LaGRULLA, Texas _ Texas Migrant Council workers have traveled the country for more than 20 years to help young migrant children from their state learn the alphabet or enjoy other preschool activities.
Administrators, teachers, nurses, cooks, bus drivers and other council staff members have taken on the role of migrants themselves as they packed up their belongings each spring and headed off to different parts of the country.
But the Texas Migrant Council tradition is starting to come to an end. Beginning next spring TMC staff members will travel less and less as other states start running their own Migrant Headstart programs for children from Texas.
Agencies in most of the 30 states where the TMC employees have traveled to _ including Washington _ say they will be able to make a smooth transition. The planned change, however, worries some parents who were previously secure in the knowledge that their children were looked after by familiar faces.
The TMC staff members have helped children ages 2 to 6 learn their numbers, the alphabet, colors and, in some cases, words in both Spanish and English. The Migrant Headstart program offers individual instruction and helps children develop their socialization skills.
``Our staff are like migrants themselves. Every year we closed down here in Texas and everyone packs their bags and follows the children to where their parents travel,'' said Jamie Ramirez, TMC center director in LaGrulla.
But the federal government, which pays for the relocation, is asking other states to help because the cost of moving the Texas centers has become too expensive.
There are 47 TMC centers throughout Texas. More than half are located in the South Texas Valley, which is where the most migrant families live. There are 600 employees.
The centers serve about 3,750 children, said Oscar Villerreal, executive director of the Texas Migrant Council. He estimates that 1,179 of them travel each spring to Washington state, primarily to the Yakima Valley.�MDNM�
The history of the TMC centers relocating to other states dates back to the 1960s, Villerreal said, ``when we found out that some of these states that the families were traveling to did not have services for migrant children.''
Since 1969, Ramirez has been traveling with LaGrulla families during the harvest season. In the past, he has set up centers in Grandview, Prosser, Basin City and Eltopia.
In 1991 about 550 children traveled with their parents from LaGrulla to Basin City and Eltopia. About 100 staff members from various TMC centers, including the 11 employees from the LaGrulla center, made the trip in seven buses
``It's been pretty hard on the staff, because many leave their families behind. Then when they get to these locations they have to find housing and start a whole new life there,'' he said.
Compensation is low, too. Employees are paid minimum wage, and they have to pay for half of the relocation costs out of their own pocket.
This coming spring, most of that traveling will end and the host states to these migrant children will have to provide the services that TMC has been providing.
``There were two reasons for this move. One, the government feels it's `old fashioned;' and second, but most importantly, it is not cost-effective,'' Villerreal said.
TMC is a federally funded program that cost $250,000 in the first year that the centers were relocated. ``This past year^...^the federal government funded us at $13.2 million,'' Villerreal said.
The program costs have increased as more parents each year place their children at TMC centers rather than take them out into the fields, Villerreal said.
He said that some of these states are unhappy with their new responsibilities.
``I think we will have to return to Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio this coming spring, because those states do not have the capability to handle our children,'' he said.
States that will assume the responsibility in the spring include Washington, Kansas, Michigan and Oklahoma, he said. Twenty years ago, TMC opened a seasonal center in Oregon. But the Texas workers did not have to return after that because the state of Oregon began providing Migrant Headstart program for children from Texas. Tina Kroth, Washington State Migrant Council's adminstrative assistant in Sunnyside, said Washington does not foresee any problems in serving the 1,000 or more Texas migrant children. ``We're always prepared. We'll be able to provide them with the same type of quality care that they've always had and that we give our own hcildren,'' Kroth said. However, she would not talk about any specific plans her agnecy has because it hasn't received confirmation from the federal government that the change will take place. Regardless, Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater should not be affected by the changes because TMC centers were never set up in those locations. Now, the TMC centers will remain open 10 months each year in Texas. They will be closed for two summer months, possibly July and August. ``We do have some children that remain in the area, but only about 40,'' said Livia Cantu, the head teacher at the LaGrulla center. ``Yet, I'm looking forward to staying here because it got tiresome after a while.'' Villerreal and Cantu said parents of migrant children seem concerned, however. ``They want to know if their child is going to get the same type of service that we gave them. For example, since they were our kids we sometimes drove our buses 50 miles to go pick a child and bring them to the center,'' Cantu said. ``They want to know if the same thing is going to be done next year.'' ``The parents are concerned, but I can almost guarantee that if people are not doing their jobs, we are sure going to hear about, it'' Villerreal said.