From migrant worker to master’s degree—Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee employee and NWWF volunteer Cynthia Rodriguez shares her story.

BY JANUARY 1, 2022

Photo by Ann Nguyen, Courtesy of Gulfshore Life Magazine

As told to Tess Lopez

I grew up in Immokalee, and my family and I would travel three times per year, following the crops. I had to switch schools in the middle of the school year multiple times through 12th grade. It was challenging; I was always considered the new girl. In the summers and on weekends, I worked in the fields picking tomatoes. On Mondays, at school, my hands were filthy green from the chemicals and pesticides.

My parents instilled in me that education is key to success, so I kept a great GPA and received a full scholarship from The Immokalee Foundation to earn my bachelor’s in communication. Now, I’m working on my master’s in public administration at Florida Gulf Coast University.

In 2018, I began as an intern at Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee and enrolled my daughter, Natalie, in the pre-K program. I received a flier detailing the Naples Children & Education Foundation’s provided services in my enrollment packet. I was shocked—especially when I saw the dental offerings: Teeth cleaning, sealants and fillings are provided to the kids twice a year, in fall and spring. The children who come to Pathways typically haven’t received any prior education. They also haven’t had benefits like dental services, so they often start kindergarten with their teeth in bad condition.

I love seeing the children show off their squeaky clean teeth to classmates after NCEF-provided dental care. I registered my daughter for the dental service, and now when we’re at home brushing her teeth, she always remembers that she got her toothbrush from NCEF/UF Dental. As a parent, I am amazed by what Pathways offers children in Immokalee, where there are many low-income migrant families. Unfortunately, due to limited capacity, we have more than 500 children on our waiting list.

When I started at Pathways, the executive director, Beth Hatch, introduced me to NWWF and asked if I was interested in volunteering. The first time I did, I helped prepare the gift bags. These weren’t your average goodie bags—they were large leather totes filled with fun things. It was fun to see all of it and work alongside the other Pathways staff members who were also volunteering. 

I’m motivated to serve my community, volunteer with NWWF and help the children because I’ve been in their shoes. On the Saturday of the live auction, I was standing inside the tent. They screened a video of children telling their stories and thanking the crowd during the Fund-a-Need segment. Immediately, the attendees put their paddles up to bid and there was so much excitement among the donors.

There are so many people to support—so many kids who feel like they won’t have a bright future. But I know we can make a change. I grew up in a migrant household and now I’m here, impacting the lives of children who are like me.   

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About Pathways

For 58 years, Pathways Early Education Center has championed quality early learning and care programs so that children in Immokalee have an equitable opportunity to thrive.

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