Striving to Achieve Education Dreams, Migrant Workers Get Head Start

Did you know that Hampshire County has been called “The Asparagus Capital of the World” for its abundance of farms harvesting the crop? 

And did you know that propping up many of these agricultural farms are thousands of migrant workers? They journey with their families to Western Massachusetts for the growing seasons. 

Word of mouth typically coaxes the workers here from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador with the promise of jobs and safe communities. They pick berries in Deerfield, haul tobacco leaves in Enfield, and, yes, pick asparagus on Hadley farms. For many workers, backbreaking labor comes with low wages and poor conditions.  

Many of the families are embraced by the welcoming arms of the Migrant/Seasonal Program at Holyoke Chicopee Springfield (HCS) Head Start. The agency offers infants and young children high-quality early education and a circle of support, including literacy classes for parents. (If migrant families earn more than 51% of their incomes through agriculture work, they are eligible for the program). 

Photo courtesy of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start

“Our families are so proud, so resilient,” said CEO Nicole Blais. “Their number one priority coming to the United States is to make sure their children have more educational opportunities than they had.” 

Blais and Lori Chaves, HCS director of clinical and family services, are moved by the tenacity of parents who migrated here to make a better life for their families. Many, they say, have endured horrific conditions in their journeys to this region from their home countries.  

Just as impressive to them are the parents’ dreams and determination for their children to someday graduate high school.  

Observed Chaves, “Migrant families come to every family engagement event we host, dressed to a T. They’re on time. They’re responsive. And they take every bit of information we give them. And even if they can’t read it, they’ll say ‘I’ll figure it out.’ And when they leave, they’re so appreciative of everything.” 

HCS, too, is determined for migrant families to succeed. The agency’s classrooms are open for twelve hours daily starting at 5:30 a.m. They know that parents will be in the fields that long. And many of its staff members are bilingual (English/Spanish), making communication with families easier.

HCS used its most recent grant from the Community Foundation for food — a need identified in surveys of its migrant families.  

The agency purchased gift cards for emergency food, distributed baskets of food (pictured), and hosted classes to educate families about healthy food (about 70% of children it served were overweight or obese). Fun cooking classes for parents and their children mixed in math lessons, too. 

“The beauty of Head Start is the partnership with parents.” Blais said. “And we’re taking their lead because these families have just as much to share with us as we share with them.”

Grounded in the belief that parents are a child’s first — and best — teacher, Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start teaches literacy to parents and caregivers of the children they serve in the Migrant/Seasonal Program. Watch their stories in Head Start: Planting Literacy