Former Scientist Embraces Role Supporting Stamford's Immigrant Community

STAMFORD, Conn. -- Darien’s Catalina Samper-Horak took a career U-turn nearly three decades ago. She didn't know that her decision to leave the potentially lucrative field of science and genetics would lead her to a job helping immigrants to make it in America.

Catalina Samper-Horak, a Darien resident, is the Executive Director of Building One Community in Stamford, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants find the resources they need to transition to America.

Catalina Samper-Horak, a Darien resident, is the Executive Director of Building One Community in Stamford, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants find the resources they need to transition to America.

Photo Credit: Contributed

  • Who: Catalina Samper-Horak, Darien
  • What: Executive director of Building One Community in Stamford
  • Learn more: Building One Community website

Now, more than five years after Samper-Horak and a group of community members established the nonprofit agency, her budget has swelled, the staff has grown and her organization’s reach has expanded. The newly named agency, Building One Community (formerly Neighbors Link), has become a vital resource for the region’s large immigrant population.

“This has been a rewarding experience on so many levels,’’ said Samper-Horak, the organization’s executive director. “We have an amazing staff that comes from nine different countries. We have people who speak two or three languages. The stories we’ve heard from how we’ve helped people are amazing. I would not have changed anything that we have done.”

Building One Community is a resource center for immigrants that helps them navigate the hurdles associated with coming to America. Its purpose is to help educate, empower, employ and engage immigrants with the community at large.

The organization has worked with a host of partners to reach close to 6,000 immigrants from 55 countries since it formed in 2011. In Stamford alone, immigrants comprise 37 percent of the city’s total population, according to the B1C website.

It's now a fully formed and vital community organization — after Samper-Horak and a few other volunteers worked diligently for more than two years to build its foundation. Samper-Horak, Cathy Ostuw and Kathie Walsh tried to speak with every immigration group and potential partner they could reach. 

Seven days a week, they attended meetings, stood in the rain at bus stops, chatted for hours on end at laundromats and spoke with day laborers on Stamford’s East Side. With little money, few volunteers and a warrior’s resolve, the group extended their hands to any group where they could reach immigrants.

Some reacted favorably, some did not and others sat on the fence. Samper-Horak and her small team saw the distrust, expected it, yet fought through it.

“It was a fascinating time,’’ she said. “People were very reluctant to talk to us in the beginning. We knew it was going to be tough.”

Samper-Horak said slowly but surely, she and her team started to connect with grassroots groups. The distrust faded. More and more immigrants realized this volunteer-led group of community organizers wanted to help them.

“It was a slow process, but if we had to do it over again, we’d do it exactly the same way,’’ Samper-Horak said. “We needed to build connections. We were asked all the time: ‘Aren’t you going to make money off of us?’ No. We just really care. People asked, ‘Why do these white people from North Stamford and Darien and Greenwich care about us?’ It’s because their parents were immigrants. That’s the way this country works.”

Samper-Horak points to two events in the early stages of the organization that helped establish credibility. The first was a coat and food drive that made connections with the community. The organization then opened its doors in June 2011 and established its first program, free English Second Language classes taught by qualified volunteers that included babysitting. “People saw they could trust us,’’ she said. “That’s when they started asking more. Building that trust through an ESL in a very neutral way was the springboard.”

Samper-Horak was the agency’s only employee when it formed in 2011. She opened the doors in the morning and closed them at night. In between, she led an effort with a group of committed board members that recruited volunteers, built relationships and developed programs. “I cleaned the bathrooms and took out the garbage,’’ she said. “We are beyond that, I don’t have to do that anymore, but those were incredibly critical days to connect with the population that were and to understand them better."

Her path to Stamford was hardly linear. A native of Colombia, she studied biology and genetics in college. She was pursuing a doctorate in microbiology when she and her husband, Ivan, started their family while living in Michigan and then in Chicago. “Combining the life of a researcher, a family and with no family support was more than I could handle,’’ she said. “My body just gave up.”

After moving several times for Ivan’s job, the family settled in Darien in 1997. Samper-Horak decided to pursue a degree in nonprofit organizational management. “The option of going back to the PhD program and the demands of science for a woman with a family vs. the world of nonprofits and connecting on a very different level seemed interesting,’’ she said.

Samper-Horak had lived in the region in the early 1990s, and when she returned, she saw the low-income immigrant population had expanded significantly. “There was a huge change in demographics,’’ she said. “I realized my language and organizational skills were in great demand. I got more and more interested in seeing what we could do and started to get to know more people.”

Samper-Horak first volunteered with Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco, and also felt Stamford could benefit from a similar program. She approached several people for funding. “We got the thumbs up for some initial funding and then we started having community meetings in 2009,’’ she said. “We were inviting every single person under the sun.”

While there is much uncertainty among immigrants under President Donald Trump, B1C and Samper-Horak are taking a wait-and-see approach while also expressing determination to make sure immigrants find the resources they need to thrive.

“We’re doing way more than we ever anticipated,’’ Samper-Horak said. “The needs are way bigger than we thought, but we want to make sure we involve even more people. Our definition of success is not how many zeroes we have on the budget, it’s the programs and the impact of our programs. That’s how we define success.”

Click here for the Building One Community website.

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