Tending to cultural crossroads in rural immigrant communities

Nov. 5, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

Sister Janice Thome at a local Garden City school. Thome teaches several classes, including a teen parenting class at the Garden City alternative high school. (Photo by Peggy Lowe, Harvest Public Media)

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Immigrant communities have sprung up around the meatpacking plants in rural towns like Garden City, Kan. While change hasn't been easy, city leaders have built a strong grassroots network supporting and embracing the town’s cultural evolution.

Sister Janice Thome’s office is a 2003 brown Ford Focus with a backseat piled high with paperwork and a prayer book.

Thome puts 125,000 miles a year on this car, picking up boxes from the food pantry, finding a mattress for a newcomer, delivering a sick soul to a doctor’s appointment. All the while, she fields emergency calls on her flip phone, responding to her mission to serve the poor of Garden City, out on the plains of southwest Kansas.

This day, Thome is teaching her teen parenting class at the alternative high school.

“Crying is your baby’s way of communicating,” Thome said, launching into a lesson and offering a litany of services the teenagers may seek, like help with infant formula, in-home care or warm clothes for their babies.

Thome, 68, is no stranger to serving the less fortunate after 52 years as a Dominican Order of Peace nun. But she said she has never seen a response to the poor like in this meatpacking town that has been coping with an influx of immigrants for decades.

“That’s the kind of the ambiance that we walked into when I came in 1996,” Thome said. “This whole set of people who say, ‘OK, who’s here is here and these are their needs and what can we do to answer them?’”

Photo by Peggy Lowe, Harvest Public Media

Sister Janice Thome works in her “office,” a 2003 Ford Focus, as she helps a Garden City resident get help with a utility bill.

Photo by Peggy Lowe, Harvest Public Media

Nestor Guevara, 17, attends Sister Janice Thome’s teen parenting class. Guevara has a five-month-old son, Emmanuel, and is glad to be living in Garden City.

Since 1980, when the first meatpacking plant was built in Garden City, immigrants and refugees have streamed into town, lured here by the promise of steady – if brutally hard – work and a better life. Fueled by the cattle feedlots surrounding Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal, companies built their huge beef factories out here, employing thousands with better than minimum wages.

These were the first rural small towns to experience the crush of non-English speaking newcomers, said Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropologist and author of “Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America.”

“They didn’t really have any exemplars that they could look to for ‘How do we do this? How do we do that?’ ” Stull said. “They sort of built the airplane while they were in the air and they built a pretty good plane.”

But unlike many of the Midwestern meatpacking towns who have struggled with the immigrant influx, Garden City embraced its change from a white cow-town to a cultural crossroads.

As newcomers doubled the population to roughly 30,000 over the last 30 years, Garden City made a collective community decision to welcome them. The town has built a well-organized network of social services offering English classes, food banks, job help, shelters and a refugee center.

And while other towns have looked to Garden City as a model, no other communities have dealt with the cultural change as well as Garden City has, Stull said.

A better life over a longer stay

The more-established families, who are U.S. citizens and stay put for several years, can do well here, thanks to the many community and faith services as well as a responsive school district.

Thome got a good report when she stopped in to visit 16-year-old Elizabeth Hernandez recently, where the living room wall has pictures of her First Communion, her brothers’ sports awards and a plaque with a Tyson logo marking her father’s first five years at the beef plant outside town.

Elizabeth’s father has worked at “la planta” for 16 years, coming here from Mexico before the family arrived 10 years ago, she said, and where he works lots of overtime. Her mother works in the kitchen at the high school.

Elizabeth and her mother, Maria, tell Thome they are proud of the girl’s straight A’s in school, her future plans to study teaching or business at Kansas State University and her plans for her quinceañera, which will be back home in Mexico. She misses her relatives there, but Elizabeth said she prefers it here.

“It’s good because you get lots of opportunities here instead of over there,” she said. “I mean, like, you study and you have goals to meet.”

Better wages, but poverty is pervasive

Despite all the services the local social network provides, there are problems endemic to any place with lots of workers who make low wages. The starting pay at the Tyson plant in nearby Holcomb, Kan., is $13.50 an hour – better than a job at say, Walmart, for $7 an hour. But if a parent with three children takes home roughly $25,000 annually, that’s still below the federal poverty line for a family of five.

The Tyson plant employs 3,400 people, with the top wage $20 an hour for maintenance workers, said Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesman. Help wanted ads in the local paper promise medical, dental and vision insurance, paid vacation and holidays and a 401(k) plan.

A majority of “team members,” as Tyson calls them, are Hispanic, followed by Asian and blacks, Mickelson said.

In a press release from August, proclaiming “chicken surges to record earnings and beef rebounds,” Tyson reported record sales of $8.7 billion for the third quarter of this year.

When asked if Tyson provides assistance to the community, Mickelson responded via email the company and its employees pledged $220,000 to the Finney County United Way last year.

Feeding the hungry here often falls to the Garden City Unified School District 457, where three-quarters of the students get free or reduced-price lunch. The district provides two meals a day and sends supplies home in backpacks for use on the weekend, with help provided by the Kansas Food Bank, said Janie Perkins, the district’s coordinator of supplemental services.

Photo by Peggy Lowe, Harvest Public Media

A staffer at the Garden City Unified School District 457 helps unload the weekly shipment from the Kansas Food Bank.

Photo by Peggy Lowe, Harvest Public Media

Two students in a “newcomer” class at Florence Wilson Elementary School in Garden City, a Somali (left), and a Hispanic.

Assistance is also needed away from school, as requests for food stamps in Finney County are up 230 percent in the last five years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The school district, designated as “minority majority” status because 76.8 percent of the students are minorities, have kids who are Hispanic, Burmese, Somali, Ethiopian or are from another ten countries. Documents are printed in several languages and signs at the district offices are printed in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Newcomer classes operate in the elementary, middle and high schools, which separate the children from the rest of their school temporarily so they can assimilate into their new lives. Since most of the Somali and Burmese children were born in refugee camps, they’ve never seen basic plumbing, let alone a pencil, Perkins said. Parents often come to school and express confusion at items in their new life, like a washer and dryer, she said.

In teacher Kay Thompson’s newcomer class at Florence Wilson Elementary School, 14 kids speak four languages – Spanish, Somali, Burmese and Vietnamese. Thompson said she starts each year with the basic school terms.

“Simple directions that they will need in a classroom: How to put away a book. What is the pencil? What is the notebook?” she said. “I’ll say, ‘go to the door.’ They don’t know what the door is.”

A housing challenge

The city, which first experienced a large refugee population when the Vietnamese moved here in the early 1980s to work in the plants, is now seeing a surge of Burmese refugees.

Velia Mendoza, coordinator of the Garden City Community Refugee Program, had about 150 Burmese clients when she started there in 2009. Now, she helps approximately 400 refugees with cash, food, medical, language skills and job assistance.

“Once they heard about us they just kept coming and coming,” Mendoza said. “All of the ones here are calling relatives in Burma.”

Still, one of the services in short supply is housing, thanks to the attraction of the city’s plentiful jobs. Thome said it is her top challenge, and she keeps a running tab on the many mobile home parks and run-down motels on the outskirts of the city, some near the dusty cattle feedlots that supply animals to Tyson.

The school district identified 341 homeless students last year – more than 4 percent of the student body and up from 43 in 2007. Those kids often land with a family member, where two families can be bunched up together in an apartment. Thome has delivered used mattresses that are pushed up against the walls for space during daytime hours.

The city’s well-connected social services network has its roots in the early 1980s. Levita Rohlman, director of the Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Services, has been in Garden City since the 1970s and she and other city leaders watched as the first Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodians migrated here.

Seeing so many people sleeping in riverbeds and roadside shelters, struggling for housing and food in a new country, galvanized the local ministerial alliance, she said. The group made a conscious and Christian decision, she said.

“The vision was: we have these people here. Are we going to accept them as a blessing or are we going to consider them a curse?” Rohlman said.

‘The world grows here’

Social services groups here meet quarterly with the school district and the Garden City Cultural Relations Board.

“We talk about what we can do to help them,” said the school district’s Perkins, who is also a former mayor. “They learn from us, we learn from them. I just think it makes our community better.”

Garden City’s commitment to its children is recognized in the bronze statues of kids scattered around Garden City, some funded by locals. A large piece, placed at the city’s busiest intersection, shows children of five different cultures, playing in a pond.

When the city was trying to raise the $28,000 for the large artwork back in 2000, city leaders asked Tyson to contribute. The company turned down the request. Mickelson responded that it “came at a time when our beef business was not making money, resulting in some restrictions on major gifts to local projects.”

As Tyson continues to recruit Burmese refugees here, they will be met as Garden City always greets its newest citizens. After all, the city’s logo is a yucca with a rainbow of colors signifying its many cultures, along with its motto, “The world grows here.”

This project was reported with assistance from the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s “Immigration in the Heartland” fellowship.