1998-04-06 Grand Haven Tribune Mentors for migrant children program starts

Mentors for migrant children program starts
Grand Haven Tribune

Special to the Tribune-Higher Horizons is seeking volunteers interested in being matched with children from area migrant camps in an effort to provide social opportunities and create a sense of community for these children. By introducing community mentors for the migrant children, officials hope to build bridges between the cultural communities and provide these children with new friendships and experiences.

For Many-migrant children, going to local parks, strolling the boardwalk, playing at the YMCA, visiting the library and even swimming at the beach will be new experiences. “Many of the migrant children would love to participate in community activities, but the families often don’t realize the resources exist,” according to Elba Fuentes, of the Migrant Services Program from the Family Independence Agency.

“Migrant families also have very limited incomes, so often opportunities are limited by financial constraints.” By providing these types of opportunities, in partnership with the invaluable gift of friendship, Fuentes said they hope to create that sense of community and acceptance for the migrant children and their families.

Ottawa County- has the third largest number of fruit and vegetable farms in the state, requiring a large migrant work force for the planting and harvesting of the crops. A large number of migrant workers also come to this area to work in the nursery farm industry. The migrant families travel from Texas to Michigan each spring and stay until late fall to provide these services. This necessitates that their children must go through the difficult transition of changing schools twice each year, Fuentes said.

The children begin the school year in the Tri-Cities, only to leave after the fall harvest. They again re-enter this school system in early spring, when the workers return to the northern fields. In addition to the normal difficulties involved in changing schools, there are several other factors which create barriers for these children.

In Most-migrant families, English is not the first language. Although the majority of children are bilingual, many of the parents are limited in their English proficiency. This limitation creates a lack of awareness of community resources and inability to access them. Even something as seemingly simple as understanding the YMCA programming can become extremely difficult when one isn’t fluent in English.

A second factor creating barriers to a sense of inclusion for the migrant population is the huge income disparity between the migrant and local families. Most of the migrant children come from the simplest of homes; their parents struggle with jobs at the most marginal end of the economy. In an affluent community such as ours, this absence of wealth can create great discomfort, Fuentes said.

Finally, issues of race and culture are introduced with the return of migrant workers each season. There is limited exposure to racial diversity in this community, where 96 percent of the population is Caucasian. Exacerbating these barriers to community inclusion are several logistical factors particular to the migrant population. The migrant camps are geographically isolated from the central community, with most camps located in Robinson and outlying Grand Haven townships.

Many migrant families lack transportation needed to facilitate their Children’s social or after-school activities. Simultaneously, migrant workers are often in the fields from sunrise until sunset, six days a week. Sundays are usually spent at church, followed by a day of household chores and grocery shopping in preparation of the next week. Little time is available for participation n community and social activities.

Ben Lawrence, English as a Second Language teacher for the GHAPSD, believes community mentors can assist migrant children both socially and academically. “We need to develop a social-support network between the migrant community and the local population which will increase the children’s ability to function within their non-native culture,” Ben states. “Experience is the foundation of education and increasing the opportunity for that experience is intrinsic to academic success for these children.”

Anyone interested in the program should contact Gail Harrison, Program Coordinator for Higher Horizons, at 846-5880. Spanish language proficiency is not necessary for this program. Cultural awareness training will be provided for all volunteers. Higher Horizons is a program of Child and Family Services of Western Mich., Inc. and is a United Way Agency.