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.

Opening Day at the Bladen Center!

Patti Kingery is the Head Start Administrator for ECMHSP’s Direct Services in  North Carolina. This is her experience on opening day at a one of our centers. 

After another successful planning season, ECMHSP’s Bladen Head Start Center, located in Ivanhoe, North Carolina, opened its doors on Wednesday, May 18, marking the beginning of its seventh season. Approximately 80 children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers are expected to be served at the Bladen Center this summer, while their parents work in the blueberry fields and packing houses.

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

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

“I’m excited about the first day,” said one teacher. “After all the planning and training, I’m looking forward to working with the kids again.”

Families began arriving at the center around 6:45 a.m. on this cool and rainy morning. Teachers greeted each child by name and welcomed them to their classroom. Within an hour or so, the Center was bustling with lots of energy and excitement.

Preschool children were singing songs, playing with new toys, and learning their classmates’ names. Small groups of children were working with teachers on alphabet letters and reading books; other groups were practicing writing letters and drawing shapes. The kitchen staff prepared yummy meals & snacks that the toddlers, in particular, devoured after a busy morning filled with play and learning.

Children enjoy delicious and healthy snacks prepared by our kitchen staff.

Children enjoy delicious and healthy snacks prepared by our kitchen staff.

Studies show that, on average, by the time children of low income families enter kindergarten, they already face a significant gap in literacy skills — a gap that often continues to widen as children get older. At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, staff understand that closing that gap begins with good instruction and engaging activities that begin on day one.

Meanwhile, in another building, Family Services and Health staff from three centers in North Carolina continued assisting new parents with completing applications for Head Start services. The North Carolina – Direct Services team works together each season to ensure children are able to get enrolled as quickly as possible, given the large number of families arriving in the area around the same time. Parents filled the offices and covered decking areas as they completed the necessary activities to get their children enrolled in the Bladen Center.

Parents are assisted by bilingual staff to enroll their children in our Head Start services.

Parents are assisted by bilingual staff to enroll their children in our Head Start services.

One parent remarked to a staff person, “My child was so excited when we told him that we’re going back to North Carolina. He loves this center!”

It is an exciting time to be at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Similar scenes can be experienced in ECMHSP Head Start centers across North Carolina and other states as centers welcome our families back. It is an honor and a privilege to serve farmworker families by caring for and educating their children while they harvest the fruits and vegetables we enjoy every day.

Singing, dancing, and playing games filled the morning schedule.

Singing, dancing, and playing games filled the morning schedule.

To see a full list of the locations of ECMHSP Head Start centers, please visit our website: www.ecmhsp.org.