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Workers Welcome

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Workers welcome

Migrant laborers' needs addressed


Joanne Fredal has spent time in each of the past 13 years preparing for the spring arrival of a seasonal community that increases Manchester’s population every year.

Fredal is busy making room for towels, sheets, diapers, cribs and mattresses while answering phone calls from people asking what else is needed. She’s not collecting gifts for a baby shower, but preparing to welcome migrant working families back to the area.

For nearly 30 years, between 250-300 people have traveled in families from southeastern Texas and the northern villages of Mexico to work on the 2,000-acre DuRussel Potato Farms in Freedom Township, the county’s only state-licensed camp for migrant families. Although their numbers are not part of the local Hispanic population that the census counts, their importance to the area’s farm economy is huge.

"People call me all the time asking what can they do,” said Fredal, coordinator of the migrant ministry at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manchester. She is also president of Manchester Family services, which provides food, clothes and furniture. “I tell them what we need, but I also tell them to have good will toward the families, welcome them to the area, and tell them that you appreciate them.”

Preparation for the workers, mostly Mexican American, usually prompts a flurry of activity in the area around this time of year.

At Manchester High School, Cheryl Call is busy writing grants to submit to the state for funding the school district’s education program for migrant students, from kindergarten through high school.

Migrant Health Promotion, a non-profit health education and advocacy agency, plans this year to continue focusing on teen health issues, said development director Susan Ringler. With offices in Saline and Rio Grande Valley, Texas, MHP trains teens in the migrant farm camp as health aides to provide health education and other information to their peers in the camp.

Perhaps one of the busiest places with the broadest program is St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manchester, where Fredal and Janet Shurtliff are currently organizing the outreach.

The program starts with the blessing of migrant houses and the fields at the farm, followed by an outdoor mass and potluck supper, Fredal said.

The ministry’s objective is to let families know that not only does the church consider them parishioners but wants to meet their material and spiritual needs, said Father Charles Irvin, pastor of St. Mary’s.

The outreach formally began in 1988 under then-Pastor Roy Schlinkert and has since expanded to include Masses in Spanish, prayer and Bible study, and preparation for such sacraments as baptism and first communion. The church also gets help from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, where Spanish-speaking volunteers, like Cathy Martinez and Ana Rodriguez, have befriended families with their frequent visits to the farm.

Juan F. Lopez and his wife, Delia M. Vazquez, initially paid social visits to families in the camp on Friday nights. Now, the two - both doctors at the University of Michigan Medical School - juggle their busy work schedules to teach a biweekly class in a trailer on the farm. Lopez said being with the families helps them stay focused on what’s really important.

“It keeps us grounded and close to our roots,” said Lopez, a native of Cuba who met Vazquez in her native Puerto Rico and moved to Ann Arbor in 1986. “In the Latino community, family and the church are important to our daily life. This keeps us balanced and helps us to live for others.”

Over at the potato farm, crops are scheduled to be planted this week, said president Michael DuRussel, also a former Washtenaw County Commissioner who helped coordinate services for the workers.

“We’ve always been working with the families because we need them to make our business work,” he said. “It’s a family operation we have here and we’ve grown close.”

And that closeness continues, Fredal said.

“We have a unique relationship with the DuRussel family. Their cooperation and support makes it possible for us to be successful,” she said. “There’s a very strong bond between the people of Manchester and the migrant community, and it’s increased every year.”


America by the numbers

For nearly 30 years, between 250-300 people have traveled in families from southeastern Texas and the northern villages of Mexico to work on the 2,000-acre DuRussel Potato Farms in Freedom Township