KING FERRY — The migrant camp in King Ferry has been a part of Eddy Celamy’s life for the past 26 years. He stays at the camp each summer when he and other migrant farm workers come to harvest sweet corn for Turek Farms. Like many farm workers, Celamy, 49, moves from place to place following the harvests. The work is hard and the nature of his job makes it difficult for him to keep in touch with his family in Haiti, but he doesn’t complain.
“It’s not normal, but that’s life,” Celamy said. “I think if I was in Haiti, I’d be dead. I’m blessed. Over there, every day when you wake up you hear (that) many people died for nothing. I’m just working hard to eat, and I thank God I’m still alive.”
Celamy and his fellow farm workers took a break from laboring in the fields to enjoy a prayer service and welcome picnic at the camp on Aug. 8. The picnic was just one facet of the Migrant Farmworker Project, an annual service project of the Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County.
The project began more than a decade ago, said project coordinator Debbie Patrick. Parishioners were looking for a way to become involved in mission work when they realized there was a migrant camp located less than two miles from Our Lady of the Lake Parish in King Ferry, giving Catholics a way to do mission work practically in their own back yards.
“From that point on, we made an effort to serve them,” Patrick said.
Patrick and other Good Shepherd parishioners began collecting nonperishable food, health and beauty supplies, used household items and clothing, which they then distributed to the farm workers to help make their stay at the camp more comfortable. In late July, these supplies were distributed to 103 farm workers at the King Ferry camp. The program has grown over the years, with parishes, businesses and organizations from Cayuga, Seneca and Tompkins counties becoming involved.
The program expanded even more this year, with educational outreach efforts being offered for the first time, including an informational workshop designed to help the farm workers make informed choices about over-the-counter medications. St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Ithaca collected more than 300 medicinal items — including aspirin, cold medicine and stomach-relief products — to be used in the program and in the camp’s health clinic.
The efforts of Patrick and other volunteers don’t go unnoticed by the farm workers, many of whom are Haitian, African-American, Hispanic or Appalachian Caucasians. Celamy said he feels blessed to know that so many different people have come together to make life better for him. Fellow farm worker Jean-Claude St. Fleur, 33, has been coming to the King Ferry camp for the past three summers. Events such as the welcome picnic help him feel more comfortable in this camp than he does in some other places, he said, speaking through Laurie Konwinski, who translated for him.
Konwinski has worked since 1999 at the camp’s health clinic, which is run by the Cayuga County Department of Health. She had previously worked in Haiti for six years, and wanted to stay connected with the Haitian culture when she returned to the United States.
“The culture is so welcoming, so community based,” she said, noting that Haitians helped her embrace their language and culture when she first arrived in Haiti. Working with the Haitian farm workers helps her feel like she’s returning the favor, she said. “Especially when you don’t feel well, it’s hard to deal in a foreign language. It sometimes is very helpful to have somebody who can hear you in your mother tongue.”
Father Donald Curtiss, pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Community, was encouraged to see a large number of volunteers from different communities throughout the diocese show their love and concern at the welcome picnic.
“It lets the migrant worker know that they’re important to us; that we do appreciate the work they do for us,” Father Curtiss said, noting the project also helps the community at large to become aware of both the needs and the humanity of the farm workers. “They’re human beings like us, but at the same time, they’re different. They still have that dignity. They’re not just workers, they’re husbands and wives. They work very hard outdoors and in the sun, in the weather, many hours a day.”
Father Curtiss said he’s noticed that many of the farm workers have a great faith. God is very present to them, he added, which he finds reassuring. Father Curtiss said he has been touched by the strong faith of one farm worker, Alberto Stella.
“The thing that’s most important to me is God, after that working to take care of myself and my family,” said Stella, who has been coming to the King Ferry camp for the past five summers. His faith has helped him stick to his morals and behave honestly, Stella said, speaking through Konwinski.
“I have to work to help support my family. I feel like I have to follow the rules and do what’s expected of me, and that’s partly because of my faith,” he said.