The Immokalee Foundation is shaping the landscape of Immokalee

There are few places as polarizing as Immokalee. One of the largest farmworker communities in the nation, Immokalee’s population swells in the winter to nearly 40,000 as migrant laborers work the tomato, pepper and citrus fields, but as the sweltering months arrive and Southwest Florida farms go into their summer hibernation, Immokalee’s population dwindles to around 20,000 as workers migrate north in search of work. The identity of the town is largely cyclical, ebbing and flowing with the seasons, making Immokalee an oxymoron, a permanent migrant community.

26 81 - photographed by Joshua Dudley Greer - Immokalee

   The Seminole word for ‘my home,’ the town has become a gateway to the American Dream. Largely a population of Latin American and Caribbean transplants that have come to America in search of a better life for themselves and their children, Immokalee is often the first town many migrants come to as they begin their lives in America. But though Immokalee has become a place of hope for so many, to the outside population looking in, there is often a sense of misunderstanding.

26 81 - photography book of Immokalee - photog by Joshua Dudley Greer   “More often than not Immokalee is in the news for all the wrong reasons, “ says Joe Zednik, brainchild behind the fine art photography book 26°81° [Poccuo]. “The children realize this portrayal is negative, so I wanted to do something that shows Immokalee as a place of community and home.” Thus 26°81° (left) was born.

   Photographed by Ohio-based photographer Joshua Dudley Greer, the book is stark and raw, full pages of the life that is Immokalee. It does not pull any punches; does not frost the edges with Photoshop. These are real images of the people who live in Immokalee, the people who are slicing out their version of the American Dream, the new face of a story as old as the country itself, the next generation of the American immigration story.

   The story told is that of community and landscape. The landscape, the land of Immokalee which is referenced by the title with its latitudinal and longitudinal lines, is as much the story of the people as it is a geographical locale. Smack dab in the middle of nowhere, 35-miles east of Naples in the heart of Florida’s breadbasket, Immokalee is a fertile patchwork of farms and citrus orchards, where work in the field is a way of life. The crops reared are shipped all across the country, off to the frigid northern reaches in the dead of snow-packed winter. The people of Immokalee are as much a part of the land as the plants they sow; their perspiration cares for the produce piled high in harshly lit supermarkets; their sacrifice is unseen in the chalk written on the restaurants’ specials board.

 26 81 photography book of Immokalee

  “People don’t normally ask where their produce is grown,” says Joshua Dudley Greer, photographer of 26°81°. “This is where it is grown. These people kind of provide for all of us. But this is not just the story of the migrant worker, this is the story of America, of sacrifice and perseverance.”

   Primarily a landscape photographer, and since central Florida’s landscape is about as striking as a sheet of paper, Greer wanted to encapsulate the community’s relationship with the landscape, portray how though the tie between land and people may seem inescapable, the hardships endured are for the next generation. “This is the American story,” says Greer. Common themes play through the book. Cars play a prominent role, both as means of status, but also as a metaphor for the migrant experience; a means of mobility.

 

Continued on page 2

 

To get involved with The Immokalee Foundation, please visit their website: immokaleefoundation.org

 

To get the book 26°81°, check out the website here: 26-81.com

 

   26°81° was conceived to show Immokalee as more than just a blip in the map, but a place where hope and sacrifice have commingled to create a vibrant community. Immokalee has come to represent a place of opportunity, with education as the means of success. This is where The Immokalee Foundation (TIF) steps in. Celebrating 20 years of making a difference in the community in 2011, TIF operates an array of programs that focus on the betterment of the community by helping children realize their hopes and goals through early-childhood literacy training, educational mentorship, college and vocational preparation, and out-of-classroom opportunities for social, civic and academic growth. “Education is the most important thing we can provide for the youth,” says Zednik, TIF board member and chair of the Charity Classic Celebration. “It is a pathway to success.”

26 81 photographic book of Immokalee - photographed by Joshua Dudley Greer - The Immokalee Foundation

   Seven core programs make up TIF’s mission, all with a cornerstone in education: Take Stock In Children; Vocational Success; College Success; Direct Scholarships; The First Tee of Naples/Collier; Immokalee Readers; and Community Grants. Each program reaches out to children and their individual needs, helping develop goals and guiding them toward realization.

Immokalee Readers - The Immokalee Foundation (TIF)   The importance of education is stressed at an early age, and is carried through the students’ school careers with TIF’s Immokalee Readers program. The afterschool program takes high school tutors and matches them with children from kindergarten to second grade for reading lessons. The program not only helps children that may have difficulty learning to read get on par with grade level reading by third grade, but also gives the tutors a chance to give back while gleaning valuable lessons in leadership as well as helps with their own reading proficiency. “Education is the pride of Immokalee,” says Zednik, “that is why a lot of these families are here.”

   Since 2001, TIF has been an advocate of Take Stock In Children (TSIC), a statewide scholarship program where individual organizations can buy prepaid scholarships for students. Choosing applicants to be a part of TSIC in seventh grade, Take Stock In Children - The Immokalee Foundation (TIF)the program helps students create and achieve goals by granting a full scholarship to college if they can maintain a 2.5 gpa, exhibit good behavior and meet with a mentor weekly. Zednik, who mentors two TIF students and sits on the Take Stock In Children’s state board, has seen the remarkable power hope can have on students and their families. “Parents take great pride and responsibility in their children’s education, they really push their children to get an education. They see Immokalee as a place of opportunity, even though, to an outsider it may not seem that way.”  Currently, more than 100 students are enrolled in TIF’s TSIC program, with 39 students attending colleges nationwide.

   But once in college, students, as in all walks of life, are often hit with a culture shock. Not limited to TSIC students, TIF’s College Success program helps students attending college with an ongoing mentorship program, where student and mentor create an academic plan, obtain tutors if need be, develop time management and study habits, even help students with financial planning and management.

The Immokalee Foundation   For those opting out of college, TIF has teamed with various industries to implement vocational programs, ensuring work for graduating students in in-demand fields. One that has had a positive effect not only with students but the community as a whole is Caterpillar’s iTECH center (The Immokalee Technical Center). Working with TIF to find the right applicants, iTECH is a state-of-the-art training facility for mechanics on heavy equipment. The two-year training program has students working on Cat machines and engines, with specialized training courses in diesel engine technician, diesel engine mechanic/technician helper and diesel drivetrain technician.

   TIF was also instrumental in bringing the Future Builders of America (FBA) program to Immokalee, where students learn vocational skills through on-the-job training and internships with area businesses. FBA helps students garner the basis for life in the workforce, teaching invaluable skills like working with a boss and the value of quality workmanship, as well as safety, communication skills and first aid, all in a working environment. For some, the FBA is their fist experience in the workforce, and the lessons and experience garnered will carry on through whatever profession or career path they may choose to follow.

 The Immokalee Foundation - TIF

Immokalee leaves an indelible mark on anyone that has had the chance to visit. The town, though isolated and relatively small, is one of vibrancy and hope. The spirit of America and the opportunity that this country affords is written into the fabric of the community itself. TIF aims to capture that spirit and create a platform for the future through programs that focus on children and importance of education. “Education is the one thing that can help,” says Zednik, “it can bring people together and get people out of poverty.”

 

To get involved with The Immokalee Foundation, please visit their website: immokaleefoundation.org

 

To get the book 26°81°, check out the website here: 26-81.com

 

Photos courtesy of Joshua Dudley Greer, The Immokalee Foundation and Reynaldo Martin