Lending a helping hand
Maria Gaona has always been able to provide a personal touch to the families she's worked with over the years.
The North Marion School District home school/migrant education recruiter, who is retiring after 29 years, has been able to identify with students.
"I think it made it easier since I myself was a migrant student," she said. "I understood a lot of what they were living. It's been a natural fit."
Gaona, born in Texas, moved to a migrant camp in St. Paul with her family when she was 15 years old. The family never intended to stay, but when her father got injured, it made Gaona seriously consider dropping out of school to help take care of the family.
"My Spanish teacher and counselor, she talked me into going back to school," Gaona said. "You always have somebody who made a difference, and for me, it was her."
The St. Paul High School graduate spent her first post-graduate summer as a migrant teacher's assistant at North Marion.
"I came to the school and asked the principal if they had a position available during the school year, and that's how I got started," she said.
She laughed that she's been hired by North Marion three times, thanks to family reasons that took her away. After only a year as a migrant teacher's assistant, Gaona got married and decided to be a housewife.
"We were going to go to California but then we didn't. I'm not a home body, I've always worked, so after three months I was done," she said. "I came back and they hired me again."
The family, which would eventually include three sons, would move to California in 1981, during which time Gaona continued working in migrant education. When the family moved back later in the decade, it wasn't long before she was knocking on North Marion's door again. She started again in August 1989 as a teacher's assistant, but was then moved into her current role two years later.
As migrant recruiter, Gaona seeks out migrant families, makes sure they're registered for school and connects them with resources, from getting a bed to making sure they're fed to finding bilingual services.
"Our program is the sprinkles on top of the cake, it's not the main program, but we support what's already there," Gaona explained.
She said a lot has changed since she started in the role in 1991, from the use of technology to connect families to important resources, to the number of bilingual staff members.
"With more bilingual staff (families) call more," she said.
She noted it used to be somewhat easy to track down migrant families because they lived in barracks-style camps. But now they're more likely to rent a large house with multiple families.
"There have been a lot of changes for the good, like I don't see a lot of kids without insurance," she said. "We've come a long ways since I first got here."
But the biggest change is the number of migrants Gaona works with. While she served close to 400 families back in 1991, today she works with maybe 90 families.
"Families are pretty much settled, there's not as much mobility because they'll find a steady job and stay," she said. "Now, we see more of just the parents traveling and the kids stay behind, sometimes with grandparents."
She can't count how many students and families she has helped over the years, but she still runs into some of them occasionally. In fact, one of the students she helped now works in the migrant education program at Willamette Education Service District.
"He told me, 'I remember you. You got us a washer and dryer and a bed,'" Gaona said.
That was just Gaona doing her job, she says. She went on countless home visits and spent countless hours connecting with local churches and other groups that provide support to migrants.
As a way to recognize her, Gaona's Willamette ESD program manager, Cye Fink, nominated her for a national award, which she won: Migrant Specialist of the year from the National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education. She recalls the moment he told her.
"My legs got so wobbly I had to sit down!" she said. "I had this big ol' grin I couldn't stop. It was pretty awesome."
This was in addition to a Lifetime Achievement Award she received at the Oregon Migrant Education Symposium in November.
"It's a good way to go out," she said. "I'm very pleased."
Gaona, who said she doesn't know how to relax, will spend her retirement possibly traveling with her husband, but most certainly spending time with her family, something she already carves out time for: She makes sure to gather all three of her adult sons to her home every Saturday for a family meal and every summer she takes care of her mother who comes up from Texas for the warm months.
But she said the district has become like a second family, so she will definitely miss it.
"The staff has always been great," she said. "I'm very fortunate to work in this small, tight-knit district. It's like a big family."