by Sally Ooms
Every December a Sacramento River Delta event brings joy to hundreds of farm workers’ children. Kids from Clarksburg to Rio Vista, communities along the river, come to an invitation-only carnival hosted by the every-growing cadre of women called Angels of the Fields. Highlights of the event are a family photo with Santa and gifts that have been researched for appropriate age and gender.
“Sometimes the kids take their present home instead of opening it there,” says Yolanda Chavez, head of the core group of angels. “It might be the only present they get that season and they want to save it to open it on Christmas.”The carnival includes free food booths. Parents take their children around to game booths where they can win prizes, to pick up their goody bags (in addition to their special gift), and to visit Santa. There’s lots of entertainment too, like a Taiko group. After the performance, children are invited to bang on the drums.
Yolanda began the Angels group 15 years ago with three other women when she was working for a corporation that served farm workers in Sacramento and Galt. The four felt they should do something special for farm workers, their families and their kids. “Migrant workers receive low pay, bad shelter, bad transportation. Affordable housing is a huge issue. Many are food insecure. They work hard, at times with only beans, potatoes and tortillas to eat. Now we are trying to see that they get nutritional education and connect our events with that.
“There are no health care clinics in the Delta, so people must somehow get to county clinics in Sacramento or rely on home remedies. Some people just do their own cures. Or they go to curanderos.”
“There is a kind of underground dental where they just pull problem teeth,” says Holly Pauls, another integral member of the Angels. “It’s scary.”
She also sees housing as a huge issue. She knows of people living in single wides with six children, two families with parents. There is rain coming through the roof and exposed wiring.
The first event the original angels began has become a tradition. Each May farm workers’ wives gather for a free day of “make-overs.” The day of relaxation includes facials, hair styling and massages. “A day when they are pampered,” Yolanda says.
Two of the four original angels have passed away. The group offers college scholarships in their names, about $500 apiece every year. They also sponsor a couple of farm worker youth for what is called life experiences at a camp in Monterrey Bay. Their umbrella financial agent is now the California Human Development Department as they are not a non-profit. “Just a group of angels who want to give back to the communities in the area,” Yolanda says. “We decided back then that we were just gonna do it. We reached out to our own families at first and then we started to grow and grow.”
“While our Christmas event is the key event, there are so many things during the year that enrich our program,” says Holly. “There are blankets needed for adults, and clothing for young and old, household items. At Christmas the clothing is almost all new and we have an area at the event where they can pick what they need.”
Gifts and donations come from many sources. For example, Asoka Ishiura, another core member of the group, says she brought scarves for women from the Sacramento Organization of Chinese Americans. Asoka says the Sacramento Employment Agency, which helps people get jobs and training, has donated pajamas and slippers.
Norma Koch, another organizer, says angels bring their skills and caring from all different occupations. “Of course, a lot have a farming background. Once one person is involved, they recruit the whole family. And young people who were once in the program are now volunteering for us.” She says many employees from area companies offer support. Employees of one company decided five or six years ago to give up their inter-office gift exchanges and each give to farm workers’ children.
Other entities have benefits for Angels of the Fields. The Moon Café in the Delta town of Locke hosted a fundraiser with musicians and artists’ donations. On Labor Day Weekend, the Tejano Festival in Sacramento at Cesar Chavez Plaza has pledged $5 of each ticket sold to Angels of the Fields. They also will be featured on the website and have prominence on it for a year.
The Angels will receive part of the proceeds from Farm to Every Fork, the Sept. 12 benefit dinner in Sacramento for area people facing food insecurity. “We’ve obviously grown,” says Yolanda. “Mostly by word of mouth. We are there asking, ‘How can we help?’ We don’t ever have to say much. We just tell people what families need now and people respond. We dabble in everything, wherever we are needed to help. We are 62 angels strong now. We are spreading our wings.”