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Naples Daily News guest commentary

Isabel Garcia from RCMA 1

As children across Southwest Florida head back to school, RCMA prepares to welcome back students across 21 Florida counties. Several things set us apart.

Headquartered in Immokalee, we are the state’s largest non-profit provider of early childhood education.

Annually, we serve more than 6,500 students in our 66 child development centers, 19 partner family child care homes and 3 charter schools, including Immokalee Community School.

Founded in 1965 as Redlands Christian Migrant Association but firmly nonsectarian, our mission is to serve rural families living in poverty, primarily agricultural working families who migrate with the growing seasons. Because so many of our children travel with their parents, we won’t see a lot of our kids until October, and they will leave us in April or May.

I grew up in a migrant family and know firsthand the challenges of trying to do schoolwork and maintain friendships as I traveled with my parents from northern Florida to North Carolina and Maryland and back. RCMA knows it is important to understand our kids and families, so approximately 85 percent of our 1,700 employees come from the communities we serve.

RCMA takes a holistic approach to the children in our care, providing their families everything from healthcare services to bags of fresh fruit and vegetables. We also recognize the ways that migrant travel and immigration impact children, so we connect students to mental health services and work closely with families to address developmental or behavioral concerns.

We also embrace our children’s roots. All of our programs are focused on academic bilingualism and biculturalism to give students an advantage on their career path while they stay connected to their heritage.

We make sure parents are involved in their children’s care and education, and extend learning opportunities to parents through a myriad of classes, including leadership development workshops aimed at helping parents embrace their roles as primary teachers and become advocates for themselves and their children.

I’m proud to say that our efforts pay off. Our Head Start programs were recently renewed for five years. And, our charter school students scored above their county and statewide peers on several measures of the Florida Standards Assessments tests – despite economic and language barriers and not being in our classrooms for a full academic year.

After 55 years, we have almost 40,000 alumni. They serve as business and civic leaders in Southwest Florida, throughout the state and around the world. They have become professional athletes, run for Congress and raised families who continue to give back to their communities.

A new school year means new opportunities for children, who are our future. We ask the Southwest Florida community to help.

The Office of Early Learning requires RCMA to raise $600,000 in matching local funds, so we appreciate the generosity of those who understand the importance of early childhood education and invest in RCMA.

In additional to leveraging our government contracts, contributions from individuals and businesses help us enrich the services we provide. For example, donations help provide a full day of services to our families, maintain our family health, advocacy and other support programs, purchase new classroom materials such as computers and playground equipment, and make facility upgrades.

Please visit rcma.org to make a contribution and take a look at our Major Needs Wish List and our Amazon Wish List. You will also find  information about the Lipman Golf Classic, which benefits RCMA, and how to purchase Christmas cards designed by our kids.

Let’s make this the best year yet for RCMA kids!

Isabel Garcia

Executive Director/Head Start Director

Headquartered in Immokalee, Redlands Christian Migrant (RCMA) opens doors to opportunities through quality child care and education from crib to high school and beyond. Learn more at rcma.org or call the Community Relations Department at 239-658-3560.