Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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Madison House Latino and Migrant Aid Program Celebrates 40 Years of Service

This fall, Madison House will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its Latino and Migrant Aid Program, one of the organization’s first volunteer efforts. University of Virginia student volunteers, in partnership with the Albemarle Regional Migrant Education Program, have served nearly 10,000 migrants since the program’s inception in 1973.  

It started with sending college students to play with migrant children, said Sharon Root, coordinator for adult, migrant and homeless education for Albemarle County. Migrant families would come to work in local apple orchards in the fall and set up camp in communities near the orchards. Parents would work long hours in the orchards, often until 5 or 6 p.m., which meant young children were left unsupervised when they came home from school.

“[The program] started as recreation for the kids,” said Root, who began working for Albemarle County near the beginning of its partnership with Madison House. “The students and kids would just toss around a ball together. … Later we started implementing tutoring, where they would have one hour to tutor or help with homework and then one hour to play.”

Education began to play a more prominent role in the students’ visits, and the directors in the Migrant Education program would organize more structured activities and fun events, even bringing in a nutritionist to talk about making healthy choices, Root said. But what was most important was the environment the students were creating with the children and their families.

“U.Va. college students were their friends,” Root said. “They broke the barrier of going to college for them. When you grow up around college kids coming in to your home, you look up to them, and getting your homework done and doing well in school becomes a normal expectation.”

Late into the 1970s and ’80s, many migrant families began settling permanently in Charlottesville. Some of the Madison House volunteers began expanding their normal tutoring roles to help parents study English, get their driver’s licenses and obtain their U.S. citizenship.

Jon Valencia was a member of one of the first migrant families that decided to keep their children in one school system and live in Charlottesville full time. “I worked for $3.35 an hour in the summer and after school,” he said. As the oldest child in the family, he remembers seeing student volunteers and supervisors in the Migrant Education office come to his camp to put on various activities and tutoring, and being suddenly held to a higher educational expectation. “You have a different mindset than a lot of the other kids at school because you’re not as concerned about school, you’re going home and working … but I always felt this pressure, like I was being pushed to do well,” he said.

There was a point in the 1980s when Albemarle Regional Migrant Education was unable to pay a teacher to supervise any of the volunteer tutoring at the camps. The students at Madison House decided to keep the program going, and continued sending groups of volunteers to the communities. 

“Without Madison House, I don’t know how we would have kept that program going at the time,” Root said.

Today, nearly 75 U.Va. students run three programs aimed at helping Latino and migrant families: Homework Helpers, Hispanic Family Night and Adult Tutoring. While Madison House students once served at a single migrant camp in Albemarle County, they now serve in family homes, at local schools and in five migrant camp locations in Albemarle, Greene County, Waynesboro and Augusta County as well as the city of Charlottesville.

“We are particularly proud that all volunteers for this program come from Madison House,” said Melissa Young, executive director of Madison House. “Without our partnership, the critical needs of these workers and their families would largely be unmet.”

In the Adult Tutoring program, volunteers continue to travel in groups to local orchards to tutor migrant workers in English. With the help of a Migrant Education teacher, the volunteers hold group lessons and one-on-one tutoring with the migrant workers.

At Hispanic Family Night, volunteers travel to a local elementary school twice a week to work in a group setting with migrant families. They help children with homework, English skills and study skills, and they work with parents to help them learn English.

As Homework Helpers, volunteers travel to the homes of migrant families and help children with homework and study skills. Some volunteers will help parents learn English or fulfill other endeavors, such as studying for the U.S. citizenship test.

“It’s good to form relationships with the children and to see them progress and grow,” said Grace Langsfield, a fourth-year foreign affairs and Spanish major in the College of Arts & Sciences and a Latino and Migrant Aid program director and former homework helper. “And it’s nice to have the feeling of teaching them. They really appreciate you – and all the families are so nice and welcoming.”

Young added, "Like all of the service programs at Madison House, Migrant and Latino Aid is mutually beneficial to the program recipients and the students. Many of the student volunteers are studying Latin America or Spanish, and participation helps supplement their studies with hands-on experience.”  

Many student volunteers go on to work for Teach for America, the foreign service or other nonprofit organizations. Some of the program’s alumni will contact the Migrant Education office to ask how they can volunteer or donate funds.

U.Va. alumna Laura Brown, who started out as a student volunteer with the Latino and Migrant Aid program, now works as an advocate in the Migrant Education office that provides help to migrant individuals and families.

“These parents want their kids to succeed in school, and Madison House students have really helped them in putting that expectation on the kids,” Brown said. “Tutors come in and really get them completing their homework. We’re really specific with kids; we look at what they’re doing in school.”

At the orchards, there are more single young Latino men than families, and they continue to benefit from the aid that Madison House and the Migrant Education office provides. Valencia, who eventually became the first in his family to attend college, now resides in Charlottesville, and has started mentoring a teenage migrant worker through the Migrant Education office. He also works part-time in the evenings to facilitate relationships between the migrants and the office, which in turn is able to connect U.Va. students to migrant workers.

And it all comes full circle. “I lived in the Covesville camp, and now I go back and help with classes there, and I would help full-time if I could,” he said. “Charlottesville has changed. I used to be the only Hispanic kid, and now they’re everywhere.”

by Lauren Jones

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