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‘The stress is showing’

Gyla Wise and the staff of the Redland Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) are weary, but will not give in.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ARCADIA, Fla. | August 26, 2004

"We’re getting the word out that those who are undocumented can still get some emergency assistance from the government."

—Gyla Wise

Gyla Wise and the staff of the Redland Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) are weary, but will not give in. Since Hurricane Charley devastated Florida almost two weeks ago, Wise and the RCMA have been working nonstop to help meet the needs of migrant farmworkers.

Many of the migrant worker communities are in very rural areas, far from relief centers set up in more populated areas. Wise said not only are many of the workers not receiving the aid they need, but many also don’t have the transportation to come to town. So staff and volunteers from the RCMA are going door-to-door to check in.

“We’ve been doing outreach to find the hardest hit families and areas,” explained Wise, the director of health and family services for the RCMA. “We’ve been taking them camping stoves, tarps for their roofs, and anything else they need.”

Housing is a major issue amongst the communities, with many families either lacking safe housing or moving into smaller homes with numerous other families. Most of the homes in these rural trailer parks were leveled, and the power has also not yet been restored.

The RCMA operates 75 Headstart child care centers in 25 counties across Florida, but the focus of its efforts is on the city of Wauchula in Hardee County, and on Arcadia in DeSoto County.

“We’re not a hurricane agency, but we want to care for the kids,” said Wise.

A fear of seeking out help remains, as many of the workers are undocumented.

“We’re getting the word out that those who are undocumented can still get some emergency assistance from the government,” she said. “We’ve been directing the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to go out and meet these people, but that’s not always easy.”

Church World Service and many of its denominational partners have also been working hand-in-hand with organizations such as RCMA to try to identify and address long-term needs of farmworkers and their families.

Donations are coming in, yet more is needed. Monetary donations are the best way to help, according to Wise, because the RCMA is hoping to hire more staff to assist in the recovery efforts and also because the affected families’ needs change almost daily. Many of the RCMA’s Headstart program staff are members of the migrant worker community themselves, so they’re assisting others while also bearing the weight of their own recovery issues.

“People are getting very weary, and the stress is showing,” Wise said. “The adrenaline is about gone and they’re wearing out. We could really use money to help hire additional staff and take some pressure off the others.”

Wise added that the RCMA is assisting its affected staff members so they, in turn, are able to focus on others. The RCMA is also seeking funding for counseling programs, as mental health is already becoming a factor in the recovery process.

Coordination efforts with other local churches and nonprofit agencies are increasing as word spreads of this often forgotten population’s needs.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Venice, Fla., has also been active in responding to migrant workers’ needs, setting up six donation sites across the southwest region of the state. St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Arcadia is also a centralized location for the relief process.

Dr. Nancy Powers, consultant for farmworker affairs for the Florida Catholic Conference, said a preliminary meeting last Friday in Arcadia focused on the issues of migrant worker needs. The meeting was organized by the Coalition of Florida Farmworkers Organizations (COFFO).

“It was well attended by nonprofit organizations and government agencies,” she said. “There was a definite call for more inter-agency cooperation, and many walked away with a clearer picture of what’s going on.”

Another COFFO meeting is set for this Friday, and Powers said she hopes the meeting’s attendees will continue to focus on the best way to calculate just how many farmworkers Hurricane Charley affected. No one seems to have a solid number yet.

On the state level, Powers said the Florida Catholic Conference’s role is to work on funding and advocacy. Last Friday’s meeting saw the state government showing its interest in helping out the workers any way it could. “So we’re trying to give the state officials the information they need in order for them to make a more focused response,” explained Wise. “We want to make sure the farmworkers are an important and targeted group.”

With an eye toward the long-term, many are worried about what will happen once many of the national disaster relief organizations leave. The area already suffered from a lack of affordable and decent housing before Hurricane Charley, said Powers, and that’s just been compounded now.

Other heavily involved organizations in the farmworker relief process include Centro Campesino and the National Farm Workers Ministry (NFWM).

Both have partnered with groups located in the affected regions – including Centro Campesino teaming up with the RCMA and COFFO – in order to have more of an impact. Centro Campesino, an organization that provided significant relief and rebuilding help after Hurricane Andrew, is asking for more funding to help with temporary roof repairs around Wauchula and Arcadia.

The NFWM has volunteers helping distribute food and supplies in Arcadia and surrounding areas. They are asking for more volunteers and for more donations of money and supplies. Bilingual people are especially encouraged to volunteer with all the assisting organizations.

Related Topics:

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Mental health often overlooked

More links on Hurricanes


Related Links:

Redland Christian Migrant Association Web site

National Farm Workers Ministry Web site

Centro Campesino Web site

Catholic Diocese of Venice Web site

Church World Service Emergency Response Program Web site

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