Barbara Mainster has devoted a lifetime to preparing the children of Florida’s farm workers to succeed in school and life.
Like so many of those children, Barbara herself is a second-generation child of immigrants. Her German parents met on a ship crossing the Atlantic, bound for Ellis Island. They eventually bought a dairy farm in upstate New York. Barbara’s father ran a nearby bar. Milk and cocktails put three daughters through college.
Barbara earned a BS degree in social sciences from Michigan State. She studied for two years at Cornell toward a master’s in anthropology.
Then came some of the most intense education in Barbara’s life. Barbara and her husband moved to a small village in Peru as Peace Corps volunteers. With little training or experience, Barbara ran a preschool. She loved it.
One day, Barbara needed to enroll a small boy in a local orphanage. When she saw the orphanage, Barbara thought, “No way.” She adopted the boy.
After two years in Peru, Barbara returned to New York. She soon gave birth to a daughter and adopted a teenage boy and a 6-month-old girl. She also went to work for Head Start.
In the early 1970s, Barbara and her husband moved to South Florida. Barbara soon discovered RCMA.
Founded by Mennonites, RCMA operated three child-care centers for farm workers, to spare them from taking their children into the fields while they worked.
The new nonprofit initially struggled to gain a foothold in the farm worker community. But two unorthodox decisions set RCMA onto a path of success, and have shaped the organization’s character ever since:
- RCMA vowed to hire its teachers from farm-working backgrounds, while coaxing them to revive their own educations.
- RCMA reached out to both farm workers and the farm owners, bringing them together in the common cause of children. Agricultural interests have become some of RCMA’s most generous donors.
The hiring policy infused RCMA with teachers who intimately understood the needs of farm families, and were deeply grateful to RCMA for giving them an alternative to field work. But many had dropped out of school, and suffered low literacy. Barbara hired on in 1972 to remedy that, as RCMA’s Education Coordinator.
Soon, word about RCMA spread along the farm workers’ migration routes. Churches, farmers and social-service organizations urged RCMA to expand into their communities. Barbara took charge of expansion. Over the years, she has opened a hundred child-care centers. She has closed a few dozen.
Today, RCMA operates in 21 Florida counties. It has 68 child-care centers, three charter schools, six after-school programs and 26 family child-care homes. It is Florida’s largest non-profit child-care provider.
Under Barbara’s leadership, RCMA has become an acclaimed provider of the Head Start program. RCMA children usually suffer developmental delays stemming from their low-income, low-literacy home lives; they leave RCMA having made up lost ground.
At RCMA, child care is really family care. RCMA staff visit the labor camps where the children live and help the parents tackle a wide range of problems.
Barbara makes sure that all of RCMA’s 1,600 employees remember that parents are the most important influences in their children’s lives. No matter how uneducated they are, parents can inspire their children, support their educations and advocate in the children’s best interests.
Barbara, now supervising the educations of 7,000 children, will be quick to tell you: Parents are their children’s first teachers.
Barbara has been honored multiple times in recent years. The awards include:
- Children’s Champion – Florida Association for the Education of Young Children
- Special Friend of Children – Florida Center for Children and Youth
- Reconicimiento Ohtli – Consulate of Mexico
- Distinguished Service – Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association
- Makers: Women who make Southwest Florida – WGCU
- Icon –Florida Trend magazine
In 2015, Barbara announced plans to retire from RCMA, but only after her successor is in place. A search is under way.