Photo: Alex McKnight
Barbara Mainster, Executive director, Redlands Christian Migrant Association, Fort Myers; age 73
Southwest Florida Roundup
Child-care mainstay Barbara Mainster retires
In 1972, a former Peace Corps worker named Barbara Mainster joined the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), then a small child-care provider in southern Miami-Dade County. RCMA figured it could gain a foothold in the migrant community by hiring farmworker women as caregivers and brought in Mainster to help educate them.
Later as executive director, Mainster built RCMA into the state’s largest non-profit child-care provider.
Today, Immokalee-based RCMA serves nearly 7,000 children of migrant farmworkers and rural, low-income families in 21 Florida counties. It has 68 child-care centers, three charter schools, six after-school programs and 26 family child-care homes. About 80% of its staff has a farm-working background.
In January, Mainster retired at 75 and turned over the reins to Gayane Stepanian, a longtime non-profit manager who previously oversaw grant development for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Miami-Dade.
Stepanian, 45, grew up in a lower-middle- class household in southern California as one of three children of Armenian and Mexican immigrants. With a master’s degree in education, she moved to Miami in the late 1990s and joined the Injury Free Coalition for Kids at Jackson Health System.
There, for the first time, Stepanian came into contact with RCMA while providing child car seats to families. “Not everywhere are people so grateful, and not everywhere are staff members so passionate about helping their families,” she says.
Stepanian leads RCMA at a time of uncertainty in Florida’s migrant communities. Under President Donald Trump, children worry over the possible deportations of family members, she says. Although most children at RCMA centers are U.S. citizens, they may live in families where at least one member is an undocumented immigrant.
RCMA is working with families to get their affairs in order, including helping parents with permanent residency prepare and apply for U.S. citizenship.
“Fear is just in the air right now,” she says. “Our goal is to make sure our families are safe and secure. Fortunately, they see us as a trusted ally.”
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