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Mentoring For Children From Migrant Families

Javier and Jessica play Sorry! with Beverly and Gary in their Holland home.

Gary Zell works with Javier on school work at the family computer.

Gary and Beverly Zell in their Holland home.

Beverly Zell in her Holland home.

Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance's Migrant Mentoring program offers community advocates and coaches an opportunity to connect with school-aged migrant children.
Ottawa County is among the top agricultural producing counties in the country. This production requires a migrant labor force to plant, tend, and pick crops. Many of these workers bring their families for the Michigan growing season from late February through November.

There are an estimated 12,000 migrant farm workers and their families in Ottawa County -- one of the largest migrant populations in the country. Many migrant workers and their families stay on grower-provided housing facilities located on or adjacent to their work place. They work long hours and tend to keep to themselves.

Children in migrant agricultural families often face significant developmental and educational obstacles, including poverty, limited English proficiency, and rural and social isolation. Children enroll in school and are often not performing at grade level. Because the growing season doesn't coincide with the school year, most migrant children attend more than one school in any given year.

Migrant parents see education as a way out for their children, but many of the households do not speak English at home. This leads to confusion about parental involvement in school, which is not part of the school experience in their home countries.

Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) established their Migrant Mentoring program in 1998 to create a sense of community and acceptance for migrant children and their families. The program's purpose, "to provide social and academic mentoring for school-aged children" often spills over and involves whole families. Eunice Ruiz, program coordinators says, "The Migrant Mentoring program builds bridges between two very different cultural communities. This year we have matched more than 50 children with our 30 mentors. There are always children, however, who are placed on a waiting list that need a caring adult role model to spend time with them over the summer months. The program is mutually beneficial for the child, who gets an advocate and a social connection, and for the mentors, who are enriched by cultivating a friendship with a child and family from another culture."

Take, for instance, the case of Beverly and Gary Zell.

Beverly and Gary had experienced other cultures through mission trips to build a school in Africa and to install water filtration in Mexico, and were energized by these experiences. So when Beverly spotted the opportunity to mentor a child right in Holland, she was eager to try. They were matched with Javier, but when Javier’s older sister Yaneth's mentor dropped out, the Zells agreed to mentor her too. And when Jessica became old enough for the program, it was natural for the Zell's to expand their relationship to include all three.

The Zells are now in their fourth year with the same three kids: Yaneth, now 19, just married and preparing to enter Community College; Javier, now 16, just accepted in to the Connections Academy, a job shadowing/mentoring program through Haworth, Inc., Herman Miller, Inc., Gentex, Johnson Controls Inc., Holland/Zeeland City Government, Primera Plastics and Metal Flow; and Jessica, now age 8, who spoke no English when she entered Kindergarten and is performing at grade level.

The Zells are careful not to overstep into the role of the parents, but instead have engaged the parents in the mentoring process as well. And after four years, Beverly says, "We've really become family."

"Anything we have done for the kids -- a few school clothes, some holiday presents -- has always been reciprocated by their parents in the form of homemade goods or special foods like tamales."

LEDA provides mentors with helpful guidance, but allows each team to develop the relationship in their own way, with their own style. "LEDA provides wonderful support, especially early on. They were able to help us with resources like access to medical and dental services," says Beverly. When there is a sensitive issue to discuss with the parents, LEDA provides a translator.

The mentor's role is to advocate for the children in school and to introduce them to experiences and social customs they might not otherwise encounter.

In the winter months, these families follow farm work to warmer climates like Texas. This makes it difficult to connect in school, to establish a rapport with teachers, or to plan courses as one school's requirements differ from another. This happened to Javier. When he was in Texas, he had a bad experience being ridiculed by a teacher in front of the class. When he was back in Holland, he stopped participating in class and his grades were poor. Beverly was able to advocate for Javier by explaining his experience in Texas to his Michigan teacher. Javier was able to pull his grades up before the end of the semester. The Zells have assumed a coaching role and have helped each of their mentees with school work, even arranging for Hope College students to help with math tutoring.

Javier, Yaneth and Jessica's parents are solidly supportive of their children's education, hoping that their kids have an opportunity to 'work with their brain instead of their back.' "The teachers are a little daunted when all of us come to parent teacher conferences," says Beverly.

"We anticipated we'd learn about the kids; we didn't truly anticipate the give and take in the relationship where we are learning about a whole different culture and about ourselves," says Beverly. "It has changed my world view. Some people prefer not to see or think about marginalized populations like migrants, but to me that's like looking at rainbow and only seeing shades of one color. It's not as beautiful as seeing the fullness of the whole spectrum of different colors."

Being a mentor is a meaningful experience. If you are interested, you can apply online at www.ethnicdiversity.org. LEDA will conduct a background check and schedule an interview with you. If that goes well, you are matched with a child. LEDA provides training that will get you started on the right foot. The commitment is expected to be two to four hours per week.

For more information, contact: Eunice Ruiz, Migrant Programs Coordinator, at migrant@ethnicdiversity.org.
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