There should be a Madison House in every produce town

09/08/2011 03:46:00 PM
Tom Karst

Even produce town needs a Madison House.

So much of the industry’s relationship with its workforce is disputed and strained. Even this week, Farmworker Justice issued a report about the abuses and exploitation in the H-2A guest worker program.

A news release about the report said this:

 “The report by Farmworker Justice offers an in-depth look at the violations and abuses of the federal H-2A agricultural guest worker program, exposing the fundamental flaws of guest worker models and revealing the program’s effect of keeping wages low in the U.S. for both foreign and domestic workers. Farmworker Justice documents the human toll of a system meant to provide a legal and dependable workforce for American farmers.”

So agricultural employers are slammed for using the government’s guest worker program. They are also damned if they don’t. Half or more of agriculture’s workforce doesn’t have correct documentation, and the uncertainty about the future availability of a legal workforce for growers has been the great preoccupation industry leaders for the last decade.

In the midst of the confusion and desperation of our country’s broken immigration policy, Madison House - and places like it - allow children of farmworkers to have hope in their own futures.

When I was in the Northwest in late July to cover the pear and apple crops, I had a chance to visit a community youth center in Yakima. Started by the Union Gospel Mission in 1989, Madison House is a former school house that now serves as a faith-based outreach to dozens of low income youth of Yakima, many of whom are children of farmworkers.

When I visited, it was a loud house, filled with laughter and games.

I met staff and volunteers at Madison House, including Dave Connell, chairman of the advisory board for Madison House and Jake Kupp, former NFL player and volunteer at Madison House.

Connell said he has seen the fruit industry respond to the vision of helping Yakima’s low income youth.

“Employees are part of your life and you want their families to succeed, to get ahead,” he aid.

Many companies in the tree fruit industry over the past year and a half have pledged $400,000 over three years to fund three new staff positions at the facility, including an education coordinator and a volunteer coordinator.

In visits with Ed Kershaw, chief executive officer of Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash. of Domex Superfresh Growers and Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, Yakima, I heard about the heart of these men toward what Madison House could become.

“It is a safe center, it is a place we are trying to create hope in these young kids, to get them away from gangs,” said Kershaw.

The investment in Madison House is expected to create opportunities for mentoring young kids and giving them job skills that will carry them beyond picking fruit in the orchards.

“We don’t want them to escape from Yakima, we would very much like them to stay,” Kershaw. “We want to show the youngsters the good jobs in the fruit industry.”

Kershaw called the youth community center a “journey of hope” for kids. “We’re showing young people there is hope and to take advantage of the opportunities.”

Money and programs alone aren’t enough, of course.

Kevin Deyette, program director for Madison House, said his kids need relationships with adults, somebody to come along and encourage them, to hold them accountable.

Of course, the many faceted problems associated with farm labor can begin to be solved with a youth community center. Can Madison House give workers and their families a path to legalization?

The industry and workers must rely, sad to say, on the wisdom of elected officials to craft a workable immigration policy.

But every produce town - and every produce grower - should consider how that investing in the future of their workers and their families can also help their own future.

Madison House is such a place.



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