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Aricely Vargas in playground slide at EPIC in Sunnyside, Washington.

Aricely Vargas in playground slide at EPIC in Sunnyside, Washington.

Tree fruit employers, both growers and packing house owners, have an untapped support program that could help them in their recruitment efforts.

By coordinating with the nonprofit Enterprise for Progress in the Community, known as EPIC, which runs the federal Head Start early childhood education program for children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, tree fruit employers could provide a service to the employees by referring employee children to Head Start programs, said Julie Toney, EPIC’s director of resources and communications. "That would help keep children out of the fields and give workers secure and safe daycare for their children."

In turn, Head Start sites often serve as employment posting sites for local farmers, Toney said. "We see a common thread among our services and the agricultural industry, as we each struggled with employee recruitment and child placement last year," she said, adding that there are opportunities to help each other in recruitment and retention.

War on Poverty

The Yakima, Washington-based EPIC is an outgrowth of one of the first early childhood education Head Start grants in the nation that was given to Washington State in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

"We want to formalize our relationship with Washington State’s farming industries," Toney said, adding that most of the Head Start centers are in the midst of farming communities, from Bridgeport to the lower Yakima Valley. EPIC has about 1,700 Head Start and early childhood development slots to fill in the state. The migrant and seasonal Head Start program operates from spring through early autumn to coincide with agricultural work. Children up to six years of age attend up to 12 hours per day, five days a week, while their parents are at work. A year-round Head Start program serves children from birth to three years old.

Getting the word out

Toney is looking for better ways to get the word out about Head Start services and believes that a closer link with employers would help. For example, with an employer’s permission, EPIC could put up informational posters about Head Start at the workplace and hold informational meetings with employees during lunch breaks or in the evening.

"We have a difficult time getting growers to allow us in," she said, noting that they are commonly seen as a disruption by employers. "We’re trying to find a way to get kids in the program and not be disruptive."

As the availability of labor becomes tighter and employers are pitted against each other to recruit workers, she believes that Head Start could offer several benefits to employers. Child safety—keeping kids out of the fields—is the biggest advantage, but others include providing basic social and educational services to the child and family, such as immunizations and eye examinations.

Other opportunities include partnering with employers to set up a Head Start classroom on site, like the program that is run at Broetje Orchards in Prescott, Washington, she added.

For general information about Head Start, contact Julie Toney at (509) 249-9106. To find out more about signing up families for Head Start, call Manuel Villason at (509) 248-8136 or e-mail