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.

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.

Angier Center

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.

Wendy Fernandez

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!

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.

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.

Big Celebrations at the ECMHSP 2017 Annual Conference

Speaker Paul Schmitz at the conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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