Children of migrant workers learn in the classroom and play at camp under a federal initiative while their parents toil on the farm.
At a watermelon farm near Laurel, Francisco Galindo works 12-hour days with his girlfriend and their oldest son.
At a motel 15 miles away, another son takes care of their disabled child.
Thirty miles away in Milford, the four youngest Galindo children brush up on academics, courtesy of the Delaware Migrant Education Program.
“It brightens their mind because they’re not just stuck in four walls looking at the Disney channel or the Discovery Channel,” said Galindo, a crew chief at two watermelon farms in the Laurel area of western Sussex County. “Their educational program, it’s been a blessing.”
The Galindos live in southwest Florida, but come to Sussex County for the July and August picking season. While the parents and oldest son Oscar work in the fields and packing houses, their youngest kids – Mario, Izaiaz, Patricia and Maxie – take classes in Delaware’s Migrant Education Program.
While many kids don’t relish the idea of summer school, 13-year-old Mario Galindo said he loves classroom learning between school years.
“It teaches me stuff that I didn’t really understand in school, like right now we’re learning the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “I didn’t know that different rights had different meanings in the Bill of Rights, and now I get to understand that.”
The program serves about 100 students in Delaware and 500,000 nationally. About $160,000 is spent annually in Delaware to find, enroll, transport and educate the children.
The program began in the mid-1960s, growing out of the rebellion by California migrant farm workers for higher wages and better working and living conditions.
The purpose of the program is to help offset the disparities and education interruptions of migrant worker students,” said Terry Richard, the Delaware program director.
Richard said the classes are critical for “children who move frequently, who are enrolled in multiple school districts throughout the year.”
A program recruiter visits farms, motels, work camps and other places. When she finds migrant workers with children, she encourages them to join the program, which operates out of the Boys and Girls Club in Milford and Seaford.
So, while parents or older siblings pick and pack fruits and vegetables, the children get tutoring tailored to their specific needs.
“What we’re trying to do is fill in any sort of gaps that they might have in their education,” said Ryan McNulty, a Milford middle school teacher and coach who runs the program’s Milford site. “They’re moving around sometimes, they may miss things, or any issues they have might fall through the cracks.”
The teachers also help Spanish-speaking children who struggle with English. On the day WHYY visited the Milford site, teacher Olinda Coverdale worked with two youngsters on language skills.
“Some of them have mastered part of the language, but a majority of them fall two or three grades behind,” Coverdale said.
“So they need the summer to learn vocabulary as soon as possible so that when they go to school they are not completely lost.”
Coverdale tells us about 7-year-old Alex.
“Two years ago he was completely a newcomer. He did not speak a word of English,” she said.
“You talk to him today and you wouldn’t notice any difference. He speaks English perfectly.”
‘This is the sacrifice for my kids’
Almost all students are Latino. Their families live in Texas, Florida, Georgia and other southern states and come north during the growing season here.
“Everybody’s situation is unique,” McNulty said. “For example, the Galindo family here. I know that they will spend a lot of time in Florida, but once the season comes around then they’ll move to Georgia, they’ll come here for another few months, then they’ll head back.”
The Galindos don’t see their children much. But they are grateful to be together, even packed at night into a motel room they rent for $350 a week. A program van or bus transports the four children to and from class.
Their mother, Janeth Aguilar, misses the children all day and into the evening but works all summer to help the family make ends meet.
“I come home at night and I can only kiss them good night,” she said. “It’s hard for me, but this is the sacrifice for my kids.”
While the Galdindo children learn and play, their parents and brother do backbreaking, exhausting work.
“Their job is very hard,” Coverdale said. “They work in the fields. I some of this heat, it’s a killer.
WHYY observed a cohesive team of three dozen workers – mostly Mexican, Jamaican, Haitian and Guatemalan – move hundreds of melons from the field to delivery trucks.
The field workers tossed the 15-plus pound melons through the windows of a hollowed-out school bus to a catcher. At one point they threw two at a time. On the edge of the fields, spent sweaty pickers lay in the shade, replenishing themselves with water for their next round under the searing sun.
Galindo, who split his time supervising crews at two farms this day, patrolled the watermelon field in a muddy red pickup, shouting out instructions in Spanish and giving a reporter a tutorial in watermelon harvesting. He cut open one out in the field and let his visitor taste the delicious fruits of the team’s labors.
Then Galindo drove back to the open-air packing house, where one bus rolled up to a conveyor belt that carried the melons to a dozen other workers who snagged them and put them in one of several large shipping cartons, depending on their size.
The big boxes were loaded onto pallets and then onto a tractor trailer, which transports them to supermarkets and stores on the Delmarva Peninsula.
While Galindo is accustomed to this migratory farming life, it’s one he doesn’t want for his children.
They see the sacrifice that I made by myself and they feel it,” he said. “And they get a sense of, ‘Hey I want you to not do what I do. I want you to get an education, be better than me. Try to strive to be better, a nurse, a lawyer, something.'”
Mario Galindo wants to be a chef, and gets inspiration from the annual cookoff, one of many field trips the kids take.
“We do hard work, but then we get to go on field trips to just lay off the work,” he said. “The last field trip we went to was the fair. We had a really good time. They bought us ice cream, we saw the animals.”
McNulty, who is in his 10th year with the program, says working with the migrant children is, simply, a labor of love.
“They are always eager. I mean they are kids, so we gotta use our teacher tools and do different things to make it fun,” he said. “But the personality and work ethic of these kids is great.”