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Albany Associates Care for Farmworkers in Florida

Just before Easter, two Associates of the Sisters of the Holy Names completed a project to gather hundreds of long-sleeved shirts to protect migrant workers in Florida from agricultural health hazards.

Most people don’t wear long sleeves in Florida because of the warm weather, but Sharon and Chuck Dunham - both Associates from Albany, NY - say local farmworkers desperately need them to limit dangers including burns from liquid and wind-borne chemical pesticides. Working with another couple at their “snowbird” home parish in New Smyrna Beach, FL, the Dunhams dedicated themselves throughout Lent to collecting, purchasing, sorting and folding 1,300 shirts.

The project began with a challenge from the Diocese of Orlando, which Father Patrick Quinn of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in New Smyrna Beach was quick to accept and share with the parish’s Human Ministry team. Sharon and Chuck teamed up with another couple to organize the shirt-collection effort. They decorated giant cardboard boxes with wrapping paper and placed them at strategic collection points in the church and parish center. It didn’t take long before the boxes were overflowing.

“I tell you, something like this you do have to work at. You can’t just let the clothes pile up and think you’ll deal with it all at the end,” Sharon said. “Twice a week, we would meet to sort them, because there were shirts for both men and women, and fold them.” A number of parishioners who didn’t own any long-sleeved garments donated cash, which the Human Ministry team used to shop for shirts at second-hand clothing stores.

Sister Bea Hall in Albany, where the Dunhams live during the non-winter months, called the project a great example of practical caring and taking action "where you are, with what you have." The couple has never allowed distance to be a barrier, she added. When they lived far north of Albany, they would make the 5-hour round trip to participate in gatherings with other Associates and the Sisters.

The two Associates were in for a shock when they delivered the shirts to a tiny building that serves as a resource center for migrant workers in nearby Pierson, FL, an area that supplies much of the U.S. demand for ferns for floral arrangements. “I was pretty taken aback,” Sharon said. “There were, I think, two small plastic bags of clothing and a case and a half of beans. That's all they had for resources, and people were lined up outside waiting for help.”

The Dunhams wanted to share their story because the project would be easy for others to duplicate in their own communities. “It worked out very well. It was something that was doable. We didn't have to have money or anything. The parish put it in the bulletin, that's all,” Sharon said. “Sometimes you want to do something, but you don’t know what you can do. This was simple.”

In the photo: Chuck Dunham (at left) delivers bags of shirts to the migrant worker resource center in Pierson, FL along with fellow parish member Bob Hellmann (center) and the resource center manager.