Solas 2023 Honorees: Anne O’Callaghan

Anne O’Callaghan was born in 1942 and raised six miles south of the border between Northern Ireland and the People’s Republic of Ireland. That geography fostered an innate empathy for strife and displacement, in addition to techniques for sneaking discounted butter past the guards — wear a belt and tuck it under your shirt.

“When that border was being created, it was done with a pen and paper by men sitting in an office in London, who had not even seen the border,” she explains. “They drew the line and it cut through people’s farms and backyards, causing all kinds of problems. And I was very much aware of that. I was very much aware of the impact of dispossession.”

Half a century later, O’Callaghan would found The Welcoming Center, a Philadelphia organization dedicated to smoothing the way for immigrants crossing borders and building lives in a new place. It’s a journey she took herself, moving alone from small-town Ireland to London, and eventually to Philadelphia. 

That circuitous path started with education. 

“At that time in Ireland, girls didn’t really go to high school,” says O’Callaghan. “Ireland was still a very young country — we had just gotten our full freedom in the 1930s. It was a poor country as well. My parents were very, very dedicated to educating their children, and especially their girls.” 

She was sent to a boarding school run by French nuns and then on to Trinity College in Dublin. But after one semester, her father died. O’Callaghan headed back to her hometown of Ballybay to help her mother. After a few years, she longed for more.

“It was very clear to me that I wanted to get out of Ballybay,” she says. “There was no future for me there.”

She moved to London, worked retail, and then earned a degree in physical therapy. That vocation led her to Philadelphia, where she enrolled in a year-long course at the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential in Chestnut Hill. 

Arriving in 1970 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, O’Callaghan felt disoriented. It was loud and crowded. Her suitcase popped open on the baggage carousel, spilling her clothes. On the way to her lodgings, her cab driver ripped her off. It was not the warmest welcome to the United States. 

O’Callaghan traveled to Philadelphia. Her mother had given her the phone number of a cousin in Mt. Airy and a bottle of whiskey as a gift. That cousin took her out to dinner — and the man who would become her husband of 50 years walked into the restaurant. After O’Callaghan’s year-long course ended, she went back across the Atlantic, but he soon came to fetch her, proposing marriage and a life together in Philadelphia. She built a career, had three children, and started volunteering in her free time. 

O’Callaghan worked as a fundraiser for the Irish Immigration Center in Upper Darby, which had been founded in response to a recent kerfuffle. A group of Irish students had overstayed their visas and were picked up by INS; no one could find them. It rocked the community and The Immigration Center was established as a place for Irish people to find guidance on employment and immigration issues. At that time, the organization estimated that Upper Darby and West Philadelphia had about 25,000 Irish nationals, many of them undocumented.

O’Callaghan felt they should expand their services beyond the Irish. The head of the organization disagreed. 

“The Irish had a lot of things going for them,” she explains. “They had pretty strong communities. They spoke English. And they often had relatives who had come at another time and could be helpful to them.”

O’Callaghan recalls a woman from China with limited English language skills who was desperate for help acquiring a green card and language classes for her son. Even with all her knowledge and resources, it took O’Callaghan almost three weeks to find a place where they could go.

“I discovered just how difficult it is,” she recalls. “And that’s if you speak English and know your way around. So that really pushed me to do something that would be in a central place where people could get access to the information that they needed.”

There was just one problem: O’Callaghan still had a full-time job as a physical therapist. This was supposed to be something she was doing on the side. But after receiving encouragement from potential funders, she decided to take the leap.

“I thought, you know, the door is open in front of you,” she recalls. “I’m in my late 50s. My kids are out of college. There’s a lot of people who really need this help and I think we can do it.”

The Welcoming Center was born. As a first step, O’Callaghan and a summer intern put together a list of all the service providers in the city. They made phone calls and drove around Philadelphia, knocking on church doors. The resulting directory included what languages were spoken at each organization, where they were located, and what services they provided.

“I felt very strongly that I did not want to duplicate services,” she explains. “We would be filling the gaps. I wasn’t interested in doing social services because there were an awful lot of social service organizations around. I was interested in economic development — I was interested in people being able to get jobs and to start small businesses.”

Now she needed space. Through her networks, O’Callaghan connected with Pat Eiding, head of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO — and a fellow 2023 Solas honoree. He was able to provide a raw space with a bathroom and a phone line on 22nd Street in Center City. The Welcoming Center set up shop there on March 3, 2003.

“He was very surprised at how quickly we filled that space,” she recalls. “And then we needed more in a matter of months. It really took off. I was amazed.”

O’Callaghan became a vocal advocate, speaking to whoever she could about the positive economic impact of immigrants. Her children lived in Chicago and Boston respectively, and during visits, she was impressed by the vibrancy of the commercial corridors in those cities, and noticed the high percentage of immigrant entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, Philadelphia in the early aughts was losing population. To her, the solution was clear: There needed to be more foreign-born Philadelphians, and they needed support to integrate and thrive in the United States.

“You meet with immigrants,” she explains. “You sit with them and ask them, ‘What is your education level? What have you done in your country of origin? Why are you coming here?’ It’s extraordinary how well-educated, highly skilled, and courageous so many are.”

Thanks to O’Callaghan’s passion, The Welcoming Center has spent 20 years providing services in workforce development, entrepreneurship, community engagement, and ESL. The organization has helped over 20,000 people from over 150 countries.

“I think The Welcoming Center has gotten quite a bit of traction,” she adds. “It is an organization that has been copied across the country. Our message is that immigrants are assets. I would like to see immigrants framed in the media, on television, in newspapers and in school as the assets that they are to the communities that they come into. Their integration should be welcomed and helped.”

Celebrate Anne O’Callaghan and the other honorees at Solas 2023 on Monday, April 24th at World Cafe Live. The Welcoming Center is celebrating 20 years of supporting new Philadelphians, and these people helped make it possible. Grab your tickets today

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