“If this is going to be a caring community, we have to care,” says Jane Andres — known as “Aunty Jane” by many offshore workers in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
As the organizer of the Peach Pickers Picnic and other grassroots initiatives, Andres shows she cares in many ways. One of these gives us all an easy opportunity to do the same.
The Farmworkers Welcome Kits started formally last year, when Andres spoke about the issues and needs of offshore workers at a NOTL Newcomers Club meeting, and decided to find ways for people to get involved without too much commitment. Informally she and her friends had been baking and cooking and collecting in anticipation of the labourers’ arrivals in NOTL for years.
Ever since making friends with some Jamaican workers from farms near her Creek Road bed and breakfast, Andres has been deeply concerned about their welfare. Knowing they’ve often been had long and gruelling travel time before they reach their living quarters, she’s keen to make sure they feel acknowledged and welcome. “Mila has a 12-hour bus ride across Mexico, plus a half day at the airport, before her flight and drive to the farm where she arrives hungry and cold,” says Andres.
She developed the kits to provide for basic needs, particularly on arrival. “I try to make it so the bags are waiting for them when they get here, so they can have a hot chocolate and a bowl of ramen after two days of travel time,” she says. “It’s all stuff they will need to buy but can’t afford at the beginning.”
Andres pays for the neon green reusable bags out of her own pocket — but will gladly accept donations to recoup the funds. “Last year I started with 100 and would have been happy to get 50 back. By the end of it all, we had ordered and filled 500 bags,” she says with wonder and delight.
“The idea has latched on too because it’s so easily adaptable to schools, book clubs — any groups or organizations,” Andres says. “Throw a party, put on the Caribbean music, and fill 20 bags by the end of the night.”
She also suggests filling the bags would be a good Christmas project, and a simple and meaningful activity for a family to do together. “Grab a bag, every week pick up one or two things, and in a month it’s full,” she says.
The initiative relies heavily on Andres: “There is no committee, it’s just me,” she says. “It’s all very grassroots — it is definitely not organized,” she laughs. “Some people just show up at my door with full bags. Sometimes people will drop off a box of soap that was on special at Costco, or a box of toothpaste,” all of which is much appreciated.
Among the socks, toiletries, noodles and such, Andres encourages people to put a personal note in the bag: “Often the guys will stick it on their mirror to look at every day, as they miss their children and families so much,” she says. If contact information is provided with the filled kit, Andres will do her best to send back a photo of the worker with their bright green bag and big smile. (A touching slide show of these photos can be seen at https://vimeo.com/263642582.)
The ever-dedicated Andres would happily accept collaborators. “There are close to 1,000 farmworkers in the area — we need some logistical help in getting around,” she says. “We’re always happy for more volunteers and support.” For example, she would love to hear from people in Queenston who might want to help support the workers on the nearby Tregunno fruit farms.
She’s also looking for a place to store the filled kits.
Farmworkers Welcome Kit bags come with a list (which is also available online at https://www.workerswelcomeniagara.com/), and can be picked up after Dec. 18 at the library, Andres’ B&B (Applewood Hollow) at 2230 Four Mile Creek Rd., and The Lake Report offices at 496 Mississagua St., Unit 2. Filled kits can be dropped off at the B&B. Farmworkers begin to arrive as early as January, so Andres is ready to receive these signs of our community’s generosity any time.
If you can’t wait until the 18th to start, or can’t get your hands on a kit, Andres says, “Folks can also drop the items off in a grocery bag and we can decant them into the bags when they arrive.”
“It’s all about building awareness and relationships,” says Andres. “I just want the farmworkers to feel like somebody knows they’re here.”