Presentation Lantern Center still helping community, though location closed

Catherine Caitlin (left) and Tammy White are part of the group that began VIATS, or Volunteer Immigrant Appointment Transportation Service.

When Megan Ruiz called for Presentation Lantern Center’s location in Dubuque to close in March as COVID-19 concerns grew, she thought it might last a few weeks.

The center offers educational opportunities to help immigrants improve their English skills and prepare for the U.S. citizenship test, and many of its students work essential jobs, said Ruiz, the center’s executive director. Over half of the center’s volunteers are seniors as well.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking to think about all those groups together in an enclosed space,” she said.

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Months later, the organization’s physical space in Schmid Innovation Center remains closed amid the pandemic. The center’s services, however, have not stopped.

It has been offering tutoring sessions online, and more people take advantage of them each month, Ruiz said. Staff also might consider outdoor sessions in the future depending on how the reopening of schools and colleges goes.

Center staff members also have checked in on some of their students at least once per week. Many of those served by the organization have been unemployed or had their hours cut during the pandemic, and they can’t apply for unemployment, Ruiz said.

“The students and tutors adapted really well to this change,” she said. “Some students, who don’t have any family here, who live alone, who are new to the country, have been incredibly grateful.”

The center also partnered with Tri-State Volunteer Immigrant Appointment Transport Service after hearing about VIATS’ immigrant food distribution program.

Catherine Caitlin, an immigration lawyer who helped start VIATS, said the group was started to provide immigrants with safe rides to appointments. However, its attention shifted to weekly food drops during the pandemic, as families began calling about shortages.

Caitlin said Ruiz, as well as Dubuque County Supervisor Ann McDonough, has been wonderful about obtaining funding, donations and volunteers for the food drops.

Caitlin stores boxes of locally sourced food, cleaning supplies, thermometers and personal hygiene products in her basement yoga studio before delivery. Volunteers pick up those items and provide contact-free delivery to about 30 households with nearly 150 people.

“One woman we delivered to looked at all the boxes in the back of the car and asked, ‘Which one is mine?’” Caitlin said. “We said, ‘It’s all for you,’ and she started to cry. She didn’t have food for several days.”

Presentation Lantern Center also has worked with Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Dubuque to help families financially when possible, Ruiz said. Some families went without paychecks for several months, and some still are laid off, she said.

However, she said she has been impressed by families’ ability to work through all of the struggles they have faced during the pandemic.

“It’s a testament that the families we serve were and are very self-reliant and economically conscious,” Ruiz said. “A lot of times, immigrants and refugees are accustomed to emergency situations. They’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”