New migrant families receive support from town, schools and community service organizations

Nov 7, 2023

An influx of migrant families into Dartmouth over the past month has triggered a mulit-orginizational response, as the town works with the school department, community service organizations and the state Army National Guard to assess their needs and distribute assistance.

A month ago, “a small number” of migrant families moved into Dartmouth hotels. The same lodging facilities now house “about 40 families,” according to Town Communications Coordinator Magnolia McComish. 

The Town of Dartmouth is helping to organize the support through weekly meetings with service providers and the school department, but it does not yet have a plan for community donations. McComish said in an email that the town and assisting organizations hope to have an effective plan on how to donate “in the coming weeks.” A National Guardswoman at one of the hotels said they do not currently have much space to store extra supplies that are donated.

The schools worked on site at the hotels to register students for classes. To accommodate the new students, the department added two bus stops, at the Best Western and Baymont by Wyndham, but have not changed or added routes otherwise. 

Twenty-six new students have been added to the school system, including 15 elementary-age students, three middle schoolers and eight high schoolers, according to Superintendent June Saba-Maguire. 

Massachusetts’ “right-to-shelter” law has existed for four decades, but the system is being tested by a recent influx of migrants, many of whom are fleeing gang violence and state instability. The Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities estimates that about half of the families in temporary shelters are new arrivals to the state. 

All families and pregnant women eligible for shelter are in the country legally, according to the office, despite signs from recent protests In Fairhaven that called the new residents “illegal immigrants.”

To be eligible for assistance at all, “families must be here with the knowledge and consent of federal immigration authorities,” according to Kevin Connor, press secretary for Housing and Livable Communities. 

People Acting in Community Endeavors, or PACE, in New Bedford, is helping the families get on state insurance plans through Health Connector, said Executive Director Pam Kuechler. The group also started connecting families to PACE’s Community Food Center to start supplying some extra food beyond the daily meals provided at hotels.

“PACE provides for a variety of basic needs services, and so essentially, we’re just bringing those services into the hotel to get people set up, so they can move on past just going from place to place,” Kuechler said. 

The Family Resource and Development Center, part of United Way of Greater New Bedford, has been assisting with some basic needs, including personal hygiene products, diapers, baby formula and winter clothing. 

The center already assists the community, said Program Director Maria E. deMelo, but it needs to figure out “how to focus a bit more on these families that aren’t from here and have a lot more immediate need.” 

“We’re such a small team,” deMelo said. “Even before this, we were definitely kind of at capacity with the housing crisis being what it is.”

The Greater New Bedford Community Health Center has also stepped in to provide some basic healthcare. Southcoast Health held an employee drive for food, water, clothing and toiletries, which its Community Health and Wellness team has delivered, according to Kaitlyn Cox, a spokesperson for the group. 

“Most of the service providers in this community have stepped up in one way or another to offer some kind of support as time goes on and things become more apparent in terms of what is needed,” Kuechler said. 

But with some puzzle pieces still in motion, PACE and the other service organizations rely on the Army National Guard’s guidance. Right now, some of the most urgent needs are winter clothes and supplies for children. Kuechler said personal care items are generally needed as well. 

“We’re just trying to get people assessed, a lot of it is kind of day-by-day,” Kuechler said. 

“Right now, there’s a bunch of providers trying to come together and just giving stuff as needed, but we need to be more cohesive,” deMelo said. 

Most of the migrant families do not speak English. Haitian Creole is the most common language, but some also speak Spanish or Portuguese. While language presents some complications, Kuechler said PACE has multilingual staff members, so they “haven’t really had any challenges” with communication.

“Translation is important and having people that speak the language is important,” Kuechler said. “[For] providing the people who are here, and that have just been placed here, with some level of comfort.”

At Dartmouth Public Schools, language is a more immediate obstacle. Many, though not all, of the students are learning English for the first time.

The school district has English as a second language teachers at each elementary school and one teacher that splits their time between the middle and high school. The department is looking to hire one more ESL teacher, to have one on staff at each school, Saba-Maguire said. 

“We want to be able to support the students that are here already and the students who are new,” Saba-Maguire said. 

The newcomer students speak Haitian-Creole, Spanish or Portuguese, and a couple already speak more than one language, according to the superintendent. 

To assist with language differences, the school purchased a number of “pocket translators,” which will be given to students and teachers to use during regular classes.

Saba-Maguire said teachers should already have some tools for teaching non-English speakers from professional development education they’ve received. 

“It’s really about us working with our teachers to just support them and help them reconnect with some of the strategies that they already have,” Saba-Maguire said. 

Classes aren’t all that comes with being a student, though. Once the new pupils are settled, Dartmouth Public Schools plans to get students involved in extracurricular activities or events. Last week, the school invited the new high school students to the Nov. 3 football game.

“By all accounts, they’re integrating quite well into the community,” Saba-Maguire said. “We’re excited to see that.”

Disclosure: McComish is a former Dartmouth Week reporter