Care with a familiar touch
By JOCELYN WIENER, Times Staff Writer
DOVER -- One by one, the 13 sleepy-looking 1-year-olds wake up from their morning naps. But not Daniella.
Paula Melendez gently prods the girl whose red velour pants are slipping halfway down her diaper. "Let's go," she says. "Nos tenemos que ir mami."
Daniella sits up, rubs her hands over her eyes, and lies down again on the carpet.
After pulling Daniella up a second time, Melendez, Juana Cazares, 36, and Flor Quevedo, 45, form a plan of action. They move their charges down a ramp, through a gate and into a playground. Each teacher carries a baby, grabs a few hands, and herds the rest with encouraging words.
Most schools in Hillsborough County opened in August this year, but teachers here returned to work only a few weeks ago.
Like other Redlands Christian Migrant Association child care centers in Florida, this facility in east Hillsborough doesn't open until migrant farm workers trickle in at the beginning of the agricultural season. It closes at the end of the season, sometime in May.
Along with free or reduced-cost child care and preschool education, RCMA provides migrant families with parenting classes, support groups, and family literacy opportunities.
A unique aspect of its program is the common background teachers and administrators share with the families they serve. Leslie Moguil, RCMA's state special projects coordinator, estimates that 75 percent of the organization's 1,500 employees are themselves former migrant farm workers.
"There's an intrinsic empathy that's built in," Moguil says. "And staff have a personal mission to make the lives of others like themselves better."
The children settle into blue plastic engines, red wagons and rainbow colored slides in an outdoor playpen. Javier quickly develops a fascination with the big kids' playground, his large eyes mesmerized by the tricycles and swing sets on the other side of the metal fence.
Caceres, the teacher, begins blowing bubbles.
"Purple. Blue. Green," she calls out to the children, her eyes squinting. "Look," she laughs. "The teacher can't see anymore."
Most of the children are thrilled, but Javier still wants out. He begins shaking the fence, his eyes glinting with expectation.
"Javier!" the teachers call to him, until someone finally walks over, picks him up and moves him. Daniel, who is teething, takes Javier's place. He begins chewing on the fence.
A few minutes later, Daniel is traveling on a small blue scooter and backs into a multicolored cube. In the process, he nearly crushes Javier, who escapes and then picks up another plastic scooter and wields it menacingly near the smaller boy's head.
"No peleamos!" Melendez intervenes. "If you hit him, it hurts!"
The importance of education, even for very young charges, is not lost on these teachers.
"I adored studying," remembers Cazares, who spent years moving with the seasons, picking tomatoes, strawberries and squash.
"I used to do homework for my twin sister," she says. "My father would spank me to get me to stop, but I did it anyway."
Cazares made it to the ninth grade before her family ran out of money for books. She has worked ever since.
Among the benefits the association offers staff members are scholarships to further their education.
Kathy Vega, the center director, had dropped out of the 10th grade when she first joined RCMA. She has since earned her GED, her child development credential and an administration credential. She is now studying for an associates degree at Hillsborough Community College.
"We provide professional development opportunities for our staff so that they can advance within the system," Moguil says. "Opportunity for education is one of the reasons a lot of people will stay."
Melendez, who was president of RCMA parent association for three years, said she decided to join the staff this year to pursue her GED.
"I finished eleventh grade in Mexico," she says. "I came here to take advantage of the education."
Cazares would like to pursue her education, but does not have time. In order to support four children and her mother, Caceres works a second job at a cookie factory from 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.
She makes $8.50 an hour there. She gets to the center by 7 a.m. and stays until 3 or 4 p.m, making what she estimates to be a little more than $200 a week. When the center is not in session, she waitresses. She gets little sleep.
"I've thought about taking advantage of the opportunity, but I don't have time," she says. "If I had more money, okay."
Moguil says salaries range from a minimum of $6.16 an hour for a teacher-trainee such as Melendez to a maximum of $11.41 an hour for a lead teacher.
"No question about it, child care workers nationally, including ours, are underpaid for the jobs that they do," Moguil says. "I don't think it's until society and the political climate change that we will realize the value of their contributions."
Back inside, the kids settle down at knee-high yellow tables covered with white butcher paper. It is time for art.
Cazares takes out a container of nontoxic red paint. She hands rollers to the children at her table. The little boy sitting next to her begins to chew on his roller.
"Esto no se come," she says to him, gently pulling the roller out of his mouth. He bursts into tears. Meanwhile, a child on the other side of the table has begun tasting the paint. When Cazares turns around to pull the roller from that little girl's mouth, the first boy starts sucking on his roller again. He also stops crying.
"They think this is food," Cazares says, shaking her head.
Just in time, Melendez pushes in a cart laden with bowls of mashed rice and boiled carrots and applesauce.
"Vamos a comer! Bravo!" Quevedo cries. The children burst into applause. Lunch is an exercise in persistence. It begins with a ritual washing of the hands that is punctuated, today, by Juan Jose's friendly top-of-the-lungs pronouncement of every word in his still small vocabulary.
"Mama," he gurgles, to no one in particular. "Ma ma ma ma ma." Receiving no response, he eventually switches sounds. "Daaaa da da da. Pa pa," he says, until Melendez retrieves him to wash his hands. Before lunch, the teachers lead the children in a prayer. It is in English.
"God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen." The teachers pour milk into sippy cups, then begin calling for the children to use their spoons.
"Cuchara!" the teachers insist. "La cuchara!"
They are ignored.
The association hires its teachers because of the backgrounds most share with the families they serve. But sometimes behaviors the teachers are supposed to encourage -- behaviors childhood specialists consider key for emotional, cognitive and physical development -- are as new to the teachers as they are for the families.
Telling 1-year-olds to eat with spoons, for example, was not an obvious conclusion for Melendez.
"The difference is that you're not in the sun here," Melendez explains, comparing her job now with the field work she has done in the past. "But the rules are stricter. We can't get angry with the children."
Nap time begins at noon, and proves to be the most unpopular and loudest time of day.
Gisselle begins to cry. Still fascinated by the prospect of the big kids' playground, Javier gazes out the window. Quevedo stations herself between Juan Jose and Mireya, both of whom are wailing. She pats them on their backs. This calms them until Juan Jose's mother arrives to pick him up, at which point Mireya begins to cry even harder.
Finally, the room is quiet, with the children sprawled on their mats, asleep.
Cazares paints a green tree and a red flower on one window. She has already drawn the outline of an angel on another window, but hasn't had time to fill it in. She taught herself to paint, she says.
"That's one thing," says Melendez. "Here, we come in without knowing anything. And here, we teach ourselves everything."
Then Abigail wakes up. So does Gisselle. Javier stands up and runs to the window, accidentally treading on Daniella's head in the process. Daniella doesn't stir. The afternoon has begun.
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