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.

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: More than a Center, it’s a Refuge

Ted Hoffman is the architect who has been building Head Start centers with ECMHSP for the past 12 years. These are his thoughts.

I was asked to contribute some words and photos about the new Jennings Head Start Center I am working with ECMHSP to build in northern Florida. The work is shaping up nicely, but until it’s done, the photos can be rather uninteresting.  Instead, I thought I would try to describe more generally my goals and thoughts as I design new centers for ECMHSP.

The new Head Start center currently under construction in Jennings, Florida.

The new Head Start center currently under construction in Jennings, Florida.

Jennings will be the seventh center for me, dating back 12 years or so. Each new site presents its own unique challenges and problems, but the overriding philosophy for me is to make each place special, interesting, welcoming, and more than just a place to drop the kids off each morning.  To do that is hard, and it requires the understanding and sensitivity of all the players to make the hard work relevant and worthwhile.

We all know that for the families, the Head Start centers represent more than a safe place for their kids. It represents, I think, a refuge, a place just for them, comforting and helpful, full of resources they don’t find anywhere else. That feeling comes mostly from the staff, but I try to heighten that representation by making places that are: 1) spatially exciting and interesting; and 2) built strong in character and permanent in construction. Unfortunately, permanence is not something found in the lives of migrant farmworkers anywhere.  I refuse to buy into the idea that the working poor somehow don’t deserve good design, whether it’s in their housing or where they send their kids to school.  The centers I design cost the same –and in some cases actually less– than the Head Start centers that look either like big tract houses or shoeboxes scattered around a chain link playground.

ECMHSP Maintenance Staff with architect Ted Hoffman: (from left to right) Tony Ponds, Marzell Hall, Ted Hoffman, Eugene Mitchell, Vincent Barksdale, Greg Stone, Mike Wilcox

ECMHSP Maintenance Staff with architect Ted Hoffman: (from left to right) Tony Ponds, Marzell Hall, Ted Hoffman, Eugene Mitchell, Vincent Barksdale, Greg Stone, Mike Wilcox

I can’t talk about building for ECMHSP without mentioning my ECMHSP colleague and partner in all of this work: Mike Wilcox, the Facilities Manager. These centers would literally not look like they do without him.  You would never know it from watching or listening to him growl and stomp around the site yelling at everyone (including me!), but he gets things done and the time and commitment on his part is nothing short of amazing.  Another thing that happened at Jennings recently was that Mike had almost all of the maintenance people from every area come to Jennings and work for two weeks building and setting up the classrooms in order to speed up the construction process.  These men work all year keeping the facilities operating and it was special to see them working together on one of my creations.

So the next time you go to one of the places Mike and I have made, look around and see if you can sense a place made with heart, soul, and a great respect for the families and children who use them. I want my work to be a physical extension of the very special things that the Head Start program, and East Coast Migrant Head Start Project specifically, makes happen.

These Head Start centers have gotten a good deal of recognition and awards from the architectural community, but the best recognition happened to me one day as I went into a preschool room full of children with a center director. One of the children asked, like they almost always do, “What’s your name?”  I said, “Ted,” and the center director said, “This is the man who designed this place.”  The little boy looked around, looked me in the eye, and said, “I love it here.”

Ted Hoffman has been designing centers for farmworker children with ECMHSP for 12 years.

Ted Hoffman has been designing centers for farmworker children with ECMHSP for 12 years.

You can see pictures of all of the Head Start centers I have helped build on my website: tedhoffman.us.