Empowering Children Through Education

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Nadia Kaze obtained a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education at the University of Mount Olive, in 2013. She’s been working in early childhood education since 2009 and is currently ECMHSP’s Quality Assurance Program Monitor. Please read this special phone interview with her in honor of Black History Month.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Burundi, a very small country in East Africa. My native language is Kirundi, and French is the country’s official language. Due to the political unrest and violence in Burundi, I had to move to Ivory Coast. There was a civil war two years later, forcing us to move to Ghana. This was a challenging experience because Ghana’s official language is English, a language I was not fluent in. The school principal wanted to hold me back a couple of grades due to the language barrier. I insisted on working hard to excel in my ESL classes. I not only learned English quickly, but also graduated high school in 2004 with honors.

What encouraged you to join East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and how do you contribute to the organization?

Thinking of our diverse families and what they go through. Despite the many challenges they run into, they are so resilient. I wanted to support them because I see the potential in them and believe in the mission at ECMHSP with all my heart. I had eight years of Head Start experience when I joined ECMHSP in 2016 as a Quality Assurance Program Monitor. I had just finished my Master’s degree in Education with a focus on Early Childhood Intervention and Family Support from the University of North Carolina. My Head Start experience started in 2009, when I worked for Telamon as a Preschool Assistant Teacher. A year later, extra funding became available for a home-based program to support mainly stay at home parents, so I began working as a Home Visitor. Having a close connection to our parents made this an opportunity I could not turn down. Since I had previously volunteered as an interpreter with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) Raleigh, I was able to help secure a partnership to enroll those families. They came from Burundi, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Congo, Iran, and Iraq.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

As you know I was not born here in the USA, hence, the first time I heard February was Black History Month, I didn’t quite know what it encompassed. I researched about it and reached out to some of my African American close friends to learn more from them. This is a great time to celebrate and remember important people and events in the history of the African Diaspora. This month is important as I always learn something new every year about it. I recently learned that more countries around the world celebrate Black History Month including Ireland, the Netherlands, and the UK, which is observed in October.

Is there a black woman from history who has inspired you?

The American activist Rosa Parks. She invigorated the struggle for racial equality. She was a trailblazer, a courageous woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. I think it was deserving that the United States Congress called her the “First Lady of Civil Rights” and “Mother of the Freedom Movement”. This inspires me to stand for what is right and serve others no matter what others might say or think.

What piece of advice would you give to young people today?

Sometimes, we are drawn to focus on our challenges and barriers in front of us, but I encourage you to look ahead, see all the possibilities. Continue working hard, I promise, you will not be disappointed. No matter where you come from you or the color of your skin or your disabilities, YOU can persevere. I leave you with my favorite quote by Nelson Mandela:

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

Alcanzar el sueño americano a través de la educación

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Por motivo del Mes de la Herencia Hispana, conversamos con Carlos Klinger, Miembro de la Mesa Directiva de East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Carlos Klinger nació en Arica, Chile. Como muchos, llegó a Estados Unidos con la meta de cumplir el sueño americano. Después de muchos años de sacrificio, formó una empresa de contabilidad que en la actualidad es muy exitosa. El acceso a la educación siempre fue una gran preocupación para Carlos, especialmente en los primeros años y en la primaria que son tan fundamentales para los niños a medida que van creando los hábitos que los llevarán al éxito en el aprendizaje. Esta preocupación lo motivó a unirse a nuestra Mesa Directiva en 2018. Para Carlos, alcanzar el sueño americano significa también ayudar a los demás a obtenerlo. Al preguntarle qué significa el Mes de la Herencia Hispana, él nos relata:

“El significado de la herencia hispana, sin temor a equivocarme, tiene muchas aristas, ya que no todos los latinoamericanos pensamos de la misma manera. Para mí es en primer lugar dejar bien alto el nombre del país y por esa razón trato de hacer las cosas de la mejor forma posible. En segundo lugar, quiero dejarles como legado a mis nietas, que los hispanos nos caracterizamos por el esfuerzo, el empuja, la tenacidad, el deseo innato de salir adelante a pesar de todos las “piedras y obstáculos” que nos pongan en el camino. Nuestra “rebeldía”, que nos caracteriza, como latinoamericanos nos empuja siempre a seguir haciendo camino, porque no hay camino y se hace camino al andar; es una fuerza interior indomable, que a pesar de la discriminación, el racismo, la falta de oportunidades, las zancadillas de nuestra propia “raza”, nos podrán ver en el suelo y eso no significa de ninguna manera que estamos vencidos, porque seguiremos luchando hasta el último aliento de nuestra existencia”, dijo Carlos Klinger.

Advancing the Lives of Farmworkers in South Carolina

Michael Edmonds is a 2005 College of Charleston graduate. Upon receiving his undergraduate degree, he joined the United States Peace Corps. Michael started his career with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project during the 2012-2013 season. Please read about our recent phone interview with him.

Michael, can you share information about your background?

I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. Following college, I served in Guatemala as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer. I worked in Appropriate Technologies for Improved Family Health in the border town of Tacaná, San Marcos for three years. While living there, I worked alongside the local Mayan Mam community, where we completed different types of projects including potable water systems, cisterns, wood burning stoves, well pumps, and dry latrines. I returned to the College of Charleston, where I obtained a Master’s degree in Spanish Interpreting and Translation. Following graduate school, I worked for the Charleston County Department of Migrant Education, where I first began to work with the migrant farmworker community. I speak annually at the South Carolina Farmworkers Institute, an interdisciplinary conference for professionals who serve farmworkers in South Carolina. 

How did you start your career with ECMHSP start?

I started working with the Charleston County Migrant Education Program in 2011 and volunteering occasionally at the Camp Care Center. My first year with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project was the 2012-2013 season. I was hired as the Family Services Coordinator at the Colleton Center. I served there for two years before becoming the Family Community Partnership Specialist in the Charleston Office. I support a team of family services coordinators through training, technical assistance, and professional development. By establishing regional partnerships, we link farmworkers across the state to essential services that support holistic family well-being.

Is there anything unique you would like to share about South Carolina Direct Services?

In May of this year, we celebrated our 40th year serving migrant farmworker families.  SCDS began as a delegate agency run by the Rural Mission, Inc. Program on Johns Island in 1980. We are so proud of our long history of service to the migrant and seasonal farmworker community. We are also one of the few Direct Services Programs with a formal memorandum of understanding with the State Department of Education Migrant Education Program.

What are your region’s main community partnerships?

SCDS continued our long-term partnership with the South Carolina Department of Education Migrant Education Program during the 2020 season. Prior to the 2020 season, regional office staff took part in weekly roundtable meetings for almost two months, which discussed how services would be rendered in the middle of a pandemic, as well as ways in which collaboration between our different agencies could improve service delivery. Family Services staff worked in close collaboration with local Migrant Education Staff during the identification and recruitment process. We assisted Migrant Ed in the completion of their Certificates of Eligibility (COEs) and kept in constant communication with Migrant Education. This communication allows us to collaboratively support families, with the Migrant Education Program focusing on the needs of older children while we focus on the needs of their younger siblings through shared home and school visits. Our Health/Disability Services Specialist also sits on the Board of the Fetter Health Care Network. She is afforded the opportunity to advocate for our families as a member of this board, which serves our migrant and seasonal families in Colleton County.

As the season in your region comes to an end, what message would you like to leave the families you serve?

This has been a very challenging season for both our families and staff. They had to implement new procedures to try to keep themselves and our families safe. I am so proud to have them as coworkers. Our families put an enormous amount of faith in ECMHSP and our updated procedures. I’m proud that these families trusted us to keep them and children safe during uncertain times.

We know you have been invited to participate in a national webinar to share about a recent pilot program with ECMHSP. What can you tell us about this exciting opportunity?

Giselle Santiago, Family Community Partnership Specialist for the Florida West region, and I piloted this program at a center in Florida and South Carolina. I was excited for this opportunity, but more than anything, it was a treat to talk to and interact with Head Start programs from around the country. It was fascinating to talk to other programs around the country about how their trainings went, and about their approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also very important for me, and Giselle as well, to be able to advocate for our families. In many ways, our migrant farmworker families have less formal education and much less history with the American health care system than the average Regional Head Start family. Please join us for the webinar on Tuesday, October 20. Click here to register: https://bit.ly/3nYhgWt

Guest Post: ECMHSP’s Journey to Implementing the Planned Language Approach (PLA)

Written by Consuellis Hawkins-Crudup, ECMHSP School Readiness Manager.

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ECMHSP’s presentation at the 2020 NMSHSA National Conference, which took place March 6-11, in San Diego, California.

On October 18, 2019, I was invited to present the ECMHSP Journey to Implementing the Planned Language Approach (PLA) model at the OHS School Readiness Institute in Washington, DC, because we were the only grantee in the country consistently using the model.  PLA provides Head Start programs research-based strategies to use with children who speak English and dual language learners.  After the presentation, Jennifer Amaya-Thompson from the Administration for Children and Families, approached me and shared excitement for the work being done at ECMHSP to support the language and literacy development for all children and families.  Jennifer told me to stay tuned because she would like to highlight ECMHSP at a national level regarding the great work being done for migrant and seasonal families.

On March 9, 2020, Sheila and I presented the ECMHSP Journey to Implementing PLA Model at the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association National Conference in San Diego, California.  Jennifer Amaya-Thompson requested Deborah Mazzeo from the National Center on Early Childhood Development Teaching and Learning (NCECDTL) participate in our session.  At the end of the session, Deborah connected with us and expressed her interest with the PLA presentation.  After talking with us, Deborah asked us if we would be willing to share the ECMHSP PLA approach with other programs during a national webinar.  Without hesitation, our response was “Absolutely!”

In preparation for the webinar, we had planning calls in May and June with co-presenters Deborah Mazzeo, Karen Nemeth (well-known author and presenter of dual language learning resources), and Jan Greenberg, Senior Education Specialist at NCECDTL and former ECMHSP employee.  As we started learning how to present on a national webinar, they made us feel comfortable throughout the entire process.  Each presenter acknowledged ECMHSP’s commitment to helping staff and families know how critically important a strong home language is to the school and life success of dual language learners.  Most importantly, each presenter emphasized how ECMHSP was able to integrate PLA into our system and service areas.

PLA Series Webinar

On July 16th, the day of the webinar, we were totally ecstatic and anxious.  We felt like news anchors getting ready to report a story with sound and background checks.  In reality, we were reporting ECMHSP’s story to implementing PLA!  It was an honor to represent ECMHSP at the national level and display all the amazing work staff is doing to implement language and literacy services for all children.  We are Head Start strong!

Guest Post: Community Outreach in Alabama

Written by Sandra Hernandez, ECMHSP Family Community Partnership Specialist for the Alabama Region.  She has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in International Business.  Sandra has eight years’ experience working for the migrant community at the Mexican Consulate and at a community health center.

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Left to right: Tami Culver, Deputy Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Sandra Hernandez, ECMHSP Family Community Partnership Specialist, and Jenny Guzman, ECMHSP Director of Programs Operations. 

On June 10th, Jenny Guzman, Director of Programs Operations, and I, met with Tami Culver, Deputy Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and the Commissioner, Rick Pate.  They were both very kind to us and extremely resourceful.  Mrs. Culver has agreed to collaborate with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project to connect us with other agencies that can lead us to explore new service areas.

The objective of our meeting was to reach new Alabama families working in agriculture, nurseries, especially those harvesting fish and seafood.  These families work from sun up to sun down and often face difficulties to find a safe place for their children while they’re working.  The Deputy Commissioner was very interested in the overview of our Head Start program, which demonstrated that we provide more than childcare services to children as young as six weeks until they’re ready for a successful transition to kindergarten.  Our presentation included information about the health, nutrition, and family support services we offer at no cost to those who qualify.

The same day we met, Tami Culver introduced us to the Director of the Farmers Market Authority (FMA), Mr. Don Wambles.  The FMA assists in the marketing of agricultural products by providing information, leadership, and modern facilities necessary to move agricultural products from the farm to the consumer.  He has plenty of connections that will aid our community outreach efforts.

Coloring books donation

At the conclusion of our meeting, we were surprised and grateful to receive a donation of 400 coloring books that will be distributed to our Alabama centers!  Our families will take them home for their children as part of the educational remote services.  Through these community partnerships, we look forward to enrolling additional families that work every day so we can have fresh veggies and fruits on our plates.

Our Families Return to the North Carolina Fields

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We recently talked to Patti Kingery, North Carolina Head Start Administrator, about the challenges and opportunities in anticipation of our center openings in three weeks.

How have the last few weeks been in preparation for the start of remote services in North Carolina?

 Over the past two weeks, the North Carolina team, together with support from colleagues in Alabama and Florida, were able to complete applications for more than 100 migrant and seasonal farmworker children.  We recently enrolled 78 children in six centers in North Carolina.  These include: Angier, Bladen, Faison, Hendersonville, Newton Grove, and Whiteville.  All six of those Centers prepared and distributed much needed food, diapers, wipes, health education materials, and educational activities to all enrolled children and their families.  We are still enrolling families every day.

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Irma Mendoza, ECMHSP Policy Council President.

We know a lot of people are stepping up to support our families. What is one of the takeaways from these first two weeks?

Irma Mendoza, Parent President of the Bladen Center and Policy Council President, made handmade masks and brought them to the Bladen Center to distribute to families when they picked up their materials.  She also created additional cloth masks to be shared with families at the Faison Center. We are really proud of her initiative to keep our parents safe in the fields!

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North Carolina Families receive goods, health education materials, and education packets for their children.

Why are community partnerships so important during times like these?

In Newton Grove, we had difficulty obtaining infant formula to provide to two families with young infants.  Staff contacted our partner at the local WIC program and explained the need.  WIC worked hard to provide formula to our two families.  In Hendersonville, our ECMHSP staff connected with local community partners at the WIC program and WIC provided each family with individual tomato plants, paper plates, napkins, paper towels, and nutrition activities for children.  Without these community partnerships, some of our families would have struggled.

What are the main needs of our families?

While some families have been able to access emergency food from places like schools, food banks, and churches, they have not been able to access diapers and wipes.  This is much needed among our North Carolina families.  In addition, we must continue sharing health education materials, so our families understand why social distancing and wearing face masks helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.  We are working on different ways to provide health education for parents, as the numbers of positive tests for COVID-19 is rising in some of the communities we serve.

How are teachers engaging with the families that have enrolled so far?

Because children and families have yet to meet their teachers officially this season, staff first introduced the assigned teachers via information in the education packets.  Teachers have started reaching out to families every week via phone and video.  The first educational YouTube videos have been shared with families.  Check out the following video from our ECMHSP Hendersonville Center.

We thank everyone involved in helping our North Carolina families while they work to put fresh fruit and vegetables on our tables.  If your organization can support our farmworker families in any of our service areas, please reach out to John Menditto, ECMHSP General Counsel and Director of Risk Management, at menditto@ecmhsp.org.  You can also make a tax-deductible donation through our Mightycause fundraising platform by clicking HERE.  These funds will go to our farmworker families who need help getting back on their feet.  We thank you in advance for your generosity.

ECMHSP’s YouTube Learning Channel: Bringing Our Teachers to the Home

For more than one month now, we have had to adjust to a new way of working.  This temporary “new normal” has brought many challenges.  But it also has provided us with wonderful opportunities to connect with our families in new and innovative ways.

One of our new innovations was inspired by our Chief Executive Officer, Maria Garza.  She envisioned an ECMHSP Learning Channel on YouTube.  Her vision was brought to life by Christine Alvarado, Consuellis Hawkins-Crudup and education teams throughout our project.  Our Technology Solutions team has gone above and beyond in making sure our YouTube channel is constantly updated.

The first two teachers to post videos to our YouTube channel were Leannys Mendoza at the Okeechobee II Center and Maria Guerra at the Myakka Center.  We recently had a chance to catch up with them regarding their experience teaching at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and adjusting to the new way of connecting with children and families.

Leannys, can you share information about your background?

I was born in Venezuela and have been living in the United States for three years.  My professional background is in business administration.  I also have a master’s degree in human resources.  Upon arriving in the United States, I did not speak any English, so I enrolled for ESOL classes for a year.  

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This is Leannys first season working at the ECMHSP Okeechobee II Center.

How did you learn about ECMHSP?

My friend was a former teacher at the Okeechobee II Center.  In September of last year, she told me about an opportunity to join East Coast Migrant Head Start Project as a Bus Monitor.  I decided to apply for the position and work my way up.  Within a month, I was asked to train to become an Assistant Teacher for the preschool classroom.  I was told I had been observed while helping in the classrooms and they liked how I interacted with the children.

How was this new experience been for you?

The first thing I thought was how will I do this?  I was asked to record the first video the same day.  My two kids have become my video production assistants at home.  Since these videos were for children, I felt freer to express myself and be more playful. My goal is to try and get the kids to connect with me through technology.  I have recorded more than 10 videos now.

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Leannys created a small recording studio at home.

What do you miss the most about being at the center?

I really miss the 20 children in my preschool classroom.  We become very close in the classroom.  As teachers, we look forward to seeing the progress they make every day.  Children always tell you how they feel.  During my weekly calls with parents, I had a parent who told me their child got so emotional that they started crying when they saw me in the first video.  The child asked to replay my video 10 times! This kind of reaction makes me work with more dedication.  Another parent shared that her child finished learning the ABC song at home. It was rewarding to find out this was made possible through the repetitive views of the video I recorded.

What message would you like to leave our parents?

I would like parents to understand that even though our centers are currently closed, the learning continues.  It’s crucial they continue to engage their children as they complete the educational activities we’re providing.  We are working very hard to create videos for our YouTube channel.  Each video is interactive and closely follows our creative curriculum.  As teachers, we continue to measure each child’s progress, even though they are unable to step into our traditional classrooms.

This is Maria Guerra’s first season teaching at the ECMHSP Myakka Center.  She shares what this experience has meant for her professional experience.

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Celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday at the ECMHSP Myakka Center!

What is your background?

Between my experience in Venezuela and the United States, I have been working in education for the past 20 years.  My experience ranges from early childhood education all the way to being a university professor.  I have a master’s degree in university education.  I can honestly tell you that out of all the grade levels I have taught, early childhood education is where I would like to stay.  Being a preschool teacher is a big satisfaction.  I have the opportunity of shaping the life of a young child.  I teach a child that he or she can create whatever they want to. 

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The children at Myakka receive a special visit from the Sheriff.

How did you start your career with ECMHSP?

In Bradenton, Florida, I ran into an old friend that I know from Guayana, Venezuela and she mentioned there were available positions at this organization.  Based on my professional background, she encouraged me to apply. I applied, went through the round of interviews and got accepted to work as a Preschool Teacher at the Myakka Head Start Center.

How was your experience shifting your lessons from the classroom to remote learning?

It’s been a great experience.  Our Early Childhood Education Coordinator called a meeting to inform us we would implement YouTube videos as part of the curriculum to help parents with distance learning.  I love doing the YouTube videos. I have received lots of positive feedback from our parents.  One parent told me her child greatly missed her teachers, so I encouraged her to show every video to her child.  At least once a week, I send out the links to remind parents that this resource is available.  A child excitedly said, “My teacher is on YouTube.”  Every time there’s a new video, I communicate with parents.  I know this allows the kids to feel closer to us.  Through these videos, we can reinforce learning. Out of the 14 children in my classroom, nine of them will be transitioning to kindergarten.  I know parents are working hard to get their educational activities completed.  I tell our parents it’s important for them to follow through, so the children have a smooth transition.

The National Emergency Brings Out the Best in Us!

PathStone - March

On March 17th, ECMHSP transitioned from in-center services to farmworker families in Florida to remote educational and nutritional support.  This transition has required a tremendous effort on behalf of the entire project.  One leader, among many, who has played a key role in navigating these uncharted waters is Christine Alvarado, our Chief Innovation Officer.  Please read our recent phone interview with her.

How did the senior management team at ECMHSP make the difficult decision to suspend our center-based services?

The decision to suspend operations for our children and families was incredibly difficult and was made by a team after much thought and consideration of the implications of a closure on children, families and staff.  We knew that closing was going to be a serious hardship for families, but we also know that our very first priority is the health and safety of all of our stakeholders, from children, to staff, to families, to the communities where we operate.  Even though our centers do an outstanding job cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, as demonstrated by our low rates of contagious illness, the health crisis caused by COVID – 19 is something never before seen, and we did not want to put any one at risk by remaining open.  It was decided to close our centers, and find ways to support children, families and staff remotely.  Our Policy Council and Board of Directors were informed during the decision-making process, and fully supported the decision.

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Here, Fort Pierce Center Cook, Maria Zamora, prepares a meal package.

What is ECMHSP doing to ensure timely and effective communication with parents and staff?

Immediately after the decision was made to close our centers in Florida, plans were developed to support families with their urgent needs and continue to deliver Head Start services remotely to the extent possible.  Nutritional support was prioritized, because we knew families are still working and would not be able to get to grocery stores while needed items are still in stock (milk, eggs, diapers, toilet paper) and they can’t get to food banks or food distribution sites during their operating hours.  Education services have been provided to minimize loss of developmental gains acquired during the year.  Health, disabilities, and emergency family services followed.

To maintain open communication with parents, education staff are contacting families weekly to discuss individual children’s progress and to assign activities based on children’s development.  Health and family services staff are also contacting families weekly and communicate biweekly during food package pick up or drop off.

Because most of our families do not speak English as their first language, there is a great emphasis on tailoring communication to meet their language and literacy unique needs.  This means reaching out to families by phone at times that are convenient to them, usually evenings.  We have been sending home simple, colorful, and accurate print information along with food packages.  It is important to reach out to families using a variety of mediums that are appropriate for them and to reinforce accurate and timely messaging.  Since most families have access to smart phones, information is regularly posted on our Facebook and ECMHSP website in appropriate languages, including Spanish and Haitian Creole.  Plans for getting audio information to our Mixteco-speaking families are also underway.  We also created a YouTube channel specifically for ECMHSP messages targeted to children and parents, including individual videos for each preschool classroom.

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One of the pictures sent to us from a Head Start parent in Florida. 

What are the biggest challenges for ECMHSP during this health emergency?

There have been challenges identifying accurate, language appropriate information to distribute to families and staff, particularly for Haitian Creole speakers.  There is now information available, but it is still limited.  Planning for food distribution while keeping staff and families safe has also been a challenge, especially since some commodities and disinfecting supplies are in short supply.  Ramping up technology and making sure staff that typically don’t have ECMHSP assigned devices have access to tools to communicate with families remotely have been challenging, but successful.  And of course, it has been challenging for children, families, and staff to be away from their routines.  Feedback from parents during the last few weeks have shown us why the teacher-child interaction and relationship is so important.

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ECMHSP staff in Semmes, Alabama preparing meal packages for our families. 

What measures are being taken to keep our employees safe?

Health and safety are our top priority!  Even before our Head Start centers closed, locations in high risk areas ramped up their cleaning from sanitizing levels to disinfecting levels, a higher level of cleaning.  All ECMHSP travel was also stopped.  Administrative office staff are all working from home and must notify a supervisor when they go into an office to minimize exposure.  Some Florida staff still need to be in centers during closures to prepare food and information distributions.  Staff are encouraged to work as much as possible from home, but when they need to come in, strict health protocols are in place including staggering staff, working in separate rooms when possible or six feet apart, wearing gloves and masks, sanitizing work areas and deliveries, and arranging for food pick ups and deliveries that minimize contact with others.  Supervisors are regularly checking in with staff to make sure everyone is doing well.

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Our parents are working hard to keep their children engaged in their educational activities.

How do you foresee this pandemic changing our operations for the long term?

While this crisis has been challenging, we are also learning many lessons that will improve the way we work and deliver services in the future.  Most importantly, we have been forced to rely on technology for remote communication and service delivery.  This has given us an opportunity to fully utilize the tools that we already had available to us, and to fully integrate technology into all our systems, especially for communication between staff and families and between staff.  We quickly realized what we needed and what was essential in terms of hardware and software, and realized where the gaps were, and are working on filling those gaps.  We also realized just how tech savvy many of our families are.  Technology has been important for staying in touch and supporting them.  This health crisis has allowed us to closely examine services and systems to identify what really matters to achieving our goals.  Thanks to effective technology, communication has improved within the agency as well.

How can the community help our migrant and seasonal farmworker families currently facing financial hardship?

While farmworkers are essential to the food supply chain in the United States, they ironically often face food shortages themselves.  As crop and commodity production fluctuates and decreases due to less demand from large buyers such as restaurants, many farmworkers are facing reduced hours or unemployment.  Some are working reduced hours due to social distancing requirements put into place by growers and producers.  Living and working conditions for families cause and increased risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.  Families often live in close quarters with other families out of economic necessity, and many employers don’t have enough PPEs for workers, many of whom are still being transported in crowded buses.

Lastly, there’s uncertainty about stay at home orders and crop production on the east coast, as a result, families don’t know if they will be able to travel for work upstream in the next few weeks.  To make matters worse, farmworker families in most all cases are ineligible for unemployment insurance and other financial support systems currently being provided by the United States.

We are grateful for the support we have received from the Manatee County Migrant Education and Manatee County School District, Justice for Migrant Women, Hispanics in Philanthropy, the Guadalupe Center, and Feeding the Gulf Coast of Alabama.  Farmworker families are living with a huge amount of uncertainty and need our community’s support more than ever.  If your organization can provide our farmworker families assistance in any of our service areas, please reach out to John Menditto, ECMHSP General Counsel and Director of Risk Management, at menditto@ecmhsp.org.  You can also make a tax-deductible donation through our Mightycause fundraising platform by clicking HERE.  These funds will go to our farmworker families who have been hit the hardest.  We thank you in advance for your generosity.

Changing the Lives of Farmworker Families with Cesar Chavez

Dr. Villa and Cesar Chavez

In 1968, Dr. José Villa was a freshman at the University of Oregon.  There, he helped start a student group called the Chicano Student Union that would forever change his life.

Why was this group needed?

We were looking at increasing the enrollment of Mexican-American students at the University of Oregon.  Out of almost 15,000 students, we maybe had 15 to 20 Mexican-American students.  We went through the University’s Student Association to request funding for an office.  Through those efforts, we brought several speakers such as Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, Reies Lopez Tijerina, and Jose Angel Gutierrez from La Raza Unida.  We also brought groups like El Chicano, a Chicano musical band and Cheech and Chong, who were popular comedians then.  The grape boycott was in full force at the time. Cesar Chavez was promoting the lettuce and grape boycott and did speaking tours in California, Washington and Oregon. We contacted him and were surprised how responsive he was. We arranged for him to travel to Eugene, Oregon to talk to the students at the University of Oregon.  Throughout this period of time, we talked about organizing and helping with the boycott.  We advocated to our university’s administration that it should stop buying lettuce and grapes.

How did you convince the University of Oregon to join the boycott?

Cesar Chavez talked directly to the University’s President.  In addition, many student organizations pressured the University.  After several meetings, the University decided to support us.  This was a victory not only for the United Farm Workers (UFW), but also for Chavez and the student groups at the university.  The boycott was a worldwide effort because the grapes and lettuce were being exported to other countries. Chavez wasn’t only organizing here.  He was also going abroad to work with the leaders in other countries and governments.  Through our contacts, we organized to boycott the largest grocery store in the western states every Saturday.  Also, one of his closest advisors, David Martinez, is a good family friend.  David is from my hometown San Juan, Texas.  That’s another point of contact I shared with Chavez.  David used to migrate to Minnesota to work with my family.  We worked hoeing sugar beets, weeding onions, and planting potatoes.  Later, Chavez went to the Woodburn area, which is where my family and I settled as migrants in 1968.  This was the heart of where the migrant population settled in Oregon.  We worked with him to organize the farmworkers in the Woodburn area, he got men to go to La Paz, California, where the UFW headquarters was located.  The objective was to train them as community organizers and for them to go back to their respective cities and states to organize individuals to boycott lettuce and grapes.  A couple years later, my dad, Alberto, went to train as an organizer.

Why do you think your dad joined the campaigning efforts?

My dad had always been a man who saw everything as work, work, and more work.  He would say, “We don’t know if we’ll be able to work tomorrow.  We don’t know how the weather might affect us.”  It was a huge surprise to me for him to go to training for two to three weeks and not generate income working in the fields.  But I think it was his way of telling me he had not been doing what he had been preaching.  If you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.  In earlier years, I had considered not starting my education at the University of Oregon although I had already been accepted.  My dad had emphasized the importance of an education, so that I could sometime in the future continue working on behalf of the migrant population.  I’m glad he was able to go to La Paz.  Through these trainings, my friendship with Cesar Chavez grew.

By the time you graduated from the University of Oregon, how many Mexican American students were enrolled?

In 1972, we had at least 150 students.  Around 1967, the high school equivalency program was implemented at the University of Oregon.  The emphasis was to provide opportunities for migrants that had dropped out of high school to go back and get their GED.  Raising our numbers was possible because we worked with programs geared to advise the incoming Mexican-American population.  For example, Project Life, a support-based program that helped students with scholarships as well.  Migrant students that obtained their GED or those coming in as freshmen would receive mentoring from us.  There were only three Hispanic professors in the whole university.  They were our mentors and support.  Out of the three of us that entered in 1968, I was the only one that got my undergraduate degree.

When did you see Cesar Chavez again?

In 1988, Cesar Chavez was invited to come talk to the students at The Ohio State University.  I was a coordinator at The Ohio State University working with the migrant community at the time.  The person responsible for bringing him to the university asked me to please introduce Cesar Chavez to the crowd.  I immediately said yes to having the honor of presenting him and the opportunity to talk to him again. Chavez recognized me and said, “You’re Alberto’s son, you’re José.”  It’s very humbling and rewarding for me to have known Cesar Chavez that closely. 

Learning the Value of an Education

Oranges 2011

Irma and her husband are picking oranges in Wimauma, Florida. Picture was taken in 2011, while Irma is six months pregnant with her son Eduardo. 

Farmworker, Irma Mendoza, is an important leader at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.  She serves as the President of our Policy Council and as a member of our Board of Directors.  We recently had the opportunity to learn more about her journey to the United States, her experience as a farmworker, and her hopes for the future.

Policy Council - Mexican Culture

Celebrating Mexican culture during a Policy Council meeting.

Can you tell me about your background?

I was born in Atotonilco El Grande, Hidalgo, Mexico.  At the age of 14, my parents urged me to start working, so I started cleaning condominiums.  I knew I wouldn’t have a good future in Mexico.  I also knew my parents weren’t supportive of me getting an education, which is why I was forced to drop out of high school.  To seek a better future, my brother and I migrated to the United States in 2001.  We arrived in Quincy, Florida.  First, I started working with tomatoes, then picking oranges in Wimauma, Florida.  I later found a strawberry farm that provided work all year round.  The owner had approved for a Head Start center to be built for the children of farmworkers on the farm.  However, you had to migrate in order to qualify for services.  My brother was working up north and suggested I go to Leland, North Carolina to pick blueberries.  For the first time, I migrated for work.  Before leaving Florida, I inquired about other Head Start centers in North Carolina.  The staff  drew me a map to easily arrive at the ECMHSP Long Creek Center.  My one-year-old daughter Maritza started attending the ECMHSP Long Creek Center that season.  There was a lot of parent involvement at the center.  Between March and December, we lived in North Carolina, while the rest of the months we worked in Florida.  My husband and I made sure my children would be able to get Head Start services all year round.

Hill Visits

Capitol Hill visits take place every year in June. Our farmworker families and ECMHSP staff meet with policymakers to advocate for our communities.

How did you become more involved at your center?

I believe it was in 2011.  The current president at Long Creek was leaving and nominated me to take over.  I held the position for three years.  At first, I was very nervous talking in front of a big crowd.  We had about 50 parents attending the monthly meetings.  I encouraged parents to be involved in their children’s education.

What was the biggest difficulty that you had?

After the Long Creek Center was destroyed by a hurricane in 2018, many of our families had to start attending the ECMHSP Bladen Center.  It was a very tough time because many homes were damaged, including mine.  I was chosen to be the President of the Parent Committee in Bladen, but the 2019 season there was only six weeks long, whereas Long Creek was six months.  It was difficult for me to adjust.  There was very little time to plan ahead and make decisions regarding the budget set aside for our family activities. 

Strawberries

Irma working at a strawberry farm in Florida.

What would you like to tell people to raise awareness about the life of a farmworker?

Since arriving in 2001, I’ve worked 17 years in the fields.  Besides having economic challenges due to not knowing when there will be a good or bad harvest, we also work under different types of temperatures.  Some days are cold and others we have to work in the rain.  We are also exposed to different chemicals and animals in the plantations.  Currently, we also have to face the challenge that more H-2A workers are being hired, so it’s more difficult for us to find work.

Father's Day

Celebrating Father’s day at the ECMHSP Long Creek Center.

What difference did you see between your kids that attended Head Start?

My oldest son only attended one season and struggled during the first couple of years in elementary school.  The transition between Head Start and public school was smoother for my other kids that attended four to five seasons.  I noticed a big difference in their growth.  We know it’s very important to go to school from a young age, which is also why we migrated for them to continue getting high-quality early childhood education services.  In 2016, I decided to go back to school to set a good example for my children.  For nine months, I attended class every Saturday from 9 to 4 p.m. to obtain my GED.  This was a big sacrifice for me.  Now that I have my GED, I look forward to getting my CDA credential in the near future.  My oldest son is a junior in high school, and had to work extra hard to do well in school.  I always talk to him about his goals.  He has big dreams of going to medical school.  I tell him he can achieve anything he wants to.