The Eastern Shore of Virginia Gets a Head Start

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Currently, Jose Enriquez is the Family Services Coordinator at the ECMHSP Parksley Center.  The ECMHSP Parksley Head Start Center is special because it’s ECMHSP’s only center that serves two states, which are Virginia and Maryland.  Work done by our farmworker families in the Eastern Shore include: the production and harvesting of tree crops, field crops, nursery crops, eggs, poultry, fish, seafood, and the care of farm animals.

Jose was born in Veracruz, Mexico.  At the age of 13, he settled with his parents in Virginia.  From a very young age, he saw how hard both of his parents worked in the tomato fields for over five years, so he decided to make them proud.  His excellent grades allowed him to finish high school as the sixth best ranking student.  He always knew that he would pursue a career that gave back to his community.  Now, as a part of the ECMHSP family, he makes a difference every day.

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Making new friendships during the first day of the season!

Jose has lived in the Virginia Eastern Shore area since he was a child, so families rely on him for crucial information about services.  “From the enrollment process, we are the face of the center.  If we don’t give a good impression, then parents won’t trust us,” says Jose.  The ECMHSP Parksley Center opened on Tuesday with 19 children.  Jose shares that families need Head Start services to be extended for additional weeks.  Currently, this center operates between June and November.  However, when the center closes, farmworker families struggle to find a place that provides similar services for their children.  Jose is determined to increase enrollment of farmworker families and hopefully extend the center’s season.

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The children enjoy the nutritious meals provided by our amazing ECMHSP staff.

Jose points out that one of their most important partnerships is with the Eastern Shore Rural Health System, Inc.  These clinics have outreach workers that provide assistance to families and even help transport them to their doctor’s appointments.  They are constantly in contact with the families and are very responsive to the farmworker community.

When farmworker families migrate to Maryland and Virginia’s Eastern Shore, they know they can count on the Parksley Center to provide them with the lifeline into the community to meet their families’ needs.  Jose, along with the Parksley Center staff are committed to making a difference, one smiling child at a time.

East Coast Makes a Strong Impression in Washington, D.C.

group picLast week, the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA) held its 2018 Public Policy Forum at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.  Staff and parent leaders representing Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) grantees from across the country came to the nation’s capital to discuss the most pressing issues affecting the farmworker community and to hear from policy officials about the latest developments in the Head Start program.

Attendees had the privilege of welcoming the newly-appointed Director of the Office of Head Start, Dr. Deborah Bergeron.  A former classroom teacher and elementary and high school administrator, Dr. B –as she likes to be called— shared how she will use her three decades of pre-K–12 public education experience to provide unique insights into how Head Start can support our most vulnerable children to become school ready.   She also talked about her recent visit to ECMHSP’s North Carolina Migrant and Seasonal Head Start centers.  Of her trip, Dr. Bergeron said, “In one day I got to get a sense of the Migrant Head Start experience from the family, farmer, center, and community partner perspective. It was a 360⁰ view for sure!”

Following Dr. B’s opening remarks, advocates discussed the current state of play in Washington on a range of policy and legislative issues affecting MSHS families in 2018.  In a panel titled, “Washington Update: Policy Issues Impacting Farmworker Families,” panelists provided updates on the federal budget, appropriations, and the impact of tax reform on our communities and the federal programs families rely on, including the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program.

There’s no doubt that immigration reform was among one of the most important subjects covered during the Public Policy Forum.  In a panel discussion moderated by ECMHSP’s John Menditto, speakers highlighted the crucial nature of our advocacy work for farmworker families. Common sense immigration reform can benefit farmworkers, farmers, and everyone who relies on American-grown fresh fruits and vegetables, while providing parents with the security that they will not be separated from their children.  Additionally, farmworkers are losing work opportunities with the increased use of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program.

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Javier Gonzalez, ECMHSP COO, Meiby Mora, ECMHSP Policy Council President, and John Menditto,  ECMHSP General Counsel.

At the conclusion of the panel on immigration, Meiby Mora, ECMHSP Policy Council President, shared how in 2015, ECMHSP offered Meiby pro bono immigration services to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) after she was turned away by other lawyers.  The challenges Meiby faced in obtaining her legal protections are some of the same challenges farmworkers face due to their migratory lifestyle and lack of documentation.

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Monica Ramirez with ECMHSP parents.

Following the panel, participants heard the story of Monica Ramirez, the proud daughter and granddaughter of migrant farmworkers.  For more than two decades, she has served Latina farmworkers and immigrant women as an organizer and advocate, and she has focused her work on ending gender-based violence in the workplace and achieving gender equity as the co-founder and President of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.  Monica Ramirez received a standing ovation for her powerful message to all attendees.

The afternoon panels also highlighted other challenges being felt in the communities MSHS centers serve.  One panel reflected on what advocates see as the greatest challenges and opportunities facing Head Start providers working in rural communities – including hiring and retaining staff, financing and maintaining quality facilities, and transportation.  The final panel of the day discussed the importance of sharing the stories from our communities through various campaigns supporting the immigrant community and Head Start programs.  Farmworker parents shared how their powerful stories have made a difference, whether it was a video, letter or art from their children.

As part of day two of the Forum, the ECMHSP team was invited to discuss the MSHS program and the needs of the farmworker community by members of Congress and their staff.  A total of nine staff members, four parents and two former Head Start students met with Hill staffers to share the great work ECMHSP is doing in their communities and discussed ways we could partner to better support farmworker families.  One ECMHSP advocacy team comprised of Dr. José Villa, Chief Executive Officer, Christine Alvarado, Chief Innovation Officer, and parents Ramona Deloera and Nalleli Trejo, had the most impressive meetings; they had intimate gatherings with US Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson of Florida.

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Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Erika Aguilera, NMSHSA Intern.

Although ECMHSP had the opportunity to meet with US Senator Cory Booker’s Legislative Director, later in the day, we ran into Senator Booker while he was shooting a commercial on the steps of the Supreme Court building.  One of NMSHSA’s four interns for the summer, Erika Aguilera, had a quick chat with the Senator to advocate for the Head Start program in New Jersey and throughout the United States. She shares —

 “Running into Senator Booker was quite the surprise. We spoke in Spanish because he felt that it was very important to continue the language. I mentioned to him that migrant families are vital to this country being that they feed America. I emphasized how important the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program is for children because those children can then grow up and receive amazing opportunities, like myself. To give him a better idea, I explained how my father has worked all his life in the fields picking seasonal fruit and in the winter, harvesting grapes, which is a tough job that not everyone can tolerate.”

The NMSHSA 2018 Public Policy Forum was a huge success.  Head Start parents and advocates from the farmworker community shared their stories with important lawmakers in hopes that they can recognize farmworker families for performing one of the toughest jobs in the United States and sharing their support.  ECMHSP will keep uniting with all MSHS programs nationwide to defend farmworker families and to ensure the children of farmworkers are prepared for educational success.

Farmworker Mom a Leader and Dreamer at ECMHSP

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Migrant farmworker Meiby Mora Soto is both a leader and a Dreamer at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.  The 29-year-old mother of one has served as the president of ECMHSP’s Policy Council since her election to office by her peers in August 2017.

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Meiby Mora attends the 2017 National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association Public Policy Forum and Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C.

Ms. Mora Soto was brought to the United States of America from Mexico at the age of 14 in November 2003.  She attended high school in Bradenton, Florida, for 18 months, but then dropped out and began working a variety of jobs in and around Bradenton.

Beginning in 2010, she found her most steady employment as a migrant farmworker.  She has picked tomatoes in her current hometown of Immokalee, Florida, and has traveled up the East Coast to the low country of South Carolina.  She then travels to the Virginia Eastern Shore to live in a labor camp and work in the fields from July through November.

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Meiby and her son, Jovani.

ECMHSP has taught Jovani the necessary skills to be successful in school.  Meiby tells us that Jovani can easily make friends anywhere he goes.  He’s a healthy and happy five-year-old boy – living proof of ECMHSP’s success.

In addition to being a leader, Meiby is a Dreamer.  In 2015, ECMHSP offered Meiby pro bono immigration services to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  After multiple immigration lawyers had given her no hope of becoming a DACA recipient, staff at ECMHSP worked tirelessly to help Meiby.  Nine months after her application was filed with USCIS, her DACA dream came true.

“ECMHSP not only gave me a safe haven for Jovani while I was at work, they have given me the opportunity to become an advocate for migrant farmworkers,” Meiby says.  “They have shown me that my voice counts.”

Two of Our Miracle Centers

NCNorth Carolina is home to nine of our 38 East Coast Migrant Head Start Project centers.  I recently had the opportunity to visit some of our centers for the first time since starting my career at ECMHSP.  My greatest take away was the passion ECMHSP staff have for their mission-driven work.  In this post, I wanted to share with you some insights I learned from my visits the ECMHSP Angier Center and the ECMHSP Faison Center.

The ECMHSP Angier Center

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Zorylaine Perez was born in Puerto Rico.  I sat down to talk to her during my visit to the ECMHSP Angier Center.  “One day while attending my local church, a friend who has kids enrolled here at ECMHSP mentioned the organization’s career opportunities,” says Perez.  Since Zorylaine had already worked with legal services and advocated for families, her friend encouraged her to apply.  Parents at ECMHSP understand that they must take an active role in their children’s education, which includes helping with recruitment efforts.

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The children enjoy a nutritious lunch during their first day of the season at the ECMHSP Angier Center.

This is Zorylaine’s second season working at the Angier Center as the Family Services Coordinator.  She’s confident of being able to enroll more farmworker families through a better strategy of recruitment.  The farmworker families in Angier have experience harvesting strawberries, blueberries, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, watermelons, sweet potatoes, and tobacco.  From day one, Zorylaine guides families about all the services that are offered to them. She points out that one of the center’s community partnerships is with Safe Horizon, whose mission is to provide support, prevent violence, and promote justice for victims of crime and abuse, their families and communities. Zorylaine’s biggest goal of the season is to increase the amount of volunteer time that ECMHSP parents give back to the center.

The ECMHSP Faison Center

I was lucky enough to be present during parent orientation at the Faison Center.  I watched attentively as ECMHSP staff explained everything from how to sign in every day, to how daily attendance at the center is so important for their children’s success.

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Wendy Fernandez, Family Services Coordinator at the ECMHSP Faison Center in North Carolina.

Wendy Fernandez came to the U.S. at the age of 20 from Honduras.  She’s the proud mother of three kids and joined ECMHSP in 2008.  What motivates Wendy every day as the Faison Center’s Family Services Coordinator?  “There are single moms that wouldn’t be able to go to work if it wasn’t for the services that we provide.  Families know the countless benefits of ECMHSP versus leaving their kids with a babysitter,” says Wendy.

A couple of seasons ago, Wendy talked to the parents of a four-year-old about needing to be referred to a disabilities specialist.  ECMHSP staff had noticed that the child had problems with his vision.  Unfortunately, the child’s father did not see a problem with his son and refused to sign the necessary referral paper work.  “I’m going to talk to you as a mother and not as an employee of this center.  If I were in your place, I would have my child checked out to rule out any health concerns that could negatively impact his future,” Wendy told him.  By being empathetic, Wendy was able to gain this family’s trust.

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A perfect day to be outdoors!

Our early childhood education services at ECMHSP are designed to put each child we serve on a path to school success.  For our infants and young toddlers, learning is nurtured through warm relationships with responsive teachers who understand each child’s style and rate of learning.  ECMHSP’s culturally-responsive curriculum targets the language, literacy, and other school readiness skills of older toddlers and preschoolers in each of their languages.  What makes ECMHSP truly special is our ability to meet the unique needs of farmworker families, who often live in hard-to-reach rural areas and work long days for extremely low wages.  I look forward to visiting other centers on the East Coast and learning more about the little miracles that we make happen every day.  Make sure to continuously check out our blog to learn about the latest news at ECMHSP!

Dr. Deborah Bergeron Visits ECMHSP’s North Carolina Centers

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On Wednesday, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project had the pleasure of hosting the newly-appointed Director of the Office of Head Start, Dr. Deborah Bergeron for a visit of our North Carolina Head Start centers.  Dr. B –as she likes to be called—was eager to learn about the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) program, and ECMHSP staff and parents were excited to showcase the high-quality and comprehensive Head Start services we offer at our MSHS centers.

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Dr. Bergeron playing guitar for the children, as Omar admires her talent. 

The day began at the ECMHSP’s MSHS center in Faison, North Carolina, where staff focused on school readiness.  Two parents at the center shared with Dr. B their experience receiving Head Start services from ECMHSP and how those services have prepared their children to succeed in the public school system.  The visit then continued into the preschool classroom, where Dr. B entertained the children with her guitar and her song, “Reach for the Stars” (sung to the tune of La Bamba).  All of the children enjoyed the opportunity to sing and dance, but none more so than Omar, who did a special pogo dance of appreciation.  Afterwards, the visit continued to Cottle Farms, where Ron Cottle provided a tour of his operations, and then drove through and by farmworker housing.  The housing conditions for farmworker families made quite an impression on Dr. B.

Next, the visit continued at the ECMHSP’s MSHS center in Newton Grove, where Hortencia Montalvo, Center Cook, and Elizabeth Vega Velasquez, Center Cook Assistant, prepared a delicious lunch for the special guests.  Community partners were also invited to the lunch, at which they shared their experience partnering with ECMHSP in the areas of health, dental services, nutrition, and mental health services.  Following the lunch, Dr. B was provided with a tour of our local federally-qualified health clinic.

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Dr. Bergeron with ECMHSP parent, Gloria Castillo, who’s also a member of our Policy Council.

The day ended at the ECMHSP MSHS center in Angier.  Again, two parents, one which is a farmworker DREAMer, shared their experience and joined us as we visited the center’s classrooms.  We provided a life changing experience for Dr. Bergeron and in her weekly communication with her OHS staff, Dr. Bergeron observed that “in one day I got to get a sense of the Migrant Head Start experience from the family, farmer, center, and community partner perspective.  It was a 360 degree view for sure!”