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Beth-El Mission: From a tiny house in Ruskin to feeding thousands

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image Clients line up at the Beth-El food bank, which serves up to 8,000 people a month. Photo Dave Moore

The sixth and final article in a series on South County food banks benefiting from the “Have A Heart Caring Castle” community food drive co-sponsored by JSA Medical Group and The Observer News, The SCC Observer and The Current.

By KEVIN BRADY

Every week, thousands of mostly migrant farmworkers line up for food at one of the county’s largest food banks, the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry.

Home to a charter school, thrift shop, adult-education classes, legal-aid services, summer camps and a nursery, the sprawling 27-acre campus in Wimauma has come a long way from its humble origins in a small house in Ruskin.

Founded in 1976 when the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was looking for a place to hold Spanish-language church services, the mission grew from a desire to help migrant workers. Their need for food, warm clothes and adequate housing – some were sleeping in cars and trucks – was obvious to church members.

Beth-El’s mission has grown to encompass education, legal aid and a plethora of support services over the years, but the conditions faced by migrant workers have not changed since the 1960s when Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame” TV documentary put a national spotlight on their working conditions, said Dave Moore, Beth-El’s executive director.

“There is not much difference in the lives of farmworkers from 1960 to today,” Moore said.

Among the poorest of America’s working poor, migrant workers brave Florida’s heat, working an average of 30 hours per week for only 30 weeks per year – because there are often more workers than jobs. They struggle just to feed themselves, their families plagued by nutrition-related health problems: low birth-weight babies, anemia in children and diabetes and high blood pressure in adults, according to Beth-El.

Living in dilapidated housing with frequent moves as they follow the harvesting season from Florida up the East Coast and through the Midwest, the workers’ children are at a disadvantage in public schools where cultural differences take their toll on students who feel left out and all too often drop out of school before graduating.

Teaching self-sufficiency through its extensive educational programs and helping workers to meet basic needs, Beth-El works to reverse that trend, one family at a time.

Rosalva Serrano, an executive assistant at the mission, worked as a farmworker before becoming Dave Moore’s “right-hand person” in 2008.

“The life of the farmworker is incredibly hard,” Serrano said. “If it rains too much or too little, you can’t work, so it’s not a reliable paycheck at times. That’s where the mission comes in, providing food for people who might not even have enough to eat that week.”

For Serrano, whose son recently graduated from East Bay High School, and whose daughter is in middle school, the mission has been a blessing. “Education helps families look forward to something better in the future,” she said. “For me it makes me value what I have.”

The mission currently feeds between 7,500 and 8,000 people monthly. That figure was closer to 4,000 when Moore took over as executive director in 2005.

“The overall economy and farmworkers continuing to live in the shadows, being undocumented,” have contributed to the increase in the numbers, Moore said.

Distributing up to four tons of food a week, the mission divides that into bags of staples such as rice, beans, flour, canned goods, cereal, pasta and bread. For some families, it’s the only food they have for the week.

Thanks to donations from more than 100 Presbyterian and other local churches, the Community Foundation of Sun City Center, along with individual donations, Beth-El manages to keep its shelves stocked most of the time.

“One or two times a year we do run out of food,” Moore said.

Beth-El is also home to a thriving worship community and adult-education programs operated by the School District of Hillsborough County. Older farmworkers learn English and take classes in basic life skills such as family finances, parenting and understanding medicine labels. Preschool-age children are cared for and educated nearby, so the whole family is learning together.

Mission field trips also give farmworker children experiences that most youngsters take for granted — to the zoo, museums, bowling, movies or roller skating.

In partnership with the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, Beth-El is also home to a seasonal Migrant Head Start center and a 280-student charter school where children of farmworkers have a chance to succeed in school and go on to higher education.

Legal services are provided by Bay Area Legal Services, a separate nonprofit corporation on-site at Beth-El, with three full-time attorneys and their staff handling all types of civil law problems at no charge to low-income workers.

Along with an active volunteer staff, the mission operates with only seven workers, five of whom are former farmworkers, and a pastor.

Moore and his staff are always actively working to bring in donations. The group recently received a trailer load of Serta mattresses from Ohio.

“It’s what’s God tells us to,” Moore said. “To help the least, walk humbly, and do justice and serve our fellow man. The Hispanic farmworker is certainly here helping us, and we need to give back to them.”

The mission welcomes donations of food, especially rice and pinto beans, long-sleeve shirts and slacks as well as Walmart gift cards. The mission thrift store also accepts furniture, which mission workers can come pick up. “Any unwanted household items would be a blessing to receive,” Moore said.

School supplies and backpacks are also welcome during the summer before school starts.

For more information on the Beth-El mission, 18240 U.S. Highway 301, call 813-633-1548 or email dave@beth-el.info.

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