Having served the immigrant population of Bushwick for over 20 years, The Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center (MCIF) entered a new phase this past September.
Named after two Maryknoll nuns murdered in El Salvador, the not-for-profit will now be able to expand its services thanks to its merger with Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT).
The former executive director of MCIF, Janet Marcic, said she is delighted by the new structure. On its own, MCIF was able to serve immigrants, mostly women, by offering English classes as well as opportunities to expand skills. The small organization has been able to stay in the black before entering the merger; however, it has been struggling.
Marcic said the annual budget of $200,000 forced the organization to be resourceful with items such as school supplies. The relatively small budget has also made the organization more susceptible to changes in donors and the economy. Over the past few years, its struggled to stay open as circumstances forced the organization to relocate five times in five years.
Now, Marcic said, MCIF is in an OBT building that has a five-year lease. “That was a big relief,” the former executive director said.
Marcic also said she is grateful that MCIF was able to pair with an organization that has a similar legacy. OBT was founded in a run-down storefront in Sunset Park 10 years before MCIF by the late Sister Mary Franciscus, R.S.M. It has now expanded to six locations, five of which are in the diocese and one in the Bronx. OBT originally serviced at-risk youth but has since expanded to offer adult and citizenship services.
MCIF was founded by Sister Mary Burns, S.C., in September, 1993. She was part of a group of women religious from Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York who met on a regular basis to support each other. The group often spoke about the need for a women’s center.
Sister Mary said she was inspired after hearing of the three religious women and one lay woman who were brutally slain in El Salvador, where they served the poor until their deaths on Dec. 2, 1980. Two – Maura Clarke, M.M., and Ita Ford, M.M. – were from the Brooklyn Diocese.
Sister Mary said she was so inspired by their story that she wanted to continue their work in Brooklyn. She set up a space where women could learn English and discover their own potential. The organization started with 21 women, and there were 43 women in the graduating class. Together, Sister Mary said, these women learned English, learned crafts and discovered that they can push each other to new heights.
“We gave them the space and the opportunity,” she said. “And they learned they could do it.” Now she is happy to see that the organization has continued this legacy, even under a new parent company.
“I think the future is great,” she said. “The merger is a big step forward.”
Marcic said that MCIF students have been able to continue their studies in the new OBT location starting in September, with the added bonus of having access to more resources.
Two of the women who have been able to continue their studies thanks to the merger are Rabbab Ahmed Algaradi, a Muslim woman from Yemen who came to the U.S. eight years ago, and Yaxcenia Lever, a Catholic woman from Panama who arrived here three years ago.
Both said they started the program without being able to speak, read or write in English.
Ahmed Algaradi said not knowing English was difficult because she had to rely on her husband anytime she needed to do something outside of their home and their children had to wait for their father to help them with their homework. Therefore, her husband, who is an NYPD officer, set out on a search for English classes so that his wife could be more independent. To his wife’s gratitude, he found MCIF.
She has been with the program for a year and a half and has already mastered conversational English enough to tell her story for this article. She said she is thankful for the program because now she can help her children with schoolwork and can set a good example for them.
Lever said her friend introduced her to the program nearly immediately after coming to the U.S. She remembers how difficult her first year at MCIF was. She couldn’t really understand any of her teachers. Now, she said proudly, she is not only able to understand her teachers, but she can also speak with people on the street.
Lorena Burgos, who came to the country from Mexico in 1996, started the program in September. She has already become a citizen of the U.S. and can speak English but wants to master it so that she can attend college. Among the most difficult things for her was being seen as anti-social. She said she wanted to make friends with her neighbors, but she could not communicate with them.
All three women said the program, which they attend four days a week, 9 a.m.-3 p.m, is more than just an educational institution. It serves as a community where the teachers care about the students and classmates help each other.
“We do things together,” Ahmed Algaradi said. “It’s my second family. I have my family at home and my family here.”
Randy Peers, CEO of OBT, said it is important to him that MCIF continues its community-oriented mission.
“We are honoring the legacy of what Maura Clarke and Ita Ford stood for,” he said. “I don’t think you can disconnect the legacy from the mission. And at the end of the day, it’s about preserving that mission.”
MCIF will preserve its name as an office of OBT. Peers said the merger was mutually beneficial because both organizations have strong Catholic ties but are independent organizations that serve people of all religions.
“From our perspective, it’s a win-win all around,” he said.