Isabel Garcia grew up traveling from harvest to harvest with her family. There were oranges in Florida, peaches in Maryland and tobacco in North Carolina. Garcia began working in produce packing houses in her early teens.
Then, school changed her life. During Garcia’s senior year at Hardee Senior High School, she joined Redlands Christian Migrant Association as an after-school teacher. She never left.
In 2012, the daughter of migrant farmworkers ascended to the second highest job among RCMA’s 1,600 employees – Associate Executive Director – responsible for the nonprofit organization’s 68 childcare centers and most of its ancillary programs. In January 2019, Garcia was chosen as a permanent Executive Director/ Head Start Director after holding the position in the interim for the previous seven months, following the departure of Executive Director Gayane Stepanian.
Garcia, 47, has been a leader at RCMA since she was placed in charge of a child-care center at age 21.
“I have known Isabel for most of her life,” said Barbara Mainster, who retired as Executive Director in 2016. “She is a perfect example of what we believe in, growing leadership from within the communities we serve. I have total confidence in her capabilities!”
Within RCMA, Garcia is an important symbol.
In its earliest years – in the Redlands labor camp in south Miami-Dade County – RCMA struggled to win the trust of farmworkers, who were shunning the new childcare centers and taking their toddlers into the fields as they worked. That changed dramatically when RCMA hired young mothers to leave the fields and work in the childcare centers.
Ever since, RCMA has recruited staff with backgrounds similar to the low-income families RCMA serves. They receive extensive training, and are encouraged to undertake college. They are supported in each center by an early childhood expert hired without regard to family background.
RCMA, meanwhile, has expanded into farming communities in 21 Florida counties. It is an acclaimed provider for the federal Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program.
“RCMA is always changing, but one thing stays the same: We do everything we can to help families,” Garcia said. “We provide excellent education to children in the early years when it counts the most. That’s my inspiration.”