Story of ECMHSP Dreamer Shared on Capitol Hill

Leaders from the faith, business and advocacy communities read Dreamer testimonials on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: FWD.us

East Coast Migrant Head Start Project is committed to preparing the children of migrant and seasonal farm workers for success. The farmworker families we serve entrust their children to ECMHSP centers while they toil in the fields every day to feed America. But many of these same families live with the fear of separation, afraid that today will be the last day they will get to hold their children when they drop them off at our centers. The undocumented families we serve are in need of permanent immigration solutions that can ensure unity and safety of their families. Now more than ever, it is important we uplift their stories and highlight how our farmworker families are woven into the fabric of our country.

On Monday, the Center for American Progress Action Fund and FWD.us partnered to host, “Speak out for Dreamers!”, a story-sharing marathon on Capitol Hill. Leaders from the faith, business and advocacy communities, including the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association and ECMHSP, came together for a six-hour readout of Dreamer testimonials to highlight how the DACA program has been transformative for 800,000 young undocumented people who came to the United States as children.

Janna Rios of NMSHSA and Norma Flores López of ECMHSP at the Dreamers event. Photo credit: FWD.us

ECMHSP, through its pro bono immigration services, helped Dreamers, whose children were enrolled in our Head Start centers, apply for temporary relief through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. We shared at the event one of the many Dreamer stories collected from our centers.

I had the honor to read the story of Juana Rodriguez Cruz, a Dreamer and former farmworker that, thanks to DACA, now works in one of the ECMHSP centers in Florida. As Juana shares –

At the time of my high school graduation, the United States had invested 13 years in me and I had come to love and respect this great country of ours. I say “ours” because in my heart this is my country. It is the red, white, and blue flag that I pledged allegiance to every day in class. It is the flag I recognize as my own. I am proud of my Mexican heritage, but it is to the United States to which I pledged everything.

You can hear me read Juana’s courageous story and her call to Congress by viewing the video below [begins at 2:55:21].

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Ffwdus%2Fvideos%2F1175110349285544%2F&show_text=0&width=560

The story-sharing marathon came just days before Members of Congress will be voting to either pass bipartisan legislation to protect Dreamers, or vote on a spending bill by December 8 that funds their deportation. Advocates call on Congress to provide a solution before going home for the holidays.

Norma prepares to share Juana’s powerful story. Photo credit: FWD.us

According to FWD.us, every day that Congress fails pass legislation to protect Dreamers, 122 Dreamers lose their DACA protection. As of today, more than 10,900 Dreamers are estimated to have lost their status as a result of President Donald Trump’s decision to end the program earlier this year. By the end of this week, the number will rise to 11,400. Dreamers, like Juana and many of the parents and staff at ECMHSP centers, cannot afford another delay by Congress.

Dreamers are our neighbors. They are the people that harvest the foods we eat every day. They are the people that teach our children in our centers. They are the people that make our country better. They have incredible stories of perseverance, hope and love that we need to share with Congress, and our Members of Congress have a responsibility to provide Dreamers with protection from deportations. The future and success of our country depends on it.

Guest Post: Reaching the Top of the Hill

Armando Cendejas is part of the 2017 NMSHSA Summer Internship Program and as a child was enrolled in the ECMHSP Fort Pierce Head Start center in Florida. This is his story.

Armando Cendejas, one of the students selected for the NMSHSA Internship Class of 2017, shares his story at the Closing Celebration in Washington, DC.

My name is Armando Cendejas. I am a 20-year-old sophomore attending Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida, pursuing a degree in Physical Therapy. My younger brother, Alejandro, and I were enrolled in East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s Head Start program as young children. My parents were migrant farmworkers and two of the hardest working individuals I know. They have both shaped me to become the person I am today — a person I am proud to be.

While enrolled in ECMHSP, I was just not taught; I was cared for, I was looked after, I was appreciated. I remember one morning in particular, I began to cry as I watched my mom drive away. I stood at the gate yelling for her until my teacher came to me. She didn’t move me; instead, she comforted me by assuring me that my mom would be back for me at the end of her work day.

It’s unbelievable to think back to my transformation. I went from being the shy, chubby kid who would stand at the gate and cry as he watched his mom get in her car, to now hugging my mom goodbye, and having her be the one to cry as I got on a plane to Washington, DC, for the summer.

My time in Washington, DC, made me realize the potential others have seen in me for years and gave me the opportunity to explore possible careers. I was one of four former Head Start students selected to participate in an internship by the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association for two months. I was placed with the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and was involved in drafting resolutions for their Executive Committee Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. For my hard work and commitment, I am proud to say I was invited to attend this meeting. While in Washington, DC, I also attended US Senate briefings at the Capitol, where I sat and listened to legislators debate topics that were related to my resolutions.

Before the internship, I was set on a career in physical therapy.  The work I have done while in Washington, DC, however, has changed my perspective on my future. I met with a few professors from the Georgetown University Law Center, and after listening to my story and of my work, they strongly urged that I consider an education in law. I now want to apply to law school, specifically Georgetown Law, and study law in health.

At times, it feels like something out of a movie. In movies like Field of Dreams, Remember the Titans, and Forrest Gump, things work out for the protagonist even after all the hardships they had to face for long periods of time. I feel like my life is like that.

Every time I think about the opportunity I was given here, I feel blessed. East Coast Migrant Head Start Project changed my life. The tools and skills that were instilled in me while in the Head Start program have aided me in reaching many goals in life, such as being the first in my family to graduate high school and attend college.

To get to college, it meant I needed to perform at a high level and excel in high school. ECMHSP staff were there to assist me if ever I had issues with studying, or crafting essays, or working on projects. They didn’t do the work for me — they provided tips, support, and even constructive criticism.

Armando on his first day in Washington, DC, along with the other members of the NMSHSA Internship Class of 2017.

When I go back to my East Coast Migrant Head Start center in Fort Pierce, I receive the same attention. Many of the teachers, nurses, and staff that were there and cared for me 15 years ago continue to be there and still care. In fact, I regularly would receive phone calls from them asking how I’m doing during my time in Washington D.C. for me to this day. I never take that aspect of ECMHSP for granted. The program continues to open doors for me by nominating me and supporting me during this amazing internship.

As I look forward towards my future, I know ECMHSP will be there to support me. I return to the center often either to volunteer, or to visit my old teachers. And, of course, to visit my mom in her office. My mom started as a field worker, packing citrus, working alongside other women like her. However, my mom had a thirst for knowledge. She taught herself English and earned herself a job inside the Head Start Center. ECMSHP helped her realize her dreams, and now they are helping me realize mine. I’m proud to have been a part of this program.

My mother would always tell me, “Échale ganas.” Only until now do I realize that she saw a bright future for me. It has been tough to get here, but with hard work and persistence, I’ll end up at the top of the hill, where I know I can make a difference in the world.

I believe that I have made the people at my Head Start center proud.

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.

Summer is Here and We’re Ready!

Lynn Bowen is the Head Start Administrator for ECMHSP’s Direct Services in Virginia. This is her experience as she and her team prepare to serve farmworker families at their centers.

This week, Memorial Day marked the unofficial start of the summer. For many, the warmer days of the summer season offer the perfect time for family vacations, outdoor fun and trips to the beach.

At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, the summer season has a slightly different meaning. It is growing season for many farms across America and workers are called to harvest the fresh fruits and vegetables grown under the summer sun. The migrant and seasonal farmworker families we serve begin their migration journey from Florida up along the East Coast to the states to the north, such as South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

These families bring along with them their most precious possessions—their children—and look for a safe and nurturing place to entrust their care while they work long days under the hot summer sun. East Coast Migrant Head Start Project wants to make sure our centers are ready for these families when they arrive.

Parksley Center team recruitment training and planning.

The dedicated employees of the two Migrant and Seasonal Head Start centers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia know the families are on their way and we are excited to welcome them with open doors. In anticipation, staff have been attending various training sessions, which have served to both enhance current skills and increase knowledge of our evolving component areas. These pre-season preparations ensure we are able to provide high-quality holistic services when we open our Head Start centers in Virginia.

In addition to learning new skills, these sessions have given staff members the opportunity to spend time together and continue the process of becoming effective teams. Managers and other training providers have also helped affirm and strengthen our relationship with content experts based at the ECMHSP headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Presentation led by Lisa Fernandez, Family Community Partnership/Health Specialist for Virginia Direct Services.

The time spent together has reminded us of the bigger picture; we are part of a larger team. Center actions and regional actions reverberate throughout ECMHSP. As center and regional teams, and as an agency team, we must remember that our actions have major impacts within ECMHSP and within our communities. Pre-service has given us the opportunity to ensure that the ripples we send forth from our region are positive and mission focused. Our goal is for these ripples to turn into waves of positivity and advocacy for our staff, families, and children in our centers.

As we welcome the start of a new season, we proudly welcome our farmworker families to our centers with a renewed sense of commitment and love for the work that we do.

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.

Parent Leads Move to Honor Chávez Day

Photo of Chavez, founder of UFW and civil rights leader.

César E. Chávez is the late founder and president of the United Farm Workers of America. He was born on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona, on March 31, 1927, and began working in the fields at the age of 10. In 1942, Chavez quit school in the seventh grade. Despite his hardships and lack of education, he went on to create a movement in support of farmworker rights and dignity.

Silvia Rodarte, the ECMHSP Policy Council Vice President, sees many similarities between her own life and that of César Chávez — a man she admires greatly. And like him, she tries to inspire positive change in her own community.

Silvia has lived in Belle Glade, Florida, since she was a little girl. When she was seven, her parents would pack up a few things into a car and drive up with the family to North Carolina to work in the green bean and pumpkin fields during the harvest season. When their work was done, they would make their way back to Florida.

Silvia, ECMSHP Policy Council Vice President, at work.

Silvia remembers fondly how as a child, she would spend hours playing in the chile and cucumber fields, occasionally helping her parents. Once she turned 15, she began working full time in the Florida’s lettuce field. By age 16, her priority became her newborn daughter. She dropped out of high school and focused on making ends meet for her new family; she continued the family’s tradition of migrant farm work.

After having her second child in 2005, she enrolled her newborn and her 3-year-old daughters into the ECMHSP’s Head Start program in Belle Glade, Florida. She was determined to give her children every opportunity to get a high-quality education so that they could have a better life than she had.

Today, Chávez’s legacy is honored on what would have been his 90th birthday. In 2014, former President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 as César Chávez Day and hosted a celebration at the White House in his honor, but this day is not recognized as a federal holiday. Yet each year, many states and cities host parades, marches and ceremonies in his honor.

For the first time, ECMHSP will be joining organizations across the country in celebrating César Chávez Day as an official holiday in our offices and centers – and this is thanks to Silvia. While reviewing the ECMHSP holiday calendar, Silvia noticed an important holiday missing: César Chávez Day.

“César Chávez is a very important person in the lives of farmworkers,” she says. “He started the first farmworker union, and made sure people in this country heard the voices of farmworkers and honor their rights.”

She wanted to make sure that he would be remembered by the ECMHSP community, even if it meant one day less of Head Start program services for her own children. She brought this up at the October Policy Council meeting and got the approval from both the Policy Council and the Board of Directors to add this day in place of another federally-recognized holiday. She is so proud of her accomplishment.

On this day, Silvia will be working in Florida’s fields, but with her usual smile even brighter. She is finishing up work in the corn harvest before preparing her family to move to Willard, Ohio, in May for the onion harvest. She works hard to provide many of the fresh fruits and vegetables we are eating, and it’s important to her that everyone remembers that March 31 is the day we honor of the man that continues to inspire farmworkers across the country.

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
— Cesar E. Chavez, 1984