On St. Helena Island, volunteers prepare for arrival of migrant workers

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.comMay 26, 2012 

Sister Sheila Byrne sat with her hands folded in her lap looking up at three teenage boys. Her wide smile and gentle Irish accent exude warmth and compassion, but her manner -- and the way her blue eyes widen and narrow -- gives the distinct impression of a no-nonsense woman.

"And all three of you are getting As and Bs in school, aren't you?" Byrne, 87, asked.

The boys, ages 15 and 16, nodded vigorously as if to say they'd rather not find out how she'd react if their grades were anything less.

That manner works just as well on adults.

It was key to bring about 50 volunteers to the Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island Saturday to pack boxes with cereal, grits, cooking oil, beans, canned vegetables and toiletries for use by the 1,500 migrant farm workers expected to fill 10 camps in the area in the next couple of weeks. Volunteers managed to put together 400 boxes for the summer season in just under an hour.

The workers travel up and down the Atlantic coast from Florida to South Carolina, following the crops and picking watermelon, tomatoes and other produce. They usually visit Beaufort County two or three times in a summer, Byrne said.

Matt Baas, who helped organize the event, has been volunteering with Byrne and fellow nun Sister Stella Breen for eight years at the center at 85 Mattis Road. In that time, Baas said he's witnessed the pair's ability to gather volunteers and get the most out of them.

"They're like CEOs," he said.

The women currently work with 150 volunteers to repair houses, coordinate clothing donations, provide financial aid, tutor children and teach English to Hispanic and Latino community members. They also run a thrift store and oversee volunteer education programs. Byrne and Breen also help migrants become U.S. citizens.

The need to help migrant workers became apparent the first summer they arrived on St. Helena 25 years ago, Byrne said. The workers, she said, generally don't get paid until they've worked a week and the care packages are meant to tide them over until that first payday.

The packages aren't handouts, Byrne said.

"All these migrants are here with working visas," she said. "These are our new neighbors and this is how we welcome them."

The Franciscan Center's work with migrant workers is based on an order from the bishop that came when the sisters arrived a quarter century ago: "Be obedient to the ministry." For Byrne, that meant finding ways to serve northern Beaufort County through listening to what residents said they needed.

"... we weren't to make up needs for the community," she said. "They were to guide us. We weren't to guide them."

Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_CrimeNOB

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