1998-09-12 Grand Haven Tribune Volunteers help families adapt

Volunteers help families adapt
Grand Haven Tribune

As migrant workers find ways to earn a living in fields and nurseries across Ottawa County, local volunteer organizations are finding ways to help families adapt to the communities that benefit from their hands.

However, some advocates claim it should be the communities’ responsibility to shed its misconceptions and accept the migrant population.

“I think that we do have our biases in this community,” said Gail Harrison, founder of the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance. “I do think there are pockets of people that are really trying to make some changes. But because we have a lack of exposure to both cultural and racial differences, we’re afraid of those people and they may change ‘our way.’ They may impose themselves in some way that it’s going to have a negative impact on our community.”

So, Harrison has tried to do something about it.

In June of 1996, Harrison helped form NOEDA with the hope of promoting ethnic diversity in the Tri-Cities area and welcoming people of all cultural backgrounds to the area.

“I think that before we are going to truly change, we need to develop personal relationships with people from other races.”

Harrison said in a July 1997 interview, “I think it’s very difficult to turn your back on a group of people once you have those personal relationships.”

The alliance has several committees which tackle diversity issues, including a migrant issues committee formed by Ben Lawrence, an English as a Second Language teacher with the Grand Haven school district. Lawrence, like Harrison, believes migrant workers are an underappreciated portion of the community.

“I think a lot of people need to realize that when you go to the grocery store to buy lettuce and blueberries and such .. the reason why they’re so inexpensive is because of that migrant population,” Lawrence said. “It’s almost like we take that whole population for granted.”

Lawrence said he would like to see the Tri-Cities area take a more active role in the lives of the migrant population, and in particular the children.

“I would like to see more of the middle-upper class people here get involved with mentoring some of these kids,” he said. “Not only the kids, but their families too. Take them places that they’ve never been. I’ve had some kids who said they have been here for six years and have never seen the lake.”

One mentoring program is already in place is in its first year of operation. Run through Higher Horizons, the mentorship program pairs volunteers with children from migrant camps all over the area in an attempt to give the children an opportunity travel to places they may not have otherwise have a change to see.

The program began in April and has already enjoyed mild success. Approximately 12 migrant children have been paired up with volunteers, and those numbers are expected to increase as word gets around.

“We saws that there were unmet needs in the migrant communities because these people are in the fields for long house,” said Harrison, who also serves as Higher Horizons’ program coordinator. “They’re geographically removed and don’t have access to get into town. It gets them out of the home and gives them a sense that this community supports them.

Harrison is also hoping the mentorship program will help the parents ease into the community without feeling uncomfortable.

“If parents become more aware of the community resources, then maybe they will feel comfortable utilizing them,” she said.

While the program affords the children and opportunity to visit places like Hoffmaster State Park and Craig’s Cruisers, it also can prove enriching for those who choose to be a mentor.

“Just being with the children is rewarding,” said Maggie Dannemiller, a retired teacher from the Muskegon Public school system. “To see their faces light up when they see you coming … that’s the joy I get out of it. It’s a privilege to get to know them.”

“You’ll get more out of it than you give and that’s definitely been true,” said Nancy Riekse, director of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation. “It’s a neat feeling to have someone really eager to learn. We tend to take things for granted and here’s someone who is so eager to just have a book.”