Gloria Gonzalez has found her calling. And that’s extremely calming.
Gonzalez got her start with Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) in 2004 as an assistant center coordinator at LaBelle’s Krome Child Development Center, which provides high-quality early education, health care and support services for children of farmworkers and other low-income rural families.
Sixteen years later, as one of RCMA’s regional directors, she’s watching those same kids graduate from high school.
“It’s been so amazing to see that,” Gonzalez says. “The job is very fulfilling when you see those proud families and those children graduating years later. “I personally don’t want to take the credit because it belongs to the teachers. But I feel I have helped in the management piece – helping them with everyday management of the centers, making sure we’re following guidelines, policies and procedures. When there is an issue, making sure we do what we need to in order to resolve it. When there is a hurricane, making sure these families are getting food and resources.”
Gonzalez received her bachelor’s in management from FGCU in 2007 and her master’s in management from Hodges University in 2012. She could be making far more money in the private sector, but she remains at RCMA, where she oversees 17 centers serving 961 children and their families throughout Hendry, Glades, Highlands, Indian River and Palm Beach counties.
“It’s very rewarding at the end of the day, knowing these children are getting early- education services and we’re preparing them for kindergarten so that they have that same start and foundation that other kids have,” says Gonzalez, who was elected to the Florida Head Start Association’s board of directors last June. “As a mom, I would help my kids read and work on school projects. But for some of these kids, their moms and dads work out in fields all day. Some parents have little or no education, and some families are homeless.
“If they didn’t have this foundation, we’re giving them, they would probably be lost when they got to kindergarten. Some of these kids wouldn’t even be able to speak English.”
The criticality of her work at RCMA has been amplified by COVID-19. When Florida experienced its coronavirus surge in June, Immokalee was disproportionately battered. Its 34142 ZIP code had more infections than any in Florida – including the far more densely populated Miami-Dade and Broward counties – stoked by the dynamics of large families of agricultural workers living in close quarters. The economic impact exacerbated the region’s poverty rate of 44 percent, with some 11,000 residents living on less than $26,000 for a family of four.
“Some of these families don’t have internet or have lost their jobs,” Gonzalez says. “We’ve really had to look for grants, donations and resources in the community to support our families. We’ve been supplying families with baby formula, diapers, cleaning supplies, food, rental and utilities assistance.”
The staff takes lots of precautions, sanitizing classrooms and the playground, making sure the children all wear masks. It’s important for the children to be able to attend so their parents can go to work.
“All the centers are open and operating, moving forward the best we can just like everybody else,” she says.
Gonzalez didn’t take the well-traveled, conventional road to get to where she is today. When she started taking night classes at FGCU in 2003 – drawn by its management program that had a concentration in human resources – she was 40, married and had two children.
“FGCU gave me a foundation,” she says. “My classes helped me a lot in my current role as regional director and being part of a management team. Those classes in leadership and ethics prepared me to be in the position I am in, providing leadership to RCMA’s central region. I remember taking classes in employment law, leadership and group dynamics, and conflict management. Those classes have helped me throughout my career.
“FGCU focused on group projects. Every class had a group project per semester. I didn’t like working on those group projects. But do you know what? They helped. When you get in the real world and have to work with people from different backgrounds and age groups, you have to put your all into it. I remember working with students of all ages. That helped me a lot.”
Her most indelible memory? Walking into Alico Arena in her cap and gown, with her family cheering her on.
“I could see the proud look on the faces of my husband, son and daughter,” she says.
After her daughter, Marissa, graduated from high school seven years later, she was leaning toward studying music at the University of Miami.
“She was excited,” Gonzalez says, “but I said, ‘Give FGCU a chance.’ She went for a tour at FGCU and talked to the staff and students, and fell in love with the music education program.”
In December 2018, Marissa followed in her mother’s footsteps, walking out of Alico Arena in her cap and gown with a music education degree.
The legacy lives on.