The Hope Harvester

A South Texas migrant farm worker had been out of a job for two weeks. His three small children had asthma and could only breathe with the help of a breathing machine. Medicaid paid for the machine, but the utility company was going to disconnect their electricity the next day unless the family made a payment. The parents called Phil Kellerman. With a few phone calls and $53, Phil allowed these children – and their parents – to breathe at ease again.

Learning about Phil means learning about the thousands of migrant farm workers he has helped. He is the founder and director of Harvest of Hope, a non-profit foundation that gives direct financial aid to migrant farm workers and their families. As he speaks, stories from his life mix with the stories of these people.

Phil still remembers the call that started everything. He had been working since 1989 at Eastern Stream on Resources and Training (ESCORT) at the University of New York in Oneonta, N.Y. ESCORT is a national resource center that provides technical assistance and training to teachers of at-risk students, especially children of migrant farm workers and homeless students.

In 1995, ESCORT set up the first national migrant toll-free hotline where migrant farm workers could call. A man called from Owatonna, Minn. He was stranded and needed $262 to fix his truck to go work at the fields. But the grant the hotline had received from the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. could not be used for direct financial assistance. Phil realized that what these people needed were quick, tangible solutions. He started fundraising and selling things, and with the help of the ESCORT staff, they got this man on the road and working again.

A thousand similar calls came that first year. A year later, they had received 200,000 calls.

Shortly after, Phil’s grandmother died. Dr. Helen Zand had been a tenacious woman who inspired Phil through her actions and life story. She was the first female law student at Cornell and a social worker for immigrants, the poor and the homeless in the 1920s. With the help of the inheritance she left him the Harvest of Hope Foundation was born in 1997.

Since then, the foundation has given out more than $816,000 for housing, utilities, medicine, food, funerals, legal costs, tuition and books, among countless other services.

Many times, it’s been a life-saving thing, says Gladys Sanchez, a social worker for Pasco County who works closely with Phil.

“He has a passion and a compassion for migrant farm workers,” Gladys says. “You can tell he has that drive. I recognize it. I have it too. The work we do is very basic and humbling.”

Gladys met Phil five years ago when he gave a presentation about Harvest of Hope. It was Thanksgiving, and there was a family in Hillsborough County that didn’t have enough money for food or diapers. Gladys called Phil, and while everyone else was out on holiday break, Phil bought food and diapers for the family. He saved their Thanksgiving, Gladys says.

Today, Phil has been up since 6 a.m. receiving calls, as he does every day. His office is all manila envelopes, drawers filled to the brim with newspapers, family photos and magazine articles stuck on the wall next to his desk. There are several stacks of notebooks on top of file cabinets overflowing with papers. All over, there are maps of several U.S. states: Florida, Georgia, Texas. “I know Texas better than Texas,” he says.

But Phil was born nowhere near Texas – he was born in Douglaston, N.Y., 55 years ago. Now, he lives in a one-story house in northwest Gainesville. Liberal bumper stickers fill every inch of the back of his red Toyota: “Thank a farm worker.” “No human is illegal.”

He wears comfortable green shorts to work from home and has a short salt-and-pepper beard and mustache. Phil takes calls, looks at receipts, looks at maps and looks for more ways to help others. He is constantly doing something, and always has been this way. Phil was an action baby, says his brother Ed. Now, he is the action man, he solves problems.

Ed Kellerman looks like his brother, except for a longer, darker beard.  He is a senior lecturer at the Dial Center for Written and Oral Communication at the University of Florida and communications director of the Harvest of Hope Foundation. He has been with Phil since the beginning as his closest advisor and best friend.

Phil can bounce ideas around with Ed, but the rest of his family is also supportive. His ex-wife went to fundraisers and his sister’s children in Avon, Conn., sell lemonade to help the foundation.

His stepdaughter Bianca, who is 16, supports the foundation by attending the biggest fundraising event HOH has: the Harvest of Hope Fest, the music festival Phil has put together in the past two years. Up to 140 bands meet in the St. Johns County Fairgrounds in St. Augustine, Fla., with big names like Girl Talk and Dr. Dog. The popular Gainesville-based punk rock band, Against Me!, has been a faithful supporter and performer since the planning stages.

The HOH Fest is three days of thousands of people camping in a medley of music, mud and alcohol. Up to 90 percent of the proceeds go to the foundation, to help people like Marta Santos, a migrant farm worker who called today from Pennsylvania. Her 18-year-old son got in a car accident and is now in an immigration detention center in Georgia, but she does not know which one since she hasn’t talked to him. At the accident, a police officer asked Francisco Javier, Martha’s son, for his license. When he could not show one, the officer asked if he had papers. He didn’t have any, and he is now facing deportation. It’s very likely he won’t see his mother again for a long time.

“Mi nombre es Felipe,” Phil tells Marta, in fluent Spanish but with a distinct American accent. For now, he is there to comfort her and the other dozens who will call later today.

About 95 percent of the people Phil helps are Hispanic. Half are what is called “older school youth”: 14- to 22-year-olds who come mostly from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Most of them want to send money back home, to learn English and to have insurance. This is particularly pressing because most of them will get diseases for coming in close contact with pesticides all day, every day.

This may be the case of a 73-year-old man with lip cancer who is in the hospital waiting for a $14,000 surgery. He still works at the farms and has no family to care for him. Since he also has no papers, he cannot receive state aid. Thanks to a 70 percent discount for indigent people, his surgery will now cost $4,200 – money he is still far from having. Phil can use $500 from the fund, do a fundraiser and hope for the best.

And so much still needs to be done, Phil says. That is why he tries to make HOH “unbureaucratic,” to skip the red tape and say exactly where the money goes.

As a social worker, Gladys Sanchez deals with a lot of these bureaucratic agencies. She knows that when all else fails, she can still count on Phil.

“They don’t have that many Harvest of Hopes out there,” Gladys says. “I’m glad that he exists and that he does what he does.”

Back in his home office, Phil tries to call Marta Santos back. But she gave him the wrong number. He may never hear from her again.

Marta’s case is not uncommon. Many times, migrant farm workers don’t have landlines or cell phones, so it’s very hard to get back in touch with them.

Some times, even when he can contact them, Phil cannot help them.

“There’s always sad calls, it’s the nature of the beast,” Phil says. “I’ve taken thousands of calls and they never change. But I can’t get wrapped up in it, or I couldn’t do what I do.”

Trying to forget some and remembering others is what enables him to go on. He still remembers how 10 years ago, the mother of the three children with asthma called back, crying in appreciation.

There will always be calls, Phil says. Even when he is not there to answer them.

Article also published in the Independent Florida Alligator.

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