An Early Passion for Head Start


I recently had the opportunity to interview Mercedes Hernández, the Child and Family Health Manager at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project for almost three years.  Before her last day, we talked about her experience since starting with us in September 2016.

How did you first learn of the position you are currently in?

I have a friend who had worked for East Coast Migrant Head Start Project before. She had worked in the North Carolina Direct Services region and forwarded the information to me.  She thought I would be a good candidate for the position.  I had also met Christine Alvarado almost 20 years before when she was the Center Director at the ECMHSP Newton Grove Center in North Carolina.  I was interviewing professionals who were working with farmworkers as part of my training in my new job with the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program.

Why did you see yourself working at ECMHSP?

I had worked in farmworker health for many years prior to ECMHSP.  I had a passion for the farmworker movement and farmworker health, but I was not working in that field at that moment.  Second, my mom had worked for Head Start for about 17 years in Puerto Rico until I went off to college.  As a child, I would be around her while she was preparing materials for presentations.  My mom is a speech pathologist.  She was a single mother, and traveled to all the underserved communities of the metropolitan area in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  She would go to the Head Start centers to do trainings, screenings, and evaluate children.  I would go with her and did my homework while she did her trainings.  One of my first memories was seeing children at a Head Start center setting the table for lunch.  Through my mother, I learned to love and admire Head Start.  This position at ECMHSP combined my two passions of Head Start and farmworker health.  Also, being able to have the knowledge and education to serve farmworker families.

How did your previous experience prepare you for the Child and Family Health Manager position?

I was the Health Program Consultant for three years at the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program.  I also worked for the North Carolina Primary Health Care Association and the North Carolina Farmworkers’ Project.

Mercedes at the NMHSA Conference

What was the best part of your career at ECMHSP?

Working with the specialists and visiting the centers throughout the East Coast.  I have worked with more than 10 specialists.  I admire their professionalism, their commitment to the families and children, and their pride in their work. 

What was the most successful part of the training you received?

The specialists gave me the best training that I could get and the most support.  The manager position had been vacant for quite some time, so the specialists were doing their best to get the job done.  They were very patient with me during the training period.

What would you consider your team’s biggest strength?

My team consists of the managers within Program Support and Christine Alvarado, Chief Innovation Officer.  My team are all leaders in their specialty.  They all have tremendous knowledge.  Some of them have been here for a long time.  They have such a positive attitude and are hard workers.  My team takes Head Start services to the next level.  I’m honored to have worked with them all this time.

Is there anything that you would like to say to your team before leaving the organization?

I have really enjoyed working with my co-workers here at ECMHSP.  They are all so dedicated to our mission!  I feel very proud to have worked with a group of such incredible people.  I’m going to miss being surrounded by such amazing people every day. 

Mercedes, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.  We wish you the best in your new career path.  We look forward to having you on our team again in the future.  You will be greatly missed at ECMHSP!

A Head Start for the Badillo Family

Iralda - 2019 Christmas party

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Iralda Badillo, one of our team members at the ECMHSP Bowling Green Center, located in Florida West.  Keep reading to learn more about her professional growth since joining East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.

Can you please tell me about your background?

I was born in Mexico and came to the United States when I was eight-years old. We arrived in Jacksonville, Georgia during the tomato season.  My parents worked in the tomato fields for about two seasons, then traveled to Florida to pick strawberries and tomatoes.  Our next stop was up north in a small town in North Carolina named Burgaw.  There, my parents would pick blueberries.  Finding a place to live for the seven of us was always a challenge, but my parents managed to find a small trailer that I shared with my two brothers and two sisters.  About two years later, my parents separated.  My dad found a year-round job and my mom started traveling to follow the tomato, strawberry, and blueberry harvest.  For the next six years, I kept traveling between North Carolina, Florida, and New Jersey, depending where my mom was working.  I grew tired of switching schools every three to four months.  I also felt that I could do much better academically.  While attending Bartow High School in Florida during 11th grade, I was offered a four-year scholarship to any university in Florida, but for personal reasons I wasn’t prepared to go to college.  Instead, I moved to New Jersey for senior year, but didn’t give it my all.  I barely went to classes and was dropped by the school.  Then it really hit me, and I knew I had to at least graduate from high school.  Every state runs their semesters differently, so if I stayed in New Jersey, I would’ve had to go to school an additional year.  I asked my dad to send me money so I could take the bus to North Carolina.  I was determined to graduate during that last semester.  I made the varsity soccer team and played midfielder.  Although my GPA dropped, I still graduated with a good GPA.  I was happy to graduate with friends I had gone to school with throughout the years.  After graduation, I moved to Florida with my older sister and started working at a tomato packing house.  I learned a lot and am always grateful for that opportunity.  Working with this company, we traveled from Florida to Virginia between the months of May and August.  I did this for two seasons, then I met my now husband.  We are currently married and have an eight-year-old daughter, a nine-month-old son, and a baby on the way. 


How did you start working for East Coast Migrant Head Start Project?

I started working with East Coast in September of 2014 as a Family Service Worker at the ECMHSP Myakka Center.  I did that position for almost three seasons, then I found out the Program Assistant position had become available.  I got the position thanks to my experience from previous jobs.  Now I am working at the ECMHSP Bowling Green Center, where Santiago, my youngest child has been attending since December.  I’m grateful to see him receiving Head Start services.  I absolutely love what I do!  The best part is that I get to engage with the families every day.

What does your Program Assistant position consist of?

I help with the daily operations of the center. I have human resources related responsibilities, such as on-boarding new hires and filing the paperwork for them.  I talk to each staff member at my center.  In addition, I process the center’s purchase orders and do a variety of monthly reports.

What are the resources that ECMHSP provides for you to be successful?

I work with specialists who are available to answer any questions that come up.  I enjoy the different trainings that I receive.  We get to discuss ideas from different centers and that helps us with problem-solving. 

How do you maintain strong relationships with parents?

I come from a family that went from state to state following the harvest seasons.  I have lived in similar environments.  We have a lot in common, my dad speaks the Mixteco dialect, which I find that a lot of parents here at Bowling Green speak. I let the parents know I am here to help interpret, or anything I can possibly do for them.  I know the struggles of working all day in the hot sun and rushing home to cook, clean, bathe kids, and prepare for the next day.  I try to do what I can to make life easier for our families and build their trust.   

What countries are primarily represented by your center’s farmworker families?  What kind of agricultural work do the families perform?

We currently have 83 children enrolled.  Our families are from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  They work with blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, and some orange.

As an individual, what do you hope to accomplish at the center this season?

I would like to get to know each parent by their name, as well as their children.  Serve our children and families to the best of our abilities, providing all the services they need to be successful.

Can you please share a challenge that you’ve had to overcome at your center?

I have been at the ECMHSP Bowling Green Center since October 22, 2018. Staff works differently and that can sometimes take some time to adapt to.  Every day I work with my co-workers and learn from each person’s area of expertise.  We all share the same mission.

What plans do you have for the future?

I want to go back to school and get a degree in human resources or business management.  I’m still trying to decide between the two career paths, but I know I love working to help people.  My goal is to start taking at least two online classes next year.

Thank you for taking the time to let me interview you, Iralda.  Thank you for always putting our farmworker families first.  We wish you a long career at ECMHSP!

All the News That’s Fit to Print


Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with The New York Times reporter, Jason DeParle.  The topic of our conversation was East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s experience with Head Start’s Designation Renewal System (DRS).   This week, all that I shared with Jason was boiled down to a single cite: John Menditto of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project warns that harsh penalties may dissuade programs from serving especially disadvantaged populations like migrants.  If you know me, you know I had lots more to say than just that!

The article in The New York Times provided an excellent review of the pros and cons of DRS.   And as a special #FlashbackFriday post to From Harvest to Head Start, I wanted to share excerpts from the text of a speech I made a few years ago at the National Head Start Association’s Leadership Institute recounting our experience with DRS.  Enjoy!


Our migrant and seasonal farmworker parents work from sun up to sun down.

Lake City, South Carolina is a city in name only. According to the 2000 census, Lake City had a population of 6,478. Certainly not the population of a bustling city.  There isn’t a lake nearby either. What surrounds Lake City is farm land. Lots and lots of farm land. So much farm land, in fact, that 60 years ago, Lake City was known as the “Bean Capital of the World.”

As the decades passed, the crops grown in and around Lake City changed, as did their means and methods of harvesting. That is the one constant for Head Start grantees serving farmworker families. The communities we serve will always be linked to the land and to decisions about what to plant and when to plant made by large agri-business companies and smaller family farmers who own the land.

 By 2009, the crops bringing migrant farmworkers to lake city were peaches and tobacco. The farmworkers would begin to arrive with their children in June, taking up temporary residence in mobile home parks, often sharing trailers to make ends meet. While moms and dads would wake up before dawn to start preparing for their work in the tobacco field and peach orchards, a Head Start school bus driver with a team of bus monitors would navigate a school bus into the mobile home parks to collect their children aged zero to school age and bring them to our Head Start center. Those school bus routes would run five days a week throughout the summer and into the fall, when the farmworker families would depart in October back to Florida for the start of the citrus season.

Juan and little boy

Juan Rangel, a former ECMHSP student enrolled in college, is carrying a little boy from the Fields of Dream Head Start Center.

 Like many large Head Start grantees, East Coast delivers services in accordance with two models: in some local communities we deliver these services directly; and in other local communities we deliver these services through a contract with another non-profit with the capacity to deliver high-quality services in a local community. In Lake City, in 2009, East Coast contracted with Wateree Community Actions, Inc., a fantastic regional Head Start grantee dedicated to providing high-quality and comprehensive Head Start services.

 I often speak about the degree of difficulty of the mission we are trying to accomplish at East Coast and the degree of difficulty of the mission of our delegates like Wateree Community Actions, Inc. One area that contributes to this high degree of difficulty is the fact that the home language of parents whose children attend our Head Start program often is a language other than English. In South Bay, Florida, many farmworker families speak Creole; in Indiantown, Florida, many farmworker families speak indigenous languages. In the case of families attending the Lake City Head Start center – the home language of most families was Spanish.


While their parents work in the fields, ECMHSP provides these smiling children high-quality Head Start services.

 For Wateree Community Actions, Inc., in 2009, the home language of farmworker families created a real dilemma. As I noted at the outset, the population of Lake City is around 6,500, of that total only 68 individuals identified themselves as being of Hispanic origin. How is a Head Start program offering seasonal employment as infant teachers going to find degreed teachers who also are fluent in Spanish?

 Well, perhaps you are not surprised to learn that Wateree was not able to find degreed infant teachers who also were fluent in Spanish. What Wateree did have were experienced and degreed infant teachers, all of whom had taken introductory Spanish classes at the local community college.  And what Wateree did have were parent volunteers in the classroom who were fluent in Spanish.  And what Wateree did have was a deep commitment to learning and development of those children such that those children were in a safe and nurturing environment and not left back with babysitters who would be tasked with the responsibility of caring for multiple children in a crowded trailer.

 As you no doubt have surmised, Wateree’s inability to comply with a single Head Start performance standard – a standard that provides when a majority of children in a classroom speak a language, at least one classroom person must speak that language – was the single deficiency that put East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in the first re-competition cohort in December 2011.  One center, among more than 50 centers. A single deficiency for a high-quality Head Start grantee.

 And so began an 18-month odyssey into the deep end of the re-competition pool. Our journey began with our Board of Directors and our Policy Council having to make a number of important strategic decisions. In the for-profit world, they call these decisions “bet the company” decisions because a wrong choice could mean the end of the company.

 One decision was the governing bodies decision not to be involved in a high-profile lawsuit that was filed by many Head Start grantees challenging the legality of the designation renewal system. Instead, the Board and Policy Council endorsed a different approach: we would look at re-competition as an opportunity, not as a threat; and we would write an application that would compel the office of Head Start to fund us on our terms.

 Another important strategic decision was the decision to include all of our service areas in our application – even those service areas that involve the highest degree of difficulty. This, of course, is a basic flaw in the designation renewal system. When Head Start grantees are putting at risk all of its Head Start grant funds by operating a single center, there is a tremendous incentive to carve out those centers that are the hardest to operate – to carve out those centers with the greatest need. I am proud to say that the Board and Policy Council of East Coast never wavered in its commitment to operating centers that entail the greatest degree of difficulty – we never wavered in our commitment to serving families with the greatest needs.

 The degree of difficulty of what we do turned out to be our lifeguard in the recompetition pool. The only competition came from another migrant Head Start grantee in Florida, who sought to take away all of our Florida centers.  For us, providing high quality Head Start services to migrant farmworker families in Florida is relatively easy. Florida is the home base for our families. They reside in local communities from November through May and East Coast is able to recruit and hire bilingual and degreed Head Start teachers without the same degree of difficulty as we do in upstream locations like Chandler Mountain, Alabama, Parksley, Virginia, or Lake City, South Carolina. But, the decision of another migrant Head Start grantee to compete with East Coast proved to be the single best development in the re-competition process because it motivated us to write an application of exceptional quality.

 In addition, the competition we received had the effect of raising our profile within the Office of Head Start. Our regional program manager and Program specialist always knew about the phenomenal work we were accomplishing, but the director of the office of Head Start and other Senior leaders within OHS did not fully appreciate the Head Start mission we were fulfilling. Through the competition, OHS leadership learned in intimate detail, who we were. This reversal of fortune would not have been possible had it not been for the competition that was brought our way.

 As you know, our journey into the deep-end of the re-competition pool was a success.  We retained much of our Head Start service area.  However, re-competition did not leave us un-scathed. Two of our delegate agencies applied to receive funding directly from the office of Head Start and, as a result, East Coast is no longer responsible for the quality of Head Start services to farmworker families in Georgia or New York. In addition, we have transitioned more centers from a delegate agency model to a direct service model so that we could more closely monitor compliance with all of the Head Start Program Performance Standards.

Photo 1-FSC reading a book

Our staff prepares children to be successful in school.

But for East Coast, on a day-to-day basis, little has changed as a result of the designation renewal system and re-competition. East Coast was a high-quality Head Start program prior to recompetition and we are a high-quality Head Start program after re-competition.  Prior to recompetition we served families living in rundown mobile home parks and crowded labor camps; and after re-competition, we serve families living in rundown mobile home parks and crowded labor camps.  Prior to re-competition, East Coast operated Head Start centers in areas that involve the highest degree of difficulty; and after recompetition, we do the same.

 At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, our Board, Policy Council and all of our dedicated staff wouldn’t change our mission for anything. We certainly wouldn’t change it because of the Designation Renewal System and recompetition.