As a working physical therapist from Ireland entering the United States in 1970, Anne O’Callaghan quickly learned it was going to take a lot more than years of hard work and a legitimate Irish physical therapy license to prove her chops would translate just as well to the aching backs and muscle spasms of Americans.
In order to build her career in Philadelphia, O’Callaghan needed to navigate three additional years of schooling in the States so she could practice in Pennsylvania. On top of that, she juggled a new and strange culture, the politics of a country in the midst of an unpopular war and its implications, and every other roadblock on the path to integrating into American life. Throughout it all, O’Callaghan saw a need.
In 2003, with support from a network of fellow immigrants, friends, supporters, and volunteers, O’Callaghan opened the doors to the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. A centralized resource center for immigrants to easily access information on things like how to take an ESL course or learn more about opening a small business in their community. All without the overwhelming feeling of being misguided or utterly confused.
“The Welcoming Center quickly evolved into being a place where immigrants were able to connect with the kinds of people who took the time to appreciate the value they represented,” says Peter Gonzales, CEO and President of the Welcoming Center.
Fifteen years later, the organization that started with just a handful of volunteers now staffs more than 30 people, hosts a crew of 60 plus volunteers, and has served more than 16,000 people from over 150 countries.
On Thursday, visitors from the Welcoming Center, board members, volunteers, and more will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the organization and the individuals who are making positive impacts in their community. The 2018 Solas Awards—solas meaning “light” in Gaelic—were created to spotlight immigrants across Pennsylvania who are positively impacting their communities and boosting the economy.
“Sometimes people think of the American dream as only being about money,” says Gonzalez. “But we think about the American dream as people having the opportunity to realize their potential, remembering where they came from, and wanting to give back and pay it forward to others.”
Gonzales, who started six years ago with the Welcoming Center, has watched the organization move from a one-of-a-kind hub for immigrant resources to becoming a model for other cities, local government, and the business community. “We’re not this isolated organization,” says Gonzales. “The economic integration of immigrants has developed into a field all it’s own and the Welcoming Center has been at the forefront of that.”
In addition to hearing from speakers like Mayor Kenney, the night will highlight honorees who have displayed strong leadership as immigrants and entrepreneurs in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania. Stephen S. Tang, currently president and CEO of OraSure, will receive the Dennis Clark Solas Award for his previous work as head of the University City Science Center, where he played a key role in launching the Global Startup Accelerator, which helps local companies expand internationally. The Welcoming Center has also entered a new three-year partnership with the Science Center to boost immigrants’ voices in the startup world to better utilize their experiences in developing more strategic business plans.
Dr. Maria A. Oquendo will be receiving the Realizing the American Dream award. “She chooses to devote her gifts to helping improve the quality of life for immigrants and marginalized people,” says Gonzales. Dr. Oquendo, an immigrant from Spain, is the chair of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and focuses on the diagnosis, treatment, and neurobiology of Bipolar Disorder and Major Depression.
This, year the Solas will also honor Wells Fargo Bank for the work of about 20 Wells Fargo employees, almost all immigrants, who started volunteering once a year to help immigrants at the Center develop resumes, build professional networks, and write cover letters; and Green and Spiegel LLP, which gave many hours of pro bono work for the Welcoming Center to get designated by the U.S. State Department as a J-1 visa-sponsored agency to help develop the Center’s global entrepreneurship strategies.
The awards ceremony will help bring in crucial revenue for the Center through sponsorship, ticket sales, and contributions—including an up to $50,000 match by two of the current Welcoming Center board members for the money raised in the room.
The room will be packed with a mixture of top leaders throughout the city, business leaders, philanthropists, politicians, and the participants, volunteers, and members of the Welcoming Center who keep the organization moving each day.
“Sometimes people think of the American dream as only being about money,” says Gonzales. “But we think about the American dream as people having the opportunity to realize their potential, remembering where they came from, and wanting to give back and pay it forward to others.”
Thursday, May 3, 5:30 pm-8:30 pm, Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel, 201 N 17th St. Get your tickets herePhoto via the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians