Multicultural Center Reflects on 25 Years

 On Friday, Nov. 2, at the McLean Hilton, the Center for Multicultural Human Services (CMHS) celebrated its 25th Anniversary, by holding “We Are America Now,” an event created to help send a positive message about immigrants and recognize their contributions in Northern Virginia.

Founded in 1982, the Center for Multicultural Services (CMHS) originally served the Fairfax County Area immigrants as a foster care program for refugee children and orphans arriving primarily from Vietnam and Central America. Ricarda Dowling, the Director of Communications, has been with CMHS for 10 years. “Most immigrants came from Vietnam in the beginning, from the re-education camps” she says. Now, celebrating their 25th Anniversary, the CMHS office receives immigrants from all over the world.

CMHS performs an essential function for Northern Virginia with its changing demographics, assisting immigrant and refugee families and children achieve a fruitful life in the United States.

“Our goal is to help newcomers succeed, to help immigrants and refugees who are trying to rebuild their lives succeed in whatever way success is defined for them,” says Dowling.

In Northern Virginia’s diverse society, CMHS offers people from far-ranging ethnic  backgrounds the opportunity to receive services ranging from education to mental health and enables these newcomers, often from war-torn and impoverished countries, to assimilate more positively into the community.

Assistance given to immigrants is tailored to each person's cultural sensitivities, including educational, mental health and social services that are offered confidentially.

“Mental health is not a widely accepted concept in other cultures. There is a stigma attached,” says Dowling.

CMHS is striving to break barriers and make the programs they offer more widely available, enabling utilization by other institutions, through internationally recognized cross-cultural research and training programs, especially imperative, as the number of immigrants in the area continues to rise.

On the morning of November 2, more than 200 leaders and guests arrived at the CMHS 25th anniversary event, sponsored by Balfour Beatty Construction, Kaiser Permanente and Cox Communications. Political figures attended to show their support, including Congressman Jim Moran, Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerry Connolly, Supervisor Penny Gross, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, Fairfax County School Board Member Ilryong Moon and former Congresswoman Leslie Byrne.

Liliana Henao of Telemundo emceed the event, while Hong Le Webb, event chair and wife of Senator Jim Webb, spoke of her own experiences as a Vietnamese refugee. Arlington County Council member J. Walter Tejada and CEO of Cvent and Founder of the Indian CEO High Tech Council, Reggie Aggarwal, recognized the significant accomplishments of immigrants, addressed current challenges facing the immigrant community and stressed the importance of helping immigrants achieve the American Dream.

The presentation of six awards, for corporations and individuals, recognized those who have made strides in promoting diversity and allowing immigrants the opportunity to pursue an opportune life in the U.S. Categories of awards included; Corporate, Faith-Based, Immigrant Entrepreneur, Immigrant Elected Official or Civic Leader, Immigrant Media/Communications Entity and Immigrant Philanthropist. Winners in the six categories were: Dr. Long Nguyen, Pragmatics, Inc. (Corporate Leadership), Latinos Unidos (Faith-based), Will Sosa, Founder, Security One Bank (Entrepreneur), Aneesh Chopra, Virginia Secretary of Technology (Civic Leader Award), Computer CORE (Civic Leadership), Asian Fortune (Media) and Community Foundation of the National Capital Region (Philanthropic).

Falls Church houses CMHS, but the non-profit organization constitutes a multicultural environ in its own right. In fact 80 percent of the 85-plus employees of the CMHS are immigrants or refugees themselves with personal experiences similar to those of the people they serve. The staff combined speaks more than 30 languages.

“I speak German, French and Spanish. That's because I am a German immigrant, that's my first language and I studied in France for many years and studied Spanish for many years,” says Dowling. “Our core area of expertise is mental health services; it is reflected in the make-up of staff.”

Each staff member is at least bi-lingual, if not multi-lingual, and is comprised of counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, education specialists, therapists, psychologists and graduate interns from local universities. Staff members, with varying skill sets, work together taking a holistic approach to meeting an immigrant’s specific needs.

“Our level of cultural competence and linguistic competence is extremely unusual; I think that's what makes us tremendously unique,” Dowling says.