Students from colleges nationwide hailed the arrival of spring break March 14 through 18. While many used the time to relax or catch up on television, six students from Vassar College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges took the opportunity to try an Alternative Spring Break, choosing instead to work with Rural & Migrant Ministries at the Liturgia Rural Workers Education Center at Grace Episcopal Church’s rectory house on Phelps Street.

Students from colleges nationwide hailed the arrival of spring break March 14 through 18. 

While many used the time to relax or catch up on television, six students from Vassar College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges took the opportunity to try an Alternative Spring Break, choosing instead to work with Rural & Migrant Ministries at the Liturgia Rural Workers Education Center at Grace Episcopal Church’s rectory house on Phelps Street. 

The Center, newly opened last year, is used for a variety of programs for rural and migrant workers in the area.

“We are right in the middle of this area,” said the Rev. Don Hill of Grace Episcopal Church. Rural & Migrant Ministries has been doing the work, but without a place. We had this rectory available. It became obvious that this would be something of benefit to the larger community.”

The center provides educational programs for rural workers, and programs like a summer camp for middle school children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the Alternative Spring Break.

“How do we balance economics with being humane to people?” asked Hill. “How do you balance national policy and local needs? We thought that by having this center, we can begin to have this conversation openly.”

Rural & Migrant Ministries is a multi-faith organization, which focuses on youth empowerment, education, and accompaniment, which involves developing and connecting allies for rural justice. The organization aims to celebrate diversity and overcome prejudice and poverty in the rural and migrant community. 

Pastor Rolfi Elivo, from Alton Free Methodist Church, works with Rural & Migrant Ministries to coordinate with local farm workers.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do with this center is to ensure that all of us that are related to the food system are being thoughtful about how the people that make the food system possible are treated,” said Executive Director Richard Witt. “It’s important that farm workers have the skills and the voice possible so that they can participate in the decision making sectors and policies that are impacting their life.”

Witt is careful to define the organization’s stance. 

“We’ve been very clear,” he said. “The focus of this week has been how to better understand the lives of the farm workers. It does not mean that it’s an anti-farmer week. There’s very little time and attention devoted to the farm workers themselves, so let’s hear their stories and their needs. How can we help?”

Students at the Alternative Spring Break raised their own money to fund their week at the center, living community style, all working together to cook, clean and care for the property during their stay, while making trips to area farms, meeting growers and farm workers.   

Students also had a meeting with a local legislator and attended classes in the rectory to learn about the agribusiness system and the many facets of farm worker life, including the role that border patrol plays.

“Many of the farmworkers in this region are immigrants,” says Witt. “They have to deal on a daily basis with border control. So if one is going to understand the life of farm workers, you have to understand the impact of the border control. It’s an important component.”

Students came from different academic backgrounds, including geography and philosophy.
Adriana Provenzano, studying at Vassar, is majoring in American culture.

“I’m really interested in border politics and immigration in general,” she said. “You hear a lot in the news about the United States/Mexico border, but not so much about upstate New York.”    

Provenzano wants to continue working with Justice for Farm Workers Campaign.

“I really like looking at different strategies on how to include farm workers with the farm workers bill,” she said. “Creative strategies are interesting to me, and getting multiple points of view and perspective on the issues is interesting.”

The Alternative Spring Break is offered annually through Rural & Migrant Ministries. For more information, visit www.ruralmigrantministry.org.