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.

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.

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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.

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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.

The Long and Winding Road

Yesterday, shortly after sunrise, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project opened our doors to farmworker families in Jennings, Florida. We couldn’t be happier.

Our newest Head Start center was conceived a number of years ago when our community assessment work demonstrated a desperate and unmet need for Head Start services to migrant farmworker families in Hamilton County, Florida. There, migrant farmworker families arrive in early May to harvest tomatoes before migrating away to points up North at the beginning of July, only to return to the town of Jennings in north Hamilton County at the end of August to continue their work through October.

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Farmworker families served by the new Head Start center live in nearby motels during the harvest seasons of Hamilton County, Florida.

Farmworker families who work these short, two-season harvests live in very poor conditions. In Jennings, many families live in motels just off of Interstate 75 for the duration of their stay.  The motels offer little in the way of amenities.  The motel rooms are just places for farmworkers to rest their weary bodies from long days in the hot fields – their young children making do as best they can under very difficult circumstances.

Sixteen months ago we were awarded a grant to develop a childcare center for farmworker families in Jennings.   We knew that if we wanted to truly meet the needs of the migrant farmworker families we’d need to locate the childcare center close to where they lived.  We considered ourselves fortunate when a local resident with a big heart agreed to allow us to develop our childcare center on land he owned that was located less than two miles from the motels.

With the land in hand, we next turned to designing and building a beautiful childcare center. For this purpose, we turned to Labelle, Florida architect, Ted Hoffman, who wrote a blog post about his experience, and our own Facilities Manager, Michael Wilcox.  Together, Ted and Mike moved mountains of dirt — and everything and anything else that stood in their path — until we had a certificate to occupy our new center.

Building a childcare center in rural North Florida is a huge accomplishment, but it only gets one so far down the long and winding road of serving children and families. Before the doors can open, dedicated teachers, assistant teachers, and bilingual caregivers must be hired and trained; family service staff must learn the intricacies of the Head Start enrollment process; and cooks must be prepared to turn fresh fruits and vegetables into delicious and nutritious meals.

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The ECMHSP Jennings center in Florida, which opened yesterday.

We were so very fortunate to bring on board a phenomenal group of individuals who have taken to their new responsibilities with a “can do” attitude.   They have been partnered in their work with experienced classroom staff who have relocated from Head Start centers that we operate in southern parts of Florida.  Together, our Jennings team has created a culturally-sensitive, early learning environment of which we can be very proud.

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ECMSHP staff welcome farmworker families to the Jennings Head Start center on opening day.

As is always the case, there are too many staff to mention each by name. And is always the case, we mention each staff by name because we are so proud of their accomplishment: Ja’Lysa Daniels, Assistant Cook; Enedalia Chacon, Cook; Syreeta Delaughter, Teacher; Christopher Rodriguez, Teacher; Marimar Ramirez, Teacher; Estrella Manso, Assistant Teacher; Rolando Vasquez, Assistant Teacher; Ingrid Rivera Colon, Teacher; Nery Standifer, Teacher; Franni Adams, Teacher; Isabel Mendoza, Teacher; Jose Rodriguez, Teacher; Maria “Blanca” Lopez; Teacher; Roxanna Viar, Health/Disability Coordinator; Marisol Lopez, Family Services Worker; Edelnys Rodriguez, Family Services Coordinator; Jennifer Smith, Program Assistant; Kim Luna, Interim Center Director; Angel Casiano, Director of Program Operation West; Luz Ramos, Family and Community Partnership Specialist; and Mariely Rivera-Rohena, our Early Head Start Administrator.

 

The long and winding road that leads to your door,

Will never disappear,

I’ve seen that road before

It always leads me here,

Leads me to your door

 

Guest Post: In the Interest of Children

Holly Strait is the Senior Director Child & Family Development Services at PathStone Corporation. This is her experience at the Field of Dreams Head Start Center’s opening day.

On July 12, the Adams County Family Development Field of Dreams Head Start center opened on a hot and humid day to 24 appreciative farmworker families. Parents were comfortable leaving their children in a familiar setting as they headed off to pick, pack, and process peaches.

Farmworkers enroll their children for Head Start services at the Field of Dreams center.

Farmworkers enroll their children for Head Start services at the Field of Dreams center.

As one family member said, “The classrooms look very nice and I feel safe in leaving my child at the center while I am at work.”

As children and families found their way to their assigned classroom, teachers were there to greet them with a smile and a hug on the first day of school. The classrooms filled up with children, and teachers were ready to implement activity plans. Old and new friends were curious to explore all the new exciting classroom furnishings and materials that were purchased prior to opening day. The teachers saw how all 32 enrolled children were laughing and looking ahead.

Through the course of the past few months, administrators interviewed and hired new teachers for the center. Staff participated in planning meetings, pre-service trainings, community events, and partnership-building activities to prepare for a successful opening day.

For more than 20 years, PathStone Corporation, a delegate agency of ECMHSP, has been able to provide high-quality childcare to children and their families while parents harvest fruits for the Adams County community. The Field of Dreams Head Start center is surrounded by peach and apple orchards in a growing Hispanic community. The center is expected to meet their full funded enrollment of 60 children by the end of August.

On average, the Field of Dreams farmworker families work from sun up to sun down, yet they find time to participate at the center. Over the course of four months during which the center is in operation, families volunteer on average more than 1,000 hours in total.

The sound of children's voices and laughter fill the classrooms on opening day.

The sound of children’s voices and laughter fill the classrooms on opening day.

As the children left the center at the end of the day, they exclaimed to their parents in a fun way, “I can’t wait to come back and play another day!”

Happy harvesting to all, and to all a prosperous Fall.

Open doors and smiling faces at Parksley

LaShundra Weeks is the Center Director for the Parksley Migrant Head Start Center in Virginia. This is her experience at the center’s opening day.

The secret to success is planning.

Parents came to the center before opening day for orientation and to meet teachers.

After much planning and preparation, ECMHSP’s Parksley Head Start Center, located on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, finally opened its doors on June 28, for yet another season.

In this region, migrant farm laborers work alongside local, seasonal farmworkers to harvest the hand-picked crops.

The Parksley center staff conducted a parent orientation the day before opening. The orientation allowed parents to get familiarized with the Head Start services being provided, as well as affording an opportunity for parents to tour the center. Parents are also able to meet their child’s teacher to create a personal connection.

On opening day the teachers were eager and anticipating the children’s arrival with numerous of shared activities planned.

Family Service Coordinator Jose Ramos greeting a child on the first day.

Family Service Coordinator Jose Ramos greeting a child on the first day.

Our Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program provides a range of services in areas of education and early childhood development; medical, dental, and mental health; parent involvement; and family support services.

Staff at the Parksley Center is looking forward to developing trusting, caring and supportive relationships with our children and families this season.

For more information on the services provided by ECMHSP’s Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program and centers near you, please visit our website: www.ecmhsp.org

 

Children are able to learn and play in our Parksley Head Start Center.

Children are able to learn and play in our Parksley Head Start Center.

 

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.