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Hard-hit migrant workers get help from Lakeland area churches (Nov. 16, 2004)

Hard-hit migrant workers get help from Lakeland area churches (Nov. 16, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Hard-hit migrant workers get help from Lakeland area churches

Nov. 16, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0194}

n Churches help migrant workers now, but plan to meet children's needs as way to break poverty cycle.

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

LAKELAND — A friendship born out of a common heritage has proven invaluable in helping the Lakeland area's migrant workers recover from the hurricane season.

WAHNETA — The Rev. Hermes Hernandez (right) and Robert Lopez move furniture donations at Hernandez' church, Wahneta United Methodist Church Hispanic Mission here in the Lakeland District. The furniture will be given to area migrant workers affected by the season's hurricanes. Photo courtesy of Robert Lopez, Photo #04-0110.

The bond between the Rev. Hermes Hernandez, pastor of Wahneta United Methodist Church Hispanic Mission in Wahneta, and Robert Lopez, a member of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, rises out of their Cuban background.
Both men were born in Cuba and became friends after Hernandez took his appointment at the Wahneta church about 18 months ago. Ana Luisa Diaz, a member of College Heights United Methodist Church in Lakeland, suggested to Lopez that he introduce himself to Hernandez and welcome him to the area. Lopez followed through and began a quest to help Hernandez with any needs that arose at his church.
Although the men live almost an hour apart, they meet on many occasions. Those meetings have increased since Hurricane Charley ripped apart the Wahneta community, which has a substantial migrant worker population. Wahneta is located in Polk County, which also felt the effects of Hurricane Frances.
Hernandez' command of the English language is still in its infancy. Lopez, who has lived in the United States for about 45 years, frequently serves as his translator. Lopez remembers what Hernandez said when he called Hernandez after Hurricane Charley to offer his assistance.
"He said, 'Why are you calling me now? There's a storm in Wahneta every day. You don't have to wait for Charley,' " Lopez said.
Lopez said Hernandez' tongue-in-cheek remark was intended to be funny, but also carried a note of seriousness. About 25 percent to 30 percent of Wahneta's population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, the average is about 12.5 percent of the population. Hispanics make up about half the city's population of nearly 5,000 people.
Lopez characterizes the migrant workers he has gotten to know as being afraid for their security.
"Migrant workers are skittish because many are illegal," Lopez said. "They are careful. If there's anything like a meeting place, they shy away from that because they're scared [of being caught]."
In the wake of the hurricanes, Lopez and Hernandez helped the community by providing bags of nonperishable food. The men gathered food from a local Baptist church food pantry, stored it in one of Wahneta United Methodist Church's Sunday school rooms and then distributed it. That process is ongoing.
"Whoever shows up, if they need , we give it to them," Lopez said. "They walk up to the church. A lot of them don't have transportation."
Bill Gill, the Lakeland District's disaster response coordinator, said he received a total of $4,000 from two organizations, Somebody Cares Tampa Bay and Operation Blessings, based in the Carolinas. He said the money was to be used to meet immediate needs and repair homes.
"We purchased a bunch of cash cards-from Home Depot, Publix, Lowe's, Wal-Mart," Gill said.
Pastors distributed the cards in their communities during the last week of September. Gill said he is now in the process of accounting for how the cards were spent.
Home repairs will no doubt top the list of expenditures. Lopez said many of the migrant workers lived in mobile homes before the hurricanes. The storms damaged their homes so severely, he said, that some of them expressed a need for furniture and blankets because the contents of their homes were ruined.

Lopez said he and Hernandez have worked hard to meet those needs with donated items, but their biggest challenge has been storage space. Lopez said the church doesn't have much available room for keeping beds, blankets and other household items while they figure out who needs them.
"There's a logistics problem," he said.
Lopez said another concern for the migrant workers is there may not be enough work this year. Many crops sustained heavy damage from the storm, reducing the need for farm workers. A news report on the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center Web site said about 50 percent of Polk County's orange crops and nearly 90 percent of its expected grapefruit harvest were wiped out.
Lopez said he's spent some time with migrant workers in Wahneta and believes he has a good understanding of their perspective. Although they may not have much work this year, he said many feel that they cannot return to their native countries-usually Mexico or South America-because they would not be allowed back.
"I'm guessing they'll probably work off and on," Lopez said of this year's workers.
He believes the best way to minister to the migrant community is by helping their children.
"Our thinking has always been that the approach is to go after the kids because the adults are scared and are not going to change," Lopez said. "The kids can somehow get out of that cycle."
Hernandez and Lopez hope to develop an after-school tutoring program at the church that would be open to the community.
"During the summer we had a feeding program," Lopez said. "We noticed that the kids all spoke English and they were behind in their reading skills."
The children of migrant workers typically speak Spanish at home because their parents usually aren't bilingual, Lopez said. As a result, these children don't receive as much help with their homework as they might need. And, Lopez said, they don't have resources, such as computers, in their homes.
"Hermes is working through the church, trying to get a grant to purchase computers so we can do self-tutoring," Lopez said.
Lopez hopes the extra help with schoolwork will be enough to encourage the children to stay in school, even when their families eventually might need them to work.
"If there's any hope they can stay in the school system, they'll have a better chance to survive," Lopez said.


Florida Conference United Methodists are encouraged to send contributions to "Florida Storm Recovery Fund" Conference Special #605 to their local church. Church offerings should be sent to the Florida Conference Treasurer, The United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 3767, Lakeland, FL 33802.

Groups interested in forming a work team to assist with hurricane relief and recovery efforts should contact the Florida Storm Recovery Center at 1-800-282-8011, extension 149. The Florida Conference Storm Recovery Team can be contacted by e-mail at

Donations for relief may also be made to UMCOR Advance #982410, "Hurricanes 2004," and dropped into church offering plates or mailed to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. People donating by credit card can call 800-554-8583.

For conference news and storm updates go to

This article relates to Florida Conference Disaster Response.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Viera, Fla.