Pregnant, with four kids and unemployed, Matilde Diaz suffered the greatest blow to her life, when her husband was deported to Mexico. Finding herself all alone in Wimauma, Diaz felt trapped and forced to seek aid anywhere that could be found in order to pay her rent and feed and clothe her children.
“I was alone with my four kids and pregnant with Noemi,” Diaz says. “I didn’t have any money to pay the rent nor even to buy something to eat. I could no longer work in the fields because I was seven months pregnant. I was desperate.”
Since arriving in the United States from Guatemala in 2000, Diaz has been a farmworker and picked tomatoes. But now, as the sole provider and caregiver for her family, working in the fields -- which demands long hours away from home -- ceased being an option for her.
Immersed in extreme poverty, Diaz was kicked out of the trailer home she rented after falling behind on the rent by one week. It was then that she sought the aid of Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, a non-profit organization, which for the past 40 years has provided various services to farmworkers who find themselves in desperate situations.
“In a church they told me about Beth-El,” Diaz says. “I came and spoke with [Operations Manager] Javier [Izaguirre] and they provided immediate help. I arrived with nothing. No furniture. My kids and I were sleeping on the floor. They immediately supplied a bed for each one of my kids, sofas to sit on, food and clothing.”
“I don’t have a car, but when I need to go somewhere they take me. That’s how I was able to find work.”
For the last four decades, the Beth-El organization has provided food, clothing, legal and health services for needy farmworkers. It currently assists an average of 600 families weekly.
“Approximately, 90,000 families benefit from our food services every year, and of those only 15 percent return for food the following week,” says the Rev. Kathy Dain, Executive Director of Beth-El Farmworker Ministry
Beth-El’s mission rests upon four initiatives: meeting the basic needs of farmworkers, such as the need for food and clothing; providing education for the farmworker community; health services; and spiritual guidance and support.
“We believe in facilitating the solution to problems, being a helping hand, while at the same time trying to break the cycle, so if we support someone this month, perhaps next month that person will no longer need our help because they’ve been able to resolve their problem in such a way that they won’t need aid this month,” Dain says.
It was at Beth-El that Diaz received the support she desperately needed to take care of her children: Jose, 15, Norma, 14, Selina, 12, Jose Ramon, 5, and Noemi, 2.
Through Beth-El she was relocated into a modest home for rent. She received the food she was in dire need of to properly feed her children. Diaz was also provided with family counseling services.
Seeking stable income to become independent and provide for her family, the 33-year-old Diaz found work near her home in a tomato packing facility -- but the hours offered were few, and the income insufficient.
Because it was not a peak tomato season, Diaz says she only worked two-to-three hours per day at $8.50 an hour. While she was at work, she had to seek someone to care for Noemi, her two-year-old. She was unable to find someone to babysit her daughter for less than $10 a day. So, at the end of a typical work day, on a good day, she would end with only $20 or less in her pocket.
“I would like to prosper and be independent and Beth-El is helping me get there little by little,” Diaz says.
Sustenance for life
Every Tuesday, Beth-El opens its kitchen pantry to the public. The pantry is stocked by the emergency food programs of USDA and Walmart, who participate in Feeding America. Every second Tuesday of the month, Beth-El prepares a community meal; once a month the organization also offers a cooking class in which recipes are created using only ingredients found in the pantry provisions.
Beth-El also seeks to meet the primary need for clothing in Wimauma through its local store, where clothing is either sold very cheaply or given away, depending on the needs of each individual family.
Even with all of this assistance, Diaz says life has been incredibly rough since her husband was deported. Wimauma has no daycare facilities, with the exception of Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), which opens at the end of October when farmworkers return to Wimauma from their work in the north.
To respond to this need, Enterprising Latinas Inc., which seeks to create pathways of opportunity for Latinas in the Tampa Bay area, is launching a project called “Wimauma Cares.” They hope to prepare 25 women to become licensed daycare providers in Wimauma.
“We want to prepare women to start their own businesses,” says Elizabeth Gutierrez, President of the organization. “We want to help them get their licenses and operate their businesses from their own homes with the required modifications to the homes.”
Doing the right thing
Javier Izaguirre, the Operations Manager at Beth-El, has witnessed the challenges confronting many farmworker families in Wimauma. He says Wimauma is in need of an investment that could resolve the town’s problems in a comprehensive way -- from providing public services to housing opportunities. Little by little, Beth-El is doing its part in contributing to the solution and others have taken note.
Barbara Mainster, Executive Director of RCMA, wrote in a letter: “Beth El is celebrating forty years of doing the right thing for the community. We at RCMA have been actively partnering with Beth El for about 20 of those years … RCMA is proud of the role we believe we have played as a partner and look forward to many more years of ‘loving our neighbor’,”.
Though Dain is grateful for the collaboration with RCMA, she says it’s difficult to witness the continuing poverty that is prevalent in Wimauma. “Though we have been serving the community for the past 40 years, poverty here persists,” she says.
According to the US Census, income per capita in Wimauma is $11,600 per year. Almost 35 percent of the population lives on incomes below federal poverty levels.
In spite of this reality, Beth-El continues to seek viable solutions to eradicate poverty in the area, including a new program launched earlier in October and called Step Up For Success.
“The idea is to add resources that will provide families with more options to improve themselves by taking courses in which they’ll learn necessary skills from how to create a resume to job prep and training, from job search tools to how to create a family budget,” Dain says.
With Samuel Olarte, 38, Mission Outreach Resource Coordinator, who joined Beth-El for this initiative, the new program’s prime objective is to place the necessary tools in the hands of Wimauma residents so they can secure their own economic future. Olarte works with people one-on-one to evaluate each person’s individual needs and develop a plan of action based on their specific circumstances.
“We are looking for families who live in poverty to become financially independent,” Olarte says. “We want them to become auto sufficient, to learn to manage their finances, to learn how to use computers.’’
The schedule of classes is flexible and will adapt to the availability of students in order to be available to the whole community — both young and old.
Díaz says she is ready to register for Step Up For Success and prepare herself to gain better employment.
“I want to learn English, learn how to work on computers and be independent,” she says.
Dain is upbeat about Beth-El’s new program. “Even with all the obstacles and difficulties, Beth-El is moving forward, step-by-step,” she says.
A key ongoing challenge, Dain says, continues to be the lack of education available to the children of migrant workers, which makes it difficult to break the cycle of poverty in their lives.
In Wimauma, students confront challenges unique to their family’s lifestyle as farmworkers -- challenges not faced by students in suburban communities. Their’s is a lifestyle that includes the children going to help their parents work in the fields after school. Only after spending many hours working alongside their parents do the children return home to do homework.
Dain strongly believes education is the answer to breaking the cycle of poverty prevalent amongst the farm working community in Wimauma.
“The economic factor is one of the challenges and obstacles to gaining an education,” Dain says. “A farmworker earns about one or two cents per pound of tomatoes picked and each is expected to pick 4,000 pounds per day.
“To put this in perspective,” Dain continues, “if you stack boxes of tomatoes, 4,000 pounds would be equivalent to a stack of boxes eight floors high, yielding about $50 per day in income.”
Therefore, Beth-El is committed to invest in the education of the farmworker children. Beth-El recently increased the number of scholarships they offer for a college education from three to five. Each scholarship is for $1,000 per semester. The scholarships are not limited to high school students.
Rosalva Vallejo-Serrano, 39, is among the scholarship recipients. She is married and has two children: Angel Serrano, 22, and Yamilet Serrano, 15.
At the age of 7, Vallejo-Serrano was already working in the fields with her parents picking cucumbers. As she grew older, she also picked tomatoes, sweet peppers, jalapeño peppers and oranges. Yet even at a young age, Vallejo-Serrano heeded her mother’s advice to “study so that you don’t have to spend your life working in the fields.”
“My mother’s words resonated in my ears every time my fingers would peel after picking jalapeño peppers ... every time I had to spend an entire day working in the sun, or worse, working in the rain,” Vallejo-Serrano says. “It’s a painful job, back-breaking work, but one learns what to do -- take a Tylenol and ask God for the strength to keep going.”
As the eldest sibling, Vallejo-Serrano’s responsibilities also included helping her younger sister with homework after school and starting dinner preparations by making corn or flour tortillas by hand, so when her mother came in from the fields she wouldn’t have to start dinner from scratch.
By age 15, Vallejo-Serrano was married to a man five years her senior. Then alongside her husband Arnulfo Serrano, now 44, she continued picking fruits and vegetables in the fields. However, she didn’t forget her mother’s advice and she pursued her education. Though she didn’t graduate high school, she completed her GED, which in turn opened job opportunities for her outside of farm work. She went on to work at Kmart, McDonald’s and Career Source. She learned how to do taxes and became a tax preparer. She also worked in payroll and did other administrative jobs.
“I told myself, there is no going back. In the fields I earned $4.75 an hour. In the new jobs I earned more and would be able to earn even more still if I went back to school,” Vallejo-Serrano says.
She started working at Beth-El in 2009 as an assistant executive, and while there learned about Beth-El’s scholarship program for farmworker families. She applied for a scholarship to attend Hillsborough Community College
(HCC) and received it. She is now halfway through her studies in psychology and was awarded honors by Phi Beta Kappa last year.
“Beth-El has helped me a lot,” Vallejo-Serrano says. “Without the scholarship I won it would be nearly impossible for me to continue my studies. I was able to win the scholarship because I am the daughter of farmworkers, and even I’ve worked in the fields. My mother’s words continue to resonate in my ears and today it is the same thing I tell my own children.”
Scholarships pave way to success
Frida Reyes, 18, is another recipient of the Beth-El scholarship. She arrived in Wimauma at the age of 7 with her parents, who emigrated from Matamoros, Mexico. Reyes dreams of becoming a business administrator, and studies at Hillsborough Community College in Ruskin and Brandon.
“If I didn’t have this scholarship from Beth-El, I wouldn’t be able to continue my studies,” Reyes says. “It’s been a great blessing.” She is currently in her second semester and is enrolled in three classes.
“Education is our way out (from the fields),” Reyes says, adding that her books and tuition were paid from with scholarship funds from Bethel. Her parents work at a fish nursery in Apollo Beach and their income is insufficient to help pay for her studies. Though, she also works at O’Reilly Auto Parts, Reyes reiterated that the scholarship is instrumental to her ability to pursue a higher education.
Dain recognizes the efforts the scholarship recipients are making, and though the organization’s priority is in meeting the basic daily needs of the community, they also focus on long-term objectives.
“Education is in the center of my heart,” Dain said. “I would like the next generations of farmworker children to see that there is a future beyond the fields. Our goal is to increase the number of scholarships we can provide and we are working toward this endeavor.
“We are talking about young people here who desire to triumph. They are dedicated, focused, and don’t waste time, they don’t goof off,” she adds. “They are incredible youth. They wake up in the morning to help their parents, then they go to school, after they get out they help their siblings with homework, then they go to the field to help their parents complete their work -- that could sometimes be until 11 p.m. -- then they go back home to finish their own homework, then the next day they do it all over again.”
To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.
The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.
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