On July 14, ECMHSP celebrated the Jennings (Florida) Early Head Start center with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Jennings staff and the Early Head Start staff did an amazing job of hosting this special event. We had a number of important visitors attend the ceremony and tour the center, including Lamar Hill and his daughter Lisa, who made the land available to us for the center; staffers from Senator Bill Nelson’s office and Congressman Lawson’s office, who were invited by parent, Vianey Lopez; Gaby Procacci and Lou Struble from Procacci Brothers in Philadelphia, who employs farmworkers who are served at the center; and Alma Young and other individuals with connections of the migrant farmworker families in Lake Park, Georgia.
Our celebration on Friday was the culmination of many years of hard work by many, many people. And whenever we accomplish anything truly remarkable, the heavy lifting is done at the local level. By our local staff, by the local community, and by our local farmworker parents. And that is true here. Friday was a day to recognize and celebrate the hard work and sacrifice of the Jennings community that made our Head Start center possible.
The story of our Jennings Early Head Start Center begins 300 miles to our south — in Lakeland, Florida. It’s there that ECMHSP Florida staff members Angel Casiano, Dora Sanders, and Marilyn Torres work.
In July of 2014, when it was first announced that competitive proposals were being accepted for the expansion of Head Start services to farmworker families, Angel, Dora and Marilyn met to evaluate what locations to include in an expansion proposal. I wasn’t present when they met, but I imagine there must’ve have been some nervousness in the room when they discussed whether to include Jennings in the Early Head Start expansion proposal. They knew the need for our services was great, but they also knew the degree of difficulty of serving farmworker families here would be immense:
How would the center be built?
How would they transport the children?
How would they staff the center?
Fortunately for us, Angel, Dora and Marilyn did not shy away from enormity of this task. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves, wrote the community assessment that would the basis of the application, and put their faith in the fact that ECMHSP has a long-history of doing hard things.
So, how would the center be built? At ECMHSP, we believe our farmworker families deserve the very best centers and when we build, we are going to build beautiful. Building beautiful requires two things – an architect with a vision for exquisite design and builders with the ability to turn that design into reality.
Ted Hoffman is an architect with a vision for beauty and all that you see here was designed by Ted – from the classroom space to the courtyard. We thank Ted for insisting that our children and families deserve the very best.
But Ted’s vision would be nothing but lines on paper, if he did not have a team of builders to support him. And fortunately for Ted, and fortunately for us, we had a phenomenal team of builders. Paul Tansill works for the modular building company that executed Ted’s vision. We are so appreciative of Paul’s work. The classrooms and the buildings are fantastic. Mike Wilcox led the ECMHSP facilities team during the build. That entailed countless days, weeks and months of personal sacrifice as Mike made Jennings his second home. Mike recently retired, which could have been a disaster for ECMHSP, but for the fact that Mike had mentored Greg Stone to step into his shoes. Greg has continued the phenomenal work that Mike was known for and ECMHSP has not missed a beat.
How would children be transported? School bus transportation requires an attention to detail and an attention to safety. For the past 15 years, East Coast has been blessed to have its school bus transportation services led by Charles Leach, a man whose dedication to safety has resulted in a remarkable record: during the last 15 years, ECMHSP has zero at-fault road accidents. But as good as Charles is, he can accomplish nothing without the work and dedication of dedicated transportation staff like Alex Retana and Christina Arnold in Jennings.
How would the center be staffed? The Jennings center opened for the season with 22 children on May 17 and enrollment quickly rose to 69 children as farmworkers arrived from points south to work in the tomato fields. Then, children and families moved north to Cedarville, New Jersey, and Leland, North Carolina, and enrollment reduced to 34. In a few weeks, farmworkers and their children will return from the north and our enrollment will rise again to 50 or so. Can you imagine the degree of difficulty of staffing a center under such circumstances? At times, I think of the Jennings center staff as being performers on a tightrope suspended 100 yards above the Jennings tomato fields.
We are so fortunate that each of our staff members have been willing to sacrifice so much to make this center one of our very best centers. The Early Head Start staff do walk a tightrope. But there is a net, created by the administrative support, governance and program support team members. We are so grateful for each of them and their hard work.
There is an additional piece of the puzzle that we are thankful for. From its inception, the Head Start program recognized that parents were the first and best teachers of their children. Based upon this recognition, Head Start programs work hand-in-hand with parents of children enrolled in the center to design the services offered. This work is done through a parent committee, which is comprised of all the parents whose children attend the center.
The president of the parent committee at the Jennings center is Vianey Lopez. During the ceremony, she gave moving remarks on behalf of the parents of the Jennings community before cutting the ribbon. When we think back to why we do this difficult work, Vianey reminded us with the following words:
East Coast Migrant Head Start Project has relieved a lot of worries and stress from the families, because now with this center, we know that our children are learning in a safe environment.