Staff Report

One morning in 1980 as his parents picked strawberries, 3-year-old Heriberto “Eddie” Torres Jr. waited at their car. The car caught fire, and Eddie struggled to pull his dog Bobo out of danger. Eddie was critically burned.

The incident highlighted a problem that plagued Florida farm communities: Farm workers took their children into the fields for lack of an affordable alternative. Within a year, Dover had its alternative – a child-care center operated for low-income farm workers by Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA).

This fall, RCMA is celebrating its 50th birthday. It has grown into a $65 million nonprofit corporation, operating 69 child-care centers and three charter schools in 21 Florida counties.

RCMA has followed no master plan for expansion. Instead, it has tried to help whenever someone asked, whether they were farmers, nuns, social workers, tomato pickers or child-welfare agencies.

“Everywhere we opened a center, somebody had invited us,” said Barbara Mainster who presided over the growth as RCMA’s executive director.

Founded by Mennonites south of Miami, RCMA struggled to fill its first two centers. RCMA managers eventually realized that the farm workers would only entrust their babies to caregivers from their own culture. So RCMA began hiring farm-working moms and training them for child care. The change created a lasting bond with the farm-worker community.

RCMA’s reputation spread as farm workers headed north each summer to harvest vegetables in Ohio, and berries and cherries in Michigan.

In Tampa, a tenacious nun named Maureen Smith persuaded the Hillsborough County Commission to let her use a vacant building that had been the dressing room of an outdoor theater in Ruskin. RCMA opened a center there. Sister Maureen also facilitated RCMA’s arrival in Dover to a building that later became a feed store.

Today, RCMA’s largest presence is around Tampa Bay, where it operates two charter schools and 18 child-care centers. Many are clustered in southern and eastern Hillsborough County. The charter schools share a campus in Wimauma, a hub of Hillsborough’s Hispanic farm-working population.

In Dover, Eddie gradually recovered from his burns. The new RCMA center hired his mother Norma as a teacher.

Today, the center fills up with 88 children every November. Its waiting lists are RCMA’s longest. So a block away, RCMA is building a $3 million child-care center that will accommodate an additional 136 children. Visit www.rcma.org.