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Crusade for migrant kids won't let her rest

By ANDREW SKERRITT, Times Columnist
Published October 7, 2007

"There's just so much to be done," says Gladys Sanchez, the state migrang advocate of the year.

After the excitement of the day before, you might figure Gladys Sanchez would take some well-deserved time off.

Not Gladys Sanchez.

On Thursday, she was named the migrant advocate of the year for Florida at a conference in Orlando. But first thing the next morning, Sanchez was at Cox Elementary in Dade City. When I showed up, she was already meeting with a Spanish-speaking parent who was looking for help with public transport.

"There's so much to be done," said the 51-year-old Spring Hill resident. "You can't put it off."

That sense of urgency has driven her work in the Pasco school district as she confronts the problems facing migrant workers and their children: illiteracy, poverty, poor health.

"These folks are struggling every day. They know about survival," said Sanchez, her Spanish and English accents betraying her New York birthplace and her Puerto Rican ancestry. She knows what it's like to be the first in the family to go a step farther than her parents did.

"My attention is on the kids -- kids who have the strength to be the first in the family to finish their education," she said.

It may sound strange to hear that even now some families are still waiting for their first high school graduate. But that's the norm for the mostly Spanish-speaking migrant families whose lives are ruled by the seasons, as they travel this country's breadbasket doing backbreaking labor to keep fresh produce on our tables.

Sanchez's role is to help fulfill our end of this deal. She's like a circuit rider, traveling back and forth between seven east Pasco schools. Her mission is to figure out how to keep these migrant students in school, so they'll have a shot at better lives than their parents. It's the American dream; she's trying to make it theirs.

"We owe them the best education possible," said Sanchez, a mother and grandmother, who before joining Pasco had worked in juvenile corrections, mental health and foster care. After she was hired as a guidance counselor for migrant children at Weightman Middle School in 1997, however, her social work became less of a job and more of a calling.

It helped that she's a former military wife. Her ex-husband served in the Navy and she knew what it was like to pick up and move on short notice. Migrant families do it more often and with far less help. That's where Sanchez comes in. Making calls, asking for help, opening doors for migrant parents and their children.

And she's doing it in the right place. Even as anti-immigrant sentiments fester across the country, the Pasco school district remains one place where migrant children are welcome. The district recently hired three bilingual instructors to work with migrant students. They'll complement Sanchez's efforts. And she gets to enjoy the rewards.

"I love to hear the rest of the story," she said. She was talking about the telephone calls from former migrant students saying they've finished college, they're working, they've bought their first homes, they've become U.S. citizens.

"It's their stories that grab you," she said.

And they won't let her go.

Andrew Skerritt's e-mail address is He can also be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.

[Last modified October 6, 2007, 19:15:28]

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