No replacement program in sight

By Mary Hood
Fairhope Courier Intern
Posted 6/28/07

FAIRHOPE — Many people may not know that La Casa de Amigos, a summer program for migrant workers’ children, shut down two years ago because it lost government funding due to a technicality.

The program, which taught children good health care, …

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No replacement program in sight


FAIRHOPE — Many people may not know that La Casa de Amigos, a summer program for migrant workers’ children, shut down two years ago because it lost government funding due to a technicality.

The program, which taught children good health care, how to interact in a new environment and also gauged their education level, received funding because it provided child care for migrant workers.

However, with crops being taken over by machinery, migrant workers turned to construction jobs and, therefore, lost their designation as migrant workers. Regulations mandate that a migrant worker must have moved within a two-year period to do agricultural work in order to be classified as such. Although the need for child care remained, the definition of the workers had changed, and the government could no longer fund the program.

La Casa de Amigos was founded 35 years ago by Sister Eileen McLoughlin of the Catholic Diocese and the directorship was turned over to Sister Sandra Ardoyno in 1975.

Sister Ardoyno said the program was started when migrant workers were asked what they needed most, and they responded by saying “a safe place for our children while we work.”

Most times, parents with young children would take them to the fields while they worked, or they were left under the supervision of the oldest child at home.

She said the six-week program offered its services to children as young as 2 weeks old. They usually planned for 100 children, she said, which typically amounted to 10 infants, 20 toddlers and the remainder, older children.

“That’s a lot of kids, especially little bitties,” Sister Ardoyno said.

The program always started the day after Mother’s Day.

“We hit the ground running,” Sister Ardoyno said. “Six weeks is a short program.”

During the six weeks, one of the main things they focused on was teaching the children good health care.

“We had a wonderful, wonderful program in health for children,” Sister Ardoyno said.

Local doctors, pediatricians and dentists would come during the six weeks to see the children and teach them health practices.

“The health program was by and far the best thing we had to offer,” Sister Ardoyno said.

Another program within La Casa de Amigos was the developmental program. The children were tested to determine their educational level, and the staff would give the results to the children’s respective schools. This procedure kept the school from unnecessarily placing children in remedial classes, which only caused further problems.

“A lot of children would be put into something remedial and that was embarrassing for them (because of an age difference) so they would drop out,” Sister Ardoyno said.

Though six weeks is a short program, Sister Ardoyno said the time was invaluable.

One big difference the staff would see by the end of the sessions was the children’s level of comfort around the predominantly white staff.

“(You would) see kids comfortable in anglo environment,” Sister Ardoyno said.

Also, the difference in the parents was noticeable. Sister Ardoyno said the program would have parent meetings to inform the parents on what to do with their children, especially with education.

“We had parent meetings on Sundays,” Sister Ardoyno said, “We wanted them to be advocates for their children.”

She said if something was going on in school, such as the school wanting to place a child in a lower level class, the parents needed to be able to stand up for their children.

Although the staff played a role in preventing such situations, Sister Ardoyno said, “We wanted parents to be the ones to do that.”

The staff was comprised of many people including the teachers, a cook, bus drivers and a registered nurse.

Sister Ardoyno said it was hard to find certified teachers, and many of the teachers they hired were students earning their education degree.

Initially they took on students from Spring Hill, but over the years they expanded to Auburn University, the University of South Alabama and the University of Alabama.

Not only did the children benefit from the program but the staff did as well.

“It did wonders for our staff,” Sister Ardoyno said. “We were getting more than we were giving.”

She said it offered the staff a chance to experience a different culture and the values of that culture.

Sister Ardoyno said the program length also played a role in the loss of its funding.

Jennifer Bruijn, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries, said the funding, which came from East Coast Migrant Head Start, was having a hard time keeping the short-term programs open.

“It was more cost-effective to have year-round programs,” Bruijn said.

A third reason for the loss of funding was having college students for teachers. It was seen as a liability.

“We were fortunate to be able to utilize college students studying education, most of them were teachers,” Bruijn said. “Having students versus having adults, the wage was a little more fair to run that program. It also also became a funding issue for the funding agency.”

Sister Ardoyno said another liability was the location, right next to Sacred Heart Chapel, on Mobile Bay.

“They considered it to be a liability on the bay, and we considered it to be a Godsend,” Sister Ardoyno said.

Although the funding is gone and La Casa de Amigos is shut down, the need for child care for Hispanic worker’s still remains, and problems need to be addressed.

“We continue to kind of make do,” Bruijn said. “Unfortunately, I think day care is a tremendous issue for everybody in Baldwin County, not just migrants. We don’t have adequate day care for these families.”

Sister Ardoyno said one of the hardest problems families face today is adjusting during the “interim period” and trying to stay here.

Sister Ardoyno stayed positive when she said although it was upsetting to lose La Casa de Amigos, maybe this is the time they need to revamp the program.

If the program were to come back, she said she would not reassume directorship.

Bruijn said over the 20 years that Sister Ardoyno was the director, she did a wonderful job.

“I thought it was a great program,” Bruijn said. “I though that Sister Sandra did an excellent job as a director. To do that job, it’s definitely more than about the money. She just loved the migrant community and taking care of the children.”

She said Sister Ardoyno made the program what it was.

“She was very passionate about that program,” Bruijn said. “She really built that program up until it became a model short-term program for other states throughout the country.”