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Maria Cardenas

Alum’s grassroots initiative empowering hometown during pandemic

Maria Cardenas was worried. Not enough was being done last spring to provide residents in her community with the knowledge and tools needed to fight the coronavirus’ spread. The FGCU alumna had to do something to help empower the people of Immokalee, a rural Collier County farming town.

Marshaling lessons learned at Florida Gulf Coast University, the 2013 social work graduate joined with two other Eagle alumnae and hometown advocates — Maria Sebastian (’20, Social Work) and Maria Plata (’15, Communication) — to fill the void at the grassroots level, where it could make the most difference.

“We saw that our community was lacking resources, lacking prevention information and ways to keep our community safe,” Cardenas explained.

Like others in the FGCU family, these women answered the call to serve at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They joined healthcare workers and teachers, mental health counselors and scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs — a legion of ordinary people who became extraordinary in challenging times and demonstrated the impact of FGCU in communities near and far.

The three Marias forged a boots-on-the-ground initiative they came to call the Immokalee Grassroots Movement. “We view it as a movement because our community is rising up,” Cardenas said.

Early on in the pandemic, they surveyed residents to determine their most pressing unmet needs. Cardenas said they used what they’d learned about conducting surveys in classes they had taken at FGCU. Their first step: giving away 1,500 bandanas to local farmworkers, many of them Hispanic or Haitian immigrants, to serve as protective face coverings. The effort was funded through donations collected within the Immokalee area.

“We started with the farmworker bandana project because we knew that a lot of people in the field use them regularly, so it was something they’re comfortable with,” said Cardenas. “Because of that, we knew that they would be open to using a bandana as a way to prevent COVID.”

Maria CardenasThat sensibility is part of what she learned at FGCU about “cultural competence” – the ability to understand, communicate and effectively interact with people across cultures. It was reflected, too, in how they conducted the giveaway. A bus stop where farmworkers are picked up and dropped off, going to and from the fields, was chosen for the distribution site and the event was structured to ensure the recipients’ peace of mind.

“We know that a lot of times there can be barriers to wanting to reach out to receive services, whether it’s because someone’s undocumented or they’re afraid they’ll be asked questions they don’t want to answer or there are language issues,” Cardenas said.

In the months since then, the Immokalee Grassroots Movement has built up momentum and expanded its reach. With community donations, the group spearheaded food giveaways to help offset a food insecurity problem worsened by the pandemic. As children headed back into classrooms last fall, volunteers went door to door handing out face masks to help keep the students safe; many children didn’t have a choice to learn remotely because they lack access to technology at home.

When COVID-19 vaccinations started becoming available in December, the movement amped up efforts to ensure that qualifying Immokalee residents didn’t miss out on their chance to sign up.

“A lot of farm workers don’t use technology at home, so we started calling people,” Cardenas said. “We want to make sure the limited resources that are available go to the people who need them and are entitled to them.”

For her, fulfilling such a vital role in her hometown is both humbling and empowering. She continues to advocate on behalf of families in her community through her paralegal work with a firm that specializes in immigration law.

“We are creating that change, showing that we too can help one another,” she said of the Immokalee Grassroots Movement. “It doesn’t come very hard for me. It comes naturally. It’s instinctive – we help our community.”

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By investing in a scholarship or a program at FGCU, you can empower more individuals like those featured in the FGCU at the Frontlines series to make a difference where it matters most.
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