The reasons for generational poverty in California extend beyond simple economics. There is poverty of the mind and of the imagination. There is poverty of ambition and dreams.
In a California farm labor camp about an hour south of Sacramento, boredom is a byproduct of poverty. This is especially true for girls who used to be virtual prisoners of poverty and boredom within the confines of government-funded farm housing project in the San Joaquin County town of French Camp.
Within rows of barracks down the road from a juvenile detention facility and a Chinese cemetery, these girls had little access to technology. Their parents toiled in the harvest fields all day and had scant money to take them anywhere at night.
The girls were physically and emotionally isolated in humble lodgings that were far from ancestral towns and distant support systems of friendly faces and trusted relations.
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“These girls were not allowed to do many things by their parents,” said Zenaida Sanchez, a private citizen who set out to help the farmworker girls of French Camp. “I would ask the parents what they would want for their boys, and they would say they want them to be prepared. But they wouldn’t think the same about the girls. In this world, boys and girls need to be prepared the same way.”
The method Sanchez used to tip the scales for farmworker girls was as novel as it is somewhat surprising: the Girl Scouts.
A native of Mexico who was familiar with the mission of non-profits, Sanchez had the inspiration to craft a Girl Scout program that was a hybrid of Mexican culture and American “girl power” get-up-and-go. After all, what’s more American than the Girl Scouts?
But unlike other American institutions that may seem more foreboding to immigrant parents – such as school districts – the Girl Scouts share some bedrock values with new arrivals to the U.S.: Fellowship, community, shared activities, service.
“The (Girl Scouts) were looking for a person to be the bridge,” Sanchez said. “So I started from zero.”
Working for the Girl Scouts, Sanchez would go into the migrant camps and sell the parents on the idea that their girls could have more, do more, be more.
“If you can dream, you can live it,” Sanchez said, repeating a phrase she repeatedly shares with her bilingual scouts.
So it was in the last decade that the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California established five different troops at farm labor camps – two in San Joaquin County and three in Stanislaus County.
The hardest part? Finding troop leaders in communities where the adults don’t have spare time. When they are in California, they are working. They work long, hard, back-breaking hours to feed their families and do work Americans can’t or won’t do. Life at farmworker dwellings such as the one in French Camp is crushing in its monotony. Especially in the searing summer heat, adults are up and working before the sun rises. They work hard eight, nine or 10-hour days most days of the week.
The adults come home with love for their families but also with the enveloping fatigue of farm labor characterized by aching bodies, and tired eyes. So the hardest part of about Sanchez’s job is to be everywhere she wants to be. She meets with her troops in the late afternoon hours, when everyone is sure to be home.
There she is greeted by her scouts, bright-eyed girls in their nice dresses and their hair tied meticulously in colored bows.
“Every time I arrive, they are waiting for me,” Sanchez said. “For them, it’s not just a very important event of the day. It’s a very important day of the week.”
They participate in STEM activities, games to encourage learning in science, technology, engineering and math, coupled with team-building exercises, discussion, and talks with visiting role models, particularly young women who can give them an idea of what they can achieve beyond the fields.
Wednesday, Sanchez arrived in French Camp with guests – Bee journalists – and it was like a major event. Laborers peered out their windows, but kept respectful distances. Boys stood off to one side, fascinated by the commotion. And the girls? It was their time and they didn’t waste it.
A visitor could see the effect these gatherings had on them. The girls were not shy. They asked questions. They looked visitors in the eye. They proudly repeated their names and shared their dreams for life.
“I want to go into medicine,” said 15-year-old Citlali Mendoza. “I want to be in pediatrics because I love kids.”
Mendoza was born in the United States and her parents have been working in California for years. Before Sanchez established a Girl Scout troop at her farmworker housing complex in French Camp in the last year, Mendoza said her summers were spent just sitting around. Her world was narrow and defined by stark images of poverty.
“When I was little my dad would take me to the fields,” she said. “It’s sad seeing them in the sun. But what makes me very, very, very proud of my parents is that they are working for us to attend college and have a better future that they didn’t have.”
The Mendoza family is like the majority of families in poverty in California in that it works. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 79.5 percent of poor families had at least one working adult.
Sanchez said she has seen a difference in the attitudes of the girls once they were exposed to Girl Scouts.
“You see the shyness go away,” she said. “You see them become better informed. We’re not just making bracelets. We’re trying to make the girls think. We’re trying to expose them to role models because when they go to school or they go to the doctor, they don’t see enough women that look like them.”
Sanchez can’t be everywhere at once, so she is only able to be with her farmworker troops during the summer. If she had more volunteers, the farmworker girl scouts could be exposed to scouting in the spring, or in the fall. Many return to Mexico with their families for Christmas before turning right around for another harvest season in California.
“I tell the girls, ‘You can do it. It’s possible,’” Sanchez said. It’s a message that bears repeating in order to break cycles of poverty in California, and to make real dreams come true.”
To be a volunteer for Girl Scouts Hearts of California, call: 800-322-4475.