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Honors group immersed in service

Immokalee weekend has big impact on service-oriented students

There is a community out of sight to many that is at the forefront of the farmworkers’ justice movement not only in Florida, but the entire United States. It is the home of many who toil in the fields – some permanent residents, some seasonal workers – most of whom are Hispanic and live at or below the poverty line.

This place is Immokalee, a community of some 25,000 residents about 32 miles east of Florida Gulf Coast University in Collier County.

In February, a group of students from the FGCU Honors College and staff leaders participated in a three-day immersion program in Immokalee. It was the third such trip. The Honors College Immersion Service Program provided 12 students (including me) and two staff members the opportunity to work with nonprofit organizations – including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Redlands Christian Migrant Association and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences – and attend the monthly community event, Ciclovia Immokalee!

“My hope is that the Immokalee Immersion Weekend deepens students’ understanding of this important community near FGCU and encourages them to stay involved in Immokalee afterward,” said Clay Motley, director of the Honors College. “Additionally, the weekend introduces some students to the value of service-learning and our efforts to assist community partners in Immokalee.”

On the first day, our group departed FGCU and arrived at Bethan Retreat Center. From there, we went to the Lipman Packing House for a tour.

The Lipman facility got its start in 1930, when founder Max Lipman planted his first tomato seeds with the goal to simply provide for his family. His start in farming led to the Lipman PackingWeb Extra Icon House, which was created with the mission of building lasting relationships with customers, being responsible with natural resources and acting with the health and well-being of people and their families in mind. Today, Lipman follows the same practices that its founder did, and bills itself as the largest field tomato grower in America.

Arletys Gomez is an Honors College senior, majoring in political science. 

Leslie Urgelles, a freshman majoring in forensic studies, said that seeing the farmworkers at Lipman was something she will never forget. “It offered me the chance to become passionate over a social issue and fight for those who are less fortunate,” Urgelles said. “I now understand the importance of helping others and hope to make a difference with my time here at FGCU.”

After the packing house, the group traveled to Redlands Christian Migrant Association. The association, initially created to provide child care and early childhood education for migrant workers and their families, has evolved into a strategic, impactful force in Southwest Florida. Its mission – “to grow the connection, capacity and consciousness of our immigrant families, organizations and communities” – has helped shape Immokalee and its residents.

Once back at the retreat center, the FGCU Honors group had its first education session, which focused on the community and culture of Immokalee. We discussed the social issues of poverty and homelessness in the area and how that compares nationally.

The second day was spent exploring the event known as Ciclovia Immokalee! and visiting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Ciclovia Immokalee! takes place the first Saturday every month in Immokalee Community Park. Hosted by organizations offering services to the community, children can play and participate in many activities while parents and families can learn about the sponsoring organizations.

The CIW is a worker-based, human-rights organization recognized for its achievements with social responsibility, human trafficking and gender-based violence at work. It started in 1993 and created its national consumer network in 2000. The organization’s work includes campaigning for the Fair Food Program, a partnership among farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions. It also works to combat human trafficking.

Natali Rodrigues, our host for volunteering at the CIW, shared why this organization is important for clients and volunteers. “These collaborations have already proven to strengthen the campaign work we are doing in our Wendy’s boycott (because of the restaurant chain’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program) and our work to continue educating consumers on where their food comes from,” Rodrigues said.

The end of our Saturday consisted of games and activities, as well as another educational session. We discussed reflecting on who we are, why we do what we do, and identified what we are passionate about. The exercise helped us learn that mindset, verbal and nonverbal behaviors can determine outcomes for those we choose to serve. We learned how to be conscious of the issues surrounding us and why the individuals we serve matter in our lives.

FGCU Honors students build a raised bed for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ community garden.

On our last day, we packed up our van and headed to the farmer’s market to immerse ourselves in the culture of Immokalee and support its small business people. We had lunch at the locally owned Mi Ranchito restaurant and headed back to FGCU. We then discussed our commitment to impacting and empowering others, as well as helping others empower themselves, to positively change FGCU and Southwest Florida.

Lesly Chavez, a senior early childhood education major and Immokalee native, said this about the weekend: “I learned more about the town I grew up in than I had before. It was full of deep conversations, amazing organizations and beautiful people that truly made the trip even more meaningful.”

Indeed, this trip made my passion greater for advocacy, especially for Immokalee. It has allowed the participants to better understand the reality of the farmworker community. I observed working conditions at the tomato packing house and learned about the mission of the nonprofit human-rights organization that advocates for farmworker justice. By interacting with families while volunteering in the park, we were able to see how the services of organizations and volunteers impact workers and their children in a positive way.

Sophomore bioengineering major Jacob Hatfield believed his college education truly began with this experience. “This trip awoke several burning passions in me to help those in need, such as the farmworkers, as well as led me to discover things I never knew about myself,” he said. “I left school on Friday with 12 strangers and an open mind, and I returned two days later with 12 friends and an immeasurable amount of inspiration.”