Written by The Business Journal Staff
Zachary D. Darrah, Executive Director
Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM)
What we do: FIRM serves the refugee population in Fresno through working towards our mission of “Sharing Christ’s love to build communities of hope with new Americans.” This includes such things as mental health services, community gardens, youth programs, early childhood education programs, workforce development, health care access work, advocacy and much more! We seek to meet the needs of the refugee community both on a physical and spiritual level.
Education: B.A., Business Administration, Fresno Pacific University
M.A., Theological Studies, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary
Family: Married to my beautiful wife Mary Elizabeth and we have 2 wonderful daughters (Raelyn Marie, 21 months & Zoey Grace, due on February 5th, 2015).
Tell us a little about your career and how it led to your new position with FIRM, Zachary?
I have spent most of my career in the non-profit sector as well as in the faith-based world. I began working in the non-profit sector because I knew that I was going to have to do something I was passionate about as a vocation and I knew that I could find that in this field. I began in Americorps, which allowed me to serve for two years as the program manager of a non-profit called Care Fresno that serves youth in some of Fresno’s most challenging neighborhoods. Many of the people I met as an Americorps created networks that have moved my career forward from there. I held positions as the general manager at Encourage Tomorrow and as a program director for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission Local Conservation Corps. While serving in these roles, I was also serving on the pastoral staff team at Fresno First Baptist Church as the College/Young Adult/Small Group Pastor and now currently serve as the Teaching Pastor. This unique mix of experience in the non-profit sector and as a local pastor, led me to my new position at FIRM. I am humbled and blessed to get to work in a setting where my faith and my experience in the field can work together to help FIRM succeed in our mission. It is also an incredible experience to learn about the many cultures that we serve at FIRM!
What is the history behind FIRM, Zachary?
In the early 1990’s a woman by the name of Sharon Stanley was sent to Fresno to resettle refugees by a cooperative effort of Presbyterian church regions. She was originally sent for a short-term 90-day mission, but that turned into 19 years of serving the refugee population in Fresno for Sharon! She saw that there were so many needs amongst the refugee communities and that the Church needed to be the catalyst for meeting these needs. In 1994, FIRM was founded by Sharon Stanley and she served as the Executive Director until early 2013.
FIRM predominately serves the 60,000 Hmong, Laotian and Ukrainian refugees that live in Fresno County. What are some of the common threads and needs of these groups?
• Poverty: This is due to high unemployment rates amongst the refugee population. This can be attributed to language barriers that make it challenging to pursue education as well as to pursue employment.
• High Dropout Rates: Due to the fact that many refugees face language barriers, it is a challenge to assist their children with school. Refugees as a whole face high dropout rates which leads to low college graduation rates which drastically lowers the ability of refugee children to break out of generational poverty.
• Mental Health: The refugee journeys to the United States for the Hmong, Laotian and Ukrainian people groups are absolutely terrifying. This has left many refugees struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and high suicide rates amongst the refugee community.
• Access To Navigating Services: One thing that we help thousands of refugees with each year is navigating services that are available to them. Due to language barriers, many refugees are simply not aware of services that exist and how to work through the systems in order to get help that they really need. These services could be anything from Section 8, to legal services, to healthcare access.
How can the business community support FIRM and its mission, Zachary?
The business community can support FIRM by thinking of the refugee community we serve and really considering if there is a way to help meet the many needs that they have. We are always seeking financial support, but we are really seeking out partners that can support us in anyway possible. One specific need we have at FIRM in 2015 is the remodeling/updating of our community room, which is used for serving approximately 5,000 refugees on an annual basis. We will need materials and skilled workers that could donate time to help us complete this monumental task!
What is your vision for the future of FIRM, Zachary?
My future vision of FIRM is to become a youth-serving organization beginning in 2015. This means that we will serve refugee youth in an after-school program that focuses on school success and literacy. We will also work to invest into young leaders in the refugee communities to ensure that we are maintaining these unique cultures, while also looking towards the future of these communities.
Another component of my vision for the future of FIRM is to make a concerted effort to increase our “Gospelcentric” programs. These programs are those that will invest into the spiritual needs of the refugee communities. This means becoming a hub for support and training for the pastors of our 25-plus Southeast Asian-led congregations in Fresno, hiring a FIRM Youth Pastor to reach out to refugee youth with the Gospel and moving missionaries into the Summerset Apartment complex which is home to nearly 1,000 refugees (and is directly across the street from our facility).
How has your faith informed your personal mission at FIRM, Zachary?
My faith is what drives me to do what I do at FIRM everyday. A key component to my faith is the mandatory calling to serve those that are in need. The refugee community is a community of great need. I knew I was in the right place when the mission statement of the organization began with “Sharing Christ’s love…” and I get to work to ensure that we are doing exactly that at FIRM in whatever we are doing.
What was the best advice you ever received, Zachary?
My dad always told me that excellence is the goal of everything in my life. He instilled in me that being like everyone else was never going to lead to success. This has become my mantra as a professional and as a pastor.
What was your very first job and what did you learn from it, Zachary?
I started a recycling business when I was 9 years old in Washington. We lived out in the country where they did not have curbside recycling services, so I became the curbside recycling service for my neighborhood. Every Saturday, my dad would drive me around in an old pickup truck (that I later inherited as my first car!) and I would pickup cans, bottles and newspaper. I would store them all in our garage until we would take it to the recyclers! I learned a lot of important life lessons through that job, but I think the greatest lesson was that hard work really does pay off.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Zachary?
In my spare time I am usually preparing for a Bible study class or sermon, spending quality time with my wife and daughter and rooting for the Boston Red Sox!