August 19, 2013

Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina holds listening session with migrant farmworkers

South Carolina’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers are critical to South Carolina’s more than $30 billion agribusiness sector. In July, 12 representatives from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina participated in a listening session with the Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), visiting migrant farmworkers and learning about their work and contributions across the state. SAF received a Community Enrichment grant that addresses the needs of poor South Carolina farm workers and their family members by linking them to available health, education and legal resources in the community.

Through more than 20 years of service, SAF has served more than 700 young people committed to social change through its youth program, student organizing, internships and fellowships. Throughout SAF’s history of service across North and South Carolina, more than 80,000 farmworkers have gained access to additional services and support. SAF’s Community Enrichment grant supports the “Into the Fields/Hacia los Campos” Internship Program that enables college students—half from farmworker families—to work with farmworkers to improve farm labor conditions. Placed throughout the state with local partners, these college students provide a range of services depending on their placement, including access to health care, education, English as a Second Language classes and advocacy.

The listening session began with a tour of several migrant farms, dinner provided by a local taqueria, and conversations with migrant farmworkers about their work, hopes and dreams for themselves and their families. In South Carolina, like many other regions of the country, many farmworkers are Latino. Some farmworkers are undocumented while others work through the H2A program, which allows foreign “guest workers” to perform seasonal farm work under a temporary work visa designed for agricultural workers in the United States.

Migrant farmworkers often receive low wages and have few protections. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, most farmworkers report income at or below the federal poverty level (with an average of $11,000 individually, and approximately $16,000 for a family), making farm work the second lowest paid job in the nation after domestic labor. Farmworkers are omitted from federal legislation that guarantees workers a minimum wage and overtime. One farmworker shared, “This work is really hard. I do this every day so I can provide for my family.”

Attendees at the listening session included SAF Executive Director Melinda Wiggins, and SAF interns, Cindy Ramirez and Eric Britton, who shared their experiences working with farmworker families, including strengths and challenges. Ramirez shared a story of one farmworker who she took to see a physician this summer after 10 years of having a health-related concern. Britton shared many first-hand experiences of working with out-of-school migrant youth. Maria Martin and Liz Samperio from the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association Migrant Health Program, along with Bruce Wright from the State Department of Education Migrant Education Program, shared their expertise as local partners with SAF.

Wiggins summed up the evening and sentiments felt by many, “In my 20 years with SAF, it is rare for foundations to take so seriously and invest in the opportunity for their board and staff to listen directly and meet with farmworkers. Tonight was such a powerful evening. I thought about the folks we met at each camp my whole drive home. I am always so impacted by these visits, and inspired to continue working with others so that things can be better for workers and their families.”

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina is a ministry of the Sisters of Charity Health System.

Pictured are board members and staff of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina.

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From its Cleveland headquarters, the Sisters of Charity Health System provides oversight, leadership and strategic direction to more than 20 organizations responding to community needs in Canton and Cleveland, Ohio, and South Carolina.

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