A Head Start for the Zuniga Family


I recently had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Cecilia Zuniga, one of our team members at the ECMHSP Semmes Center, located in Alabama.  Keep reading to learn more about her professional growth since joining East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in 2014.

Please tell me about your background. How did you start working for East Coast Migrant Head Start Project?

At the age of 19, I moved from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico to the United States.  At first, my family and I settled in McAllen, Texas.  I was not able to finish high school there because of the age limit, so it took me three years of night school to get my high school degree.  Two years later, I moved to Alabama, where I started working in the nurseries.  It was very heavy work.  It was too hot, but you feel like you are working with your family.  One day, a friend told me about career opportunities at ECMHSP.  Some of my coworkers also had their kids enrolled at ECMHSP, but I didn’t know much about the organization.  I started working for ECMHSP in 2014 as a bilingual caregiver.  The center director told me I had two years to obtain my CDA, which pushed me to keep studying. 

What made you a good candidate for the bilingual caregiver position? Why did you see yourself working at ECMHSP?

I fell in love with the Head Start program.  I liked being able to help migrant families, especially because it gave their kids the opportunity to be part of a dual-language learning program.


What are your educational goals?

I have been studying for one year a Bishop Community College, located in Mobile, Alabama.  Early next year, I should be getting my associate degree in accounting.  I work full time and take courses full time as well.  I try to juggle all my responsibilities, including being there for my three kids.  Most days I only get three to four hours of sleep.  I’m currently the Program Assistant at the ECMHSP Semmes Center.  My kids are the driving force that keeps me going when things get tough.  I want to keep studying and growing professionally.  Although my family didn’t support my continuing education at first, they then realized how motivated I was.  ECMHSP allowed me to discover what I was capable of. 


How do you maintain strong relationships with Head Start parents?

I’m a patient and humble person with our parents.  I regularly see former coworkers from the nursery come to enroll their children, so I make them feel at home.

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

 Ornamental plants like Azalea, winter plant trees, strawberries, watermelons, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

 What are some of your center’s community partnerships? How do they benefit our families?

 The local fire department teaches our kids and families about safety.  They also provide CPR training to our staff.  We also have a partnership with Family Preservation Services, where we refer our families to when they have trouble with their finances.  The city’s health department help us with immunization and dental treatments.  The local elementary schools continue ESL services for our kids in the transition between ECMHSP and public school.  In addition, the Library of Semmes sends their staff to come and read to our kids.  We also have a close relationship with the Mayor of Semmes, Alabama.

Special thanks to Cecilia for making time to tell us about her story with ECMHSP.  We are proud to have such a resilient staff member on our team!

Protecting Farmworker Children from Environmental Contaminants

MCN training - pic 3

Last week, the Virginia Direct Services (VADS) team, in collaboration with Migrant Clinician’s Network (MCN), completed the second series of training for the Community Health Worker Project.  MCN is a national network of professionals working in primary care and public health settings with migrant farmworkers and their families and other underserved populations.  MCN has received funding from the Aetna Foundation to implement a project called It Takes a Community: Protecting Farmworker Children from Environmental Contaminants.  Keep reading to learn more about this project from my interview with Lynn Bowen, ECMHSP Head Start Administrator for our Virginia Direct Services region.

MCN training - pic 2

How did this partnership with Migrant Clinician’s Network start?

ECMHSP and Migrant Clinician’s Network have previously collaborated on projects pertaining to the health and welfare of our migrant families.  This particular project, the Community Health Worker Project, had its beginning in the spring of 2018.  Amy Lieberman, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health at MCN, reached out to me and we discussed taking part in a two-year project, which involves parents training parents.  As parents become Community Health Workers and return to Florida, they will be able to train other parents along the way and in their home-base towns.  During the first year, a total of 78 parents were able to complete the training.


Is ECMHSP the only Head Start program that MCN works with to provide this type of training?

Yes, we are currently the only program, which is very exciting because the framework that MCN is providing can also be used across many of our service areas.  The Virginia Direct Services team will be the innovators within ECMHSP with regard to training parents to become Community Health Workers.

What are two ways that parents are taught to prevent exposure to pesticides?

Parents are taught to wash their hands and exposed areas to pesticides thoroughly before picking up their children.  Parents are also taught to wash their work clothes separately from the rest of the family’s clothes, especially the clothing belonging to children and infants.

Could you please tell me a couple ways that chemicals affect children differently?

In addition to children being physically smaller than their parents, children’s brains are experiencing fantastic amounts of growth.  Pound for pound, children are exposed to higher levels of toxins than adults.  Children are also more exposed to pesticides due to their behavior.  They will touch, taste, and smell what their hands touch.  In the case of chemical exposure, this puts them at higher risk of ingesting toxins.  

One of the more effective training methods that parents are taught involves a gallon of water and a smaller bottle of water.  The same amount of food coloring is added to each bottle.  As participants watch, the large bottle of water easily dilutes the food coloring while the smaller bottle struggles, and fails, to dilute the added food coloring.  Parents are taught that the large bottle represents an adult’s body and the smaller bottle represents a child’s body.  The food coloring represents chemicals. Parents who take part in this activity have had “ah-ha” moments.  Previously parents thought that because they were not affected by the chemicals, then their children would also avoid exposure.

How many days does the CHW training last?

The training is a one-day training which requires four hours of participatory training.  Parents receive a certificate, a portfolio, bag, and training materials.  ECMHSP staff assist parents during the parent’s first training session.  This provides them with additional support as they begin the Community Health Worker program.

Giving Children a Head Start in Jennings, Florida

Sheri - Jennings

I recently had the opportunity to interview Sheri Anastasio, the ECMHSP Center Director in Jennings, Florida. Please keep reading to learn more about why her leadership at our Jennings Center is so important.

Please tell me about your background. How did you start working for East Coast Migrant Head Start Project?

I worked at a Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK) and was a Center Director for over five years at a private center.  Upon receiving my bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Ashford University, I moved on to teach first grade in public school.  I learned it was not the best use of my skills.  Instead, directing and managing a center was my passion.  At the time, one of my friends was working as a teacher at the ECMHSP Jennings center.  I had previously worked with her at the private center and she told me they needed a center director.  I was hesitant to apply because this was the first time I had heard about this organization, but after some research, I felt it was the right fit.  Two years later, I am still here!

Sheri's Family

What made you a good candidate for the position? Why did you see yourself working at ECMHSP?

My background in the classroom and as a center director made me a good candidate.  I had been looking for a large center to manage, so this was a great opportunity for my professional growth.

How do you maintain strong relationships with parents?

Although I don’t speak Spanish, my staff will gladly interpret for me.  I want our farmworker families to know we have an open-door policy to encourage open communication.

What is your favorite part of the work you do at ECMHSP?

Serving the children and working with my staff to make this happen every day.  It takes the entire team to accomplish this goal.

What are some of the struggles of your position?

Having enough hours in the day to accomplish all the tasks that need to be completed.  Being short staffed is another problem we face.


What would you consider your team’s biggest strength?

Providing for the parents and children in need.  Our team goes above and beyond in this area. For example, at times we work longer hours to provide transportation to doctors’ appointments and anything the parents and children need.

What are the center’s community partnerships?

We work with Hamilton County Schools, which is where our children will transition when they’re ready for kindergarten.  Another partnership is with Early Steps, which is Florida’s early intervention system that offers services for infants and toddlers from birth through 36 months with conditions likely to result in a developmental delay.  Other partnerships include North Florida Pediatrics and Meridian Behavioral Health.

What are your expectations for this season?

To further grow my team and promote teamwork.  I want to serve as many children as possible and provide services to the parents. We’re currently providing high-quality early learning education to 42 children enrolled in our Head Start program.

This past November, The Huffington Post did a video story about our ECMHSP Jennings Center in Florida, featuring Sheri Anastasio and her team. Click here to watch it!