Christian Fernandez, 12, moves to Watsonville from Mexico every May when his family follows the harvest season. His family lives in the Buena Vista Migrant Camp for the summer, where Christian hangs out while while his parents work in the fields of the Pajaro Valley.
The highlight of the summer comes three days a week when Scott Hallgren pulls his car into the parking lot at the Buena Vista camp. Christian and other kids swarm around Hallgren's car, yelling for the attention of Hallgren or one of the other student volunteers from San Jose State University. The kids are quick to volunteer to carry boxes of donated clothes or set up cones for an enthusiastic game of Capture the Flag.
This is the TOUUCh program. Tutor Outreach Uniting Communities for Change was created and is run by volunteer college students with a passion for social justice.
Started three years ago after Hallgren toured migrant labor camps in the Pajaro Valley for a San Jose State University sociology class, TOUUCh has worked with dozens of children of migrant farm workers in a partnership with Dr. Ann Lopez and the Center for Farmworker Families.
"They come so kids have fun and don't do bad stuff," explained Christian, who has participated in TOUUCh for two years.
TOUUCh incorporates physical activity, healthy snacks, tutoring, gang prevention and leadership development through two-hour meetings three days a week. About 15-30 kids participate during the weekday programs, and 10-15 show up for the Saturday events. The youngest are about 5 years old; teenagers take part in leadership events.
Christian said he likes circle time because it teaches him how to be respectful.
"You get to talk about what you like," he said.
TOUUCh volunteers believe that the kids can teach as much as the adults do. They ask about their concerns, struggles, hopes and dreams, and work to unite them with resources that will help them overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.
When school is in session, the San Jose State volunteers help the kids with school work and tutor parents in English. There are weekend field trips for kids who attend regularly and participate, like handing out snacks, and last weekend the kids hosted a movie night for their parents.
"A lot of the kids have come out of their shells to speak up and give their ideas," Hallgren said. "The kids have really learned to speak for themselves."
It seems like more kids come out every week, said Ricky Enriquez, a behavior science and sociology major at San Jose State, who got involved in the TOUUCh program through another volunteer.
"It helps build a little community among themselves," Enriquez said.
Although the camp is full of latchkey kids who are home all summer, they don't easily form bonds with the children who live nearby because they move in and out of Buena Vista every year.
"This is something kind of solid that they can anchor to," Hallgren said.
Maria Meza, whose 8-year-old daughter Linsday takes part in TOUUCh, said the program has helped her daughter make friends at the labor camp. Meza brings her children to Watsonville, where her husband works in the fields, after school lets out in Arizona. They spend the majority of the year near Yuma, where the Mezas also work in agriculture.
"Instead of being home eating and watching TV, they can go outside and burn some calories," Meza said as she watched Lindsay race around the grass playing Capture the Flag on a recent evening. "She's always waiting for the next day."
A Hidden Population
Buena Vista Migrant Camp, is owned by the state and operated by the Housing Authority of Santa Cruz County. The subsidized housing serves about 100 families, who live in prefabricated duplexes made of plywood and Styrofoam outside of Watsonville. The light yellow homes hidden behind trees on Harkins Slough Road between Highway 1 and the landfill. Corn, tomatoes and squash grow in garden beds next to the duplexes, one of the few personal touches in the seasonal housing development.
"Farm worker communities sometimes are just tucked in the back," Hallgren said.
The farm worker housing is open from May until the end of November, then families must move at least 50 miles away to be eligible to live in the camp the next year.
There are playgrounds, basketball courts and a playing field for kids. Sometimes, a bookmobile stops by the front gate, but there are no kid-friendly activities within walking distance—just the county's medium security men's jail and a social services office.
Children of migrant farm worker parents are often confined to their immediate surroundings due to lack of access to transportation, long work hours for parents and lower-than-average familial income, Hallgren explained on the TOUUCh website. This makes them more at-risk for gangs, drugs and dropping out of school.
"Our program attempts to get the kids out into the community to not only help make them aware of their options but to encourage a sense of confidence so they can develop the strength to demand a better future for themselves," according to Hallgren.
Hallgren and his team of volunteers plan to expand their programming to Jardines, a housing development for farm workers in the Pajaro Valley where families can live year-round. TOUUCh had previously worked with kids there and—after a falling out—has renegotiated with Mid-Peninsula Housing, which owns the development, to provide services again. For more information, visit the TOUUCh website.