About John Menditto, General Counsel and Director of Risk Management, ECMHSP

John has worked at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project for more than fifteen years. He holds a law degree from The University of Virginia School of Law and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of The George Washington University.

Homecoming 2017: A Trip to a Field of Dreams

About 15 years ago, Priscilla Garza, Cheyla Moranchel, Armando Cendejas, and Juan Rangel were young children enrolled in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program. Priscilla’s MSHS experience was in Texas and Maryland, in programs operated by Teaching and Mentoring Communities and East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Cheyla’s was in Oregon in a MSHS program operated by the Oregon Child Development Coalition, while Armando and Juan both attended ECMHSP’s MSHS center in Fort Pierce, Florida.   This summer, these four MSHS graduates had the opportunity to put all of their intellectual talents to work in Washington, DC, as recipients of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association’s summer internship program.

NMSHSA Internship Class of 2017 with John Menditto and the Pathstone staff members.

The NMSHSA summer internship program provides paid internships each year for four college students who previously participated in the MSHS program. This is the sixth year that the summer internship program has been in place and 24 MSHS students have now had the opportunity to come to Washington, DC, to live and work. This summer, Priscilla (an aspiring lawyer) worked at the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization, and Cheyla worked at Farmworker Justice, where she worked on a variety of farmworker health projects. Armando worked at the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and was involved on issues impacting the Hispanic community, such as healthcare and the environment. And Juan worked at the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute where he helped plan and execute a number of special events and projects.

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

This past Friday marked the last day of work for the 2017 NMSHSA Summer Internship Class. To mark the occasion, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and our phenomenal delegate agency partner, PathStone Corporation, hosted a homecoming for Priscilla, Cheyla, Armando, and Juan in Adams County, Pennsylvania, where PathStone operates a MSHS center serving hardworking farmworker families.

The NMSHSA Interns were able to learn about the apple harvest in Adams County, PA, during their tour of Rice Fruit Company’s processing plant.

Our day began with a tour of the Adams County MSHS Center, Field of Dreams. There, the summer interns had an opportunity to play with the young children, which led them all to recall their own experience as MSHS students. From there, PathStone employees Carla Herrera, Family Services Coordinator, and Iris Perez, Center Administrator, brought us to Rice Fruit Company’s fruit processing facility, which was just down the road from the center. Leighton Rice and Policy Council member, Fernando Estrada, provided us a thorough education on the harvesting and production of apples and peaches in Adams County. We were particularly inspired by the farmworker moms packing apples, a number of whom came off the production line to thank East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and PathStone for the services we have provided, including two moms whose oldest children were now in college.

Priscilla Garza shares her story at the Field of Dreams center, including her experiences in DC for the summer.

Priscilla, Cheyla, Armando, and Juan’s homecoming was made complete back at Field of Dreams, where PathStone hosted a lunch in their honor. At the outset of the day on the way to PathStone, each of summer interns was asked about their best experience this summer. For some, it involved a work accomplishment; for others it was a particular cultural event. By the end of the day, though, the 2017 NMSHSA Summer Internship Class was unanimous in their assessment: the 2017 Homecoming Visit to the Field of Dreams MSHS Center was the best experience of a summer filled with amazing experiences.

Celebrating the New Jennings Head Start Center

John Menditto, ECMHSP General Counsel, with Lou Struble and Gaby Procacci of Procacci Brothers farms, which employs many of the farmworker families served by the center.

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.

Javier Gonzalez, ECMHSP Chief Operations Officer, welcomes guests to the center.

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.

Lamar and Lisa Hill were recognized during the ceremony for providing the land the center was built on.

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.

The new ECMHSP Jennings Early Head Start Center in Florida.

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.

Vianey Lopez, Head Start parent, cut the ribbon surrounded by the center staff and guests.

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.

Jennings Center Parent Committee President Vianey Lopez presenting remarks at the ceremony.

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.

Our Excellent Adventure with OHS

Debbie and Takila at the Newton Grove community lunch.

Debbie Youhouse and Takila Newkirk are two of the unsung heroes of the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) program. Debbie works as a Program Specialist with the Office of Head Start, where she is responsible for overseeing the program services of eight MSHS grantees, including East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Takila works as a Grants Specialist with the Office of Head Start, where she is responsible for managing and overseeing the funding awards for many MSHS and American Indian grantees. This week, ECMHSP had the opportunity to host Debbie and Takila as they visited our program.

Ignacia Gonzalez with her beautiful daughter at the Jennings Early Head Start Center in Florida.

Debbie and Takila’s excellent adventure began at our new Early Head Start expansion center in Jennings, Florida. The center looked spectacular and all of the staff were knowledgeable, warm, and welcoming. Debbie and Takila offered nothing but praise for everything they saw — from the design and layout of the classrooms to the shiny school bus filled with children going home for the day!

Vianey Lopez, President of the Parent Committee, and Ignacia Gonzalez, the Vice-President of the Parent Committee, were phenomenal hosts and tour guides. We visited the grape tomato fields and Vianey and Ignacia shared stories about their work in the fields. Vianey amazed us all as she described how peaceful it was to ride the unpaved back roads late at night and stop alongside the tomato fields and look up at the stars. Vianey also took us to the Budget Lodge motel and the North Florida Inn to see how difficult the living conditions are for our farmworker families.

Debbie Youhouse and the St. Helena team. (Photo Credit: Takila Newkirk)

On day two, Debbie and Takila drove with me four hours across the state of Georgia and then north to St. Helena Island, South Carolina. It was wonderful to see all the smiling faces once we arrived — whether they be young children or our staff (so many of whom had relocated from Florida). ECMHSP staff members Michael Edmonds and Patricia Lanuza, and Policy Council Member, Meiby Mora Soto, provided us with an excellent visit to the local farmworker camps. Again, seeing the living conditions of our farmworker families was an education for us all. One of the center moms invited us in to see inside her home, including the poster she and her husband made of their dreams for their future together, which they display proudly.

A farmworker mom shares her family’s dreams with us at the Bayview Camp in St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

A poster of dreams from Guatemala to the United States to the future.

Day three found us in Newton Grove, North Carolina, where the center looked marvelous. We arrived in time to be with the preschool children as they enjoyed their lunch. The children were so happy with their teachers and their plates of chicken, zucchini and pineapple. We concluded our visit with a community partners lunch. To have two hours to simply share the ways our program works hand-in-hand with our health partner, early intervention partner, and other community partners was so enlightening for everyone. Also, we were thrilled to hear the success story of Isabel Najera, whose children attended the Newton Grove Center more than 20 years ago and who have grown up to enjoy meaningful professional careers.

A nutritious and fun lunch in the Newton Grove Head Start Center preschool classroom.

Our final day with Debbie and Takila involved a visit to the ECMHSP headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina, including observing the work at the organization’s Manual Crosswalk. While the final day lacked the joy of children, it was very informative for our guests to see how our administrative team supports the work of center operations.

All in all, it was an excellent visit for Debbie and Takila. We are so grateful for everyone who hosted us, especially our amazing parents.

Our Policy Council Leads the Way in Charleston, South Carolina

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The active engagement of parents in Head Start programs is the reason why Head Start has enjoyed such wonderful success in preparing children for their public school education. At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, we have always depended upon our parents to guide us on how best to prepare their children to succeed in school. Today, in Charleston, South Carolina, the Policy Council of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project completed its second day of important work in support of ECMHSP’s school readiness Head Start mission.

Day one of the Policy Council meeting began with the meetings of the Direct Services Committee and the Delegate Agency Committee. Both committees accomplished much. The Direct Services Committee focused its attention on revisions to ECMHSP’s Selection Criteria. The Selection Criteria is important in every Head Start program. It is particularly important at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project because prioritizing services to farmworker families is essential when families face such wide-ranging and significant challenges.

The Delegate Agency Committee covered a variety of topics specific to each one of our three delegate agencies. Perhaps most importantly, the Delegate Agency enjoyed a rich conversation about the new families who would qualify for services as a result of the expanded definition of qualifying “agricultural labor” under the revised Head Start Performance Standards.

In the afternoon, four separate committee meetings were held: the Fiscal Committee, the Governance Committee, the Child & Family Health Committee, and the Planning Committee. The Governance Committee tackled revisions to the Center Level Governance Manual. To accomplish this work, the Governance Committee enlisted the support of employees from throughout the organization and Governance Committee would like to thank each and every one of them for traveling to Charleston to support us: Juana Rodriguez Cruz (La Familia Center, FL); Celia Rodriguez (Long Creek Center, NC); Cathy Cobb (Bladen County, NC); Michael Edmonds (South Carolina); Marilyn Torres (Florida – West); Dora Sanders (Florida West); Jenny Guzman (North Carolina); Angel Casiano (Lakeland, FL), and Patty Kingery (Raleigh, NC). The Governance Committee intends to present its revised manual to the Policy Council in August for approval and it will be implemented with the opening of the Florida centers in the fall.

Thanks to all of the productive committee work (and to the ever-efficient Maria Rodriguez and Maria Hernandez), the Policy Council meeting on day two moved quickly and smoothly. There were a number of important approval items addressed by the Policy Council, including the Early Head Start refunding application which is due on June 1, 2017.

May 10th was Mother’s Day in Mexico and we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge all of our Policy Council moms who were away from their families during this important day of recognition. We are so grateful for your sacrifice. We also want to acknowledge the dedicated service of Community Representative, Rhonda Povich. Rhonda’s volunteer service to ECMHSP comes to an end with this May meeting. We will miss her.

Loxley Team welcomes farmworker families back to our Head Start Center

Lauryn Sosa has worked with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project for ten years and currently serves as the Center Director of our phenomenal Loxley Center in Baldwin County, Alabama. I was able to catch up with Lauryn recently via telephone and email. Lauryn has been super-busy as the Loxley Center geared up for its opening day on May 2nd, but she was happy to take some time and chat with me about the latest happenings at the Loxley Center.

Lauryn shared that farmworker families in Baldwin County have been very worried about the new enforcement efforts targeted at immigrant communities in Alabama. This worry, she said, has created a feeling of “intimidation” in the farmworker community and parents have been slow to enroll their children in our Head Start program. However, with farm work to be done, parents are enrolling their children with more frequency in recent days and the Loxley Center opened with twenty children and on schedule. As ECMHSP commences transportation services with our wonderful school bus drivers and transportation team, we know enrollment will continue to surge.

When asked to provide a description of what opening day was like Lauryn reported the following:

Children were excited and eager to start at the center. Today, as well, parents arrived bright and early at the center. We currently are working on the enrollment of more children. I have to give thanks to my Loxley Team – a team that is always working hard and together to provide a high quality service to our farm working families. Family service staff and health services staff have done a great job working with the families and expediting enrollments regardless of the challenge of time limitations. Early Childhood Education Coordinators have worked hard with teaching staff to ensure that classrooms were ready and the Coordinators have provided great training to staff. Also, I have to give thanks to my kitchen staff, who have worked diligently to ensure that we have everything needed for the food service and I have to give thanks to the center Program Assistant who has helped a lot in the hiring process of new staff at the center. We have a successful opening and the expectation is to have a successful season!

Last year, the Loxley Center served 121 children and met its funded enrollment. This year, with lots of work at the sweet potato farms, watermelon, pepper and corn fields, as well as abundant work in the nurseries, Lauryn is anticipating another year of meeting funded enrollment. We are so fortunate to have dedicated staff like Lauryn and her Loxley team.

Big Celebrations at the ECMHSP 2017 Annual Conference

Speaker Paul Schmitz at the conference.

ECMHSP hosted our annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, from March 14-16. The conference theme was “Looking Towards the Future: Innovation, Leadership, Success.” Everyone in attendance received a wealth of information, with a particular focus on innovative practices to improve the quality of our program.

There were far too many wonderful presentations to share the details of them all with you here. However, we do want to share with you some of the highlights:

  • Dr. Arturo E. Hernandez, the author of the seminal text on bilingualism, The Bilingual Brain, presented a fascinating discussion on the benefits of bilingualism in early childhood education. Our Board President, Dr. David Conde, was so moved by Dr. Hernandez’s presentation, he drafted a recent article on the topic. You can read it here.
  • Training on the new Head Start Program Performance Standards: Our partners from FHI 360, fresh from their own training, oriented us on the new research-based, outcomes-driven performance standards. Eileen Torres and Leida Rivera of FHI 360 shouldered the heaviest presentation burden making more than a dozen presentations during the course of three days.
  • Paul Schmitz, the former Executive Director of the non-profit Public Access, made a riveting presentation on the qualities of leadership and how leaders are formed through a collaborative process, with many individuals supporting those who are anointed with the title of “leader.”
  • Kay Schieffer of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency provided an informative presentation on best practices for trauma-sensitive early childhood classrooms.

In addition to these wonderful presentations, a number of ECMHSP departments stepped up and delivered presentations on important topics, including the Quality Assurance team (led by Beth Zinkand), and the Nutrition team (led by Anteasha Farrell).

Dr. Villa, CEO, and Dr. Conde, Board President, congratulated staff as they were recognized for their years of service at the Annual Conference.

At the closing plenary of the ECMHSP Annual Conference, Dr. David Conde, reflected upon all that we had covered at the conference and shared the Board’s perspective on where ECMHSP is and where ECMHSP is going. Dr. José S. Villa, our Chief Executive Officer, followed Dr. Conde’s presentation with an inspirational message for the ECMHSP community which reminded us that all of our MSHS children are true “road scholars”.

Traci Lasher, HR Director, presented Angel Casiano (left) and Dana Rogers (right) with this year’s Staff Excellence Awards.

The annual conference ended on a celebratory note. ECMHSP is fortunate to have talented and dedicated staff throughout our service areas, and many were recognized for their years of service and their excellent performance. ECMHSP instituted the Staff Award for Commitment to Excellence to give special recognition to employees in all parts of the organization, including the Direct Service operations and Administrative Services. Staff are invited to nominate deserving employees who have made outstanding contributions that improved the life of a migrant or seasonal child or family, or significantly contributed to the professional development of their fellow staff members.This year’s recipients were Angel Casiano, Director of Operations West, and Dana Rogers, South Carolina Head Start Administrator.

ECMHSP wishes Michael Wilcox a happy retirement and thanks him for his years of service.

We also celebrated the retirement of longtime ECMSHP Facilities Manager, Michael Wilcox. We thank him for his hard work in keeping our centers safe and beautiful for our children to learn and play.

We owe a special thanks to the Program Support Department team that did a wonderful job designing our conference, especially Christine Alvarado, Clara Cappiello, and Cynthia Victa Matthews.

Indiantown Center Hosts the ECMHSP Board

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Parents in Indiantown leave their children at the ECMHSP center to learn and play while they work in zucchini fields.

On January 20, the Board of Directors of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project had the opportunity to visit children and staff at our wonderful center in Indiantown, Florida. The day began as days begin for many of our children – with a bus ride. And like the preschool children who ride our school buses, the ride to Indiantown was a learning experience for everyone on board, as ECMHSP Head Start Administrator Loretta Jones shared lots of wonderful information about the Indiantown center and the community of farmworkers who are served there. We learned, for example, that families speak a variety of languages at the Indiantown center including Spanish, Creole, English and dialects of Mexico and Central American countries, such as Guatemala.

Before visiting the children, we had the opportunity to meet with Geraldo and Maria Rivera of Lakeside Ranch of Indiantown and see our farmworker parents hard at work harvesting organic zucchini. Geraldo and Maria were generous with their time. They shared that as small, organic farmers they were deeply reliant on the labor and skill of our parents to harvest their crops. Board member Jaime Delgado shared his knowledge of the zucchini harvest, noting where to cut the vine and how young the zucchini needs to be for peak return.

Head Start children at the ECMHSP Indiantown Center.

Head Start children at the ECMHSP Indiantown Center.

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ECMHSP Board members visited center classrooms, where they interacted with the children.

Following the visit to the farm, the Board received a tour of the Indiantown Center. Center Director Floria Pachecho and her core team did an excellent job of explaining on how the Indiantown center prepares young children for educational success. Particularly noteworthy was the presentation by Early Childhood Education Specialist Karen James of the center’s school readiness results. As always, the teaching staff impressed us with their dedication and knowledge of best child care practices. And, as always, the Board members enjoyed all of their interaction and engagement with the 63 children in attendance.

The day after the site visit, our Board dedicated their Saturday to a full day of governance work. A packed agenda included discussion of a new five-year strategic plan for ECMHSP, and our implementation of the new Head Start Performance Standards. We are so fortunate to have a committed group of mission-driven individuals to guide our work.