Idaho Latinos transition from farming roots to build community

Rebecca De Leon, communications director for the Community Council of Idaho, hands out free Thanksgiving turkeys at the council’s Head Start location in Caldwell. Head Start is the council’s largest program, with 10 centers in cities along the I-84 corridor.
Rebecca De Leon, communications director for the Community Council of Idaho, hands out free Thanksgiving turkeys at the council’s Head Start location in Caldwell. Head Start is the council’s largest program, with 10 centers in cities along the I-84 corridor.

Victor Canales-Gamino was in trouble during his last semester at the University of Idaho.

His tuition was due and he struggled to put food on the table, and his parents — workers in the sugar beet fields near Mountain Home — couldn’t help.

But the Community Council of Idaho could. A timely $1,000 grant from the nonprofit — the largest serving Latinos in the state — allowed him to finish school.

“I thought it was like God reaching out to me,” he said.

Providing that type of hands-on help for a growing Latino population has been the council’s mission since 1971.

Civil rights-era beginnings

Before Idaho passed its first anti-discrimination law, in 1961, it was possible to find businesses and restaurants across the southern part of the state with placards that read, “No Mexicans Allowed.” They faced similar prejudice and inadequate working conditions in other parts of the country. In response, activist Cesar Chavez co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Dolores Huerta in 1962.

“Idaho is an agricultural state, so that struck home,” said Rebecca De Leon, communications director for the Community Council of Idaho.

A group of Idaho Latinos, led by longtime community advocate Humberto Fuentes, “picked up Chavez’s movement and brought it to Idaho,” De Leon said. They founded the Idaho Migrant Council, which eventually became the Community Council of Idaho.

Its goal is “to build community from the inside out,” De Leon said.

Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said her organization has had a strong partnership with the council for many years. The Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs is a state agency that focuses on legislation and policy. The Community Council of Idaho, on the other hand, provides boots-on-the-ground services.

“No other organization has that capability,” Gonzalez said.

The council, she said, has faced the same funding challenges as other service agencies, but it has evolved to be able to provide essential services.

“We support each other’s efforts. There really isn’t a time when we’re not in partnership,” Gonzalez said.

The council receives a state grant and a small number of donations, but most of its $12 million in revenue comes from federal sources, according to its annual report. That includes $7 million for Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services. When Head Start operates during the agricultural season from spring to fall, the council employs 380 Idahoans.

Head Start is the council’s largest program. It offers 10 centers, mostly along Interstate 84 from Weiser to Idaho Falls. That’s where most of the state’s farmland is found, attracting the largest number of seasonal and migrant workers, De Leon said.

The program offers full-day bilingual Head Start for children up to 5 years old, but it is broader than that, offering an agenda that includes financial literacy, parenting tips and the promotion of healthy eating to combat obesity and diabetes. Those health issues are more prominent in Latinos, especially those with low levels of traditional education, De Leon said.

The fundamentals of work

Ricardo Godina, regional manager for the Community Council of Idaho’s employment training program, comes from an agricultural background. He grew up in Wilder, where he and his family harvested hops.

The council has employment programs for those who want to transition out of agricultural work, which usually pays minimum wage with no benefits. It provides on-the-job training, paying a portion of trainees’ salaries in fields such as medical assistance. Godina places or refers about 30 clients a year, and his own career trajectory took him from the fields to the office.

When he was in school, the time after the final bell was devoted to work, forcing him to miss out on things such as after-school sports. But he treasures the example his father set of working hard and putting his heart into his work. Godina eventually got a job in the electronics field, where he discovered that his past offered another advantage. After working in the fields, every other job he did seemed easy by comparison.

“I talk about the fundamentals of work — showing up on time, attendance, teamwork, flexibility. It was amazing to me when I got my job at an electronics company. So many people couldn’t do those basic things,” Godina said.

One of his favorite stories is of a woman who came to the council in dire shape. She was out of work, deeply depressed and in the process of a divorce. She couldn’t afford coats for her children. Godina helped her develop interview skills and a resume, which got her an entry-level job at Plexus, a Wisconsin company with an electronics plant in Nampa. Later, when Godina was touring the company, he noticed the woman’s picture on the wall. She was employee of the month.

“She was one of the stars on the wall, but that’s just one example,” Godina said. “That’s why I’m in the job that I am. Having worked in agriculture, I can relate to these folks, and send the message if you apply yourself, you will be successful.”

‘They were always there to support me’

With his council grant, Canales-Gamino finished a degree in sociology with an emphasis on criminology and Spanish in 2013. Now a recruitment specialist at the University of Idaho in the College Assistance Migrant Program, he helps advise students about scholarships and offers academic support.

His department works with the Community Council on projects such as Farm Worker Awareness Week and collects long-sleeved shirts to give to farmworkers to wear in the fields. As part of his job, he travels throughout Idaho, Washington and Oregon to recruit students.

“I’m the first and only person in my family to go to college. But I see how it’s impacted my family already. My nieces and nephews talk about going to Boise State, or U of I, or the University of Washington,” Canales-Gamino said.

“I owe a lot to the Community Council. They were always there to support me, a way to look up to someone. Ricardo still calls me.”

Anna Webb has covered the nonprofit community for more than a decade. The Boise native also volunteers her time to a couple of them. Reach her at 208-377-6431, @IDS_AnnaWebb

What does the Idaho Community Council do?

▪ A high school equivalency program that helps migrant and seasonal farmworkers get their GEDs. The council offers classes and books and pays for students to take the test for their diplomas. One point of pride: The council ranked No. 1 in the nation for the percentage of participating students who get their degrees. The national goal is 69 percent, Rebecca De Leon said. The council hit 94 percent.

▪ A YouthBuild program in Twin Falls that helps at-risk people ages 16 to 24 earn their GEDs while learning job skills and a construction certification. Participants have dropped out of traditional high school. Some are young parents or are struggling after aging out of foster care. The program provides mentors and literacy training while encouraging community service.

▪  Five affordable housing projects throughout the state. The closest project to the Treasure Valley is in Twin Falls. The council oversees 300 residences. Four of the five projects are restricted to migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Programs focus on homeownership as well as transitional housing.

▪  Three community family clinics in Eastern Idaho. The clinics fill the same need as Terry Reilly clinics do in the Treasure Valley, De Leon said, helping those with low incomes, the uninsured and those who rely on Medicaid and Medicare.