UnidosUS Affiliate East Coast Migrant Head Start Project to Serve Children of Farmworkers in Indiana and Oklahoma

Year after year, migrants move from field to field and state to state, following the growing seasons of America’s agricultural industry. Late next spring, as many of them begin work to grow and harvest apples, berries, melons, cauliflower, corn, and cabbage in Oklahoma and Indiana, a new $5 million federal grant will allow 236 of their children to be enrolled in nine area early childhood education centers, serviced by the UnidosUS Affiliate East Coast Migrant Head Start Project (ECMHSP).

“This is the first time we have the opportunity to serve families outside the East Coast region,” says Juan Carlos Erickson, the organization’s director of communications. He says this funding will be used to serve some 40 children in Oklahoma and 196 in Indiana. “We are excited to work with our community partners in these two states to identify children who are eligible for services.”

ECMHSP is part of Head Start, a program created in 1965 by Congress to provide comprehensive child development services for low-income families based mostly in urban areas. ECMHSP began in 1974 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address the needs of rural migrant families. ECMHSP currently serves more than 2,300 children of farmworkers in 38 specialized Head Start Centers across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. The organization’s programs include Early Head Start (EHS), which serves infants and toddlers until children turn three and are ready to transition into Head Start or another pre-K program. The goal of EHS programs is to help families care for their infants and toddlers through early, continuous, intensive, and comprehensive services.

That work was put to a particularly tough test this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, ECMHSP found itself making the difficult decision of suspending center operations to prevent the spread of the virus among children and staff. In mid-May remote services started to be provided. By mid-June, they had developed a comprehensive plan for reopening in a safe, physically distanced way. Following CDC guidelines, ECMHSP reopened with limited capacity, providing masks for children ages two and over, daily temperature checks for anyone entering the facilities, self-contained meals, and a strategy to help educate the community on COVID-19 safety guidelines.

An East Coast Migrant Head Start Project teacher keeping an eye on one of her adventurous students. Photo Courtesy of ECMHSP.

“We have to keep saying to each other ‘we are only as safe as you are,” ECMHSP’s Chief Innovation Officer Christine Alvarado told ProgressReport.co last summer while chronicling those concerns in a multimedia report, co-sponsored by UnidosUS and the early childhood non-profit ZERO TO THREE’s Think Babies campaign. “We have learned many lessons throughout the last eight months, and we are constantly tweaking our safety protocols,” says Erickson, adding that ECMHSP has also used that time to fully integrate a technology system that mitigates the impacts of current and upcoming challenges. These technological resources have allowed our teams to communicate more efficiently with our stakeholders.”

Those efforts have also been vital to the planning of services at the nine participating centers in Oklahoma and Indiana.

Photo Courtesy of East Coast Migrant Head Start.

“During our inspection of the centers, we have realized that we will need to invest in significant upgrades,” says Erickson, noting that these improvements support the organization’s commitment to ensure that all facilities have the same look, feel, and technological capabilities “We want to offer our children the very best across all our regions. Farmworker children deserve nothing less than the best facilities and quality of services.”

“We have decades of experience serving farmworker communities up and down the east coast,” says María C. Garza, ECMHSP’s Chief Executive Officer, “and we will leverage this opportunity to ensure we meet the needs of our new families in Indiana and Oklahoma.”