Eva Gonzalez, 3, flanked by her sister Alondra Martinez (left) and mom, Nelly Gonzalez, attends preschool at the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project center in Faison, North Carolina.

Last May, Nelly Gonzalez loaded up her Dodge Durango in McAllen, Texas. Destination: New Jersey.

Gonzalez and her husband had run out of work and money in Texas, and a friend in Jersey told them there were jobs to be had up there.

So Gonzalez packed up the Durango with seven of her eight kids (the eighth was back home in Mexico), each with three or four changes of clothes, and headed northeasterly. Her husband would soon join them.

But things didn’t go well on the road. By Louisiana, the Durango was laboring. Nights were spent in rest areas, parks and a church lot. The friend in New Jersey could no longer be reached by phone. Gonzalez and her kids were subsisting on crackers, bread and water.

But Nelly Gonzalez is a resourceful woman, and a determined one. She thanked God she was with her kids, and resolved to continue forward.

In North Carolina, she got on the phone, calling contacts collected from fellow migrant workers and social service agencies she’d been wise to keep filed in memory. With their help, she landed a job picking sweet potatoes and tobacco and found a trailer – desperately in need of scouring, but shelter nonetheless – in the Wayne County town of Seven Springs.

Eva, Gonzalez’s youngest, is 3. On an October afternoon, Eva naps – a long, sound nap from which she awakens a little cranky – in a classroom of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project center in Faison as her mom and older sister, Alondra, soon to be 17, sit in a nearby conference room and, with interpretation from center director Maria Baltierra, tell their story.

The East Coast Migrant Head Start Project – founded in 1974 and funded primarily through a federal Department of Health and Human Services grant – provides early-childhood education to the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers and a variety of other services for the kids and their families. Equally important, the program advocates for those families throughout the communities in which they live and work.

In and around Faison, the community has been supportive. The former school building in which the ECMHSP center operates was purchased a number of years ago by a local grower, Ned Cottle, to use for educating the children of his workers. ECMHSP continues to rent it from him, and Cottle remains a supporter of the program.

The center has helped anchor Nelly Gonzalez and her family through a difficult transition.

Nelly’s husband, Fernando, has since arrived and found construction work, but Nelly had been unemployed since Hurricane Matthew hit – three weeks and counting at the time of her interview. The family is moving today into a larger, sturdier house in Magnolia, 16 miles down U.S. 117, where Nelly hopes to get work in a sweet potato warehouse.

Local churches offer support and services to the migrant families and have provided some furniture for the Gonzalezes. Here, in the Piedmont of central North Carolina, the family has found a home, at least for the time being.

A dental van from the health departments of Columbia and Hamilton counties visits the Jennings ECMHSP center, and Oscar Leon receives care from Dr. Allison Johnston (left) and Dana Jernigan.
A dental van from the health departments of Columbia and Hamilton counties visits the Jennings ECMHSP center, and Oscar Leon receives care from Dr. Allison Johnston (left) and Dana Jernigan.

A ‘blessing’

ECMHSP operates 38 preschool centers from Florida to New Jersey, serving more than 3,000 children a year. The newest addition is in Jennings, Florida, 80 miles east of Tallahassee.

“When they told us they were going to have this built here, we were really happy,” said Haydee Texidor, compliance manager for Ag-Mart Produce, which employs migrant workers throughout Florida, including in Jennings. Nothing like it existed there prior. “I can tell you that it’s been a blessing for a lot of these families.”

Though it’s difficult to get an accurate estimate, there are perhaps a million migrant farmworker children in the U.S. today; the majority come from Mexico. Families uproot as many as four times a year, and these transitions tend to derail the already tenuous continuity of health care services – electronic health record systems that don’t communicate with one another, for example, or Medicaid that doesn’t transfer from one state to the next. Over-immunization is a frequent problem.

Food insecurity is common among migrant farmworker families, and what’s readily available is often not the most nutritious. Few migrant children meet USDA nutrition recommendations, and Hispanic children are almost five times more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white children.

Studies have long shown that kids who receive quality preschool education are more likely to score higher on achievement tests and graduate from high school and are less likely to break the law. ECMHSP provides that classroom experience. But the objective is to also look beyond, to gain insight into the spectrum of a child’s needs.

Uncertain of what’s ahead

Most of the families of kids enrolled at the Jennings ECMHSP center arrive in May and stay till the tomatoes have been harvested in November, then head down to Immokalee in southwestern Florida. In six months, they’ll return.

This transitory lifestyle can be difficult for a child – the goodbyes, the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

In many cases, families have been separated; perhaps a parent has been deported. That’s especially tough for children 5 and younger, said ECMHSP’s Kim Luna.

“Do they understand? Where’s their dad? It’s case by case,” said Luna, who helped launch the Jennings center and is herself from a migrant family. “Some are fine; they’re just a little withdrawn. But then you have others that do have behavioral issues.”

A National Institutes of Health study notes that the “constant dread” of the possible detention or deportation of their parents puts children at risk for “negative psychological effects and disruption of their developmental trajectories.”

Among the services ECMHSP centers offer is behavioral health assessments and assistance getting help when needed.

Many of the kids in Jennings had never been in a classroom before the center opened. In the first days, Luna said, “The teachers would say, ‘They don’t sing, they don’t dance; they’re really quiet.” Now, “they know what’s going to happen; they know they’re safe.”

Just two months in, Vianey Leon, from Guanajuato, Mexico, can see the difference in her two boys: Oscar, 4, and Luis, 3.

Luis is autistic. Since he’s been coming to the center, Leon said, he’s been having fewer and less severe meltdowns. He doesn’t talk. Changing that is one of his mom’s goals. But at the center he’s become engaged in books.

Proactive parenting

Farmwork is strenuous and physically stressful. Then, the uncertainty of future employment, potential separation from family, the struggle to make ends meet, language and cultural barriers – these often occasion anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Recognizing the critical need for support, ECMHSP centers offer Abiendo Puertas, a 10-session training program for parents that helps them take a more proactive role in their children’s education. Parents are assisted in learning what they can about their new communities, but, Luna said, they’re also encouraged to talk with their children about where they come from: their roots and traditions; their lineage.

Luna remembers that when she was little and would bring home papers she’d written, “My parents would always take the papers out and read them. That’s always stayed on my mind. So I tell them, ‘Let them see you reading,’” even if they can’t read English. “Little stuff like that, children remember, and it impacts them.”

Patti Kingery, director of ECMHSP program operations in North Carolina, finds that most parents are eager to engage. “They’re very attentive to their children,” she said. “They want their children to grow and develop, and want to be engaged in that process.”

Vianey Leon’s eldest, Oscar, wants to be a doctor. She tells him that if he works hard, he can do it.

Her friend, Hildegarda Toledo Flores, also has dreams for her son, Alexis, 2. She’d like to some day settle her family in one place, no transitions, perhaps when it’s time for Alexis to enter kindergarten.

Hildegarda Toledo Flores has high ambitions for her son Alexis, 2.
Hildegarda Toledo Flores has high ambitions for her son Alexis, 2.

In the meantime, ECMHSP lends some continuity. Families now often decide where to next seek work based on whether there’s a center in the area for their kids to attend.

“It’s surprising to some people how well the children adjust,” Kingery said, “and I think that has a lot to do with the consistency with how we operate the program.”

The classrooms may look a bit different from one center to the next; the teachers are new. But the days proceed similarly.

That routine helps, Kingery said. The kids, in turn, help their parents adjust.

A worrier

Eva Gonzalez has a nickname for butterflies, her sister Alondra says. She’s trying to say “Tinkerbelle,” but it comes out more like “Chichibelle.”

When Hurricane Matthew hit last September, the Gonzalez’s mobile home swayed in the winds, scaring Eva. But she was particularly concerned for the butterflies. “Where will they sleep?” she asked, with the trees and flowers having fallen.

Sometimes Eva sees her mom just sitting, thinking, and says, “Mommy, are you OK?”

Mom tells her, “We’re struggling now, but things are going to work out.”

Eva understands plenty, her mom said: “She’s a little worrier; she cares.” She’ll sometimes say, “We don’t have much now, but someday we will.”

At night, she moves about like “a zombie,” from her mom’s air mattress to Alondra’s and back.

But she’s flourishing in school. She loves it all: circle-time singing, finger painting. She comes home and tells her mom, “Today I brushed my teeth. I behaved. I didn’t cry.”

Nelly Gonzalez said that when the Durango finally traverses its last mile, she’s going to enshrine it outside her home, a monument of memories and those many miles. She too someday hopes to settle. For now, she’s grateful for a toehold.

“Eva has lots of dreams,” Gonzalez said. “She wants to learn everything. She wants to sing. She sees her brother playing the piano and tells him she wants to learn to play: ‘Sit me in your lap and teach me to play.’”

“She sings and sings away,” her sister said. “She thinks she’s singing in English, but she’s just making up her own words,” learning and teaching something new every day.

The Daily Yonder’s coverage of immigration issues is supported in part by a grant from the the Carnegie Corp.

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