In 10 minutes time, Irina Chermeshnyuk has addressed six different visitors in both English and Russian. One wants help securing vouchers. He walks away satisfied,with a packet of food. Another asks for directions. Two more study the pamphlets for senior citizens. Chermeshnyuk helps them patiently in her dual tongues.
“I don’t think a day goes by where we don’t encounter something new,” said Barb Tuininga, manager of the Crossroads site.
Mini City Hall started 18 years ago, as a satellite office for residents who felt disconnected from the services and departments of Bellevue’s downtown location. The facility, now well-entrenched, is finding new ways to tap a demographic often locked out of discussion. Devices like a dual receiver phone, a face-time program similar to Skype, and cultural meet-ups can break that barrier.
“Certainly people need help in their language, and that’s a serious issue” said Tuininga. “But it’s much more layered than that…What happens is people build (relationships here).”
Staff at Crossroads Mini City Hall speak eight different languages, and thanks to an office outfitted with the newest technology, services in more than 100 additional dialects are just a dial away. Volunteers can pick up the phone, select the appropriate code and instantly connect with a translator on the other line. New technology allows for a volunteer and guest to communicate face-to-face in a more intimate manner.
Tuininga says that type of personalization is critical to the success of the program.
When Mini City Hall launched two decades ago, it hadn’t intended to target Bellevue’s foreign-born population. But when staff realized they were the biggest beneficiary, a new blueprint for operations took shape. Now, services like the Eastside Cultural Navigator program allow for mentorships with immigrants and refugees.
“We’re an ear-to-the-ground in terms of what’s really going on and what people really need,” said Tuininga. “It’s become a conduit of information back to the city.”
Though the demographics have changed through the years – Spanish and Russian used to be the languages most in demand, now Chinese has been added to that list – the needs have largely remained the same. Visitors ask for everything from help paying their bills, to conflict resolution and information about where to secure building permits.
No matter the inquiry, relationships are the cornerstone of Mini City Hall. Tuininga recalls one blind neighbor who has been bringing his mail to the Crossroads mall for the past 15 years.
“I (hear) all the time: ‘I came to Mini City Hall and I was very frightened, and lonely.’ Or, ‘I didn’t feel comfortable, and this was a place where I felt understood.’”
She estimates approximately 18,000 people filter through the center over the course of a year. That includes classes and events. Though operations aren’t limited to Bellevue’s most diverse neighborhoods, she is pleased the city continues to honor and recognize its diversity. Many business owners are foreign-born and Tuininga predicts continued outreach will bolster the economy overall.
Tuininga says she views Mini City Hall as a facilitator of chance encounters. A conversation in line can be enough to dispel stereotypes.
“It only takes one conversation to develop some empathy,” she said, “and to be able to think, I see myself in you.”
Celina Kareiva, 425-453-4290; email@example.com