For my STEP signature project, I travelled with eight other people, none of whom I knew previously, to Immokalee, FL to volunteer at Pathways Early Education Center. My fellow volunteers and I worked with the kids and did odd jobs around the center, such as painting and building tables. We also met with the OSU Alumni Club in Naples.
My view of both poorer, rural communities and my future was fundamentally altered by this experience. I currently live with my family in a rural area. Close to our house is a trailer park, much like the ones wherein many Immokalee residents live. Whenever we would drive past the trailer park, my family would tell me that it was sad the residents didn’t keep up their homes better, nodding towards the run down trailers in the park and implying that the residents didn’t care. After volunteering in Immokalee, I learned quite a bit about the exploitation of poorer communities, specifically by the landlords who own the trailers present in the parks, and my view of not only the community in Immokalee, but the community so very close to my own home was changed as I began to better understand the struggles that they face concerning those with power over them. I also came to better understand the strengths, struggles, and needs of different immigrant and migrant communities across the United States. This experience as a whole helped me to choose what community I would like to serve as a doctor in the future and showed me the true value of early education, something I was previously unaware of.
Immokalee is a poor, agricultural community in south Florida where a majority of residents are employed as migrant workers and whose families come from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. I had not previously worked with people from these communities, so this was an invaluable experience that allowed me to work with people I otherwise may never have met. In town, there is only one grocery store. In terms of medical care, there is a pediatrician’s office and a free clinic operated by medical students from Florida State University. The closest hospitals are in Naples or Ft. Myers, both approximately an hour away. Though I myself live in a rural area, I would not consider myself to be in a medically underserved area, so this was extremely important for me going into medicine to see firsthand the struggles in communities with little access to health care.
One of the women who worked at Pathways, Cynthia, had worked as a migrant worker through her childhood. She took my fellow volunteers and I on a tour of Immokalee to show us her community and the struggles it faced, but also to highlight the strengths of her community. She told us what it was like to work in the fields and explained how migrant workers get paid, which is 50 cents per 25lb bucket of produce. She used this to explain to us how hard migrant workers have to work to provide for their families and to show how drastic the consequences of missing even one day of work would be for a family. She explained that up to three families would live in each decrepit trailer landlords refused to fix due to exorbitant rent prices. She told us that many families still did not have mattresses after theirs had been ruined by Hurricane Irma almost two years ago. One of the trailers we drove past in an area of town called La Rata (translated to ‘The Rat’ and so named because of the living conditions) had yet to be fixed, and part of the wall was patched up with a FEMA tarp that read “Send Relief”. That was singularly the most powerful moment of the trip. Cynthia told us that two families lived in it. Through the hardships, Cynthia also proudly told us of the rich culture that bloomed in the community. Migrant workers are proud of the crops they pick, she told us, and of the hard work they do. Everyone living there supports each other. Family and community, she said, are some of the Immokalee residents’ greatest strengths.
I saw this firsthand during the time I spent at Pathways. Families are proud of the work that they do, but they also want a different life for their children, and so greatly value education. Hence, why they send their children to Pathways. Before this trip I was unaware of the value of early education. Friends from elementary school and kids I teach today who have gone to daycare have absolutely hated it, saying the people working there don’t care about them. One place near my house, KinderCare, my family has less-than-affectionately termed KinderDump, alluding to the belief that daycare is simply a place to leave your children while you go to work. After working at Pathways, I see the necessity of early childhood educations. Never before in my life have I worked with such well-adjusted, mature, and polite children. In all my years of babysitting I never once came across a toddler who understood the concept of sharing. I have never had a two-year-old say “Nice to meet you, my name is___” to me after I introduced myself. I have never met a four-year-old with the language skills to give an entire tour of a facility and the confidence to do so with strangers. All of these things I found at Pathways. People working there treated the children like they were their own and expressed a kind of patience I can only hope to one day replicate myself. It was a family and a community. I see now how well these children have been set up to succeed in school. I see now the value of early education and all the good Pathways is doing in Immokalee by providing these children with a safe place to go and a path to success, hence why it is called Pathways.
All of this will be necessary for me to understand in my future career as a physician. As more people from Latin American and Haitian communities immigrate to the United States, the knowledge I gained about the strengths, struggles, goals, and needs of these communities will be vital for me to understand to be able to properly treat them. The same is true for migrant communities, with whom I previously had no experience. This trip was also an important exercise in empathizing with communities I might not know anything or everything about, specifically with the community living in the trailer park close to my house. I have learned now not to make assumptions about outward appearances of communities like this one, because it is very likely that conditions I am judging are out of their control, and even if they weren’t, it is not helpful to anyone if I judge them. All of these are important lessons for a doctor to know and I am immensely grateful to both Buck-I-Serv and STEP for giving me the opportunity to learn them. This trip has clarified for me what I wish to do with my life. I knew I wanted to work with underserved communities, and because of this trip I now know that I specifically want to work with rural communities like the one in Immokalee.