We are only halfway through January but there are sights and sounds that remind us spring will be on its way in a few short weeks.
The first clue is having bright green welcome kits, freshly topped up and dropped off on our porch by neighbours who have been filling them over the past few weeks. Last year at this time the kits started arriving daily, to be organized later for delivery according to farm and arrival dates.
The idea of welcome kits for migrant farmworkers started from a simple observation in 2008, when my friend Jodie Godwin and I travelled to Jamaica to visit our neighbours who work on farms near our homes in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It was my second trip, and Jodie’s first. We stayed with the farmworkers’ families, travelling the length of the island, visiting churches and schools along the way. Our memorable visits with their families led to a greater understanding of the challenges they face while working here on the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
Every winter and spring farmworkers arrive, often very late at night, after an exhausting day or more of travel. Meals are no longer provided on flights. Some employers understand this and supply bread, eggs, peanut butter and a few other essentials for a light meal to get them through. Some arrivals, however, have to wait until the following day to go to the bank, buy groceries and finally start cooking their first meal by the afternoon. When we realized how long friends on neighbouring farms had to wait to get a proper meal, a few friends began to provide sandwiches, snacks and water.
About seven years ago the welcome kit idea took root when we distributed bright green bags at a table at the Newcomers Club. The bags quickly disappeared and returned in January and February, filled to brimming by people new to the area and eager to participate.
Since then, the bags have proven to be a tangible and practical way to show appreciation to farmworkers. They have helped to create a sense of belonging with all participants, both giver and receiver, resulting in vibrant, vital connections that we all benefit from.
Easy and inexpensive to pack, they are a fun way for friends, families, and community groups to express gratitude. A thank-you note or child’s drawing adds a personal touch that many take home to share with their families. Some of the welcome posters made by children are still there to brighten walls in their bunk houses years later.
Welcoming farmworkers is entirely a grassroots initiative. The number of kits provided to workers is determined by the involvement of the local community. We do not rely on outside grants or funding.
Those who are unable to pack a kit or are out of town for the winter months can send an e-transfer and those donations are used to buy items in bulk. We turn up the reggae as volunteers gather to pack, a fun time to get to know each other and chase away the winter blues.
The goal is to deliver kits to the first 500 Caribbean workers as the men and women arrive. Due to growing interest and support in 2022 we were able to distribute a little more than 700 kits. When men and women from Barbados arrived in December to work at Vintage Hotels we were able to provide a warm welcome during their first experience with the Canadian cold.
The needs of Spanish-speaking farmworkers are served by Father Antonio Illas and his wife Cela, who organize the Migrant Workers Outreach Project, an initiative begun by the Anglican diocese more than 15 years ago. We often share resources and learn from each other’s experiences to better serve the needs on the farms.
A list of contents for kits can be found on the Niagara Workers Welcome website. Bags to be filled can be picked up at Sweets & Swirls Cafe and Applewood Hollow Bed and Breakfast, 2230 Four Mile Creek Rd.
Completed welcome kits can be dropped off at the same locations. The Farmworker Hub will open its doors for drop-offs on Tuesday morning, March 14. Farm owners may also pick up kits for their Caribbean employees on this date upon arrangement. The hub is located at 1570 Niagara Stone Rd., back door of Cornerstone campus with the heart logo.
If you cannot pack a kit but would like to be a part of a warm welcome, a donation of $25 will help provide the contents of a welcome kit for one farmworker. For more information visit the website at www.workerswelcomeniagara.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.