By Jody Stutzman
Five years ago, I was on my way to Wal-Mart to pick up a few groceries after I had gotten off work. I saw two school buses in the parking lot and didn’t think much of it, and continued in to do my shopping. Earlier that week I had loaded my car with long-sleeved shirts, soap, shampoo, and tooth paste looking for farmworkers in need, but I hadn’t been able to find anyone to give the supplies to. To my surprise, when I walked into the store, I saw about 40 Hispanic men paying for groceries. I knew it had to be the migrant corn detasselers I had been looking for.
I knew it was going to seem really odd, but I went up to them and told them I work for a company that helps farmworkers. After they were finished at the cash register, I took them to my car to show them what I had. They were all so grateful for the supplies and advised me as to which hotel they were staying at. Later that evening, I stopped by the hotel and introduced myself to the “boss”, Javier Chapa. Javier was a contractor that brought H2A workers from Mexico to detassel corn for Remington Seed. I explained to Javier that we provide free heat stress and pesticide safety training to agricultural workers, and I invited them to Proteus’s training that we’d be holding in Hastings, NE, just a few short days later.
Sure enough, Javier and crew showed up at the location where Proteus staff had gathered to train farmworkers on pesticide safety and heat stress. By the end of the day, using AFOP Health & Safety curricula, we had trained approximately 80 workers, including Javier’s crew.
At that particular time in 2014, the news headlines often read “crisis at the border,” so I’d invited the local news to come and meet the workers. On camera, Proteus staff explained how the heat and pesticide trainings help agricultural workers, and the workers talked about the hard work they do, as well as the process they follow to get to Nebraska.
Each year after that, the local broadcast news has come out to do another story so that the farmworkers’ stories can be told again. With the increased popularity of the long-sleeve shirt drive, many other organizations have wanted to have a more active part in the service to these workers. Hastings First Presbyterian Church, for example, not only wanted to collect long-sleeve shirts, they also started putting on a welcome barbeque to show their appreciation to the workers. 2019 marked the third year for this event and included local children detassalers plus many community members.
Now every summer when I see the school buses, I know that Javier’s crew has arrived, and that Javier and Joel Livgren from Remington Seed will be attending our training. Seeing them put in the time and effort to educate themselves about their employees’ health & safety, it is obvious to me how much they care about their workers.
Indeed, I really wish all contractors and employers were like Javier Chapa and Remington Seed. I have met a lot of people in my life, but there is something very special about this group of people. They are the kindest, most hard-working people I have ever met. They help me carry the training supplies from my car and thank us for the training and supplies we give them. Javier called me this past February to make sure I had him on my training schedule for when the workers arrived in July. He wanted to make sure the workers got trained before entering the field. The funny thing about it was that he called me on the coldest, snowiest day of the year, so corn detasseling was the last thing on my mind!
I will never forget this story: every time we gather a large group of people together to deliver health and safety training, it is so hectic because you want everything to go smoothly. I don’t speak Spanish but one of the workers came up to me and, in perfect English, told me, “What should I do? I don’t speak Spanish.” I panicked for a moment, because all of the training materials were in Spanish and our trainer was doing the training in Spanish, only. A minute later, though, he and all of the workers busted out laughing. I don’t know how he learned that, but he was just joking and only spoke Spanish.
I have been told by many of the workers that Hastings, Nebraska, has been the most welcoming place they have been, which warms my heart. What they don’t realize is that they help make it even better.
Jody Stutzman is Regional Director for Proteus, Nebraska. In the past, Jody has been a case manager for Proteus, providing and facilitating job training and education assistance in order to help farmworkers reach self-sufficiency. Currently Jody is part of AFOP’s network of Heat Stress and Pesticide Safety Trainers, facilitating health and safety training for migrant and seasonal farm workers.