Enlighten Me: The migrant children summer camp
Parents often struggle to find things to do with their children over the summer. Kids get a break, but most of the time, parents are still working. What would you do with your children if you were a migrant farmworker - at work from 5am til sundown?
Every summer, migrant kids from Florida, Georgia and Texas, living here in Delaware for the summer, go to the Seaford Boys and Girls club for a special camp. In this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s Anne Hoffman visits their camp and checks out their annual culinary challenge.
About thirty kids from the state migrant school program have come to DelCastle High School to use the big kitchen. Trained chefs are teaching them how to turn crops their parents pick --- summer favorites like watermelon and sweet corn -- into gourmet meals.
12 year old Oscar explains what his team is making for the contest at the end of the day.
"Spaghetti and chicken meatballs, diced fruit, stir-fried vegetables and fried chicken," said Oscar.
This isn’t the kind of food Oscar normally eats. Back home, his parents make traditional Mexican food.His all-time favorite is a fusion of rural US cuisine and a Latin classic - venison tamales. That kind of fusion makes sense, considering all the different places Oscar is from.
"California, Mexico, two parts of Mexico. Delaware, Virginia," he listed. "And those are all."
Oscar has moved at least four times in his life, and he’s only twelve years old.
For kids like Oscar, school can be tough. Migrant kids tend to miss several days every year, because their families have to move to follow different crops.
There are two types of kids in the Seaford Boys’ and Girls Club’s summer program. Those who come every year to Delaware, during the harvesting season. And there are those kids whose parents are settled in the state and still working in agriculture. They migrate as well, but they move their kids from school district to school district within the state.
"Most of them academically are not very strong, because they change school districts so often," says Olinda Coverdale, the ESL teacher for the state migrant program.
On a normal camp day, kids use a computer program to do intensive reading and math. Then they go swimming, play games and eat snacks provided by the program.
She says most of the kids are about two to three grade levels behind where they should be.
That’s certainly true for Emily, a little girl met when I went to visit the camp a few days before the culinary challenge.
"I loved math before and I knew how to do math but then I forgot about it when we just moved all around," said Emily. "And first grade I failed my grade because I didn’t finish all my work and I moved a lot."
There’s also another issue, says teacher Johanna Pazmino.
"I think also, just for a kid to move from one place to another, the social part is hard for them," said Pazmino. "You know, they are just developing and they are trying to be with a certain group of people. Then they leave, they don’t know if they’re going to come back."
8 year old Jose misses his cousins in the agricultural town of Labelle in Florida. But he has a theory about why his parents move him to Delaware every summer.
"They say the witch is over there," he explained, with the certainty of childhood.
The witch in question is La Llorona -- Mexico’s answer to the Banshee or Bogeyman -- but a lot scarier.
"I laugh about la Llorona cause I’m native from Mexico," said Maria Mendoza, the state DOE's migrant recruiter. "Every time parents didn’t want to go over all the explanation of something scary or something that worries the family, they come up with la Llorona, so kids will stop asking."
Mendoza says for almost all of the migrant families, finding this camp is a relief. She’s seen kids sitting in packing houses waiting for their parents to finish a day’s work.
"Because I meet parents wherever they are, I’ve met parents in the field, on a day like today, and they have their car on, with the A/C, and there’s three kids in there," said Mendoza.
Jose says if he weren't at camp, he'd be "bored at my house," just watching TV and eating eggs.
Academically, teacher Johanna Pazmino says the program tests kids before camp kicks off and after it’s over. For the most part, teachers see progress.
"There is always improvement, whether it's vocabulary, fluency, accuracy, any of those. We always see, sometimes a big improvement, sometimes a little [one]. It depends on the age as well," said Pazmino.
Back at the culinary challenge, it’s almost time to eat. A mother named Esmeralda is enjoying an appetizer of chocolate-orange covered spicy popcorn, inspired by Mexican palomitas. She has three kids in the migrant school, and she used to pick food with her parents in the fields.
To pass the time, sometimes they’d listen to the Tejana singer Selena. That was the only positive thing about the fields for her. She says that migrant work is the reason why she didn’t finish high school.
"I didn’t like it, going from school to school. I think that’s the way my kids feel, when we come over here," she said. "Tampoco les gusta, so, I know what it’s like."
Teacher Olinda Coverdale says that Esmeralda's dedication to seeing her kids get a different life has ensured that they are all three doing well and on grade level at school.
After several hours in the kitchen, kids bring out trays of peach fritters, fried chicken, cantaloupe aguafresca, and corn ice cream. Esmeralda's son Jesus says the quesadillas his team made are not bad for Delaware, but nothing compared to what he could get in his home town in south Texas.
Once summer ends he’ll eat Tejano food again, as he packs up his things, and returns home.