Nearly 40 years later, a former volunteer service group remains proud of its shared idealism.
“We said that we were so innocent then, and we could conquer the world. We didn’t know what we didn’t know — and there was a beauty to that,” Mary Ellen Steele said.
These fond memories surfaced during a reunion held June 30-July 2 in Perkinsville, Steuben County. It brought together approximately 50 people who were involved with Project REACH, a group that assisted migrant workers in the Perkinsville area during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Reunion participants traveled from across New York state and even came from as far as California and South Carolina. Events consisted of a potluck supper and campfire with songs and stories on Friday; visiting, dinner and “candlelight memories” on Saturday; and a Sunday-morning thanksgiving celebration followed by farewell.
Since there had never been a previous reunion, excitement and emotion ran quite high.
“Absolutely. It was a powerful weekend,” said Steele, a Rochester resident.
The migrant mission had been established in the 1960s through the efforts of Tim Weider, a former diocesan priest, who was then pastor of Perkinsville’s Sacred Heart Church. Project REACH began in 1968, with many volunteers committed to one-year hitches during which they helped seasonal migrant workers while using the facilities at Sacred Heart as a base.
Laborers were largely African Americans from the southern United States, as well as some Hispanics, who toiled on area potato farms.
“There were not too many families — a lot of men,” Steele said.
Project REACH provided such services as a clothing store; a child-care center; and a medical clinic with free health services. In addition, volunteers strove to secure better rights for the workers, who lived in decrepit conditions.
“They worked hard and had nothing,” Steele remarked.
Although Steele said the laborers were treated poorly by farm owners, many local residents supported Project REACH’s efforts, not letting ethnic or socioeconomic differences with the migrants stand in their way. Steele noted that Project REACH and similar efforts lasted several more years before northern Steuben County’s migrant population began to taper off.
Steele — then Sister Mary Ellen Carey — was a member of the first Project REACH group, volunteering in Perkinsville from 1968-69.
“At the time, I was a Sister of Mercy. I worked in the bakery as a 20-year-old-woman, and that’s the last place in the world I wanted to be,” she said with a laugh, explaining that she felt “a real urge to work with people.”
Steele went on to a career in human services, first with inner-city housing and then for many years assisting people with disabilities. She observed that many other veterans of Project REACH have gone on to service-oriented careers, saying that at an open discussion during the reunion “the question was asked, ‘How did this experience affect the rest of our lives?’ It was a very powerful session.”
She recalled that Project REACH volunteers got paid $10 per month in addition to room and board. However, the value of their one-year commitment cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
“There was a community there. But we’ve never found it since,” she said.