Funding Their Way -- Immigrant Groups Are Learning How To Solicit Grants To Address Their Needs

They're sharply dressed in suit jackets and ties, black floppy pants and chiffon scarves. These 12 smiling people carrying pamphlets and business cards are ready to tell their stories.

They have been training for the past 10 weeks, polishing their English, learning to schmooze a little, so they can ultimately ask for thousands of donated dollars for youth camps or computer training - the kind of small things that could better their immigrant communities.

Soon they'll be mingling comfortably with folks from public and private foundations, the ones who write the checks, who can finance a worthy cause. But for now they've turned their attention to me, the perfect person to test these networking skills honed in the classroom.

Larisa Podgorny, wearing a smart dark blazer and skirt, seems at ease. Her nonstop stream of Russian-accented words speaks of her work for World Relief. From translating to filling out citizenship forms, Podgorny fills her workday helping Russian-speaking immigrants and refugees adjust to a new life in a new language.

Now Podgorny, like the other graduates of this workshop, has embarked on the sometimes daunting process of penning grant proposals. The 4-year-old grant-writing class, sponsored by the Asian Pacific Islander Task Force on Youth, aims to provide graduates with the tools to bring their stories to the right people.

She and her colleague, Nastia Vitovitz, have hammered out grant proposals asking for $28,000 to pay a volunteer coordinator. She's already met through the class a few representatives from the Safeco and Satterberg foundations. Her fingers are crossed.

"For people who speak English as a second language, it's so hard to express our needs on paper, because we feel differently than we can write," Podgorny would later confide. "But I changed my thinking of how to ask for money. I am not asking for myself or for my agency only, but we're asking to help many people. We can bring good gifts to the community."

They come from agencies with small budgets, and many are newly formed. They realize their organizations are unknown to many of the local corporate foundations, but they need to start somewhere to establish a track record. So, in a way, this graduation night at the Four Seas restaurant in Seattle is like Oscar night for them. As they step over their initial stage fright, they are beaming and persistent.

I am facing a semi-circle of patient eyes, eager to do as well as their predecessors. Participants from 13 community-based agencies were trained through the program between 1996 and 1998. And they've been a success. Almost all of their proposals brought in money.

Tonight there's Tina Morales from Casa Latina on my right, hands full of cards and fliers. Her agency, which serves seasonal workers, is fishing for $10,000 to purchase and network several computers.

From the corner of my eye I glimpse Yoli Ortiz, from the International Drop In Center, warming up. In her energetic, slightly staccato delivery, she tells about the agency's plans to set up a computer center where Filipino teens can help their elderly navigate the Internet. The room is abuzz with excited conversation accented with Russian and Somalian.

"In the beginning, many were feeling afraid to fail," said Judy Smith de Barros, who, with Tsuguo Ikeda and fellow trainer Marci Wing, have taught this course, which is also sponsored by Seattle's Family Leadership Fund. "(They were) afraid for their speaking and writing skills, nervous about failing their people and their organization."

The pairs take turns at the podium describing their organizations and the communities they serve. There's a moment of embarrassed hesitancy as Abdulkadir Said and Omar Ahmed from the Somali Community Services Coalition decide who will speak first; then they dive into their presentations, practiced weekly at class. Their goal: a summer youth program and soccer camp.

"We are hoping to educate our community," Said explained, pausing to think, "so they can be productive members of society, so they will learn self-sufficiency."

Sergey Tkachenko and Samuil Skalikeu, from the King County Slavic Association, are the most memorable team. Tkachenko, 28, tall and lanky, looks no more than 16 with his rosy, hairless cheeks. He employs his whole body when he speaks, often consulting with the smaller, always smiling Skalikeu on the appropriate English word to use. "Mmmmm, how do you say . . ."

Tkachenko paints a picture of disaffected teens growing apart from their struggling immigrant parents, then the two coming together through a weeklong camp they hope to hold in August.

"The people who have come here learned that their children studied the language very well and learned fast, and that made a gap," he said.

". . . We will speak about good citizenship and cultural roots in the class. We need to focus on teens because these five, seven years they have spread so far from their parents, who don't understand their children. If people don't pay attention to these teens and these questions, we will have problems in a few years."

They have sufficiently impressed Ikeda and de Barros, and their charms have worked on me. Now they wait, hoping their stories will touch the folks and the foundations who can help.