Agency aims to serve farmworkers - Catholic Courier

Agency aims to serve farmworkers

Whenever Velma Smith hears anyone say it’s too difficult to serve farmworkers, she concludes that the person is likely trying to provide services using a traditional mind set.

“Nine to five doesn’t work (when serving farmworkers),” said Smith, senior vice president for the New York division of Rural Opportunities Inc. “These people work from sunup to sundown. And they (may) not seek out services; you have to go to them.”

Rural Opportunities, which recently changed its name to PathStone Corp., has been serving farmworkers since it began in 1969 as part of the war on poverty, Smith said. The not-for-profit organization has gone through other name changes in its history, but it has always maintained its focus on supporting farmworkers and fostering community development, she added.

“We’ve changed our name, not our mission,” she said.

The most recent name change, which includes the tagline “Connecting You to Opportunities,” occurred last month and is designed to better represent all of the agency’s services and the communities it serves, said Mary McCrank, director of communications and fundraising. PathStone, which operates in seven states, also opened several offices this year in Puerto Rico, she added.

When Rural Opportunities started out, staff members began a grassroots effort to improve the living and working conditions for farmworkers, who at that time were mostly African-Americans, according to Smith. When the Immigration Reform and Control Act went into effect in 1986, the majority of workers were increasingly Hispanic, as is the case today, she noted. The act offered amnesty to workers who had entered the country illegally before 1982.

While the ethnic composition of the farmworker population has changed, “40 years later, we still have some of the same conditions,” she remarked.

“I grew up in a migrant-worker family,” Smith added. “It’s why I say things haven’t changed. The faces have changed.”

Farmworkers in New York still lack such basic labor rights as overtime pay or a day of rest that are provided to other workers; they also lack sufficient options for child care, Smith added. Some migrant camps still don’t meet appropriate standards for housing, she added.

PathStone continues providing direct services as well as outreach and education with a focus on the entire family, noted Michel Attia, the New York division’s deputy for special programs. Attia oversees the migrant occupational-safety program, which includes training for workers and growers on worker-protection standards and pesticide safety. He noted that pesticide education includes coloring books for families to review along with other information.

“We serve the whole family,” Attia added. “All programs are aimed at the agricultural workers and their families. That way, everybody is healthy.”

According to information provided by PathStone, the New York division’s other farmworker programs include training and employment for farmworkers interested in nonagricultural jobs or other agricultural opportunities besides field work; youth mentoring; farmworker access to vocational rehabilitation, support and counseling for victims of domestic abuse; financial assistance and housing placement; and emergency outreach and education to identify victims of human trafficking.

“The biggest thing is meeting their day-to-day necessities,” Smith said. “Farmworkers have some of the best work ethics. … They want to make a difference (for) their families.”

Churches have become one of the organization’s biggest allies in meeting the needs of migrant workers, Smith said. The organization often seeks assistance from the Diocese of Rochester’s Migrant Ministry offices as well as the Albany-based Rural & Migrant Ministry, an ecumenical organization that maintains an office in Brockport.

Deacon John Brasley, diocesan coordinator for Parish Support Ministries’ community services, said that, like PathStone, the Rochester Diocese has migrant ministry offices in the Wayne County, Ontario County and Brockport areas. He noted that most of the migrant workers in the diocese’s 12 counties are Catholic.

“There’s a lot to be done in trying to welcome migrant families to our community, to try and identify their needs and provide support for their faith life and spirituality,” Deacon Brasley said.

One way PathStone’s Alton office welcomed migrant workers was by hosting a Sept. 21 picnic for them in the Williamson area. During the event workers received free lunches as well as information from area agencies about the services available to them, said Orlando Rivera, PathStone’s regional administrator.

Among those services is a tax clinic because these workers do pay taxes, even if they are not in this country legally, Rivera noted.

Irene S√°nchez, placement and career-services developer in the organization’s Alton office, said PathStone also strives to help these workers find other jobs if they decide to stay in the area when the harvest season is over.

“We help people to improve themselves,” S√°nchez said.

Luisa del Valle, PathStone’s tax-program coordinator, was on hand at the picnic to explain the low-income tax clinics, which receive funding from the Internal Revenue Service. Del Valle said she helps about 200 to 300 Mexican workers annually, whether filling out forms for them or offering information. She also explains about obtaining individual taxpayer identification numbers for those workers who, for example, may be permanent residents but don’t have a Social Security number.

“We give them all the information,” del Valle said.

Rivera said he also helps migrant workers who approach him about becoming citizens, providing support with paperwork and studying for the test.

Macario Castillo, who attended the Williamson picnic, is one of those workers who has decided to become a citizen. He currently is a permanent resident and has used PathStone’s tax services.

Born in Guerrero, Mexico, Castillo has over the past 20 years traveled to work in the fields of several other states, including Florida, Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Indiana and Ohio. He has decided to settle in this area.

“It’s time to settle,” he said. “I like this area, and there’s a lot of work.”

Juanita Graham, a representative from the state Department of Labor’s Auburn office, said PathStone is one of the agencies she contacts when she needs to match a worker with a grower who offers housing, or a worker in need of emergency housing.

“Different agencies, including faith-based organizations, do need to work together to support immigrant farmworkers,” Deacon Brasley noted. “Rural Opportunities has been very successful in providing job training for workers and connecting farmworkers with community resources. And I think we also share a common goal of advocating for social justice for immigrant farmworkers.”

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