Maria Rodriguez is from Reynosa, a border city in the northern part of Tamaulipas, Mexico. She loves the work that she does as the Governance Assistant at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in the Florida Direct Services – West Region Administrative Offices in Bartow, FL – and it shows!
But Maria hasn’t had an easy life. Prior to working for ECMHSP, she was a migrant farmworker for nine years. Between March and September, she harvested tomatoes, watermelon, pumpkins, and asparagus in Maryland. The rest of the year, she lived in Texas, where she worked in the melon and onion fields. A typical day in the fields would start at 6 a.m. and end at 7 p.m., leaving very little time for family.
Left to right: Rebecca (20), Laura (25), Angela (19), and Maria’s grandson.
As a single mother, one of Maria’s main concerns was having a safe childcare provider for her family. She’s proud her three daughters received Head Start services. She first heard of the Head Start program in 1996 when the Family Services Worker from the Sudlersville Head Start Center, a former ECMHSP Delegate Agency in Maryland, knocked on her door. All the benefits that could be provided for her three-year-old daughter, Laura, were explained. Maria received the news as a blessing. Her baby would not only receive excellent care while she was at work, but health and family services would be provided as well. Shortly after, Maria offered to volunteer at the center. Center staff noticed how great she was at soothing the infants and hired her as a part-time assistant caregiver, a position that she held for three seasons. This experience made Maria realize that she didn’t want to grow old working in the fields.
Shortly after, Maria’s second daughter was born and she once again enrolled her daughter in the Head Start program. At the age of seven months, the Head Start center staff contacted her to explain that they suspected a learning disability. Rebecca couldn’t sit on her own or grasp things. After tests confirmed the disability, staff quickly coordinated for Rebecca to receive therapy.
As a Head Start parent, Maria continued to be fully involved as a volunteer at the center and later as an elected parent leader for the center, her region and the ECMHSP Policy Council. As president of the Policy Council in 2004, she ensured the parents’ voices were an active part of the organization’s decision-making process and learned the important role parents play in the success of their children’s future. Maria holds ECMHSP responsible for her family’s success. “If I hadn’t left the fields, my daughters would’ve probably continued to do the same line of work. East Coast [Migrant Head Start Project] made me realize that education is the most powerful tool that you can leave your kids,” says Maria.
Laura’s college graduation.
Angela’s 2017 high school graduation picture.
Today, Laura, 25, has a college degree in human resources, while Angela, 19, is finishing her first year of community college. “At East Coast, they teach you the importance of an education, starting with the parents, whom are a child’s first teacher. Obtaining my GED in 2012 was one of the happiest days of my life. I had never thought about going back to school [before working at ECMHSP],” says Maria.
In February, it will be Maria’s eighth anniversary with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Along with her colleague in the Governance Department, Maria Hernandez, she recently coordinated ECMHSP’s Fall Policy Council Orientation and Meeting in Philadelphia, PA. When we asked Maria why she believes in ECMHSP’s mission, she said, “I enjoy encouraging parents to take a more active role in their kids’ education. Each year, we see parents who don’t think they can hold these important positions on our Policy Council, but then become amazing leaders and advocate for migrant farmworker families everywhere.”