2003-03-28 Grand Haven Tribune Mentors needed for migrant children in Ottawa County

Mentors needed for migrant children in Ottawa County
Grand Haven Tribune

A month after arriving in West Michigan to work, a migrant agricultural worker watched news coverage of a KKK demonstration in Kalamazoo. She asked, “We come here to do work no one else will do, why do people hate us?” The following fall, after three of her children had been part of the Migrant Mentoring Program, the same woman shared, “This is a good community. People here care.”

A retired couple, whose children were raised, had never had a cross-cultural experience and decided to volunteer in the Migrant Mentoring Program. After a season of mentoring, they shared, “We learned about the beauty of the culture. The people share a culture where there is such strong commitment to family and faith.

We were honored to be embraced by the entire family.” The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) is seeking volunteers interested in becoming social mentors for children from area migrant camps. 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, visiting the museums and even swimming at the beaches will be new experiences. By providing opportunities to participate in community activities, in partnership with the invaluable gift of friendship, LEDA hopes to create a sense of community and acceptance for the migrant children and their families. The issues of race and culture are also introduced with the return of the migrant worker families each season.

When migrant workers enter the community, they are often viewed with curiosity, and even discomfort, by a population that is struggling to understand cultural differences. The sharing of cultures, values and lifestyles through relationships can help to build understanding and appreciation between our cultural communities.

With guidance from a bilingual, bicultural caseworker, each volunteer mentor meets with a child to provide social opportunities and academic support once a week for the duration of the migrant workers’ stay (usually late February to late November).

The third largest producer of agricultural goods in the state, Ottawa County brings in over 6,000 migrant workers annually, largely Mexican-America. Children in migrant agricultural families often face significant developmental and educational obstacles, including poverty, limited English proficiency, and rural and social isolation.

Mobility and parents’ work hours often leave children with little opportunity for social interaction with the outside community. While children of migrant agricultural workers attend local schools many months of the year, the academic achievement of these populations, as a group, is the lowest in the area and the nation.

Elba Fuentes, caseworker for the program, encouraged people to volunteer. “If you are interested in becoming part of the solution and having a wonderful cross-cultural experience in the process, consider volunteering. The mentors and children love being part of the Migrant Mentoring Program.”

Anyone interested in volunteering as a mentor with the program should contact Gail Harrison, LEDA executive director, at (616) 846-9074 or e-mail: LEDA@ethnicdiversity.org . Cultural awareness training will be provided for all volunteers. The Migrant Mentoring Program is a project of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and a United Way agency.