Cross country search for community solutions leads to Marco
Dafna Michaelson's 50 in 52 Journey leads ...
MARCO ISLAND — A lottery ticket and the game of “what would you do if you won?” led to a nationwide journey for Dafna Michaelson, of Denver.
The inspiration for a journey to change the community she lives in began more than 40 years ago for Karen Saeks, of Marco Island, when a basket of food from an anonymous giver was left on her doorstep as a child.
Saeks’ and Michaelson’s paths crossed this April, leading Michaelson to Marco on Friday.
If Michaelson won the lottery, she said she would travel across the country to learn what it means to be a community, what each community needs and what is or could be done to fill those needs.
“I woke up the next day and I hadn’t won the lottery,” Michaelson said.
But she quit her job as the director of volunteers at Denver Health anyway, cashed in her 401k, and on a leap of faith, began her journey in October 2008.
Posting videos, photos and requests for information on social networking Web sites, including You Tube, Facebook and Twitter, Michaelson received nationwide nominations of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” to meet the specific needs of their community.
She called the adventure the “50 in 52 Journey,” as she plans to visit 50 states in 52 weeks interviewing several people in each state.
Islander Cheryl Meuller visited Michaelson’s Web site and nominated Saeks, president of Bedtime Bundles, a nonprofit which helps to provide necessities to migrant farm workers.
The migrant workers come to Collier County every fall with little more than the clothes on their backs, Saeks said. They leave in late spring, with little more than what they came with, to farm in the Carolinas and farther north.
Michaelson was on her 15th state when she came to Florida. Among her stops were Tampa and Miami. By Saturday morning, she was off to South Dakota, after having five interviews in about 48 hours in Florida.
Michaelson said she hopes to pick four social issues at the end of her year-long journey, unifying the people nationwide working on similar causes.
“It will be like a match.com for social issues and non-profits,” Michaelson said. Saeks learned of the need among migrant farmers in 2005 when serving as a volunteer at Manatee Elementary School.
Principal Karen Riddle and several teachers went to 6L Farms to deliver Christmas presents.
“They were appalled by the conditions,” Saeks said.
Carmen Fontdevila, the liaison between home and school for migrant workers and their families, introduced Saeks to Camp Hacienda, on U.S. 41 East.
“They come in on buses or trucks carrying only what can fit on their lap. When they leave the camp, it is the same thing. All of their belongings are burned, the trailers they lived in are fumigated and the next round of workers and families are brought in,” Saeks said.
“I’ve never in my life seen so many sad, long-faced children,” Saeks said, adding again for emphasis “in my life.”
“I found out they were hungry.”
Memories of the Thanksgiving basket, shaped like a Pilgrim’s shoe, which was left anonymously on her doorstep in the 1950s filled Saeks’ mind. She thought of all the items given to her while her mother struggled to work two or three jobs and raise three children after their father abandoned them.
Then, Saeks said she got an idea.
She thought of the Christmas bedtime bundles made in Cincinnati, Saek’s former hometown, for women in an abused shelter.
“We had to take it so much further because the needs were very specific here,” she said.
“It felt incredible when those baskets were left, to think that someone cared enough to do something for us,” Saeks said.
Now, working out of the garage of her South Beach Terrace condo on Marco Island, Saeks prepares pillow cases filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, wet wipes, a sweatshirt, a small pillow, a blanket, a towel, socks, underwear, a teddy bear and a book.
“It’s amazing what will fit in there,” said Jessica Barron, adding that the bundle will fit on the farm workers’ laps when they leave.
“I’m amazed at the way Karen has been able to engage the community,” said Judy Kouhi, a volunteer with Saeks.
Bread is delivered daily from all three Marco grocery stores to the federally operated day care center at 6L Farms. A different church, each representing a different denomination, has a set delivery day six out of the seven days of the week. On Sunday, Fifth Third Bank delivers the bread.
Bedtime Bundles’ volunteers, of which there are 30 steady contributors, say they have had their challenges and learning experiences.
Among them are the politics and the social issues that are driving the need among migrant farm workers.
“The first time I went to Publix seeking support, I had my armor on. But I didn’t need it. The Island has been very supportive,” said Marilyn Seffan.
Saeks spoke of “Lucy,” a former migrant worker who lives in a 6L camp with her husband, a farmer.
“Her papers have been in the works with the Bureau of Immigration since August 1999. They’re working on 1995,” Saeks said.
“There are a lot of nods and winks … Don’t you think it’s by design? This isn’t a popular time for the trend of providing more people with more things,” said Laura Mishkin, a volunteer with Bedtime Bundles.
“I’m more confused than ever. Are we helping? Are we contributing to the problem?” Kouhi pondered.
“Kids are kids. You have to take care of them,” Meuller answered.
Saeks said she would like to see a similar program to help migrant workers nationally. The educational challenges caused by the children moving in the middle of school years and related issues are affecting farming communities nationwide.
Michaelson’s journey to Marco Island and Naples ended with a tour of 6L Farms. She witnessed the conditions Saeks described of trailers with several families cramped into each, broken windows, no beds nor other furnishings, appliances scarce, utilities such as water and electric limited, heat and air-conditioning, luxuries beyond their means.
What she didn’t witness were the children’s long faces at the federally operated day care center at 6L or in the housing areas where Bianca, 11, lives.
“What do you think when you see Karen coming?” Michaelson asked Bianca.
“I just want to hug her,” Bianca said as she smiled with her arms outstretched to hug Saeks.
Bianca, fluent in English and Spanish, served as an interpreter for the tour with Michaelson.
“Karen is our angel. She is an angel for my people, the Mexicans,” Lucy added, speaking this statement in English without Bianca’s translation.
Michaelson described her journey thus far, with 35 states yet to go.
“I don’t have to watch the stock market plummet or the wars around the world. I can watch people taking control of their community … It’s been amazing to see all the ways a person can help another person.”
To learn more about Bedtime Bundles contact Karen Saeks at 398-5179 or Karen@bedtimebundles.org.
To keep up on the adventures of Dafna Michaelson visit 50in52journey.com.