Schools' program helps migrant youth, farmers

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By Walt Reichert

A USDA program administered by Shelby County Public Schools can help both the children of migrant workers as well as the farmers they are working for. Problem is, few farmers know about it.

The Migrant Education Program (MEP) is designed to serve children of agricultural workers who have been in the county less than three years. Those eligible for the program can be up to 22 years of age, but they, or their parents, must work in agriculture. The workers do not have to belong to a particular ethnic group as long as they work on farms or nurseries.

The program has been around for several years, said Elizabeth Mandeel, administrator, but has served few people and is not well known. Mandeel, who took over as administrator two months ago, said she wants to revive the program.

“We need to get the word out to the farmers that we can help their workers, and we can help them,” Mandeel said. “We're helping farmers because we are doing things for their workers that they won't have to do.”

Those served, in most cases, are the children of migrant workers, but many are young workers themselves.

“We have a lot of workers out there 16 or 17 years old,” Mandeel said. “They are here with relatives or with someone from the same village.”

Mandeel said she seeks out the workers in the farm fields to see if they qualify for the program and then makes visits at night.

“Some of them who are here without their parents just need a mother, and I'm their 'gringo mother,'” Mandeel said. “Some of them call me all of the time.”

Some farmers, she said, are suspicious at first of what she is doing, but most are understanding and grateful for her help once they understand what she is doing.

Besides getting help in school, which is the focus of MEP, many of the young people need basic necessities, including food, blankets and access to health care, Mandeel said.

“I had one eight-year-old who had all of his teeth rotten,” she said.

Fortunately, local organizations and professionals have pitched in to help. Doctors and dentists have donated their time and skills. Local charitable organizations have provided food and clothing. One local dentist provided X-rays for the 8-year-old with bad teeth, and another did the surgery, Mandeel said.

“Shelbyville has been very caring,” Mandeel said. “A lot of the workers think people don't care about them, but they really do,” Mandeel said.

All MEP services are free. For more information on the program, call 633-2375 ext. 216.