A group of good-hearted Mennonites had a wonderful idea in 1965: Providing child care and education to children of migrant farmworkers and other low-income rural families. Fifty years later, the effort is still going strong.
Since the Mennonites began operating child care centers in south Dade County those decades ago, their nonprofit corporation, the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, has flourished. It serves children in 21 Florida counties, providing care and education for children from 6 weeks old through eighth grade through its 69 child care centers, three charter schools, five after-school programs and 26 day-care homes.
It was a rocky start for the Mennonites. They couldn’t understand why only a few families allowed them to care for their children. Then Wendell Rollason came along. The Mennonites turned to him for help because he had a background in helping migrants. He changed the course of the operation by suggesting that caregivers be hired from the migrant population so that the children were cared for by someone who looked like them. The caregivers were then eventually backed up by child care experts hired on the basis of professional qualifications, regardless of that person’s cultural background.
That made all the difference. Mothers were free to work, knowing their children were being cared for and protected by people they trusted
Soon, Rollason challenged orthodoxy again. He refused to join other farmworker advocates in casting growers as villains. Instead, he reached out to agriculture leaders like Homestead’s Bill Krome, and they became allies.
Rollason served RCMA for decades until his death in 1997 at age 80. He established partnerships with growers, expanded into other parts of the state, offered programs for children of various ages, and shaped the futures of thousands of young people.
And another smart thing Rollason did was to hire Barbara Mainster in 1972 as RCMA’s first educational coordinator. They also became husband and wife. She remains a driving force as executive director, a post she has held since 1988. As RCMA celebrates a half-century of success, Mainster is now planning her retirement.
Some of the highlights Mainster has seen and has helped make happen include:
- In 1975, RCMA moved its headquarters to Immokalee, about halfway between Ruskin and Homestead in Southwest Florida. Its first headquarters was a small wood-frame building acquired by paying $17,000 of its former owner’s back taxes.
- In 1976, the state Department of Children and Families asked RCMA to help care for Arcadia’s abused and neglected children. RCMA moved into a one-room building owned by the local housing authority.
- RCMA opened a center in Dover in 1980 after a child suffered burns waiting in a car for his parents to finish work in the fields.
- RCMA expanded in 1981 to operate five centers. By 1983, it had opened 32 centers thanks to help from organizations such as Head Start and local school districts.
- RCMA continues to expand with help from growers and in 1991, ABC News recognized Wendell Rollason as its “Person of the Week.”
- After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, RCMA served the community by setting up large tents during the cleanup of damaged buildings.
- Thanks to a donation from citrus grower Richard Graves, RCMA opened Children’s House Child Development Center west of Vero Beach, also in 1992.
- RCMA celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1995 by completing a new state headquarters complex on the site of a former Baptist church. Gov. Lawton Chiles was among those attending the celebration.
- RCMA’s annual Christmas card fundraiser was born in 1999 with assistance from DUDA, FFVA and other contributing organizations.
- The annual RCMA golf tournament fundraiser started in 2000. Lipman Produce became the title sponsor for the event in 2013.
- In 2013 the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America (ASHCA) recognized RCMA as a model worthy of national replication, and produced a video which was presented at the annual conference in Minneapolis by Barbara and Board member, avocado grower, Medora Krome. (see RCMA web page for video)
- Over the years, Mainster and others representing RCMA testified before lawmakers regarding children in the field and the need for more Migrant Head Start services. This resulted in a large increase in funding nationally. Now, RCMA receives the majority of its funding through federal and state grants. Other support comes from fundraising events, community foundations, social service agencies, agricultural entities and concerned individuals, allowing RCMA to continue opening doors to opportunity for generations of children. Today, for every $1 donation, RCMA can receive up to $16 in matching funds.
In September, FFVA honored Mainster with its Distinguished Service Award. The annual award, presented at the 72nd Annual Convention, recognizes someone whose life work has made an indelible mark on the community and the Florida agriculture industry.
In presenting the award, FFVA Chairman Alan Temple said, “You couldn’t call her a farmer in the conventional sense, yet Barbara Mainster raises Florida’s most precious crop of all: its children. Barbara makes sure that all of RCMA’s 1,600 employees remember that parents are the most important influences in their children’s lives. Even if they lack formal schooling, parents can inspire their children, support their educations and advocate in the children’s best interest.”
RCMA’s annual Christmas card drive is in full swing. To buy cards designed by RCMA students, click here.
Learn more about RCMA and how it serves Florida’s low-income and migrant families here.