May 8, 2021
Florida Icon: Barbara Mainster

Photo: Alex McKnight

Florida Icon

Florida Icon: Barbara Mainster

Executive director, Redlands Christian Migrant Association, Fort Myers; age 73

Art Levy | 11/26/2014

I know what hard work it is to grow things.

We’ve expanded from three centers to 71 centers and three charter schools, and we serve about 7,000 kids a year, and we’re in 21 Florida counties. Wendell N. Rollason, who was RCMA’s executive director before me, is the one who recognized that to make a strong organization, two things had to happen: One is that the board needed to be made up of both farmers and farm workers and the second was the staff needed to come from the community we’re serving.

My mother and father both influenced me. They were not formally well educated. I think my mother probably went through the eighth grade. I think my dad attended what would be technical college now. They were avid readers.Both were avid political observers and very into social justice.

If you’re a phony, I think everybody knows it.

I went to the job interview at RCMA and that was it. It was like being back in the Peace Corps. The job was education coordinator. I said to them, ‘If you don’t hire me, I’m going to come back and volunteer for you anyway,’ which was a stupid thing to say at a job interview! That was 42 years ago.

Early childhood is the most important time of anybody’s life.When I meet people, it’s pretty easy, when they’re outstanding people, to know they had a good early childhood and that they had parents who thought they were the greatest thing in the world.

I know how to use a pickax. I had somebody tell me, ‘You’re the first woman I’ve ever seen use a pickax right’ and I said, ‘What?You pick it up and you swing it!’

The older I get, the more I can get away with, I think.

Right now, 30% of the kids we’re serving at our migrant Head Start are indigenous-language speakers. That means they don’t come in speaking Spanish or English.They speak an indigenous language. It’s from the mountains, an Indian language basically.

I love gardening. I love being outdoors. I have learned to appreciate Florida’s seasons and the nature. I have a bromeliad jungle.My bougainvilleas are happy. This is where they want to be.

We actually had kind of a nice little house in Long Island, with a garden and all those trappings of the beginning of middle class.I was 10 when my folks moved us to upstate New York to become farmers. We moved to this place that had an outhouse. The house had been vacant and was falling down, but the farm had 50 acres.My parents’ thought was they wanted to be independent. They wanted to raise their own cows, their own chickens, pigs and have gardens and all of that good stuff.They never made a lot of money on that farm, but the milk they sold put us through college.

My focus is to make progress every day in whatever it is that I have to move forward.

I am terrified of what will happen if we don’t wake up about water quality and water. The notion that we’d consider fracking in this state is absolutely insane.

Kids make me laugh. The honesty of kids is just so refreshing.

I’m not a micromanager. You have to trust people.

The Mennonites started us, so we are not faith-based. We are non-sectarian. The Christian in our name means ‘love thy neighbor’ plain and simple.

There’s no question it has gotten better, but as long as we have the system of crew chiefs as managers between the growers and the workers, there are going to be abuses. And, until there is an immigration system in place, there will be abuses because people who are working under fear of legal repercussions for their status are always going to be less likely to complain.

I feel good after every day. I do worry, but I have to tell you that’s another blessing about how I was raised. Little things make me happy.

The kids go to school and get tested in English, and that’s grossly unfair. That’s not what should happen. That’s not testing what the kids know. That’s testing what they know in the English language. If you really want to know what they know, test them in their own language.

I am not patient, so I have to force myself to listen and seek first to understand.

The immigration issue affects us hugely — not in funding, not in any of those things — but emotionally.We have kids everywhere being raised by their moms alone because dad was deported because he drove without a driver’s license. You talk to some of our elementary kids and they will tell you they worry about their parents being deported.

In agriculture, people really do value hard work. They respect it.

For me, life was never about how much money you’re going to make or how important you’re going to be.

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