Extending a helping hand | VailDaily.com

Extending a helping hand

Connie Steiert

EAGLE COUNTY – When Ignacia’s husband experienced excruciating headaches and a seriously swollen face in May of 2003, she rushed him to a medical clinic in Eagle. She was shocked when doctors quickly whisked him to the intensive care unit at the Vail Valley Medical Center. Then came the devastating diagnosis: His kidney had failed, and his prospects were grim without a kidney transplant.Worried about her husband’s health, Ignacia, an immigrant with a 3-year-old son, could not fathom how to raise enough money to pay for a transplant. As it was, the family struggled to get by on their two incomes, and had no insurance. After a week in a Denver hospital with a specialist, things went from bad to worse. Ignacia’s husband could no longer work. They were having trouble even finding doctors who would see them, without insurance. The couple contemplated going back to Mexico to seek help. By the end of the winter of 2003, her husband was on dialysis three days a week, at a cost $2,000 per session.”It was very difficult,” Ignacia says. Now solely responsible for the family’s income, Ignacia cleaned houses and sold tamales – anything to put food on the table and meet the mounting hospital and medical bills. Then, one by one, a series of angels appeared in their lives. After telling her plight to Father Jude Geilenkirchen at St. Clare of Assisi Parish, a mysterious, and extraordinarily generous benefactor anonymously gave $100,000 to help the family pay for the transplant. At the same time, Ignacia’s brother-in-law stepped forward offering one of his kidneys for his ill brother. And, Catholic Charities’ Immigrant Advocacy Program stepped in to oversee it all.Darlene Montano, the immigrant community advocate of Catholic Charities for Eagle County, had her work cut out for her. The kidney was a perfect match, and the transplant was performed in March. Today, Ignacia’s 30-year-old husband is doing well, and is back at work. The brother-in-law, who gave up one kidney, says he feels better now than he did in the past.Montano arranged for the Vail Valley Charitable Fund to oversee the money, and to ensure doctors and hospitals were paid. She found a pharmacy willing to fill prescriptions, using the additional $10,000 given by the same donor to help cover the ongoing $1,800 to $1,900 per month in medications needed to ensure the transplant “takes.” This is just one of a myriad of cases that Montano, through the Immigrant Advocacy Program in Avon and Eagle helps with each and every day.Ignacia says the experience has brought the family “closer to God,” and she is very grateful to all the people who have helped the family through its ordeal, including many friends, the Advocacy Program, and the generous donor – a person they have never met. What is immigrant advocacy?Montano’s case work runs from simply translating documents for those who speak and write little English, to helping clients navigate complex legal, medical and governmental issues. Catholic Charities’ Immigrant Advocacy Program first opened in Avon in March, 2002. Avon was selected by the Denver-based charitable organization because Eagle and Garfield Counties have the highest immigrant population concentrations on the Western Slope, and the need was evident. In the past 12 months, the programs in Eagle and Garfield counties have helped more than 200 people in face-to-face meetings; and an additional 100 to 120 over the phone. Over the past couple of years, more than 450 clients in both counties have been served.The program is funded by Eagle County and through private donations. The county also provides a room at the Riverview Apartments in Avon – which the county owns – to serve as headquarters.As word spread about what the Immigrant Advocacy Program could do, more and more people from Eagle and Gypsum began traveling to Avon. Montano found herself making an increasing number of trips downvalley.The program is managed by Glenwood Springs -based Catholic Charities for the Western Slope, an affiliate of the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Charities program. A little over a month ago, Catholic Charities arranged to use a room at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Capital Street in Eagle. “I think the word is just getting out that I am here,” she says. Variety of needs”Immigrants have all sorts of unique circumstances that come up that aren’t really addressed by traditional government services,” says Tom Ziemann, a retired Air Force officer, and director of Catholic Charities for the Western Slope. “Because many of them are undocumented, they are not eligible for traditional government-sponsored social services,” Ziemann says. Much of the help Montano gives clients involves being a liaison between clients and other services, and she is a resource for people who are not familiar with the community or culture. For example, if a family needs food or emergency money to pay utilities, she may hook them up with the Salvation Army or the Vail Valley Charitable Fund. If they need a home, she may refer them to Eagle County’s housing department. If they need a job, she may send them to the Colorado Workforce Center of Edwards. If they need medical service, she will connect them with either governmental or medical programs.”I’m basically a go-between,” says Montano, a Red Cliff native and University of Colorado graduate who returned to the valley in 1980 after living in Boulder for 10 years. “I work to get people together.”One client, a woman with a serious medical condition, could not get help in this country. She decided to fly back to her home country, but couldn’t afford the airfare. Montano coordinated with several services to acquire the ticket home. When a mobile home salesman took advantage of an immigrant couple, Montano helped them find an attorney willing to do pro bono work to resolve the situation. Montano interprets documents, acts as a translator in meetings or in court, and guides clients through buying a house or car. She also helps clients understand their rights in this country. If a client is involved in a monetary dispute, she helps them fill out the paperwork for small claims court. If they have a civil case, and there is no appointed representative, Montano may go to court with a client to help them communicate. “There’s nothing typical,” Montano notes. “I think I’ve seen and heard everything, then a new case come in.” She has even helped clients through the adoption process, she says. “A lot of it is helping them find whatever services there are in our community,” she says. Pay disputesOne of her specialties is mediation. Many of Montano’s cases involve pay disputes between employer and employee, or between tenant and landlord. A typical scenario, she says, is an employer who keeps promising to pay “next week,” but never does.”Since many of these people are immigrants, they are often taken advantage of. They are banking on the fact immigrants won’t pursue the situation,” Ziemann says.Montano will first try and mediate a dispute, she says.”If they are not being paid at work and they want me to help them get paid, I tell them to try mediation,” before going to a lawyer, she says. “I believe a lot of problems could be resolved, if we can communicate successfully with each other.”But Montano stresses she is not an attorney, and does not provide legal counsel herself. She will refer people to Legal Aid, law firms and agencies.One case Montano is currently working on involves a man who seriously injured his back on the job two years ago at a local ranch. When he went for medical treatment, he found out the employer had never taken out workman’s compensation policy on him, although there were policies for his fellow Caucasian employees. The employer also refused to pay for the man’s medical expenses – even though he is still out of work and in constant pain.”He doesn’t really even want a settlement,” says Montano, who is trying to help the man navigate the legal system. “He’s in a bad way. He just needs the owner to say, ‘yes,’ you were injured on my ranch, and I’ll take care of the medical bills.” Immigrant Advocacy typically charges a minimal amount for most services – just so the clients are “investing something,” Ziemann says. However, if someone is totally indigent, the fee may be waived.Vail, Colorado