A Safe Haven for Farmworker Families

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The ECMHSP Hendersonville Head Start Center opened on Monday, June 25.  Mayra Lozano, Family Services Coordinator, was one of the most eager staff members receiving our farmworker families on the first day of the season.  About 20 children showed up ready to learn.

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An ECMHSP parent is excited to pick up her children.

The ECMHSP Hendersonville Center is unique because it’s located in Western North Carolina.  The county is known as the Apple County because it’s surrounded by apple orchards.  Besides harvesting apples, this center’s families also work with tomatoes, corn, strawberries, bell peppers, and squash.  They also work pack a variety of produce and at nurseries.

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Mayra Lozano, Family Services Coordinator, reading to the children at the Hendersonville Center.

Mayra has been part of the ECMHSP family since 2017.  However, her experience at Telamon started in 2012, so she brings our organization plenty of experience.  She knows first-hand how much farmworker families sacrifice.  Although Mayra was only nine-years-old at the time, she recalls the day her dad fell off the ladder while picking oranges in Florida.  The consequences would be life-changing because her dad broke two discs in his spinal cord.  Seeing that her dad lost his ability to walk due to this accident shaped the rest of her life.  Mayra knows that many farmworker families would struggle without the services that ECMHSP provide, so she always goes out of her way to give her very best.  She knows how important it is to provide farmworkers’ kids a safe haven for learning while their parents are doing back-breaking labor in the fields.

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.

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!

Strengthening Community Ties in Semmes

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Ilsy Gray has been the Center Director at ECMHSP Semmes Center since July of 2017.  But her story with ECMHSP started in 2014, when she was the Family Services Coordinator.  She says this position prepared her for the challenging role that she holds today.  Ilsy is originally from Honduras and holds a degree from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where she graduated as a Chemical Engineer.  Besides leading her center to success, Ilsy is also working toward an Early Childhood Education degree at Bishop State Community College.  She’s passionate about furthering her education and motivating others to do the same.

Stephanie, an ECMHSP parent, recently got hired as the new Family Services Coordinator, which will allow her to take a break from working in the fields and spending more time with her family.  Stephanie previously served on the Parent Committee in 2014 as the Secretary, so she has been trusted with this role of enrolling farmworker families.  “Good communication has been key to building strong relationships.  It’s rewarding to see the children and their family’s growth as seasons go by,” says Ilsy.

The families at the Semmes Center in Alabama harvest fruits and vegetables. In addition, they plant and prune ornamental plants, ferns, and pine trees for Christmas. The season starts in May and ends in September.  The countries primarily represented by the center’s farmworker families are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

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ECMHSP Semmes Center Parent Orientation 2018

They recently opened for the season on Monday, May 7 with 45 children. This season, staff plans on strengthening their current community partnerships, which are crucial for farmworker families’ well-being. One of the most important partnerships is with the Mobile Health Department.  The Semmes Center staff consider themselves lucky to have two former ECMHSP employees working at the Mobile Health Department, making them very responsive to the center’s needs.

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David Baker, Mayor of Semmes, Alabama, visits the ECMHSP Semmes Center.

In addition, the City Hall of Semmes is very engaged with the center. Last year, David Baker, Mayor of Semmes, Alabama, accepted the center’s invitation and attended the literacy festival, where he shook the hands of many of our ECMHSP parents.  Ilsy looks forward to a great 2018 season at the Semmes Center.  She has promised to stay in touch and continue sharing the growth of her community.

Building Trust in Loxley

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The ECMHSP Loxley Center in Loxley, Alabama, welcomed more than 40 children on Monday, May 7.  The families we serve work with a variety of crops, such as: sweet potatoes, potatoes, strawberries, corn, green beans, and peppers.  Dignora Bonilla is confident that in the upcoming weeks, more than 100 children will fill the center with joy and laughter, especially since a third person has been recently added to her team to help with recruitment.

Dignora came to U.S. from the Dominican Republic at the age of 16.  She joined the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project family in 2009 as an Assistant Teacher at the Loxley Center.  About a year later, she was appointed as the Family Services Coordinator.  During the last nine years at ECMHSP, her passion of serving farmworker families has allowed her to grow professionally and take advantage of the educational opportunities.

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Dignora Bonilla, Family Services Coordinator at ECMHSP Loxley Center, enjoys reading to the kids.

Dignora shares that new families tend to have a difficult time at the beginning of each season, which is the reason why it’s so important for her to build trust the first time she meets with them.  A couple seasons ago, she recalls a single mother dropping off her four-year-old child on the first day.  They both hugged each other as they cried their eyes out.  The woman told Dignora that she wasn’t sure about leaving her son anymore. Dignora comforted her by saying she would keep a close eye on her son.  “Your child is safe with us.  Please allow us to place him on this path to school success,” said Dignora.  About 10 minutes after the child’s mom left, Dignora found him in the playroom interacting and laughing with the other children, so she sent mom a picture to give her peace of mind.

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The Loxley Center children are really excited to participate in crazy hair day. 

What is the key to her team’s success with our farmworker families?  Respecting their values, being culturally sensitive, and always reminding them of the organization’s open-door policies.  Farmworker families at the Loxley Center are immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.  When asked about the uniqueness of her center, Bonilla points out that the Loxley staff is very dedicated. “We make things happen. Our center is the priority, so if we need additional training to cover a different position, we do it,” says Dignora proudly. All teams come together to ensure that they provide high quality services for our farmworker families.  Stay tuned as the Loxley Center continues to advocate for more farmworker families.

Two Decades of Serving North Carolina Farmworker Families

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Celia Rodriguez was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was two years of age.  Her parents were farmworkers for more than 30 years, so she knows firsthand how much migrant farmworker families struggle.  Celia recalls being a migrant farmworker child between the ages of 10 and 14 years.  The hardest thing about being a migrant farmworker child was adjusting to a new school and making friends.  Celia couldn’t make close friendships because she moved every three months. Another difficulty she faced was that each school had a different curriculum.

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During her first day at the ECMHSP Long Creek Center, a child plays with her teacher.

Today, she’s been working at the ECMHSP Long Creek Center in North Carolina for 21 years as a Family Services Coordinator.  The Long Creek Center serves primarily three groups of families during the season.  First, the families who come to pick strawberries from early April and usually stay until late June or early July.  Then, there are the blueberry families who usually arrive in May and leave the first week of July.  Lastly, the tomato families arrive around July and stay until the end of the season, which is in late September.

Part of Celia’s profession is to build strong community partnerships, which can sometimes provide life-saving services.  Last year, a four-year-old child at Long Creek Center was found to have a brain cyst.  A nurse at Pender County Health Department and a social worker tried endlessly to get the child an appointment to see a specialist.  Celia served as a point of communications between the medical professionals and the child’s family.  During more than two decades of working at ECMHSP, Celia had never felt so much frustration for not being able to help as she watched the child’s mom crying on a regular basis, pleading for an appointment.  After six weeks, Chapel Hill Hospital was finally able to perform a CAT scan and informed the parents that the cyst would not hurt their child’s development.  The family and the ECMHSP staff were relieved with the news.

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Celia Rodriguez, Family Services Coordinator at ECMHSP, has been advocating for farmworker families for 21 years.

The Long Creek Center opened its doors to farmworker families for the season on May 2.  Meeting new children and their families is Celia’s favorite part of her job.  “The children’s voices and their singing make this a happy place.  The children bring life into the centers,” says Celia.  It’s because of mission-driven leaders like Celia that our migrant and seasonal farmworker children successfully transition into public school.

By sharing our blog post with your family and friends, you will help us continue advocating for more farmworker families on the East Coast.  We will continue to write about the miracles that happen every day at our centers.