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.

Maria’s Excellent Adventure

Maria was one of the first farmworkers to apply for DACA, which would allow her to travel outside of the U.S. with Advanced Parole.

Maria was one of the first farmworkers to apply for DACA, which would allow her to travel outside of the U.S. with Advance Parole.

Twenty-three-year-old Maria Sanchez Martinez is the former Vice President of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s Policy Council. In August of 2012, she was one of the first farmworkers to submit an application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which has allowed her to lawfully work in the U.S. and consequently, has improved the her life and the life of her family dramatically. Since then, she has twice renewed her DACA eligibility.

On October 25, 2016, Maria was able to travel home to Mexico on Advance Parole to visit her ailing grandfather. It was the first time she had seen her grandfather and her extended family since coming to the United States 14 years ago.   We recently were able to chat with Maria about her excellent adventure.

When did you find out that your application for Advance Parole was approved and how did it make you feel?

With the help of John Menditto (General Counsel at ECMHSP), I submitted my Advance Parole application to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in June of 2016. The application process required us to establish my family relationship to my grandfather and to provide a letter from his medical doctor regarding his health. USCIS approved my application on September 26 but they only permitted me to travel for thirty days (until October 26) and they failed to send me my travel document. John had to contact USCIS and had them re-issue the travel document and ask them to extend the travel period.   USCIS extended the travel period, but only for an additional five days.

When John told me my application was approved I was excited, yet nervous. I also was disappointed at the short-notice and turnaround time.

Tell us about your travel plans.  How did you get from Florence, South Carolina, to the village in Mexico where you lived until you were nine years old?

I immediately made flight reservations, which were very costly due to the short time to make the reservations. I drove from Florence to Orlando, Florida, which was seven hours of driving. I then flew from Orlando to Mexico City and then waited overnight in the airport to fly to Veracruz. My aunt, Dulce Maria Hernandez Pavon, and my uncle met me at the airport. We drove to my village Villa Cuitlahuac, which was 90 minutes away.

Maria's flight from Florida to Mexico on Advanced Parole.

On Advance Parole, Maria flew from Florida to her small village in Mexico.

Did anyone travel with you?  If so, why did they come along?

I brought three children with me — my two sons, Jovany Sanchez Arroyo age 6, Martin Sanchez Arroyo age 8, and my younger sister, Vicenta Sanchez, age 11. They are all United States citizens, but none of them had ever met any family members in Mexico. I brought them because I did not know if we’d ever be able to see our family in Mexico.

Tell us about seeing your family?  What did you feel?

Seeing my family after almost 15 long years was the moment that I won’t change for anything. Tears of happiness fell from my eyes and from my family’s eyes. Words can’t describe how my heartfelt to see all of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. It was the best reunion I have ever had.

Describe a favorite memory about your trip.

When I went back to my childhood home and I found a toy rabbit I used to play with when I lived in the village at the age of nine.

Your Advanced Parole was issued because you were visiting your ill grandfather, can you share with us how he is doing?

Through the help of ECMHSP, Maria applied for Advanced Parole to visit her ailing grandfather.

Through the help of ECMHSP, Maria applied for Advance Parole that allowed her to visit her ailing grandfather.

He had several health issues including heart problems. He has been hospitalized several times due to his health from the time I requested the Advance Parole until now. At this time, he is stable, but I was happy that I was able to be with him and help care for him.

What was it like coming back through Border Patrol and Customs after you landed at the airport in the United States?

I was very, very nervous. I went through Border Control at the airport in Houston, Texas. I was afraid that something would be wrong with my travel document and I would not be admitted. I called John just before going in to the Border Control office and he told me not to be nervous – that my travel document would authorize me to be admitted back into the United States. He was right!

What advice would you have for other DACA farmworkers traveling on Advance Parole?

Don’t be scared. Make sure to have all of the documents before leaving United States. Be ready to answer simple questions like, “What was the purposes of traveling under the Advance Parole?” “What part of Mexico did you visit?” “Where do you live?” “How long have you been in the United States?” “What do you do for a living?” Make sure that you speak truly and clear.

Maria was able to visit the family members she left behind at the age of nine when she moved to the U.S.

Maria was able to visit family members she left behind when she moved to the U.S. at the age of nine.

Summer Interns of ’16 Take a Walk Down Memory Lane

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The NMSHSA Internship Class of 2016 take a lunch break during their visit to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and its farmworker families.

“Going through the center and seeing those little kids I saw my brother, I saw my two sisters, I saw myself – all present in the form of these young souls.”

– Misael Rangel

On Friday, July 22, our Head Start Center in Parksley, Virginia, hosted a visit by the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association’s Summer Internship Class of 2016.  The visit was the culmination of a seven-week paid summer internship in Washington, DC, for Adilenne (Adi) Villanueva from Inspire Development Center, currently attending Washington State University; Luis Aguilar from Redlands Christian Migrant Association, currently attending the University of South Florida; Griselda Tule-Aguirre from Telamon Corporation, recently graduated from Michigan State University; and Misael Rangel from our very own East Coast Migrant Head Start Project program, currently attending the University of Central Florida.

Adi, Luis, Griselda and Misael had been selected for their summer internships based upon their exceptional accomplishments at their respective colleges and based upon the fact that each had attended a Migrant Head Start program as a young child. The three-hour trip to the Virginia Eastern Shore was a chance for them to re-live for a day their experiences in the Head Start program.

We were greeted upon our arrival by Lynn Bowen, the Head Start Administrator for the Virginia Eastern Region, and Rhonda Strand, the Early Childhood Education and Disabilities Specialist for the region. Lynn and Rhonda shared information on the services delivered to farmworker families on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, before LaShundra Weeks, our Parksley Center Director, led us on a tour of the Parksley classrooms.

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Griselda, NMSHSA Intern from Michigan, is holding one of the children enrolled in the ECMHSP Migrant Head Start Center.

Our first stop was in the infant and toddler classroom. Often, infants and toddlers are reluctant to warmly welcome new faces in their classroom, but our youngest children at the Parksley Center knew they were among special friends on Friday.  Adi, Luis, Griselda and Misael were greeted with nothing but smiles and hugs.

From the infant and toddler classroom we transitioned to the young toddler classroom where a lunch of grilled cheese (whole wheat bread!), tomato soup, and fresh blueberries was being served. I was pleased to see my young friend, Jovanni, enjoying his lunch.  Jovanni’s mother, Meiby, is on the Virginia Eastern Shore from Immokalee, Florida, (via St. Helena Island, South Carolina) for the tomato harvest.  Meiby recently had her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals application approved through the help and support of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and it was so nice to her son’s smiling face.

We completed our center tour by hanging out with the preschool children and their teachers.   There, the preschool children showed off their counting abilities to the summer interns, as well as their mastery of animal sounds and their mastery of the sound of laughter.  The classroom filled up with children’s laughter.

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Misael, a former ECMHSP child, takes a look back at where he came from as he plans his future career.

Following the center visit, Family Community Partnership Specialist, Lisa Fernandez, brought the summer interns to two different farmworker labor camps. This was a more sobering experience for the summer interns.  We had the opportunity to see the extremely difficult living conditions the families will experience during their four-month stay on the Virginia Eastern Shore.

“As we walked through the camps where these families lived, I remembered my own little trailer,” Misael Rangel observed. “It was like looking at a video of my own life years ago.  It’s difficult for our families to overcome these obstacles and I thank God for the people that continue to protect and nurture my little brothers and sisters.

There are lots of wonderful people to thank for protecting and nurturing Misael’s “little brothers and sisters” at the Parksley center.  In fact, they are too many to mention, but here they are anyway:  Genee Drummond, Candice Logan, Jose Ramos-Enriquez, Patricia Auguilar-Rios, Jasmine Francis, Jennifer Holderfield, Erica Larreinaga-Padilla, Esther Martinez Enriquez, Paloma Vazquez Quintero, Mildre Velasquez Bartolon, Flor de la Cruz Mendoza, Meliza, Ledesma, Vernice Pantaleon, Cymekia Chandler, Tayshia Daugherty, Susie Dickerson, Jeremiah Dorsey, Chelsea Rew, Shawsan Bailey, Genima Collins, Martha Collins, Arnette Gaskins, Mike Balance, Jennifer Santiago, Kayona Hernandez, Hector Velez, Brittany Pettit, Nichole Satchel, Patricia Bibbins, Barnette Holden, Linda Ames, Latoya Coston, and Celestine (a.k.a. Miss Tine) Hargis.

Thank you, all!

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John Menditto visits with his friend Jovanni, the child of a farmworker family he helped through ECMHSP’s immigration services.

US Supreme Court Divided on DAPA/DACA+

Today, the eight Justices on the United States Supreme Court divided equally on the question of whether President Obama had the legal authority to implement immigration relief for undocumented individuals who are the parents of United States-born children and for an expanded group of individuals under the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program. This non-decision decision by the Supreme Court means that hard-working, law-abiding individuals will continue to live in daily fear of separation from their United States citizen children.  It also means that American children will live in daily fear of being separated from their parents.

Maria is one of the  ECMHSP parents who has benefitted from the DACA program.

Maria is one of the ECMHSP parents who has benefitted from the DACA program.

Since the creation of the DACA program on June 15, 2012, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project (ECMHSP) has provided pro bono immigration services to farmworkers, helping them prepare applications under the DACA program. We have seen first-hand the wonderful impact the DACA program has had on young farmworkers who qualify.  Farmworkers like Maria Sanchez of Gresham, South Carolina, have returned to school, obtained employment outside of the fields, and passed driver’s license tests – all as a result of their approved DACA applications.  More importantly, farmworkers like Maria have been able to go about their daily lives without the fear that they would be detained and separated from their families.

Thousands of farmworkers whose children attend Head Start programs operated by ECMHSP would have benefitted from a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court.   We are heart-broken that their path to a better, less-fearful life, has been blocked.IMG_6464

East Coast Migrant Head Start Project joins with our collaborative partners in calling on Congress to comprehensively address our country’s broken immigration system. Farmworkers ensure that our country has a safe and secure source of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Indeed, what we, as Americans, have on our dining room table is what is given to us from the hands of farmworkers.   The least we can do in return for this bounty is allow our farmworkers to live among us without fear.

ECMHSP Opens Center in St. Helena Island

St. Helena's farmworker families drop off their children at the center.

St. Helena Island’s farmworker families drop off their children at the center.

This week East Coast Migrant Head Start Project opened its heart, and its Head Start center, to migrant farmworker families in St. Helena Island, South Carolina. The opening of each of our centers requires a lot of planning and hard work.  This is particularly true for our centers that serve a highly mobile population and are open for a short duration – like the St. Helena Island center, which can be open for as short as six weeks.

Our planning and hard work began in the spring when our regional team from South Carolina traveled to Florida to recruit and pre-enroll families in the program.  It is always such a thrill for our South Carolina team to re-connect with the children and families we have served in prior years.  This year was no exception.

ECMSHP staff visit farmworker families in Florida to find Head Start eligible families.

ECMSHP staff visit farmworker families in Florida to find Head Start eligible families.

Then, a host of activities began at the administrative level as our Human Resources professionals worked tirelessly to plan for the relocation of employees from our Florida centers to work in the St. Helena Island Center. This year a total of 13 mission-driven individuals relocated from their homes, families, and communities so that ECMHSP could be successful in St. Helena.  We, and our farmworker families, are so fortunate to have so many dedicated employees.

Children learn and play at the St. Helena center while their parents work in the fields.

Children learn and play at the St. Helena Island Head Start center while their parents work in the fields.

Meiby, farmworker parent, works in South Carolinas tomato farms.

Meiby Soto, a Florida farmworker parent, works in South Carolina’s tomato farms.

Farmworker families in St. Helena Island work primarily harvesting tomatoes. One such farmworker is Berenice Meiby Mora Soto.  Meiby and her son, Jovani, live in Immokalee, Florida.  I first got to know Meiby through her service on the ECMHSP Policy Council.  More recently, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Meiby by helping her with her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application.  DACA is a program administered through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services that creates opportunities for eligible individuals to obtain an employment authorization document.  Through the DACA program, Meiby is enrolled in school in a course of study designed to lead to her General Equivalency Development (GED).

Meiby is a wonderful mother and a tremendously hard worker. She has dreams for herself and dreams for her son, Jovani.  In this way, she is like so many of the migrant farmworkers we are privileged to serve in St. Helena Island and all along the East Coast.   With the opening of the St. Helena Island center, as with the opening of all of our centers to the north of Florida, we reaffirm our commitment to helping our families make their dreams come true.

ECMHSP staff work with children to ensure they have a head start in their education.

ECMHSP staff work closely with children to provide them with a high-quality early education.

ECMHSP Prepares for Florida’s Farmworker Families

Workers place the berries directly into the plastic clamshell packages that shoppers will find in stores. Photo credit: Dan Charles, NPR

Workers place the berries directly into the plastic clamshell packages that shoppers will find in stores. Photo credit: Dan Charles, NPR

This week, National Public Radio (NPR) aired the investigative report, “In Florida, Strawberry Fields Are Not Forever.” This report is part of the ongoing series by NPR, in collaboration with ECMHSP, focusing on our farmworker families and the work they do providing America with a safe and secure source of fresh fruits and vegetables.

In this story, reporter Dan Charles spoke to farmworkers who describe the back-breaking labor of the strawberry harvest in and around Plant City, Florida. There, farmworkers work long days under the hot sun in hopes of making enough money to feed their families. Farmworker parents, like Bernarda Chavez, soon will pack their belongings and move their families up the East Coast, following the labor contractor to the next harvest.

Working in strawberry fields require long days in under the hot sun.

ECMHSP parent work long days in under the hot sun during the strawberry harvest.

The farm fields are no place for young children. When young children accompany their parents into the fields, they are exposed to the many hazards of agricultural work, such as pesticides, heavy machinery, and extreme weather conditions. They need a nurturing, safe place where they can play and learn.

In the coming weeks and months our Head Start centers in Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey will open their doors to our migrant farmworker families ensuring that young children do not accompany their parents to the fields. Our dedicated employees will open their hearts to these same families as well. As spring arrives, we celebrate the contributions of farmworker families who miraculously feed this great nation.  We also celebrate our dedicated employees who make minor Head Start miracles happen each and every day.

Office of Head Start's Colleen Rathgeb and ECMHSP's Parksley Center Director LaShundra Weeks with children from farmworker families.

Office of Head Start’s Colleen Rathgeb and ECMHSP’s Parksley Center Director LaShundra Weeks with children from farmworker families.