The Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, a nonprofit organization set up to aid recent immigrants to Howard County, hopes that Language Connections, a new low-cost interpretation service it has established, can grow to support itself and, possibly, other programs.
"There is a revenue stream where we can try to sustain ourselves," said Chel Cavallon, president of FIRN's board of directors. "We want to be in a position to make it self-sustaining ... at least covering the staff to manage it."
FIRN has a two-year contract with the Maryland Office of New Americans to train interpreters for bilingual residents who speak refugee languages, such as Korean, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Bosnian and others. Because the United States accepts asylum seekers from Cuba, Spanish is included in that list as well.
After they complete 40 hours of training, the interpreters' names are entered in a database and used in the Language Connections program in response to requests from agencies that contract with it, such as the Howard County Health Department.
The translation service costs $40 for the first hour and $35 for each additional hour, said Laura B. Pfeifer, Language Connections program coordinator. Other agencies charge more than $60 or $70 an hour for similar services, she said.
FIRN has consistently underbid other contractors interested in providing the service to the Health Department, said Victoria L. Duke, the county's family and community health director.
"We want to be able to serve and help people who don't have big budgets to pay for interpreters," Pfeifer said.
Demand is growing for such services in the county and beyond. The need for translators and interpreters is expected to increase as much as 35 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Part of that need stems from an interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin by federally funded agencies.
"Government agencies are having a real hard time grappling with it," Cavallon said. "You don't know there's a language problem until there's a person on your doorstep."
But if demand for translators is growing, so are financial pressures on FIRN.
The organization's MONA contract to train translators expires at the end of May, and the nonprofit is hoping income from its cut-rate translation service will cover costs of staff needed to deploy interpreters, both volunteer and paid.
Language Connections already has some real fans in Howard County.
The county Health Department uses more than four Spanish-speaking interpreters from FIRN at clinics each week. They help in many ways, explaining drug interactions and translating public health educational materials. Interpreters even call patients to examination rooms from the waiting room to ensure that names are pronounced correctly.
The service is "absolutely vital," said Lois Henderson, a maternity supervisor for the county's prenatal clinic.
"We have been able to hire some staff that speak Spanish," including one nurse and some clerical staff, said Duke. "But there's not enough to go around."
Interpreter Rosa Fernandez of Ellicott City is glad to help. She has volunteered and been paid to interpret through FIRN for two years.
"I try to do something to help me and to help others," Fernandez said.
FIRN's Language Connections program complements a broader effort to shape the nonprofit organization's future.
Dawn Fisk Thomsen, a management consultant for nonprofit organizations, is leading a search for a new FIRN executive director to replace Edward Kiely, who filled that role for nine months.
Thomsen said Kiely left at the beginning of the year to pursue a career working toward poverty solutions for Africa. The search committee hopes to have someone in place by the end of next month.
FIRN has recovered from financial difficulties it had suffered in recent years, including a $50,000 funding deficit, said Thomsen. "The organization stands very well right now," she said. "There's financial stability."
FIRN is also in the midst of a transition in how it delivers non-translation services for immigrants, replacing specialists in job placement, immigration and other needs with "generalists" who can provide all those skills to clients, Thomsen said.
The nonprofit's focus this year will be "to see more people in as efficient a manner as possible," Cavallon said. "The problem is we can't see everyone. There's more demand that we're not seeing."