As RCMA’s longtime executive director,
Wendell N. Rollason crafted the core values and mission that have made RCMA a successful, widely respected model for providing child-care and early educational services to children of migrant farm workers and rural, low-income families.
He was one of the most committed voices for any group of children in our land, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida wrote in a foreword to the book, Wendell N. Rollason: A Life of Purpose. His voice led to schools and caring teachers who gave the children of the fields a chance to escape to a better life.
A commanding presence with thick white hair, plaid shirt, jeans jacket and cowboy boots, Rollason focused his life’s work on providing the same access to opportunities for farmworker children that mainstream American children enjoy.
Key elements of his philosophy included:
Working with farmers to improve conditions for workers.
Hiring staff and teachers from the migrant communities.
Respecting families’ cultures.
Involving parents in the learning process.
It’s no big deal that we keep the children safe, no big deal that we feed them nutritious food. That’s obvious. That’s our obligation, Rollason once said. But we are putting these kids into a situation where — from day one — they are doomed to failure. This is our biggest challenge at RCMA, to get our kids ready for school, to make sure that they enter kindergarten ready to compete in an environment stacked against them.”
Compassion was in Rollason’s blood, as his great-grandparents were part of the Underground Railroad network that helped slaves escape to freedom. After serving in the Navy from 1941-45, Rollason moved to Florida and worked at Miami International Airport. There he saw numerous foreigners being lured to Florida with promises of work and housing, only to be left empty-handed or tricked into servitude.
The defining moment came when a teenage couple, arriving to empty promises from Puerto Rico, offered to sell their baby girl to him for $10. They promised that after finding work, they would return and buy back their baby.
Instead, Rollason collected money and drove the family to Biscayne Boulevard, and they hitchhiked to New York where they had family. The next day, Rollason quit his job at the airport and turned over his notes on the abuse he had witnessed to the FBI.
Later, when Fidel Castro came to power and many freedom fighters fled Cuba for Mexico, the U.S. State Department tapped Rollason to help reunite families that got separated and to bring them from Mexico to the United States.
During one of Rollason’s trips in 1961, however, the atmosphere had changed due to fallout from the Bay of Pigs invasion. Mexico no longer wanted to be complicit with the United States. Rollason was arrested and spent 14 months in a Mexican prison, accused of carrying forged visas for the Cuban immigrants. The State Department denounced any knowledge of his activities and failed to back him up. When he was released and returned to the United States in 1963, he continued to dedicate his time to help migrant families.
Two years later, the Mennonite Church in Homestead, Florida, whose volunteers had been providing child care to children of migrant workers, formed the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. With three child care centers in the Redlands farming area of southern Miami-Dade County, they needed to make the organization self-sustaining and less reliant on church funding and volunteers. They also had problems attracting families to take advantage of services.
When they turned to Rollason, he gladly stepped in and immediately detected the cultural disconnect between care-givers and children. His suggestion to hire farmworker women as caregivers was so well-received in the migrant communities that enrollment mushroomed. Under his guidance, RCMA grew and thrived. By 2005, RCMA’s 40th anniversary year, the association was operating more than 75 centers and two charter schools, serving over 6,200 children. RCMA today is one of the largest non-profit childcare providers in Florida and among the largest in the country
Wendell Rollason succumbed to a terminal disease at age 80 in January 1997. His legacy lives on, as RCMA continues to grow with services to children and families. The key to RCMA’s success leads back to the foundation laid down by Wendell Rollason to hire from the community and respect other cultures and ethnic groups.
To order the children’s book, Wendell N. Rollason: A Life of Purpose, call RCMA headquarters in Immokalee at (239) 658-3560