Karst chat with Bill Coats: Focus on the kids of migrant workers - The Packer

Karst chat with Bill Coats: Focus on the kids of migrant workers

07/08/2011 02:45:00 PM
Tom Karst


11:07 a.m. Coats: We get a lot of financial support from farm companies. The chairman of our board is Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.


11:08 a.m. Karst: What is the story of how Redlands Christian Migrant Association began?


11:09 a.m. Coats: RCMA was founded in 1965 in a labor camp called Redlands, in Homestead, Fla., south of Miami. Also near Redlands was a little village of Mennonite missionaries from the Pennsylvania Maryland area. They were appalled at the situation they found among children in the fields. Parents who were farm workers had no day care so they just took their children out into the fields. A child might spend the day in the bed of a pickup truck or by a vegetable crate in the blazing sun. There were insects and there were snakes. Kids who were old enough to walk toddled underneath farm equipment and get killed.

It was awful and so the missionaries found the first three child care centers of RCMA and they had three locations in that big labor camp.

And then they were in a for a great disappointment. Most of the farm workers continued to take their kids to the fields.

The Mennonites were mystified. They reached out and hired this guy named Wendell Rollason, who was a charismatic crusader for immigrant rights from Miami.

So Rollason gave it his best sales pitch and he still didn’t have any luck.

One day he was in one of the three centers and noticed that on that particular day, attendance was better than normal. He began to wonder, “What are we doing right today? And he realized that an unusually large number of mothers had signed up that day to volunteer. Farm workers normally, but volunteers that day. And that’s when it clicked. What clicked was that these people out the fields – who were mostly African Americans – did not trust their children with these nice white people.

They were only comfortable with their children being cared for by someone from their own culture. And so, Rollason said that from here on out, we are going to hire people from the fields. This was revolutionary in a lot ways. One, it solved the problem. Pretty soon, the centers were filled to capacity with kids. Two, here were these women with really no hope of getting of this miserable line of work they had gotten in and no upward mobility. One week there are an enthusiastic volunteer and the next week they have been offered a job to work in an air conditioned child care center taking care of babies, with sort of this menu of education laid out before them. You are going to have to get your GED, you will have to get certified for child care. Today, the list is longer. Today, we pretty much require a GED before they come to work with us. Nevertheless, it  is still part of the RCMA culture that our staff is 80% filled with people whose families were farm workers. Indirectly now, but we pretty much still hire from the fields. We not only are trying to transform lives of little babies who are going to experience 90% of their brain development by age five but we are transforming the lives of people who come to work for us. We’ve got women who as teenagers were picking oranges and couldn’t foresee doing anything else. Then they had kids and brought them to our centers and now they have bachelor’s degrees and are working for us at a pretty high level. That light bulb moment for Wendell Rollason wound up making us a pretty unique organization. Today the farm workers are not African American, they are primarily Latino, predominately Mexican. I think our staff is 85% Hispanic.

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