A Head Start for the Cendejas Family

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I recently had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Rosa Cendejas, one of our top team members at the ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center in Florida.  Keep reading to learn more about her professional growth since joining East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in 1997.

Could you tell me more about your background?

I migrated from Mexico to the United States in February of 1986 and worked picking oranges in Fort Pierce, Florida for six years.  In 1997, I first heard of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project through a friend that was working at the Fort Pierce Center.  I started work with ECMHSP in February of that same year as a Substitute Teacher.  I learned that I would have to go back to school to meet the requirements of the position.  Shortly after, I started classes to get my GED.  This was a difficult experience since I didn’t know how to speak English.  One of the happiest days of my life took place in August of 2012.  I received my Associate’s in Science in Early Childhood Education.  It was a challenge both professionally and personally.  My busy schedule only allowed me to take one to two classes per semester, but thanks to the support of my family, I made it.  Being a professional, mother, full-time wife, and a student wasn’t easy, but the satisfaction was even greater once I achieved my goals.  I’m currently the Family Services Coordinator at the ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center.

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Rosa’s graduation from Indian River State College makes the front page of her local newspaper!

What benefits have you received from ECMHSP?

What I appreciate the most is that they motivated me to continue getting an education.  ECMHSP is full of opportunities; it depends on us whether we want to take advantage of them or not.  Over the years, I had the opportunity to complete the Child Care Health Advocate Certificate in 2011 and the Family Services Credential in 2016.  ECMHSP has also had a positive impact on my family.

I heard that two of your three children attended the ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center.

Yes, my sons Armando and Alejandro both attended the ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center as young children.  In 2017, Armando was one of four former Head Start students selected to participate in an internship by the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association in Washington, D.C.  He was placed with the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators for almost two months.  He even wrote a guest blog post about his experience.   Armando, 22, is currently attending Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida.  I’m proud to say that he’s been working with me at the ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center as a Center Bus Caregiver since last year.  I know that Armando has a bright future ahead.

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Armando Cendejas, a part of the NMSHSA Internship Class of 2017, shares his story at the closing celebration in Washington, D.C.

What is the most exciting part of opening the center for the season?

I like to see the closeness of our team while preparing to open the center. They are not work colleagues but are part of your family.  I like the feeling of serving our farmworker families.  Many families don’t know how to read or write, so I become their voice.

At your center, what kind of agricultural work do the farmworker families do?

Our families work primarily with oranges and grapefruits.  However, we also serve families that work at nurseries.

How do you maintain strong relationships with parents?

A lot of the new families feel uneasy at first.  I’m good at reading and understanding body language, so I try to make them feel at home from the first moment.

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Rosa enjoys serving our farmworker families in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Have you recently worked at any other centers?

During July and August of this year, I was asked to work at the ECMHSP Jennings Center as a Family Services Worker.  This center is more than four hours away from my home in Fort Pierce, so I came back to visit my family every two weeks.  My husband is very supportive of my career.

Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you, Rosa.  Is there anything that you would like to add?

In the end, the sacrifices and everything I’ve done throughout my life has been worth it.  Seeing the happiness of my family, parents, and the Fort Pierce community is priceless.

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Rosa Cendejas poses for a picture with some of the families she serves.

At ECMHSP, we look forward to sharing more success stories like Rosa’s.  Make sure to check back next week for new blog posts.

Going the Extra Mile in Florida West

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Marimar Ramirez is the eldest of three children in a farmworker family.  Her parents have been working in the fields for more than 20 years, and Marimar began to follow in their footsteps until one day, while working in the fields, a coworker told her about East Migrant Head Start Project.  This conversation changed the direction of her life.  Keep reading to learn more about Marimar’s story from my phone interview with her.

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Marimar and her daughter Natalia (7).

Tell me a little bit about your story at this center?

In 2016, I was out working in the fields.  I remember I was packing fruit when a coworker asked if I was interested in furthering my education.  At the time, my daughter was five years old.  I wanted to give her a better future, so I listened carefully.  My coworker told me about career openings at the ECMHSP Jennings Center (in Florida).  Shortly after, I personally went to get more information.  I learned that I would need to get accredited in order to teach in Florida.  May of 2016 was my first season as the Assistant Teacher at the ECMHSP Jennings Center.  After one season, I obtained a position as a Family Services Worker.  I successfully completed the Family Services Credential [through ECMHSP] in April of 2018 and became the Family Services Coordinator for the ECMHSP Jennings Center.

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Marimar Ramirez, Family Services Coordinator and Migneris Ruiz, Health Disability Services Coordinator.

What do you enjoy most about each season?

The most exciting part is being able to build a bond with our families as well as sharing knowledge with them, so they can become leaders and advocate for their children.

Can you share a challenge that you’ve had to overcome while working at ECMHSP?

A challenge that I overcame was learning to travel without having self-condemnation.  I leave my seven-year-old daughter in care of my mother when I transfer to another ECMHSP center to provide services.  There have been months at a time when I’ve only been able to see my daughter during the weekends.  I’ve learned to be proud of myself when I’m far away from home, as I am providing for my family and supporting families in need.  I keep in mind that I work with families that face bigger challenges, such as traveling most of the year to make ends meet.

What other centers have you worked at?

I’ve worked at the ECMHSP Palm View Early Head Start Center and at the ECMHSP Palmetto Center.

What are the resources that you use to provide a high-quality education to the children at your center?

The resources that we use to provide a high-quality education to our children is by using the creative curriculum provided by ECMHSP, as well as having dual-language teachers in each classroom.  Also, the three assessments per season to follow the developmental milestones of each child enrolled in our center.  And most importantly, incorporating and encouraging parents to support their child’s growth.

How long do the different seasons last?

Our [Jennings Head Start] center typically operates from May to October.  However, the seasons vary depending on the weather.  The ECMHSP Jennings Center operates during the tornado/hurricane season.

What kind of agricultural work do the farmworker families perform at your center?

Our families during their stay here in the Jennings area work mainly in the tomato fields.  Once they travel up north or further down south, they will work with bell peppers, squash, and watermelon. Some of our parents also work at nurseries.

What are some of your center’s community partnerships?

The center’s community partnerships include: Hamilton County School District, North Central Early Steps, Sysco Jacksonville, Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, North Florida Pediatrics, and the Department of Community Dentistry.

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Our preschoolers engaging in the art therapy program.

Are there any new partnerships you’re excited about?

I’m excited about a pilot program that was offered this past season by Florida State University (FSU).  Throughout the season, Theresa Van Lith, Assistant Professor of Art Therapy at FSU, came to our center’s preschool class for more than 10 sessions.  The initiative used art therapy for our 18 preschoolers to express their feelings through art of their own.  The children enjoyed every session. We hope to continue this program during our next season.

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Emily proudly shows the certificate she received from Florida State University.

How do you maintain strong relationships with parents?

I maintain a strong relationship with parents by providing a welcoming environment and being understanding to their needs.  I’m humble and share my farmworker story with them.  I make sure they know they have a voice at our center.

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The children enjoying circle time on the last day of the season!

Now that the season has ended at the ECMHSP Jennings Center, Marimar is waiting to see if her help will be needed at any of the other ECMHSP Florida Direct Services West locations.  She’s always willing to go the extra mile for all the farmworker families that are served at our centers.  Marimar, we know you have a bright future ahead.  Thank you for choosing to be a part of our family!

Idalia’s Journey: From Harvest to Head Start

Idalia harvesting cucumbers in Ohio

When Idalia has flashbacks of her childhood, many of those memories take place in the fields.  Some seasons she lived in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas.  She is currently the Health Disabilities Services Coordinator at the ECMHSP Palmetto Center in Florida.  I recently had the opportunity to learn more about her and the work she does for East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

My parents are both from Mexico and have been farmworkers for more than 30 years.  I was born in Washington State.  Starting at the age of eight, I helped my parents with the harvest of cucumbers and tomatoes.  While helping my parents, I saw many friends of mine working with their parents as well.  My family spent six months out of the year in Texas, then migrated to Ohio or Michigan between April and September.  I got married at the age of 17 and continued to migrate for work with my husband.

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Left to right: Idalia’s husband, Jorge Castillo, Elisa Castilla (12), Jorge Luis Castillo (19), and Idalia Castillo.

When did you realize that you no longer wanted to migrate for work?

When my son turned eight in 2007.  Having been part of a migrant farmworker family, I knew how hard it was to change schools every few months.  I wanted my son Jorge to have one school and one home.  I wanted him to have the stability that I didn’t have as a child, so I decided to stay in Florida to do seasonal work.

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Jorge’s high school graduation.

How did you start your career with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project?

In 2010, I was living in Florida during the cucumber season.  I heard a new Head Start center in Myakka would open soon, so I went to ask about job openings.  My brother had attended a migrant Head Start center in Texas from birth until the age of five, so I was already familiar with Head Start’s mission. Shortly after, I got hired at the ECMHSP Myakka Center as an Assistant Cook.  I kept this position for two seasons, then became the center’s Health Disabilities Worker for about six years.  This is my first season as the Health Disabilities Services Coordinator at the ECMHSP Palmetto Center.

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Field Day for the ECMHSP Palmetto Center during the 2017/2018 season.

What is the most exciting part of opening the center?

Being able to serve the children.  I know how hard their parents work from sun up to sun down.  They face many difficulties to find a safe place for them while they’re working.  The children here are well-fed and are given an early childhood education.

What countries are primarily represented by your center’s farmworker families?

Most of our families are from Mexico and Guatemala.  They speak Spanish and English, while many of them are bilingual.

What kind of agricultural work do the farmworker families at your center do?

We have families that pick tomatoes, harvest jalapeño and banana peppers.  Parents also work in a variety of nurseries.  In addition, the strawberry season starts next month.  Our ECMHSP Palmetto center is open year-round to serve more families.

What are the resources that you use to provide high-quality health services to the children at your center?

Our center’s Health Coordinator helps us keep the children up to date with immunizations and physicals.  If there is a special health need, she makes sure that the medication is available.  We partner with organizations to offer medical, mental, and dental services.  In addition, we have several types of assessments to evaluate children and diagnose disabilities.  If therapy is needed, parents have the option of receiving it at their homes or in our centers.

What do you hope to accomplish at your center this season?

We currently have 46 kids enrolled.  I want to serve as many children and families as possible and provide the best services we can give them.

How do you maintain strong relationships with parents?

I come from a family of migrant farmworkers.  My family used Head Start services, so our farmworker families identify with me.  Being able to speak Spanish helps build trust and encourages communication.  I tell parents that this program will prepare their kids to be successful in school.

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Idalia Castillo and Dr. Villa, ECMHSP CEO.

We want to congratulate Idalia Castillo for her professional growth during the past eight years.  ECMHSP is proud to have such passionate individuals that go above and beyond every day at our centers.  Idalia’s parents still work in the fields today, which is why it’s so important for her to advocate for our farmworker families.

Maria’s Commitment to Forming Parent Leaders

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Maria Rodriguez is from Reynosa, a border city in the northern part of Tamaulipas, Mexico.  She loves the work that she does as the Governance Assistant at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in the Florida Direct Services – West Region Administrative Offices in Bartow, FL – and it shows!

But Maria hasn’t had an easy life.  Prior to working for ECMHSP, she was a migrant farmworker for nine years.  Between March and September, she harvested tomatoes, watermelon, pumpkins, and asparagus in Maryland.  The rest of the year, she lived in Texas, where she worked in the melon and onion fields.  A typical day in the fields would start at 6 a.m. and end at 7 p.m., leaving very little time for family.

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Left to right: Rebecca (20), Laura (25), Angela (19), and Maria’s grandson.

As a single mother, one of Maria’s main concerns was having a safe childcare provider for her family.  She’s proud her three daughters received Head Start services.  She first heard of the Head Start program in 1996 when the Family Services Worker from the Sudlersville Head Start Center, a former ECMHSP Delegate Agency in Maryland, knocked on her door.  All the benefits that could be provided for her three-year-old daughter, Laura, were explained.  Maria received the news as a blessing.  Her baby would not only receive excellent care while she was at work, but health and family services would be provided as well.  Shortly after, Maria offered to volunteer at the center.  Center staff noticed how great she was at soothing the infants and hired her as a part-time assistant caregiver, a position that she held for three seasons.  This experience made Maria realize that she didn’t want to grow old working in the fields.

Shortly after, Maria’s second daughter was born and she once again enrolled her daughter in the Head Start program.  At the age of seven months, the Head Start center staff contacted her to explain that they suspected a learning disability.  Rebecca couldn’t sit on her own or grasp things.  After tests confirmed the disability, staff quickly coordinated for Rebecca to receive therapy.

As a Head Start parent, Maria continued to be fully involved as a volunteer at the center and later as an elected parent leader for the center, her region and the ECMHSP Policy Council.  As president of the Policy Council in 2004, she ensured the parents’ voices were an active part of the organization’s decision-making process and learned the important role parents play in the success of their children’s future.  Maria holds ECMHSP responsible for her family’s success.  “If I hadn’t left the fields, my daughters would’ve probably continued to do the same line of work. East Coast [Migrant Head Start Project] made me realize that education is the most powerful tool that you can leave your kids,” says Maria.

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Laura’s college graduation.

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Angela’s 2017 high school graduation picture.

Today, Laura, 25, has a college degree in human resources, while Angela, 19, is finishing her first year of community college.  “At East Coast, they teach you the importance of an education, starting with the parents, whom are a child’s first teacher. Obtaining my GED in 2012 was one of the happiest days of my life. I had never thought about going back to school [before working at ECMHSP],” says Maria.

In February, it will be Maria’s eighth anniversary with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.  Along with her colleague in the Governance Department, Maria Hernandez, she recently coordinated ECMHSP’s Fall Policy Council Orientation and Meeting in Philadelphia, PA.  When we asked Maria why she believes in ECMHSP’s mission, she said, “I enjoy encouraging parents to take a more active role in their kids’ education.  Each year, we see parents who don’t think they can hold these important positions on our Policy Council, but then become amazing leaders and advocate for migrant farmworker families everywhere.”

Twenty Years of Partnership: Ramona Deloera and East Coast

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Ramona Deloera never had an easy life.  She is one of ten children and from the age of eight, her parents brought her to the fields where she helped with the work however she could. As she grew older, balancing her school work with farm work became more and more difficult.  Ramona failed the ninth grade because her parents pulled her from school for weeks at a time to help the family in the fields.  By the time she reached senior year of high school, she knew she wouldn’t be able to continue migrant farm work if she wanted to graduate.  When it was time for her family to migrate upstream, she stayed in Florida and worked three part-time jobs to keep contributing to her family.  Although there were many obstacles, she graduated with the help of wonderful mentors at her high school.

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Ramona is very involved in her children’s education. She regularly visits our Migrant Head Start Center in Wauchula, Florida.

Ramona became a mother twenty years ago, in 1998, when her daughter, Esmeralda, was born.  At the time, Ramona was a farmworker and it was impossible to find a reliable and affordable care for Esmeralda. Ramona’s life changed for the better when she learned of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s Migrant Head Start Center in Chandler Mountain, Alabama. There, Esmeralda would receive wonderful care from Head Start teachers and would get a head start in life by becoming a dual language learner.

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Ramona attends an event at our Migrant Head Start Center in Wauchula, Florida. She had the chance to dress up as one of Mexico’s beloved TV personalities, la Chilindrina.

A life of farm work can take a tremendous toll on the body. In 2006, Ramona was picking oranges in Florida when she started experiencing intense pain from transporting sixty pounds of oranges down a 20-foot-tall ladder.  Weeks later, Ramona would have her hernia surgically repaired and would no longer be able to perform this type of farm work.  She’s still working hard in the fields.  However, she’s now responsible for the irrigation and weeding of orange trees in Florida, which doesn’t put her at danger of getting another hernia.

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Ramona was present at the National Migrant & Seasonal Head Start Association’s 2018 Public Policy Forum.

Ramona is the mother to seven girls ranging in age from one year to twenty years. Two of her girls will be enrolled in our Migrant Head Start Center in Wauchula, Florida this upcoming season.  Ramona proudly serves on our Policy Council as Vice President and on the Board of Directors of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association.  When we asked about her 20-year experience as an ECMHSP parent, she said, “To me, East Coast doesn’t feel like someone who is providing services to my family. Instead, I consider them a friend who is constantly giving me a hand. I’ve been blessed to be part of this organization.”  We consider ourselves the lucky ones to have such a great leader among our parents.  Thanks for your trust these past two decades, Ramona!

Happy Trails to you, Floria!

Floria and ECMHSP child

At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, we greatly appreciate those individuals who dedicate their professional careers to serve our farmworker families.  Floria Pacheco became part of the ECMHSP family in 1986.  After 31 years of dedicated service to farmworker families, she has retired.  We are grateful for all the years that she’s been a leader with us.

We recently were able to chat with Floria about her time with ECMHSP.

How did you begin your career at ECMHSP?

In November 1986, I saw a job advertisement to work at the Shannon Head Start Center in Belle Glade, Florida. I started as a part-time office assistant and part-time caregiver. Two months later, I was encouraged to apply for the Assistant Director position and got it. I was the Assistant Director for 15 years. I later became the Director for the ECMHSP Ft. Pierce Center for a year, then spent another 15 years at the ECMHSP Indiantown Center as the Director.

What is your fondest memory at ECMHSP?

Working with the families and the children. Seeing the growth of the children as time passes by.

Throughout all these years, how did you maintain strong relationships with ECMHSP staff?

I have a very friendly personality, so that helped me build strong relationships with my colleagues. I’m also an open communicator.

What will you miss the most about working for ECMHSP?

Helping the children and the families. Serving East Coast’s mission.

What was the most difficult part about your decision to retire?

Leaving the children and the ECMHSP staff.

What advice would you give to a new employee at ECMHSP?

Work very hard and multi-task. Be sensitive to the different cultures of our farmworker families.

What do you look forward to now that you’re retiring?

I was born in Costa Rica, so I will travel there for a month to visit my family, then I will go to Texas to visit two of my kids. I look forward to spending more time with my seven grandkids.

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Happy Trails to you, Donitta!

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At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, we greatly appreciate those individuals who dedicate their professional careers to serve our farmworker families.  Donitta Turner became part of the ECMHSP family in May of 2000.  Among her responsibilities, she provided training to bus drivers and bus monitors throughout the East Coast, which meant that she spent several months out of the year traveling.  We are very grateful for all the years that she worked tirelessly to make sure that our children arrived safely to our Head Start Centers.

We recently were able to chat with Donitta about her time with ECMHSP.

How did you begin your career at ECMHSP?

I began at ECMHSP in May 2000 as a bus driver, then Lead Bus Driver, then Transportation Specialist and finally as Assistant Transportation Manager.

What is your fondest memory at ECMHSP?

Riding the bus with happy children singing all the way home.

Throughout all these years, how did you maintain strong relationships with ECMHSP staff?

By treating everyone with respect and dignity.

What will you miss the most about working for ECMHSP?

All the families and children.  All the people I have worked so closely with and all the traveling from state to state, center to center.

What advice would you give to a new employee at ECMHSP?

Be your best while doing your best.

What do you look forward to now that you’re retiring and what does your family think of your decision to retire?

I look forward to going fishing.  Spending time with my children and grandchildren who are just as excited as I am about having time to be with them.