Salvation Army service extension continues 18-year outreach to Colorado’s farmworkers
Run by volunteers, the service extension unit provides essential needs where they might otherwise be difficult to obtain.
Center, Colorado’s population grows in early summer. With the planting of lettuce, spinach, onions, carrots, potatoes and canola, many crews of farmworkers are sent there to harvest the crops through the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign nationals into the United States for temporary agricultural work. The season normally starts in March with the thinning of the lettuce and lasts until October, with potatoes being last to be harvested.
The Salvation Army Service Extension Unit in Center provides regular outreach to the area’s farmworkers, and has been in operation for 18 years. The unit is run solely by volunteers Peggy Martinez and Jerry LeBlanc. Both volunteers receive support through their occupations: Martinez is employed by Valley Wide Health Systems and LeBlanc is Deacon and Director of Religious Education at St. Jerome Catholic Church.
While the service extension unit has been active for 18 years, LeBlanc has been helping the workers for 37 years in Center, which is the agricultural center of Colorado’s San Luis Valley and the hub of the farmworker population.
“We minister to their needs be they medical, spiritual, clothing, housing and legal services,” LeBlanc said. “We work with several agencies to administer their needs, and The Salvation Army unit fills in a lot of gaps.”
With help from his church, he has assisted Martinez by serving meals and drinks to workers under a tent at the fields where they work. He estimated there are currently between 250 to 300 workers cutting lettuce.
Presently, three housing camps provide dormitory living spaces with shared bathrooms. Typically a cook travels with the company, or local restaurants cater meals to the workers. Fresh Harvest is one of the larger companies, bringing in 200 or more agricultural workers. In addition, Del Rey Packing brings in about 50 workers.
Many of the spinach workers will have their families travel with them, as their harvest season can last up to four months. Their children, pre-kindergarten to 5th grade, attend a school located at the farmworkers’ housing complex from June to October.
“My Salvation Army unit on average will supply up to 250 blankets and hygiene kits, and will also help with food or medical prescription vouchers for the migrant workers,” Martinez said. “My unit will also supply clothing, books and miscellaneous items to the migrant school.”
With the help of Valley Wide Health Systems Farmworkers Outreach Program, the unit is able to provide medical screenings, vaccinations and health education either at the camps or onsite at the fields. Valley Wide also sponsors an annual eye clinic when the farmworkers can receive a free eye exam and glasses.
Martinez said that over the years the needs always include hygiene kits, blankets, clothing and medical care, but that if different needs arise, The Salvation Army works to make sure they are addressed.
“I have been very humbled to work with the migrant population over the past years,” Martinez said. “When we are able to provide them with the necessities to make their lives easier while they are away from home working in unfavorable conditions to provide produce for many tables across the U.S., [this] is a reward in itself.”
LeBlanc said the unit ensures that the workers do not lack any essentials: clothing, housing, food, utility services and spiritual care.
“We welcome them to our community every year,” he said. “We sometimes welcome the same workers year after year, and sometimes we welcome new friends.”
He also emphasized The Salvation Army’s staying power, noting that many other agencies have come and gone in Center during the past 37 years. LeBlanc and Martinez have remained, and will continue to serve the farmworkers as long as they can with the help of The Salvation Army.
“This unit does the exact kind of assistance that The Salvation Army wants to provide—not duplicating services but to prevent people from falling through the gaps to make sure this community’s needs are being met,” said Jasel Cantu, Field Representative for The Salvation Army Intermountain Division. “Jerry and Peggy are completely dedicated to serving the migrant community and we want to help them with their goals in helping people every year. We are blessed to have them as volunteers with The Salvation Army.”
As in Center, The Salvation Army’s service extension units and centers meet people’s needs nationwide in communities without a larger Salvation Army facility nearby. Units are smaller, run solely by volunteers, while the more substantial centers have an employee and a Salvation Army-owned or leased space. Overall the program, utilizing partnerships with other helping agencies, assists with food and other necessities, monthly bills and referrals. This is how The Salvation Army can provide assistance to every zip code in the United States.
The Salvation Army Intermountain Division, which includes Center, has about 86 units and eight centers—the most of any of the Western Territory’s nine divisions. The number varies due to changing conditions, like the pandemic, and the availability of volunteers.
“I believe service extension is a vessel that breaks down challenges found in rural areas in our division,” said Danielle Maldonado, Intermountain Divisional Director of Service Extension. “We are able to be progressive in keeping up with needs; I believe we do that very well. In Center, we’re able to assist with a demographic that doesn’t necessarily have accessible resources.
“We’re innovative and our volunteers—their will drives the program; it’s powerful. I’m in awe of their courageousness and their selflessness to serve their communities.”
Photo courtesy Peggy Martinez.