One of the top priorities of the Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County is improving its clients’ English skills. The nonprofit agency offers an after-school mentoring program. / Photos by Carlos M. Perez
In a small, nondescript strip mall by the railroad tracks near downtown Lake Worth, behind one of the beige office doors, is an equally nondescript small group of cubicles that house a beehive of activity. It’s here that the Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County provides help, learning, and hope for migrant workers.
“There is no day that isn’t a good day,” explains the soft-spoken, former board member and current executive director of the FCCPB, Sergio Palacio. “At the end of the day, what I think about is, ‘Were we able to help anyone today?’ – help them pay a bill, teach a little English, get diapers for babies? And the answer is always ‘yes,’ so all days are good.”
Freeze leads to the founding of the Farmworker Coordinating Council
The organization was founded in 1978 by Ernesto Gonzalez, a retired farmworker, in response to a sudden freeze that left 10,000 seasonal workers in the lurch, as their income is totally dependent upon good crops, which depend on the right weather.
So Gonzalez got together a group of volunteers, farmworkers, and community members, and he borrowed a warehouse to help the migrant and seasonal workers, who came mainly from Central America, especially Guatemala; and Mexico.
The fledgling Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County helped laborers at hundreds of farms, ranging from a few acres to thousands of acres by distributing food and other necessities, including shampoo and clothing.
Palm Beach County leads the state, as well as all counties east of the Mississippi River, in total agricultural sales. One of the 10 largest counties east of the Mississippi River, it leads the nation in production of sweet corn, sugar cane, and sweet bell peppers, and tops the state in production of rice, lettuce, radishes, Chinese vegetables, specialty leaf greens, cucumbers, eggplant, and celery.
Gives a voice to powerless
FCCPB advocates on behalf of farmworkers but doesn’t politicize its efforts. It’s more of an education service for workers and farmers, recognizing that the workers are a necessary, and largely forgotten, people. From picking to packing, it’s all backbreaking work. With periods of unemployment, the average migrant family earns about $14,000 a year.
A worker being paid $8.05 an hour – Florida’s minimum wage – working full time would earn $16,744 annually, or $322 for a 40-hour week.
The FCCPB has a process to establish if someone is a farmworker: 50 percent of their income must come from agriculture, their earnings must be 133 percent below poverty guidelines, and they must show pay stubs and identification.
There are two offices ‐ one in Belle Glade, one in Lake Worth. Most of the staff members are foreign-born and proud American citizens who honor and respect tradition. The Lake Worth office’s clients are primarily Hispanic, while Belle Glade has more African Americans, Haitians and Hispanics.
The Farmworker Coordinating Council helps workers by using long- and short-term goals. “Short‐term” might mean helping to pay a bill, while “long-term” would be, for example, teaching English to its clients.
The FCCPB is a nonprofit agency and doesn’t take any money except to sell bus passes. All programs have support groups that are educational: nutrition, water safety, diabetes, and financial literacy among them. An adult education literacy program, ESOL Light, is 2 years old.
Focuses on the young
The FCCPB devotes a lot of energy to children, because a significant percentage of them drop out of school due to lack of financial or parental support or frequent moving. So the FCCPB started an after-school mentoring program four years ago with one small room, 12 desks, and four computers.
A summer program, which has been going for two years, consists of one part English, and one part each of math and science. The council’s pre-K program is 3 years old. They even have an art program in conjunction with the Norton Museum of Art.
The Farmworker Coordinating Council’s goals include helping clients to fend for themselves and acquire basic communication skills. Those who are more advanced get help with a free email setup, and are encouraged to use the library.
Last year, the agency helped 874 families. But the FCCPBC is limited by its available resources and would like to have enough to help even more.
For more information or to donate, visit farmworkercouncil.org.
Mikki Royce is a writer and publicist. A “foodie,” she is a member of Slow Food, a local CSA; and is learning about food and nutrition every day, gearing up to complete a natural-style cookbook. Royce is a graduate of the University of Miami’s School of Communications.