Seminarians Lead Literacy Wagon Summer Program in Yakima

Posted on September 23, 2019

Two Mundelein seminarians spent their summer leading a unique program in the Diocese of Yakima that helps the children of migrant farmworkers to continue their literacy education. Along with a team of volunteers, teachers and librarians, seminarians Michael Kelly and Christian Melendez ran the Literacy Wagon—a mobile summer education team—that brings books, education and fun activities to these children, while their parents work in the field.

Each summer, migrant workers come to the Yakima Valley in Washington State to harvest apples and cherries. These workers and their families, most of whom migrate for the summer from California, live in camps that are isolated from the surrounding communities. Most of the children of these workers don’t have access to transportation to the public library to take advantage of their summer programs, so the Literacy Wagon program provides similar resources.

“Many kids seemed enthralled with the opportunity to read more, and would run out to greet us in the parking lot of the camp every day when we arrived,” said Kelly, the lead coordinator of the Literacy Wagon. “Their parents, too, would stop by the central pavilion where we were working and pick up a few books ‘para los chiquillos’ (for the young ones).”

The program supports as many as 100 children each summer. Bishop Joseph Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima, a member of the Mundelein Seminary Board of Advisers, assigned the seminarians to run the program, hoping to foster in these future priests what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter.”

“We want our men to know that when people can’t come to church, we bring the Church to them,” Tyson said. “We go to the margins. We want to bring the Eucharist to wherever the people are.”

The Literacy Wagon—part of a broad effort by the Diocese of Yakima to reach out to Catholic migrant workers and bring the Church to where they live—was made possible by a multi-year pledge through Catholic Extension’s Parish Partnerships program. In 2017, Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Parish in Winnetka, Illinois, made a 5-year commitment to financially support the ministry.

Pastor Fr. Marty O’Donovan (Mundelein Seminary Class of 1978) visited the migrant ministry to experience first-hand the fruits of his parish’s generosity. He was reminded that “the Church isn’t just in buildings; it’s wherever people gather.”

“Church is in this pavilion here on these campgrounds where we gather around the Eucharist,” O’Donovan said. “Church is leading kids in simple games or feeding them lunch. … That’s Church.”

In addition to providing story time twice a week and serving lunch, the seminarians and volunteers handed out 148 books through the program.

“It was my sincere pleasure to respond with an emphatic ‘yes’ when the kids would look at us with big eyes, and a handful of books, and ask, ‘Are these really for us, like … to keep … for free?’” Kelly said.

They also ran “Play and Learn” stations that encouraged the development of healthy brains and healthy bodies through play. Other games and activities enhanced problem-solving, math and motor skills.

“We learn, but we have to have fun while we learn,” Menendez said.

Read the full story at Catholic Extension’s website to learn more about the Literacy Wagon and Catholic Extension’s Parish Partnerships program.

“Being there with them was a blessing for us: they are truly faith-filled people,” Kelly said. “I only hope and pray that they learned as much from us as we did from them.”

Photos courtesy of Catholic Extension