1970s Migrant Project formed special bonds, memories for teachers

It was the summer of 1967.

Former members of the Sodus Migrant Project gathered at Reunion 2011. They are, from left: Rita Ricardo Rodgers ’71; Nancy Jean Eick Labbe ’71, M ’95, CAS ’04; Nancy Blanchard Ibbs Soules ’69; Phil Toner ’67; Professor Emeritus Harry Nash; Lorraine B. Nash; Gail Shelton Tooker ’72; Maureen McGuire Parker ’70; Joann VanKirk Toner ’68 and Karen Visconti Holliday ’71.

The nearby Sodus Central School District found itself home to 320 migrant children, whose families worked the local farms and fruit orchards.

Few understood English, and the fluctuations in classroom size placed tremendous pressure on the regular staff.

Oswego Professor Emeritus of Elementary Education Harry Nash was contacted by his department chair with a somewhat unusual request: Recruit education majors to ride a bus to Sodus, stay the day and work with the children, and assist the full-time staff. For $25 a day, many Oswego students took Nash up on the offer.

In 1968, the program was redesigned to offer course credit and Nash was placed in charge of the newly created Sodus Migrant Project.

Nash and several of his former students in the project gathered to share some of their memories and experiences during Reunion 2011.

“With the migrant children, the classrooms were bulging at the seams,” said Nancy Jean Eick Labbe ’71, M ’95, CAS ’04, one of the dozens of elementary and secondary education majors who took part in the project from 1968 until 1972. Classrooms often had 36 or more children assigned to a single teacher.

“They would have not gotten the help they were provided if the college students weren’t there,” Nash said.

The hardest part for the students came when they developed a connection with the children for months, only to have them vanish, their families having moved on to another job.

“It was heartbreaking,” Gail Shelton Tooker ’72 said. “Around Christmastime I learned that the mother of one of the families had died when they moved back to Florida. I gathered up all these toys and sent them down. It got returned to me. I never learned what happened.”

SUNY Oswego education majors helped teach children of migrant farmworkers during the 1960s and 1970s through the Sodus Migrant Project.

After 1972, Nash left the project, in part because of the tremendous emotional ups and downs that encompassed teaching such a dedicated group of students. It continued for one more year in 1973 before disbanding.

“It was probably one of the better learning experiences I’ve ever been involved with,” Nash said.

Keith Edelman ’10

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