- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

OCALA, Fla. | Elizabeth Pineda climbs out of bed, with her 4-year-old son, Adrian, asleep nearby. She lays out a tiny pair of shorts and a white T-shirt for his first day of school, gathers her purse and tiptoes outside. Her cousin will get the boy up and off to class in a few hours.

It is 4 a.m. and only a few solitary street lamps light the darkened roads in this rural central Florida community. She climbs into an old white Ford work van and starts the engine.

Miss Pineda, 20, a daughter of migrant farmworkers, is heading to the peanut fields.

It’s a story repeated in migrant families across the United States, a chain of labor that stretches from one generation to the next. As a little girl, Miss Pineda helped pick oranges from the lowest branches as her father worked from a ladder overhead. As a single mother, she has sometimes had to bring Adrian along as well - letting him play with toy cars in the van while she picked peanuts nearby.

The government offers a Head Start program for the children of migrant and seasonal laborers, but serves only a fraction of those eligible, according to estimates by providers and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Waiting lists stretch hundreds of children long in parts of the country.

Those who can’t get in go to friends’ care, or to state-run pre-kindergartens or to the fields, where they are exposed to the heat, insects, chemicals and heavy machinery, and where each year some children are hurt or killed.

Two Head Start centers have opened in Ocala in the last year. With a $26 million boost for Early Head Start in federal stimulus funds and a separate $10 million expansion, nonprofit organizations around the country are hoping to expand enrollment of migrant infants and toddlers by the thousands.

Besides providing a safe haven, the program’s goal is to offer access to basic social services, help teach English and aim to set these children on a path toward parity with their peers in kindergarten.

Miss Pineda has enrolled Adrian in the program. Her dream is that he never has to do what she does.

How many young children follow their parents into America’s fields isn’t known.

Care providers estimate that just under one-fifth of children eligible for Migrant and Seasonal Head Start have enrolled (about 35,000 in 2007, according to the most current national figures).

Driving to the fields, Miss Pineda picks up nearly a dozen workers; the youngest is 13. They are tired and silent. Several are barefoot.

With the recession, she says there is no other work to be found around Ocala, about 95 miles north of Tampa. So she harvests peanuts, an especially labor-intensive crop with low-growing plants that offer no shelter from the sun.

The fields are no place for a child, she says, and yet when she couldn’t find someone to care for her son she often took him with her. A Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program opened nearby when he was 3, but Miss Pineda says there wasn’t space for him. This year, a second center opened up in Ocala, and Adrian got in.

“Hopefully, he never has to go to the fields and pick,” Miss Pineda said.

Miss Pineda’s van comes to a stop in the middle of a dark field. The headlights of a few cars shine onto patches of green peanut plants. In the distance, small circles of light bob up and down like fireflies. They are the headlamps of workers already digging for peanuts.

Miss Pineda’s group steps out onto the sand. The scent of peanuts fills the air. The sky is freckled with stars.

Today is her son’s first day. She has started night school once a week and is taking two online courses, aiming to finish college and become a massage therapist or maybe a teacher.

Today she will earn $2.50 for each bucket of peanuts she can fill. She hopes to fill at least 10.

She waits for the sun to rise.

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