminus Network for New Americans, but it has never changed Pat’s original mission: to provide integrated and holistic services that empower new Americans to realize their dreams.