San Juan Native leads largest head start program in the country

A San Juan native remembers his migrant family sifting through potatoes, grapes, tomatoes, strawberries and green beans among other produce in the fields.

“You name it, we did it,” he said.

Jose Villa, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project CEO, never forgot his roots as a migrant and has since become an advocate and supporter of farmworker families who face similar adversities as he did in his childhood.

For the past five years, he has led a non-profit organization that advocates for farm worker communities and provides Head Start services, such as education and health programs for toddlers and young children ages 0 to 5. With 38 centers across several states and serving over 3,000 children a year, the East Coast Migrant Head Start project is the largest migrant and seasonal Head Start provider in the country.

His father’s words kept him going in getting his education and working toward giving back to communities similar to the ones he grew up in.

“Don’t ever forget that you are a migrant, because as soon as you forget where you came from that you are a migrant, then that’s going to be the day where you are going to deny who you are,” his father told him.

Villa said he never strayed from his roots since then.

“Not having any security and not knowing how long you were going to be in one place, when you were going to have to pick up and leave, whether it was during the day, in the evening, early in the morning, you have to go somewhere else because [of] no work being available,” Villa said.

Although he does not visit his hometown as much as he used to, he said “the Valley is still [ingrained] deep in my heart.”

Villa currently resides in Ohio, but travels between the organization headquarters in North Carolina and his residence.

However, he did not always place a high value on education. His background did not lend him a system toward formal institutions of learning.

“I didn’t see any out from that lifestyle,” he said.

Support from school counselors and staff was not always there for him or other migrants. Making poor grades and being constantly on the move, Villa said his childhood lacked consistency as he could be behind or ahead of the instruction as it varied between districts.

However, two moments came into his life that changed his mind, both of them family related.

During high school, his brother, who dropped out of school and served in the Armed Forces, returned home after serving in the Vietnam War. His brother went on to get his GED and advised Villa to continue going to school.

Villa wanted to join the military, but his mother insisted otherwise.

After moving to Oregon, his parents continued to push him toward higher learning.

His father had no formal education in American schools, and his mother only had a few years in the school system, he said.

His parents encouraged him to attend University of Oregon to break a cycle of hardship, make the most out of an opportunity and become a voice for migrants.

His first semester went badly as he was not prepared for the college environment. He had professors of Mexican descent, who gave him “heart to heart” talks to keep him motivated to stay in college.

After graduating, Villa became an proponent for minority college students.

Villa served in many positions in higher education at Ohio State University from assistant vice provost, director and program coordinator for migrant programs and in minority affairs. In addition, he served as a program consultant with the U.S. Department of Education.

“[Education] that’s all that I basically preach, the importance of it, how it can help the individual and especially with the families that we work with now,” he said.

At the university he advised and recruited students from similar backgrounds to keep them motivated to succeed in school.

As a first generation American from San Juan, he also made an effort to recruit students from the Rio Grande Valley into the university.

He first began his work with the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in 2010 as a director of program development.

Having parents understand and value education is what will help these children transition and succeed in school, he said.

“Working toward assuring that the parents understand that importance is very key,” Villa said.

General Counsel John Menditto said Villa’s personal experience brings a lot to the table in understanding firsthand what the migrants go through, along with strong leadership ability.

“He works tremendously hard, and he leads by example,” he said.

Villa said he plans to retire from the organization next year and believes it’s in a good shape.

“I’ve done my share, I’ve done what I had planned on doing,” he said. “The current staff will continue in the direction that we’ve been (following).”

The San Juan native still refers himself as a “migrant” even though he no longer fits the common mold.

“Even though in the terms of the definition of being mobile, working out at the agricultural fields is not what I do. But in a way it is [ingrained] and that’s (who) I continue to advocate for,” he said.