Camp for students in migrant families offers new life possibilities

Andy Megargel, a counselor for the migrant camp at Eastern Kentucky University, talked to students about how to make a good presentation.
Andy Megargel, a counselor for the migrant camp at Eastern Kentucky University, talked to students about how to make a good presentation.

Maddie Martinez, a Woodford County High School student, said she came out of her “comfort zone and explored new things” at an Eastern Kentucky University camp for students whose families are migrant workers.

Martinez recalls that last year at the camp she barely spoke to other students.

This year, she led a social media campaign centered on oral health called “My smile matters.”

“It’s been great to see myself open up to more opportunities,” said Maddie, 15.

The camp, known as the Keys Academy, has been held at EKU since 2004.

Keys stands for Knowledge, Education, ‘Yes You Can’ Attitude and Scholarship.

Sixteen students attended the first program. For the 2016 academy held last week, 103 students who will be entering 7th, 8th and 9th grades this fall attended the camp. The students come from 25 Kentucky school districts, from Jefferson County to Pulaski County and points in between.

Michael Hay, director of the Southern Kentucky Migrant Education Program, said most of the Kentucky students’ families work in tobacco, vegetable crops or dairy farms. Many of them are Hispanic and travel between Kentucky and Florida or North Carolina.

“They follow the crops,” Hay said.

The summer academy is a week-long program dedicated to helping students with the transition from middle school to high school. Students focus on educational and career goals, and work to overcome barriers that the migratory lifestyle can bring.

One benefit of the camp is that the students interact with role models who have completed a post-secondary degree.

They learn how to apply to college and apply for scholarships, and they work on basic writing skills and develop creative ways to express thoughts.

Joseph Espinosa, 17, a junior counselor at the camp, said he attended as a student for two years before becoming a counselor. He said the camp had given him the confidence to become a junior ROTC battalion commander at Madison Central High School in Richmond.

The camp reassures students “that they can do whatever they want” in life, he said.

The federal government began a broad-scale effort to improve the lives of America’s migrant and seasonal farm workers in the 1960s. The nation’s conscience had been jolted by Edward R. Murrow’s documentary Harvest of Shame, which was broadcast on CBS in 1960. Awareness of the poverty and hardships endured by families that migrated to harvest fruits and vegetables led to a call for action at the highest level, according to information provided by program officials. The first major government program addressed health concerns, and other programs were created to focus on housing, working conditions, and training for other employment. The education component followed.

The Migrant Education Program, which funds the camp, is a federal entitlement program that provides supplementary education and other services to children ages 3 to 21 who move frequently with their families as the adults seek work.

Eligibility for the program is determined by the lifestyle of the families, whether it’s moving across school district, county, or state boundaries for the purpose of obtaining temporary or seasonal work in agriculture, excluding horses.

“The exposure to college and career readiness opens our students’ eyes to bigger and better possibilities for their future,” Jeff Vincent, the camp director, said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears