River Hill resident taking FIRN post

Jennifer L. Blake of River Hill, a self-employed community development consultant, starts tomorrow as the new executive director of FIRN Inc., the Columbia-based nonprofit devoted to helping the foreign born.

Blake, 53, a Howard County resident since 1994, replaces Roy Appletree, FIRN's director since 2003, who announced his decision to leave six months ago.


"I'm transitioning - taking a sabbatical - said Appletree, 60. "I just felt it was time to move on."

The change comes as the number of foreign-born residents in Howard County is growing. During the first half of the decade, the county's Hispanic population rose 33 percent and its Asian population rose 42 percent.


Appletree said Blake will be a good fit in the demanding job.

"It's like running a small business," he said, in terms of the need for attention to detail. But with more money this year from the county government thanks to the administration of County Executive Ken Ulman, FIRN was able to overcome budget cuts from United Way and is on firm financial footing, Appletree said.

"When I came, we were at $42,000 a year from United Way," Appletree said. FIRN, formerly called the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, now gets no United Way money, he said, but this year Ulman increased county dollars to the group by 50 percent, to $180,000 from $120,000.

Appletree said FIRN aims to serve the foreign born in ways other groups do not, concentrating on providing interpreters, running an immigration clinic, an employment program and providing literacy tutoring. In addition, he said, FIRN is making office space available to Hispanic and Korean groups, to try to bring different ethnic groups closer together.

Blake, he said, "is very experienced in nonprofits. She's got a real passion for the issues."

"I see unlimited potential here," Blake said about her new $59,000-a-year job. "The foreign-born population is growing. Their needs are very diverse. One of my plans is to get out into the community and do more of a needs assessment and rally some supporters to help," she said.

She is learning Spanish, and speaks limited French and Urdu, the language of Pakistan, her husband Mohammad Saleem's native tongue, she added.

Blake, who grew up in Port Byron, N.Y., has been a community development consultant since moving to Columbia, she said, and served on the River Hill Village Board for several years in the late 1990s. Her husband, an architect, has also served on the village board. She also worked on the Columbia Association Governance Committee.


Earlier, when the family lived in Washington, she worked for 11 years with nonprofits involved with the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Inner City Ventures Fund, she said. The fund worked to promote reuse of commercial, industrial and housing in inner city neighborhoods.

"FIRN just marked its 25th anniversary, and we are very excited to have Jennifer Blake lead us into our next quarter-century of bridging cultures and building community in Howard County," said Nestor Benavides, president of the FIRN board of directors. "With her extensive experience, Jennifer is highly qualified to continue FIRN's services to our foreign-born neighbors and community, and spearhead exciting plans for growth and expansion."