Migrant Mom Emerges as Head Start Ambassador

‘Head Start was life changing. I feel like I’m paying it forward now.’

Juana Rivera and her children(HART, Michigan) I’m a third-generation migrant. My parents and grandparents came here to work in the fields. My grandparents were from Mexico but started coming to Michigan in the ‘60s when a friend said there was work to be done. My parents to this day still go back and forth from Florida to Michigan. I was 12 when I started picking asparagus and helping my Mom. Later, I began picking cherries and apples, too. There were five of us children. We just knew we had to work alongside our parents. That’s the life that we knew. When summer or Christmas break came, things other kids look forward to, I didn’t. I knew I’d be going back to Florida to pick zucchini.

I always knew I would grow up, get married and go to work in the fields. That was my mindset. I didn’t think I could do anything but that. When I was 16, I moved in with my (now) ex-husband and we started migrating. I had five children, Priscilla, Alex, Vanessa, Mykaela and Gabriela. Back then, when the kids were little, you didn’t get in trouble for having kids out in the field. One day, when Priscilla was a few months old, an outreach worker from Telamon came out to the field and said, "There’s this program here, it’s a preschool" . . . And I thought to myself, how hilarious! She’s just a couple of months old. How is she going to learn? It was a huge help, though. I didn’t want my children out in the field, but I couldn’t afford not to work. Head Start offered child care and would work on developmental issues like motor skills. I would get a report every day on what they worked on with my child. They also provided diapers and formula.

Then when I had Alex, I went to a Head Start Policy Council meeting. They were looking for a committee member and that’s how I ended up being on the Policy Council at the center and getting more involved. When you’re a Head Start parent, they have partnership agreements. They ask: "What goals do you have for your children?” One time they asked me: "What goals do you have for yourself?” That was such a hard question. I didn’t know what to say. I knew I wanted to finish school because I had stopped going. So, Telamon helped me, and gave me resources on working on a GED, and said: "We’re going to check up on you." I felt like I needed to do good because eventually they would come back and see how I was doing.

When I got my GED they asked, “Now what else would you like to do? Ever thought about going to college?" I thought, why would I need college for what I do? And they asked me if I ever thought about working someplace other than the fields. At the time I had thought no, who would hire me? Working in the fields is what I’m good at. But I decided to begin taking a course at West Shore Community College. It was really scary at first but I had the support from the Head Start staff. I learned they were not only there for my children, but they were there for me too!

It took a long time to get my associate’s degree because my family was still my first priority. A few years later I was on Policy Council again and the question came up: "Have you ever thought of working for us?" That seemed unreachable for me, even out of this world. But they told me that I had really good people skills. So, I applied for a family service specialist position in 2006. I knew a lot of the information already from being on Policy Council and I was surprised and happy that they gave me the position! I was so excited about it, and it felt so natural for me. When I would be doing partnership agreements with the parents, I would always use myself as an example. “If I can do it, you can do it,” I’d tell them.

Three years ago I got divorced; it was very hard pill to swallow and a huge change for me and my children. I knew I wasn’t going to have as much income anymore to help with the children and that I would need a full-time position, not just a seasonal position with Telamon. I felt sad leaving Telamon and my Telamon family because I had found so much personal meaning in the work I was doing with families that are just like mine. I know and understand the struggles of migrant life and felt so good helping them set and meet their own goals just as others had done for me. Although I had to leave my seasonal position, I am happy to still be connected to Telamon as I am now sitting on their Governing Board.

Today, I work as the migrant coordinator for Walkerville Public Schools and I am working to finish my Bachelor’s Degree. In my job for the public schools, I do recruitment, serve as a liaison, and help families. When families arrive in April to pick asparagus, they stay until December and then go back to Florida or Texas. I make sure the kids have the credits they need to graduate. They do struggle, I see it every day. They have to work really hard to be on top of everything, and I'm there to do my best to assist them.

I'm happy my own children don’t have to do a back-breaking job like my parents. I see my parents doing it to this day and wonder, would that be me? My oldest daughter has her associates and my son was dual enrolled in high school, graduated and went straight to work as a welder. My third child is graduating from high school and going to community college in the fall. I tell her, “I expect good grades from you. You’re going to do something for yourself." I have to admit that I have great kids! They’ve been there for me and supported me. Then I think: Head Start helped to prepare each of them and it also helped ME prepare them.

I’m now doing better for myself and my children, and I have expectations for them. Granted I’m the one that did the work to better myself, but it was Head Start that showed that interest in me and made me believe in myself. They truly cared. Head Start was life changing for me and my family. I feel like I’m in a place now where I am able to pay it forward.

MHSA welcomes suggestions for success stories of Head Start parents and staff with compelling stories to tell.  Contact Teri Banas, MHSA's advocacy and communications manager, at teri@michheadstart.org