CSS bolstered Migrant Worker Program
By Tim Wenzl
Southwest Kansas Register
A grass roots effort to assist the children of migrants working in the sugar beet fields in Grant County led to the involvement of Catholic Social Service in the Migrant Worker Program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The success of the Migrant Worker Program in Ulysses can be traced to an Irish-immigrant pastor who identified challenging circumstances in his newly-assigned parish community, and mobilized his congregation through the Vatican II decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.
“While I was in Ulysses I encountered a whole new phenomenon in parish ministry – the Mexican migrant worker,” recalled Bernard Groome, laicized priest and former Mary Queen of Peace pastor, writing from his home in Ireland on Aug. 30, 2014.
“Ulysses was pretty much the centre of a vast area of sugar beet and broom corn farming, so at about Easter time every year hundreds of Mexican nationals would move into town for harvesting of those crops – a period of some four to five months. The vast majority lived in wretched conditions –poverty and squalor. They arrived in the US as illegal aliens and stayed as long as they were able to escape detection by the authorities. Because of their illegal standing, they were in constant peril of being caught so they had no recourse against unjust treatment and exploitation. Sometimes they worked in slave conditions and without redress; but they did get a salary and in spite of the shameful exploitation they suffered, they were still better off than they would be back home in Mexico.
“This was the scene and the new phenomenon I came to experience for the first time when I arrived in the Ulysses community of 1966. Hundreds of Mexican migrant workers came in each spring. They arrived in old beat-up cars of every make and shape, whole families—often as many as ten/twelve in a family; mostly young parents with infants, pre-school and primary school age children. Often they would be forced to live in their old cars. If they were lucky they might be employed by a farmer who provided one-room shacks out on the farms where they worked from sun-up to sun-down. All members of the family, even the very small, would spend their days in the fields, and this during the hottest time of the year in un-shaded conditions and temperatures almost continuously around or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Needless to say, to one who had up to that time seen only American affluence, this was quite a shock. So almost immediately on my arrival in Ulysses I felt compelled to do something about this social ill as it existed within the confines of my parish. Right away I saw there was little I could do alone – I would have to organize a parish effort, engaging all the parishioners as much as possible. Vatican II had just closed and one of the most important and most discussed directives from the Council was that of Lay Participation in parish life – in spiritual and material matters, and the Parish Council was the vehicle suggested by Vatican II to achieve lay participation. So in the Parish Council I saw a valuable weapon by which we, as a parish, could mobilize our parish against the social ill in our midst.”
The parish council approached the other denominations in the community and together formed Ulysses Concerned Citizens. First on the agenda was establishing a nursery and day care center for the children of migrant workers. Such a facility was necessary because usually both migrant parents worked in the fields and too often the children were left without supervision in trucks and cars parked in the hot sun at the edge of the fields.
Initially, this day care center, and a second day care center at Johnson in Stanton County, was staffed in the summer months by religious Sisters. Catholic Social Service supported these facilities with funding, paying the Sisters who had given up their summer vacations after teaching all year.
Volunteers came and cooked meals for the children. Cots and cribs were donated so the children had a place to nap. The children were picked up each morning; bathed and fed and cared for throughout the day and returned each evening.
In the summer of 1970, two students from the University of Kansas were hired to work with the Health Department in Ulysses testing for anemia and malnutrition. The students were Bob Maxwell, a sophomore medical student, and Sally Williams, a junior nursing student. They worked under the supervision of Dr. Marshall Brewer at the clinic. This program proved to be very successful, and the Health Department was satisfied with the work that was accomplished. Catholic Social Service financially supported these efforts.
Then later that same year, Father Groome requested a full-time social worker who could be a liaison to the migrants and coordinate various programs available to them. Catholic Social Service hired Jan Konrade, a social worker and a member of Mary, Queen of Peace parish.
“The purpose of the program was to assist migrant workers and their families with their health concerns,” recalled Janice Konrade, writing her recollections on Aug. 20, 2014. “We worked to resolve problems they encountered and tried to assure the health and safety of the workers, their families – children and infants.
“As far as I remember the office was located at Mary Queen of Peace in Ulysses. There were many services provided out of that parish.
“We had child care and a nursery for children of the workers so they did not have to take the children and babies into the fields with them while they worked.”
There were three migrant camps outside Ulysses, mostly without indoor plumbing. The camp outside Johnson was made up of converted boxcars.
“We visited the Migrant Camps providing families with mattresses and curtains for their homes, which were simply cement cubicles in which they lived, having only a mattress on the bare ground for sleeping. We tried to encourage health practices and cleanliness, which was very difficult considering the open latrines and outdoor showers they used at the camp.
“We provided used clothing, bedding and household items. We dispensed food items and commodities to the migrant families. We taught nutrition and cooking classes so they would use the commodities.
“We also assisted families with learning the English language, studying to take their driver’s license tests, and helped with their naturalization efforts.
“We provided child care--food, learning and recreational activities for children in the 4-H building at the fair grounds so they would be able to stay out of the fields. We visited Migrant Camps, trying to make sure the crew bosses were giving the workers the money that was due them. We did lots of home visits related to neglect, lice, health problems, getting children to medical and dental appointments; and teaching healthcare.
“There were a good number of people who worked in all the different areas of the program. Most of these people were volunteers from the community, and many were from the Ulysses parish. The program also included a VISTA volunteer couple and Catholic Extension volunteers.
“Father Bernard Groome as pastor was very involved both with the families and with problem solving for situations that arose with the workers and their families.”
Konrade worked in the program 1970 and 1971. She set up the summer program before resigning her position to start a family. Father Groome reported to the CSS Board of Directors that “Mrs. Konrade has handled her position well and has been successful in bringing groups and interests of people together. The coordination that she has done will go on now without her.”
Konrade’s work far exceeded coordinating the work of people with other agencies. She was directly involved in a school tutoring program for 6th, 7th,and 8th graders, an Adult Education Program, teaching the Basic Education III classes and English class for Spanish speaking people, serving as a counselor for a group of four New York City girls (Catholic Extension Volunteers), teaching two classes of the Community Preschool, setting up the summer migrant programs which consist of the migrant nursery and Day Care Center, as well as the afternoon recreation program; and home visits. She took people to the doctor, helped families apply for welfare or commodities, recruited women for commodities cooking classes, kept children up-to-date on their immunizations, and distributed clothing to needy families. Projects during the year she was involved with included Christmas toy distribution, helping people with income tax returns, and recruiting children for the summer community swimming program.
“This was my first experience in working with people in such severe destitute poverty,” Konrade stated, “Those impressions have stayed with me over the years.”
Janice Weber, a college student, was hired to replace Mrs. Konrade to coordinate the programs. The greater amount of the work, however, was accomplished by local volunteers.
The Migrant Worker Program continued into the early 1970s. Workers began to find full-time employment on farms in the area, migration ceased, and the families put down roots in the Ulysses community.
During the program, day care centers were established for the children of migrant workers not only in Ulysses and Johnson, but also in Hugoton, Satanta, and Sublette. Funding for these facilities and staff was provided by Catholic Social Service, the Erhart Estate in Elkhart, and with diocesan Human Development Funds.
Jan Konrade, and her husband Reg, are directors of the Family Life Office in the Diocese of Salina. They have a priest-son, Father Jarrett Konrade, who was ordained May 28, 2005 by Bishop Paul S. Coakley at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Salina.