2002-08-23 Grand Rapids Press Migrant workers, mentors finding success

Migrant workers, mentors finding success
Grand Rapids Press

A picnic at Grand Haven’s Potawatami Park earlier this week celebrated the success of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance’s Migrant Mentoring Program.

Now in its third year, the program has expanded to include migrant children in Holland, such as the child whom resident David Robio is mentoring, Jose Montanez.

“My son, Ricardo, is 8, and he doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish. So my son teachers Jose English and Jose teachers my son Spanish,” Robio said, adding that the program has been a great experience for his family.

Nearly 70 children, mentors and family members joined the celebration that included soccer, swimming in the Grand River, volleyball, and a large potluck dinner.

The program started with 12 northern Ottawa County migrant children in 2000 and expanded to 36 children this year.

Mentors and families described their experiences with the program as positive, and said the language barrier is bridged by the younger children.

“The kids serve as the interpreters,” said Tony Kowalski, a mentor.

Gail Harrison, founder and executive director of LEDA, agreed.

“Mentors don’t have to be bilingual; most kids expect those who are here for the first time to not speak English. They pick it up so fast,” she said.

The reward for the mentor sometimes centers around the joy of having a child in their life again.

“It’s just fun. It’s a treat to be able to be around young kids,” said Marilyn North. Isabel Allen of Spring Lake, echoed the sentiments.

“She’s always picking out places to go; she’s adventurous, that’s what I like most about her,” Allen said of Frances Rodriguez, 11, “It’s a very nice experience for me, just having someone that age to work with. My kids are all gone.”

Rodriguez and her family have been coming to Ottawa County from Texas for six years, her mother, Lilyam said.

It is typical for entire families to come with husband, wife, and preferably, children 14 and older who are allowed to work in Michigan.

Those who work for the area’s landscaping industry say for 19 months each year.

“We get 6,000 seasonal workers in the county each year. They need to feel a part of the community, and the community needs to be comfortable with them,” Harrison said.

She described the barriers families face when trying to fit in.

“This is a very close-knit culture; they’re very family oriented, very religious, very Catholic,” she said,” With their long hours, they can’t provide enough support for their kids.”

But Allen sees a down side.

“What I don’t like is the living conditions in those camps,” she said. “You go to them and it’s like going to a third-world country. It shouldn’t be that way, here in the middle of an affluent area.”

Harrison said there are differences in the camps, that “some farms are better than others.”

She went on to say that response from the community has been generous.

Harrison added that she would like to do more with the program, but would need additional funding.

“There is such a beauty to this culture, such a beauty to these relationships,” she said. “The pervasive perception is that migrant workers are dirty and lazy people. I always tell everyone that as you’re driving down M-45 on your way to work in the morning at seven o’clock, look out – they’ll be there working. Then, when you come home at six o’clock at night, look out again, and they’ll still be there.