Son of migrant worker dreams outside the field

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 4, 2013 

Pablo Caballero Jr. sits for a portrait at his home on St. Helena on Thursday, Aug. 8. Pablo is a recent graduate from Beaufort High School and is the first student in South Carolina to graduate from high school through the migrant education program.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

Pablo Caballero Jr.'s story is too rare.

He is the son of a migrant worker on St. Helena Island who managed to graduate this spring from Beaufort High School and is now enrolled at the Technical College of the Lowcountry.

He is thought to be South Carolina's first migrant student in six years to earn a high school diploma.

Statewide, only six of the 1,439 migrant students enrolled in the 2011-12 school year were high school seniors, and none earned a diploma.

Of the 275 migrant children served by the Beaufort County School District last school year, 175 were between the ages of 16 and 21 and not in school. They received lessons in life skills, farm safety, math and English during the evening or weekends.

The deck is stacked against the children of migrants. Their lives are transient. By moving up the coast with the crops, it is difficult for students to finish a grade. Their parents often do not speak English. Most eventually feel a stronger pull from the instant money of the field than the high school classroom, where they may be ill at ease and ill prepared to succeed.

Pablo Caballero Jr. benefited from a confluence of rare factors.

First comes the push of his father, a native of Mexico who became an American citizen but was married and began a family in Mexico. It took him nearly 13 years to bring his family with him to St. Helena Island, where he has worked since 1983, primarily picking tomatoes. The father's drive to unite the family and to offer his children a brighter future through education has paid off. He also is among the few to get year-round farm work on St. Helena, limiting his family's travels following crops. As a result, St. Helena has been Pablo's home for nearly five years.

The story of Pablo allows us to look at what his hometown offers for the thousands of migrant workers who come through the county each year, mostly in June and July.

We find schooling available to children. The federal Migrant Education Program was established in 1966 to support state efforts to educate migrant children from ages 5 to 21. School buses pick up most of the children from their migrant-worker camps for a special school at St. Helena Elementary. They are taught lessons and get three meals a day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They also get free dental and health care.

Federal, state and local governments are not the only ones involved.

We think of two women -- Evelyn Jones and Dru Graves -- who in 1963 spearheaded social and religious services for migrant workers as part of the Baptist Church of Beaufort. Their actions were brave and unusual for a time when conditions for migrant workers were much harsher.

We think also of Sisters Sheila Byrne and Stella Breen who recently retired after 26 years of providing social and religious services through the Franciscan Center on St. Helena. That included educational help for migrant families.

We'd like to think that there is a safety net here, with human services and educational opportunity available so that against all odds there can be more Pablos.

Pablo teaches his siblings that they, too, can do it. But what does it teach other students in Beaufort County, who are struggling in school and dropping out when the deck is not so stacked against them?

We hope it teaches all students that great opportunity is at their fingertips, but they have to have the drive to grab it.

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