Rollins Demonstrates Dedication to Farmworkers During MLK Day of Service

January 20, 2011

Photo by Jenn Hollern

The 2011 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service started with the question, “Who would Martin Luther King, Jr. be fighting for today?” This led the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) and the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) to assist the Farmworker’s Association of Apopka by improving the living conditions of Johnnie Mae Byars, who once made her living on the Lake Apopka muck farms that were created during World War II.

As we made our way into one of the economically underserved neighborhoods in Orange County, we passed several little houses flanked by two landfills, a large nursery for landscape plants and a medical waste incinerator. Although they weren’t visible, we were told that a sewage treatment plant and a fiberglass and plastics manufacturing plant were also nearby.

These facilities, woven through a residential community, have many negative health consequences on residents. In fact, even the plant nursery leaks pesticides. Most communities would object to sharing space with landfills and sewage treatments plants. It quickly became clear to us how easy it must be to build these facilities in poorer neighborhoods where land is cheap and the people have little political influence.

Then we arrived at the home of Johnnie Mae Byars. Byars’ experience is a powerful story that mirrors those of all the farmworkers in Apopka. Her father took her out of school at age 12 to work in the muck farms. She picked a wide variety of crops including beans, potatoes, radishes, corn, and carrots and described it as “a whole lot of stress” from 8 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. Constantly bending over day after day, for years on end, caused massive strain on her back and legs. Byars and other workers often found it easier to crawl on the field; however, this shifted the stress to the knees. As a result, Byars has been unable to walk since 1980.

At the time, there was little understanding about the effects of pesticides. “There were no pesticide regulations until 1992 and they were not implemented until 1995,” said Jeannie Economos, Pesticide Health and Safety program coordinator. The chemicals meant to keep crops safe also killed fish and birds, mutated alligators, and have made the farmworker community very sick. Byars reported difficulty breathing and severe nausea after working in the fields. Today, Parkinson’s disease, autism, ADD, diabetes, and lupus are quite common in the farmworker community.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” About 40 people from Rollins worked to rebuild the handicap-accessible ramp to Byars’ front door, replant her garden, and clean up the yard to make it safe for Byars’ nine-year-old granddaughter, Ebony, to play in.

I asked several people, “What does this community need?” Most answered similarly to Dylan Schwartz (Class of 2012), who responded, “More participation in what we are doing.” “Some attention and love,” said Baily Robb (class of 2011). A few, including Byars herself, answered with an honest, “I don’t know.” It was obvious to all of us that the Apopka farmworker community needed more than one Day of Service.

Micki Meyer, director of the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) stated, “This is a symbolic start to the semester and we hope that this is the first of many, many days with our community.”

While the Byars’ property was definitely left in better condition as a result of this initiative, there was definitely a sense of despair mixed with the sense of accomplishment. “This is just one person,” said Rebecca Robbins, graduate assistant for OMA. The Farmworker’s Association of Apopka serves an entire community suffering from ill health and toxicity. As several students noted, the community needs so much more.

“There are two classes of workers not protected under the same rights as other workers – farmworkers and domestic workers,” said Economos. Agricultural practices today degrade people and environment alike with the overuse of pesticides and the under-appreciation of farmworkers. “The best alternative,” said Economos, “is to transform the agricultural system.”

For more information on how to get involved, please visit the websites for OMA and OCE.

For more information about the Farmworkers Association of Florida, please visit


By Michael Barrett (Class of 2013)

Office of Public Relations & Community Affairs
For more information, contact

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