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

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

I had the chance to chat June 29 with Bill Coats, director of communications and marketing for Redlands Christian Migrant Association, Immokalee, Fla.

 

11:00 a.m. Tom Karst: How do you describe what your organization does and what it is all about?

 

11:01 Bill Coats: The number one thing we do is provide quality child care to children of the rural poor in Florida. We operate 80 child care centers in 21 counties. On top of that, we operate two charter schools, one in the Tampa area and one in Immokalee on the same campus as our state headquarters.

 

11:03 Karst: How many kids overall do you serve?

 

11:04 Coats: Almost 8,000 per year.

 

11:04: Karst: You do have a connection to the migrant community. Some of those kids are related to the migrant work force in Florida, right?

 

11:05: Coats: That’s right. First of all, we locate all of our child care centers as close to the farms as we can get them. In fact, more than a few of the child care centers are in rent free facilities provided by farming corporations on their property.

Another way to answer that is our largest single funding stream is Migrant Head Start federal funding for the children of farm workers who migrate.

It is an odd form of daycare. When the rest of schools are open in early September and late August, most of our Migrant Head Start centers are not, because the kids are still up north with their families picking things like cherries sin Delaware, sugar beets in Michigan or apples in New York.

They arrive in October or late October. We encourage those families to go ahead and enroll their children in schools wherever they are and we can have a lot of relationships with a lot of schools up north because of that.

Those kids come down in late October, and when we open those centers, they are often open from dark to dark; from before dawn to dusk because that is how long the parents work.

Migrant Head Start funding gives you the flexibility to care for them that way.

 

11:07 a.m. Karst: What is your budget?

 

11:08 a.m. Coats: For our fiscal year beginning July 1, we project government funding of $57 million, which is 91% of the total budget of $62.9 million. Migrant Head Start provides about $16.7 million and other Head Start programs give about $11.4 million.

 

11:06 a.m. Karst: You also receive support from the agriculture industry as well, correct?

 

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.

 

11:15 a.m. Karst: When did you start with RCMA?

 

11:15 a.m. Coats: January of 2010. I’m a newspaper guy. This is a second career for me.

 

11:16 a.m. Karst: Have you been in Florida for a while?

 

11:17 a.m. Coats: I moved to Florida in April of 1981 and then in 1986 I moved to the Tampa Bay area. I started in Jacksonville. I’ve worked for three Florida newspapers and I spent the last 20 years of my newspaper career with the St. Petersburg Times.

 

11:18 a.m. Karst: What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?

 

11:19 a.m. Coats: Seeing what we do with the kids. I’ll tell you another story. My first day on the job, the most memorable thing was being acquainted with the benefits office and being told that RCMA. I’m a suburban guy, I’ve never lived in the country. So I learned in the benefits office that RCMA has processed not one but two workers compensation claims for employees who experienced watermelons smashing through the windshields of their vehicles. I promised myself that I would never tailgate a watermelon truck.

The second day of work. I finish a day of work kind of late and I’m walking out of my office which is a building we share with a charter school and a child care center. When I open the door to go outside, the first thing I hear is the voice of a little child bouncing off the walls of this building. When I go outside, here is the little girl walking across the patio with her mom and she is, at the top of her lungs, singing her ABCs. I don’t know whether her mom spoke a word of English but she was laughing at her daughter. But that little girl was letting the whole world know that she knew her ABCs. I thought, you know, that that is what this is all about.

 

11:20 a.m. Karst: I’m sure it is gratifying to see these kids grow up..

 

11:20 a.m. Coats: Last weekend one of our alumni, Charlie Brown,  was just elected the first African American statewide president of the FFA. He is an African American and his father was deported to Jamaica but he and his mom stayed in the U.S. – he is an RCMA graduate and he graduated from high school and he is going to spend the year touring Florida as the state president. He was also, last summer, elected president of Boys Nation and he got to meet President Obama.

 

11:21 a.m. Karst: At RCMA, how many grades do you offer?

 

11:22 a.m. Coats: The child care centers go up to kindergarten. The Immokalee charter school goes through sixth grade, while the one in Tampa goes through the fifth grade, although we are actively unfolding a plan to expand it to the middle school grades, so it would be pre-kindergarten through 8th grade if this plan gets approved.

 

11:23 a.m. Karst: Does your staff talk about issues in agriculture like immigration reform? How do you see that issue playing out and how that affect what you might do?

 

11:24 a.m. Coats: I’ll answer it generally and I’ll tell you another true story. Generally, part of our belief about child care is that it is really holistic. We believe that it is vitally important that we get parents involved. We worry as we get kids ready for success, that we’re Americanizing them, pulling them away from the culture of their parents, who when they work in the fields they can lead a lifestyle that is very much pure Mexican, working for Mexican crew leaders in Florida.

 

 

11:24 a.m. Karst: Does that create a worry that the services you provide might be a we get between children and their parents?

 

11:25 a.m. Coats: Exactly. Their parents love it that their kids are rapidly Americanizing. They know their kids are learning to speak English, because that is the key to success here. But nevertheless we worry that, you know, that we are imparting a little estrangement. We also realize that for kids growing up in poverty have countless impediments at home that make it harder to learn.  So every one of our child care centers has access to what we call a family support staffer – FSS -  whose job is not to teach, not childcare but family care. If they don’t have driver’s licenses and can’t get to the dentist, our FSS will probably give them a ride. If they get to the dentist and nobody speaks Spanish, our FSS will translate. If they have immigration problems to work out, we’ll help. If they have financial problems where we could give them some advice – whatever – we’ll do it.

So we go about to maintain good relationships with these families in rural areas. Where we operate, the RCMA center is a popular place. We don’t have to market our selves to the farm workers, they know about us.

The story I wanted to tell you; three weeks ago a lot of these families they hear every day about what is going on in politics and immigration enforcement crackdowns. We had a family of south of Tampa who were ready to migrate to Ohio to pick cucumbers. They decided they would do it differently this year. They would travel differently. When they drove through Georgia, they would do at night instead of day because of what they heard about Georgia.

It turned out they didn’t get out of Florida. A Florida state trooper pulled them over in the middle of the night saying their headlights were too dim. We don’t know on what grounds, the trooper searched their van and found the false identification papers that any undocumented immigration has to have to get a job around here. And so they were arrested and all charged with a package of felonies.

It was three adults; a woman, her husband and his brother and the couple two little boys, aged 5 and 7.  So the Florida highway patrol arrested the adults and kept them in a county jail for a week and shipped the boys to foster care in the middle of the night.

So when the family finally raises bail - $1,000 for each adult - to get out of jail, they couldn’t find anything out about the kids. And people at the jail said get out of here or you going to be arrested again. The mom was insisting she wasn’t going to leave until she had her sons and they threatened her with arrest. So they drive back to south of Tampa and on Monday morning when their old child care center opened up, they were there, waiting for us.

We wound up tracing their kids to another town probably 60 or 80 miles away where the kids had been put in foster care. We had to jump through a ton of red tape but we got the kids released that night and drove the parents up there to get their kids that night.

The moral of the story is two points. One, things are might nasty for Hispanics on highways right now. And two, people who have had their kids with us, come to us for help.

 

11:27 a.m. Karst: What is your relationship like with the industry?

 

11:28 a.m. Coats: we have to stay in touch with the industry to adequately run our child care centers, because the migrant head start centers open and close according to the rhythms of the season. So when we project how many staff we have to hire and what date will be the opening date for  the tomato growing areas it is based on information and projections form the tomato people.

All of our fund raising has agriculture at the heart of it. This last year, there was a big silent auction at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association state wide convention and all the proceeds went to us.

We have an annual golf tournament that raised $80,000 and a lot of golfers are from ag companies. Gary Wishnatzki of Wishnatzki Farms stages a tennis tournament and that raised about $80,000 for us. Our relationship with agriculture is second in importance only to our relationships with our children’s families.

 

11:08 a.m. Karst: If you could wave a wand and do magic, what would be a couple of things you would like to see happen relating to your work in the next two years?

 

11:09 a.m. Coats: Comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. A lot of the miseries that our children experience are rooted one way or another in the fact that their parents have to lead these contorted lives. They can’t get driver’s licenses, they can’t work above board, et cetera, et cetera. I guess the second thing might be a greater public appreciation for early childhood education. There is tremendous attention paid to the state of the nation’s k-12 schools, but 90% of a child brain development occurs before age 5. Early childhood education should be higher on society’s list of priorities.

 

11:08 a.m. Karst: How can the industry or other individuals learn more about your organization and potentially get involved?

 

11:09 a.m. Coats: They could go to our web site is www.rcma.org or they could just call my office at 800 282 6540.



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