Jocelyn Lerma, a senior at Parrish Community High School and a migrant student, remembered going to the Migrant Education Program resource fairs and seeing piles of donations.
There were tables of clothing, shoes, handmade quilts and more.
She wondered where the donations came from every year.
Lerma learned many donations came from the Church Women United Manatee County Unit during the organization’s Migrant Tea Nov. 17 at Trinity United Methodist Church.
The Church Women United Manatee County Unit is a group of women from, on average, 24 churches throughout Manatee County that work to serve the underserved through monthly projects. The group donates to, at least, 10 charities in Manatee County, especially those serving women and children.
During the Migrant Tea, members of Church Women United were able to hear about the work of the Migrant Education Program as well as Lerma’s story of being a migrant student who is approaching graduation.
Some members of the organization made 200 handmade quilts and crocheted clothing. Members also collected school supplies, shoes, diapers and other items to donate to migrant families.
Lerma said learning that many of the donations at the resource fairs come from the “amazing women” of Church Women United is fantastic.
“It’s girl power,” she said.
Cheryl Holloway, the president of the Church Women United Manatee County Unit, said Migrant Tea grew out of the group’s desire to help children. With many members of the organization being former educators, there was a desire to see how they could help students.
Holloway said the migrant students in Manatee County seemed to be the most in need.
Mario Mendoza, the coordinator of the Migrant Education Program, said migrant families face multiple challenges. Besides a language barrier, the families face poverty, which he said is a challenge to obtaining a quality education. He also said migrant families move around the state and country during the school year, disrupting students’ education.
Mendoza said the Church Women United’s donations will help meet migrant families’ basic needs and provide support to the Migrant Education Program’s summer program that helps to close the education gap for migrant students.
“A lot of times when we think about meeting students’ needs in education, we’re always thinking about academically and how to meet those needs,” Mendoza said. “But we have to realize there are basic human needs people have to meet first before they can excel academically. At this time of the year, the holidays are coming up, and we’re able to give gifts that normally they wouldn’t be able to have or enjoy. We’re able to make their lives a little bit better, more enjoyable and more memorable.”
Lerma said the main challenge she has faced as a migrant student is traveling from Michigan to Florida for the cucumber season and arriving weeks into the school year. She felt she was behind.
“At a young age, it didn’t bother me as much because it was fun to travel and get extra months of summer,” she said. “However, starting middle school was when school became difficult. I would return to Florida having only gone to school for two weeks in Michigan while the rest of my classmates had already finished a quarter of the school year.”
She found it even more difficult when that coursework was applied later in the school year. She spent extra time outside of school ensuring she understood the concepts she didn’t learn at the same time as her fellow students who weren't in migrant families.
Lerma said the Migrant Education Program provided the support and motivation she needed, and its summer program helped her stay active in school before having to return to Michigan.
The language barrier was a challenge when Lerma attended Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School, and she was learning English. In third grade she graduated from English Speakers of Other Languages, which she said was the time she started taking school more seriously.
“The Migrant Education Program was always there to support me and say, ‘Go to school, get a job, get a career, don’t stay out in the fields with your parents,’” Lerma said.
As a senior, Lerma volunteers within the Migrant Education Program to give back to the program that has supported her for years. She tutors students to help with credit recovery and volunteers at community events such as a turkey drive.
“I know I was once in (younger students’) position, feeling like I wasn’t going to be able to make it through high school and feeling like I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I’m hoping they know they can get through it just like I am.”
Mendoza said having the support of organizations like the Church of Women United means a lot to him and the program.
“I myself feel very fortunate, and I am very appreciative and grateful I get to be in this position where I get to see the generosity of our community,” he said. “Then I get to see the impact that makes on our students and families. I’m at that center point where I get to see it happen.”
Lerma said getting to graduation day will mean she’s being recognized for all the hard work she’s put in throughout the years, especially given the challenges she’s faced.
She plans to attend Hillsborough Community College to get an associates in science with a focus on diagnostic medical sonography so she can become an ultrasound technician.
Holloway loved hearing about Lerma’s educational journey.
“As a former educator, Jocelyn is absolutely the epitome of what we’re hoping for and that is for students who have to work hard but do it anyway and do extremely well,” she said. “We want to reach out to help those who need help, and she’s giving us the opportunity to see the fruits of our labor.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.