In the Right Place at the Right Time

B_Head Start WorksTabitha Shelton has been a part of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project since February 2018.  I had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with her.  Keep reading to learn more about why she’s such an important member of our team.

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

Before moving to Raleigh to work for ECMHSP, I was living in Arkansas.  My son Bryson went to a Head Start center called Child Development Incorporated, located in Russellville, Arkansas.  He attended from the age of three until almost the age of six.  He was advanced and went to the gifted and talented classroom; he’s academically focused.  During Bryson’s 7th grade year, he served as the Community Project Coordinator on the Student Council.  He arranged for Student Council to raise $300 to purchase books for the local Head Start.  The Student Council members then took a field trip to the local Head Start, read books to the preschoolers, and spent half a day playing with the children.  I attribute everything that my son is to Head Start. Without Head Start, I would have not been able to complete college. I was a single mother at the time.  Knowing that my son was in a safe environment where he was learning and was taken care of, allowed me to get my Bachelor’s in Early Childhood Education from Arkansas Tech University.  At my previous agency, Community Action Program Arkansas, I was the Education Disabilities and Mental Health Coordinator.  In 2017, I attended the School Readiness Institute in Washington, D.C. for work.  It was one of the trainings that my team and I would go to annually.  Sheila Dandeneau, Curriculum Program Development Specialist at ECMHSP, and I were in a session together.  After the session, she approached me to say that ECMHSP was looking for a Disabilities and Mental Health Manager.

Bryson - Head Start

This is a picture of Bryson at his Head Start center in Russellville, Arkansas.

What made you a good candidate for the position?

When I was in college, my placement was at a Head Start center, so I had a strong foundation of what Head Start is.  Also, as a Head Start parent, I served on the Policy Council.  I know what it’s like in the classroom because I taught preschool for four years, so I know the actual struggles of being at the center.  In addition, I taught four years as a special education teacher.  I also got my Master’s in Special Education at Arkansas Tech University.

How was the training you received?

I spent time with all the teams at our Raleigh office, especially the program support team.  I really spent a lot of time reading the manuals, which are magnificent.  They just really tell you what we do, why we do it, and how you literally document it in the system. When I came up with lots of questions, I scheduled weekly meetings with my program support team.  I had a lot of the foundation knowledge, it was more getting used to how ECMHSP operates.

Shelton Family

The Shelton Family.

How is this role different than your previous one?

I liked the Education Disabilities and Mental Health Coordinator role. It allowed me to get that hands-on experience, working with the teachers.  This position pushes me to grow professionally, how Head Start operates, grants, writing disability waivers, and doing strategic planning.  That has just pushed me to believe in myself and people can really learn from that.  I’m able to provide support to approximately 16 members of my team along the East Coast.  We have a monthly health and disability committee call to provide new updates, training pieces, and the specialists give us feedback.   

About how many children do we serve with some type of disability?

I would say it’s about five to six percent of all the children we serve.  We’re required to have 10% children with disabilities, but it’s common for Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs across the nation to have lower numbers.  An evaluation process for a disability can take up to four months and our families move around so quickly they don’t finish the evaluation process.  Unfortunately, once they move to another state, the state requires parents to start the process all over. 


Tabitha doing a presentation at the 2019 NMSHSA annual conference.

What are your education goals?

I have considered two things as far as my education.  One, I have thought about going back to school to pursue a doctoral degree.  Also, while I know a lot about mental health, I would like to have a mental health licensure to ensure that I can provide more support.  I think we’re going to start seeing more challenging behaviors in our migrant communities because of the things our children are seeing and hearing.  My goal is to do more national trainings.  I get very passionate when I share things about disability, mental health, and trauma. I hope my passion is infectious and others want to make a change as well.

How do you feel you’re making a difference at ECMHSP?

I have a lot of experience from the classroom. I love what I do.  I come with a lot of passion.  It is imperative to me that every child receives services as quickly as possible.  Early intervention is key to these children that have these gaps. The earlier they get the intervention, the better the chance to close those gaps.

Tabitha looks forward to improving the systems in place to preserve the ECMHSP mission.  Her early connection to the Head Start program has been key to the success she shows every day.  ECMHSP is thankful for having such a passionate individual on our team.

Driving Children to Success

Christina Arnold Pic

Christina Arnold has been a part of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project since May of 2017.  I recently had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with her.  Keep reading to learn more about why she’s such a key team member for ECMHSP.

Can you please tell me a little bit about your story at East Coast Migrant Head   Start Project?

I had spent seven months as a substitute bus driver for the Hamilton County School District in Florida. One day during our regular morning meeting, we were told that East Coast Migrant Head Start Project was looking to hire bus drivers.  This information had been shared by ECMHSP’s Transportation Manager, Charles Leach.  The opening was for the ECMHSP Jennings Center, conveniently located seven miles away from my house.  At the time, I thought working there between May and October would be perfect, and then I would go back to the Hamilton County School District.  My hire date at ECMHSP was May 5, 2017.  Prior to officially starting, I got sent to two different areas of South Carolina to get training.  I had never traveled outside of Florida.  The mandatory training before becoming a bus driver for ECMHSP was 40 hours.  I also received three days of bus monitor training.  I was away from home for about a week and a half.  ECMHSP took great care of me during this time.

What did you enjoy the most about the training you received?

Although it’s a long process, the yearly training sharpens you.  I really liked that ECMHSP focused on safety being their number one priority.  The training showed that you need to step it up.

What happened after the season ended at the ECMHSP Jennings Center?

Once the season finished, I was offered to work at the ECMHSP Okeechobee Center I and II between November and May of 2018.  I already knew how everything worked and really enjoyed being here.  However, Okeechobee was more than five hours away from my home, so I had to talk to my kids before accepting.  As a child, my son, Richard Jr. learned to read using a Bass Pro magazine, and one of his dreams had always been to go fishing at Lake Okeechobee.  The possibility of being able to take my family fishing made us very excited.  After receiving my family’s support, I left for Okeechobee.  At the end of December 2017, I was able to make my son’s dream come true.  We caught over 40 fish during our trip!

Christina Arnold - fishing trip

Making the dream come true at Lake Okeechobee!

How did going to Okeechobee change you?

Traveling to Okeechobee gave me financial stability. I had the chance to save up money to pay bills that I had pending.  I’m glad I was able to help out other centers provide transportation services to the families.

Is it hard to leave your community behind in Jennings?

The hardest part is not being as involved with my own kids.  I drive back home one weekend a month.  While I’m away, my sister is a big help with Richard Jr., my 17-year-old son.  He’s a junior in high school and works part-time.  My daughter Chasity, 21, is currently doing basic training for the Army in Oklahoma.  She wants to pursue a career in the medical field, so she signed up to be a combat medic.  My daughter received special permission from the Army to go home for Christmas.  She’ll graduate from basic training in January.


Left to right: Chasity (21), Richard Jr. (17), and Christina.

What do you like the most about driving for ECMHSP?

I enjoy the interaction with the kids.  I enjoy seeing them happy every morning.  It’s just a joy in my heart to see the kids growing and learning in a safe environment.

What’s a typical day for you?

I usually start my pre-trip inspection around 4 a.m. There are more than 140 items that I have on my checklist. My first pick up is around 5:20 a.m., then I arrive at the center around 6:30 a.m.  After the kids are safely at the center, I finish the paperwork I must submit.  For example, the seating chart and attendance.  Then, the post-trip inspection begins, and we clean and sanitize the bus interior to get it ready for the afternoon.  Around 4:30 p.m., I complete another pre-trip inspection.  We start loading the bus around 5:20 p.m.

Christina at Okeechobee II

Christina Arnold always has a smile on her face.

Can you share a little bit about how you work with other staff on the bus to make sure children arrive safely at the center?

We’re constantly communicating to make sure the kids are being transported safely.  On the way to our Head Start center, the bus monitors entertain the children by singing with them.  When the last child is escorted off the bus, the bus monitors inspect the bus to make sure no child gets left behind.  They also report any incidents that occur while the children are on the bus.

Is there anything else you would like our ECMHSP community to know about          driving a school bus for us?

It means a lot.  It’s been a great experience, and I look forward to a long future here.

Christina A.

Christina gets ready for her pre-trip inspection.

Thank you for taking the time to let me interview you, Christina. You go above and beyond to make sure our children arrive safely at our centers in Florida.  Without you, we know many of our little ones would not have a safe way to reach our Head Start centers in Florida.  As you get ready to start your bus driver responsibilities at our ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center, we wish you a great season!

Planning for Head Start Success Through Shared Governance


Effective governance is an essential part of any successful Head Start program.  East Coast Migrant Head Start Project is proud of the strong partnership we have with our Board of Directors and Policy Council!  Their great leadership and unwavering dedication to the mission allows us to provide comprehensive, high-quality early childhood education and Head Start services to farmworker families.

Each year, the ECMHSP Board of Directors and Policy Council meet to fulfill their shared responsibilities and, in collaboration with the ECMHSP management team, provide strategic direction for the organization.  This year, the ECMHSP Shared Governance Meeting took place on July 20 in Raleigh, North Carolina, the location of ECMHSP’s headquarters.

Leading up to the Shared Governance Meeting, the Board of Directors and Policy Council members met with their respective standing committees.  Each committee meeting is filled with rich discussions as the members delve deep into their corresponding topics and do “the heavy lifting” in fulfilling their responsibilities.  Policies and program data is reviewed; proposals are made and debated; and committee recommendations are prepared for presentation to the governing bodies.

The Board of Directors and Policy Council built on the momentum from the committee meetings and met last Friday for their annual Shared Governance Meeting.  The President of the Board of Directors, Dr. David Conde, called the meeting to order and initiated introductions, followed by a moment of silence in solidarity with the children and families currently separated at the US/Mexico border and remain in detention or have been deported.  Then the President of the Policy Council, Meiby Mora Soto, presented her report, The View from the Policy Council, which exalted significant milestones and activities achieved by the Policy Council over the past year.  Following her report, ECMHSP’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Jose S. Villa, provided his report, The View from the CEO, which provided a review of accomplishments and challenges of the organization.

The Board of Directors assumes legal and fiscal responsibility for the organization and charged with safeguarding the Head Start federal funds.  Each year, they are presented with the results of the external financial audit to ensure the organization’s financial statements are in compliance.  The external auditing firm provided Board and the Policy Council with this year’s report, which contained no significant findings.  You can view the results of the most recent audited financial statements on our website.

During the annual Shared Governance Meeting, the Board and Policy Council are provided with presentations on policies and applications that require their joint approval.  This year, they approved the 2018-19 Migrant and Seasonal Head Start grant application, the ECMHSP Strategic Plan for the following five years, and the updates to ECMHSP Shared Decision-Making and Internal Dispute Resolution Procedures.


Norma Flores López, Governance and Collaboration/Development Manager, with the ECMHSP Governance Team.

In between the thoughtful discussions and thorough presentations, the Board of Directors and Policy Council made time to celebrate as well.  The Policy Council hosted a beautiful baby shower for the Governance Manager, which became a night filled with fun activities, lots of laughter, and—most importantly to our tiniest guests—delicious cake!  At the conclusion of the Shared Governance meeting, the President of the Board of Directors also hosted a reception to provide the meeting attendees an opportunity to get to know each other outside of the board room.


ECMHSP Policy Council

The insightful input and careful decisions made by the Board of Directors and Policy Council provide ECMHSP with a road map to success for our Head Start program.  The farmworker families we serve from Lake Okeechobee, Florida, to Lake Erie, Pennsylvania, will benefit from last week’s shared decision-making and can rest assured that the leadership of ECMHSP remains as committed as ever to their families’ well-being.  We look forward to next year’s Shared Governance Meeting in Washington, D.C!

Virginia Services Advocate for Our Farmworker Families

Lynn Bowen is the Head Start Administrator for ECMHSP’s Direct Services in Virginia. This is her experience as she and her team advocate for farmworker families.

The ECMHSP Virginia Direct Services team has been actively participating in opportunities to raise awareness of our Migrant Head Start programs, families, and employment opportunities.

Exhibitor table representing ECMHSP at the regional job fair.

On April 5, LaShundra Weeks, Center Director, and Rhonda Strand, Early Childhood Education and Disability Specialist at the ECMHSP Parksley Head Start Center, represented ECMHSP during the annual Accomack-Northampton Regional Job Fair, hosted by the Eastern Shore Community College in Melfa, Virginia. LaShundra and Rhonda were able to provide information at an exhibitor table to more than 100 participants about our successful Head Start programs.

Lynn Bowen presents during the conference on the needs of the families we serve.

As Head Start Administrator, I have looked for opportunities to advocate for the families we serve. On April 8, I presented a session titled, “Understanding the Unique Needs of Migrant Farmworker Families”, during the annual 2017 Early Childhood Educator Conference in Lake City, Florida. This conference was sponsored by the Early Learning Coalition of Florida’s Gateway and Florida Gateway College. Participants of the Conference hailed from the Florida counties of Columbia, Hamilton, Lafayette, Suwannee and Union.

Lisa Fernandez showcases ECMHSP high-quality and comprehensive services.

Most recently, the first Kids Count on the Eastern Shore Forum was held on April 12 in Melfa, Virginia. The forum was sponsored by Smart Beginnings Eastern Shore in cooperation with other community partners, and brought together leaders in government, business, education and various fields in non-profit. Data provided during the forum was presented by Dr. William O’Hare, a senior fellow with the KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Dr. O’Hare has more than 30 years of experience as an applied demographer, specializing in making socio-demographic data available to the public and to policy makers. Also in attendance were Virginia State Senator Lynwood Lewis Jr., Virginia House of Delegates Member Robert Bloxom, Jr., and a representative from U.S. Congressman Scott Taylor’s office. As a member of Smart Beginnings Eastern Shore’s executive committee, I led roundtable discussions while Lisa Fernandez, Family/Community Partnership and Health Specialist, introduced ECMHSP and the services we provide via a poster presentation.

The opportunity to raise awareness of our organization and those we serve comes at a particularly critical time. Many of our families are living in fear and are unsure of what their future holds. By continuing to advocate and raise awareness, we are demystifying the misconceptions about our families and showing how they are a vital part of our community.

Ringing in the New Year After 35 Years of Service

ecmhsp-35-year-anniversary-logoThe year 2016 was special for us: it was East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s 35th Anniversary.

ECMHSP has grown so much since the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Sister Geraldine O’Brien founded the first Head Start center for farmworker families on the east coast in Palatka, Florida. Since those humble beginnings, we have expanded up the east coast, providing more than 200,000 farmworker children with an opportunity to learn and play.


Children enrolled in ECMHSP’s Head Start program receive dental exams and immunizations.

What’s the secret to our success? Our dedicated parents and committed staff in our centers and offices. Season after season, the families we serve leave their loving imprints at our centers and in our hearts, and eventually move on to a successful education in the K-12 schools. Yet, in our centers, our staff remain to welcome the next class of smiling faces. ECMHSP has been fortunate to have incredible staff that have dedicated their careers to educating and nurturing young children of farmworker families in our centers.

Celia Tigerina –Sally, as she is lovingly known in the La Familia Head Start center—is one example of a staff member that has been with the organization since 1976. She understands first-hand the struggles the families we serve face, having grown up working in the Texas cotton fields and migrating herself. When she settled in Florida, her friend invited her to work with her at ECMHSP. She started her journey at ECMHSP by preparing nutritious meals in the center’s kitchen, then went on to help bring the children to our centers in the buses, and eventually worked her way into the classroom. Sally is known by her fellow coworkers as a quiet but very happy person. She loves to sing and dance with the children, and she especially enjoys seeing the young children she used to carry in her arms all grown up now.

Sally credits ECMHSP with changing her life as well. Through her hard work and with the support of ECMHSP, she was able to get out of the fields and get an education. She now has a GED and has been licensed to work with the young children in our Head Start center. ECMHSP also provided work opportunities for her sisters as well. She is grateful for the opportunity to work with children of different backgrounds and to ECMHSP for giving her the chance to make a positive impact in the world.

The infants & toddlers participated in age appropriate activities while they were getting to know their new teachers.

ECMHSP’s dedicated staff ensure the children have a safe and nurturing environment in which to learn and play.

The ECMHSP community has many stories of special individuals like Sally who have made it their life’s work to prepare the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers for success. Children that wore their caps and gowns at our Head Start centers years ago are now walking across the stage in caps and gowns to receive their college degrees. That’s what we do at ECMHSP: we change lives, one child at a time.

In looking back to our achievements over the past 35 years, the vision for the future of the organization becomes clear, and it is bright! ECMHSP is proud to continue our legacy of providing high-quality and culturally-appropriate Head Start services to migrant and seasonal farmworker families.

Throughout the month of November and December, our Florida centers have opened their doors to migrant farmworker families returning from their travels upstream, where farmworkers were finishing up the harvest seasons along the East Coast. As of mid-December, ECMHSP has enrolled 538 children in its Florida centers, and there are another 79 children on the wait list as we work to hire more teaching staff to open more classrooms. In addition, our wonderful delegate agency, PathStone Corporation, opened their centers in Berks County and Chester County, Pennsylvania, to farmworkers working in the mushroom industry.


Our Head Start centers in Florida are now open to provide farmworker families with services.

ECMHSP takes this opportunity to thank all of our dedicated staff for helping us succeed and we invite you to join us in ringing in the new year by celebrating this accomplishment. In particular, we would like to share a special THANK YOU to Sally for her many years of service. We wish you the best in your upcoming retirement.

We are looking forward to our many more accomplishments to come in 2017 – and the next 35 years.

California’s New Law on Overtime Pay for Farmworkers

Farmworker parents work through our ECMSHP Policy Council to create advocacy tools for the farmworker community, including videos.

Farmworker parents work through our ECMSHP Policy Council to create advocacy tools for the farmworker community, including videos.

In October of 2012, migrant farmworker parents whose children attend an East Coast Migrant Head Start Project center developed a farmworker bills of rights. The farmworker bill of rights included many rights that other workers take for granted, such as the right to work for farmers who did not try to deceive OSHA inspectors and the right to access potable water and restrooms during the workday.  Our parents also identified the right to receive overtime compensation, as well as compensation for all of the hours they worked.  Our parents promoted their farmworker bill of rights in a video available on YouTube.

Farmworkers were excluded from many protections offered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, including overtime compensation.

Farmworkers were excluded from many protections offered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, including overtime compensation.

This week California made one of the farmworker rights identified by our parents a reality when Governor Jerry Brown signed a statute requiring farmworkers received overtime compensation. The law means that farmworkers in the state will be treated like employees in other industries, where overtime is paid after a standard eight-hour day as a result of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a national minimum wage, overtime and the 40-hour work week among work standards.  The Fair Labor Standards Act, however, exempted farmworkers and it is not uncommon for farmworkers to work in excess of 12 hours each day with no additional compensation for their labor.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the United Farm Workers union, which sponsored the California legislation, said it hopes the state’s large agricultural industry will influence other states. “For 78 years, a Jim Crow-era law discriminated against farmworkers by denying us the same overtime rights that other workers benefit from,” said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. “Governor Brown corrected a historic wrong and set an example for other states to follow.’”

East Coast Migrant Head Start Project applauds the California legislature and Governor Brown for recognizing the value of the work of farm laborers, who ensure the American people that they have a safe and secure source of fresh produce. We call upon states all across the nation to follow California’s lead and ensure that the workers who feed us are treated with dignity and fairness.


ECMHSP calls on other states to follow California’s lead and implement overtime pay laws for our farmworker families.

Cameras Rolling at La Familia Center

Daniel Jaime is the Center Director for La Familia Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Center in Florida. This is his experience working with media.

La Familia Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Center in Dundee, Florida.

La Familia Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Center in Dundee, Florida.

On Feb. 18, I received a phone call from John Sarmiento, a news anchor for Telemundo Tampa. Mr. Sarmiento called me because he had heard from a community partner about the wonderful services ECMHSP’s La Familia Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Center provides in Dundee, Florida, and surrounding areas. He wanted to see if he could come to the center and interview a few farmworker parents who have benefited from the services that we provided and how they felt it would benefit other families in the community.

The next day at around noon, Mr. Sarmiento arrived with his camera crew. We had two farmworker parents who were willing to provide a brief testimony of the services that they had and were receiving. During his visit, Mr. Sarmiento toured the center and was able to see all of the staff and children in action. “It’s just remarkable,” he said. He couldn’t believe how nice the classrooms were set up and the attention that was being given to the children. Once he finished touring the center, Mr. Sarmiento began to interview the parents.

The parents were nervous at first because they were going to be on television; but once they got into the interview, you could see the passion in their eyes and the words coming directly from their heart. The parents did a tremendous job representing East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and describing the services that they have received. When asked if they thought that other families would benefit from these types of services, they did not hesitate to say, “It’s a wonderful program. Who wouldn’t want their children in a center like this?”

Ana Maria Cruz, farmworker parent, shares in the interview how La Familia center has helped her children.

Ana Maria Cruz, farmworker parent, shares in the interview how La Familia center has helped her children.

In my interview with Mr. Sarmiento, he wanted me to talk about all of the services that we provide, what our services areas are, as well as if there are other centers like us in the area or elsewhere. I provided information about what services East Coast Migrant Head Start Project provides and how a family could potentially qualify. I also informed Mr. Sarmiento about some of the struggles that our families have and how it has been impacting our enrollment numbers, not only at our center, but at other centers along the East Coast as well. Some of those impacts include: the influx of H2A workers in the community; families settling out and deciding not to travel; and local and national immigration laws that make it harder for families to travel from one state to another comfortably.

Daniel Jaime's interview by Telemundo was aired as part of the story.

Center Director Daniel Jaime’s interview by Telemundo Tampa was aired on February 24.

The story was aired locally on Feb. 24 during the Telemundo Tampa newscast and shared through the news station’s social media. The story can be viewed here. Now that the Tampa community has seen the story, hopefully we can have an influx of families, community stakeholders, and people who are willing to seek employment with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.