• Cynthia Matthews

From the Fields to the Board Room: A Window Into the World of Board Member Nilda Soto

Nilda in the fields

On February 18, Nilda Soto was elected to serve on East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s Board of Directors. She has more than 30 years of experience working with our migrant farmworker community.  Nilda is currently the Manager for the Farmworker Career Development Program with Polk County, Florida School District.  The goal is to improve the lifestyle for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.  Please keep reading to learn why she’s such a passionate advocate for our families.

Could you tell me about your family and culture?

I was born in Utuado, Puerto Rico.  I came to the U.S. when I was nine years old.  I arrived in Philadelphia back in 1969, then moved to Michigan.  In 1977, I married into a farmworker family at the age of 17 years.  We traveled from Michigan to Ohio, from Ohio to Florida.  In Ohio, I worked in the pickle fields.  I harvested strawberries in Plant City, Florida.  We would then travel to Texas for a few weeks after we did our rounds, then we would start our route again back to South Carolina.  I worked in the fields for six years, until 1983. 

How did you first find out about the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program?

Here, in Plant City, Florida, I had a friend who had her kids at a center operated by Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which was a program funded by ECMHSP.  She was the one that told me about the program.  When we went to South Carolina, staff from the local program there would come to the farmworker camps to recruit children and families into the program.  In South Carolina, and also in North Carolina, buses would come to the camps and collect the children to take them to the centers.  I became involved in center governance and was elected as a parent representative to the Policy Council.  In that role, I had the opportunity to meet the founder of ECMHSP, Sister Geraldine O’Brien.

What difference did you see after your kids started attending the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program?

My kids started attending in 1979 and learned so much.  They were taught to interact with other kids.  Babysitters can’t always add that educational component.  It’s so different.  Since Head Start is funded by the federal government, there are federal regulations and that makes a big difference.  ECMHSP teachers prepared my children to do so well in kindergarten.

How is it that you stopped doing farm work and started on a different career path?

One of the things that drove me out of farmwork was noticing a lot of young kids in the fields.  Some of them were as young as 11 years old.  I didn’t want that for my kids. So, in 1983, there was a bad freeze that wiped out the citrus and agriculture in Florida and many people lost their jobs.  During this time, I volunteered as an interpreter at the unemployment office and the Salvation Army.  I remember being asked to leave the unemployment office because I had my two-month-old baby with me.  A woman said, “Can’t you read?  The sign says no children are allowed here.”  That day I told myself someday I would be on that side of the counter to give people the service they deserve.  In 1984, people complained about not having someone bilingual at the unemployment office, so a position became available.  Someone from the Salvation Army encouraged me to apply.  I’ll never forget when I had my first interview.  The interviewer asked about my job history.  I had never worked with computers before, but I told him I could do the job if given the opportunity.  And that turned out to be true! 

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Nilda is recognized for the effectiveness of her program at the Florida State office.


How is it that you began working for the Polk County School District?

I worked for the Department of Labor in Polk County between 1984 and 1990.  The Polk County School Board offered me a position with a better salary and benefits, so in the spring of 1990, I started working at the Farmworker Career Development Program.  I became the Program Manager about six years ago.  My office has a team of five people.  Although word of mouth is the number one form of recruitment, we all go out to recruit when it’s necessary.  I oversee grant reporting requirements, the program’s budget, and training, among other mission-driven activities.  We have a good relationship with the high schools.  Some of the people we serve are dependents of farmworkers and others are farmworkers themselves.  Some of these kids only pick during the summer months. Right now that they’re out of school doesn’t mean they’re not out there picking strawberries to provide extra income for their families.  While many people are safe at home, they are out there harvesting for us.  We also work with the adult schools.  For example, those individuals taking ESOL classes, who then wish to transfer to technical schools and universities.  We serve more than 160 people every year and many times surpass our goal.  I can proudly say my program has been recognized multiple times as the number one in the state.  In April, it will be 30 years working for the county.  I think after my retirement I will continue to serve the community because I love what I do.

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Nilda is pictured here with one of the students her program benefited. The student was recognized for their successful participation at the state-level. 


How does your program motivate kids to stay in school?

Our program pays for their tuition, books, and sometimes gives a stipend.  We have one of the highest success rates in our program.  Sometimes kids drop out because they have to help their families with the bills.  While a lot of other kids are playing outside, these kids must deal with so many things.  I know that without the farmworkers in this country, we wouldn’t be able to eat.

What does National Farmworker Awareness Week mean to you?

National Farmworker Awareness Week should be all year round. This is making people conscious about what farmworkers have to deal with in the fields.  For example, all the pesticides they come in contact with.  These people are still out there harvesting.

What are your expectations as a Board Member?

I want to be able to contribute to the farmworker community.  I want to stand up for them and emphasize they do the work that nobody else wants to do.  La Familia and Fort Meade Centers are the closest to me.  I already have a good relationship with staff.  I look forward to bringing my knowledge of the Florida farmworker community to help ECMHSP across all its service areas.

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