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IMMOKALEE, FL – Jennifer Arriaga, a fourth-grader, didn’t draw a classic Christmas scene. Instead of a sleigh with toys, she drew a farm truck overflowing with tomatoes. Instead of Santa, Jennifer drew a female farmer. 

Jennifer Arriaga

That’s not surprising at Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which serves the children of low-income families in farm communities across Florida. Their imaginations burst forth on Christmas cards that RCMA will sell from now until Dec. 15. A catalog is available at www.rcma.org, and cards may be ordered there at $15 per box, plus shipping.

Proceeds help the nonprofit RCMA, based in Immokalee, operate child-care centers, charter schools and after-school programs in 21 Florida counties. In fact, each $15 sale of Christmas cards qualifies RCMA for $240 in matching “school-readiness” funding from the state.

“From our children’s view, Christmas in rural Florida has its own unique flavor and it’s contagious,” said Gayane Stepanian, RCMA’s executive director. “Life in rural Florida post-Irma is far from back to normal.  These children always need more help than most folks can imagine, especially now.”

Redlands Christian Migrant Association was born in 1965, amid a litany of horrors. Impoverished farmworkers in South Florida had no alternative but to take their young children into the fields. A toddler had drowned in an irrigation pit. Others had died under farm machinery. Most spent long days exposed to broiling sun, pesticides, insects and snakes.

So a village of Mennonites near Homestead’s Redlands labor camp created a safe haven. They opened two child care centers.

Surprisingly, most of the farmworkers stayed away. So the bewildered Mennonites enlisted Wendell Rollason, an outspoken crusader for immigrant rights in the Miami area. Rollason reached out to the farmworkers. Still, the response remained anemic.

Evolution From Childcare To Early Education

Then an ordinary day in a childcare center became the most pivotal day in the 47-year history of RCMA. That day, Rollason noticed that two things were momentarily different:

  • An unusually large number of immigrant mothers had signed up to volunteer.
  • An unusually large number of other immigrant mothers had left their children in the center.

Rollason made the connection: The immigrants would entrust their babies only to caregivers from their own culture. He decided to hire childcare workers from among immigrants, from the fields.

Rollason’s illuminating moment would reshape the futures of countless babies, a thousand or so mothers and RCMA itself. Soon, the little ones would begin filling RCMA childcare centers to capacity. The mothers would find themselves no longer isolated in the fields, but launching new childcare careers, in mainstream society, with lifelong educational opportunities.

New immigrants’ first point of contact with RCMA was someone who had walked in their shoes.

For RCMA, Rollason’s realization was the wellspring of a new business model for straddling multiple cultures. Henceforth, RCMA’s childcare centers and regional offices would be led by a coordinator from the culture of the community served, always backed up by a childcare expert hired for her professional background, regardless of culture.

RCMA’s initial concern – the health and safety of young children – was quickly allayed through good nutrition and health screenings. A new priority emerged: Early childhood education. It has remained at the top of RCMA’s job description ever since.

Same Inspiration, Larger Numbers

From the two childcare centers in Homestead, RCMA has grown today to 71 centers in 21 Florida counties. All serve the rural poor, and most serve the children of Hispanic immigrants. During the 2011-2012 school year, RCMA’s 7,500 children were 86 percent Hispanic and 11 percent African-American.

Government grants comprised 85 percent of RCMA’s $58 million annual budget.

Over the years, RCMA has broadened the range of its programs. Early Head Start centers  accept infants as young as six weeks. After-school programs serve children ages 6 to 16.

In 2000, charter schools opened in Immokalee, southeast of Fort Myers, and Wimauma, south of Tampa. In 2012, a charter middle school was added on the Wimauma campus. Together, the two Wimauma schools serve grades K-7. The Immokalee school serves grades K-6.

Despite all these changes over four decades, Wendell Rollason’s inspired personnel policy still affects RCMA – and the people served – profoundly.

An early beneficiary was the late Maria Coronado, a Mexican immigrant. Coronado quit picking oranges and tomatoes in 1974 to join RCMA as a cook. Supervisors quickly noticed her leadership skills, and a 30-year career began to unfold. She eventually acquired responsibility for six childcare centers and 300 children in Homestead.

Today, the Coronado family is thoroughly integrated into American society. Maria Coronado’s children include a school principal, a retired Army captain, a business executive and an international entrepreneur in the orchid industry.

A more recent example is Lourdes Villanueva, who migrated with her parents as a teenager. She learned to pick everything, but her favorite was oranges – from the top of the ladder, where she could see the farthest. When Villanueva had children, she discovered RCMA and a new life. She joined RCMA as a family support worker, then earned her GED and eventually, a bachelor’s degree in social work. Today, Villanueva lives east of Tampa, and is RCMA’s Director of Farmworker Advocacy.

Her two sons have earned bachelor’s degrees and are partners in their own landscape pesticide company. Her daughter, with an associate’s degree, is the sole bilingual staff member in a local bank.

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