Migrant worker advocate receives honor

NEWARK — Beverly Sirvent’s office at Finger Lakes Community Health’s Newark center is fairly sparse.

Sirvent even pointed out the lack of decor during a Dec. 8 interview at the center, where she is migrant program director. Most of her time is spent outside the office, she explained, traveling between FLHC’s different centers in her work with its outreach teams that stretch from the Adirondacks to the North Country.

So when her colleague, Raquel Medina, wanted to tell her she would be honored with a Latinas Unidas’ Reconocimiento Award for Inspirational Leadership, Medina had a hard time pinning her down at the office in order to make the announcement special. Finally, Medina had to flat out say she had something important to tell her and gave her the news.

"They wanted it (the announcement) to be something all fancy," Sirvent said with a laugh.

She said that she felt honored to have received the Reconocimiento Award in November but had mixed feelings because she doesn’t feel that her work is focused only on the Latino community but on the migrant community in general, which comprises Haitians and Jamaicans along with Hondurans and Guatemalans.

"Of course then, they (coworkers) gave me all the letters they had written," including one from the center’s CEO, Mary Zelazny. "All the wonderful things they said, it makes you cry. … It was nice."

The award also gave her a platform to remind the entire community about the vital role the migrant population serves in putting food on the table for Americans, Sirvent said.

"I work with different agencies that do work with the migrant community, so I think everyone knows about the migrant community," she said. "I have been living in a bubble."

Medina said that she nominated Sirvent because of her dedication to the migrant community. And the medical and outreach teams that Sirvent oversees are "the real justice league," she added. While they don’t work together directly, the two women also are part of the Finger Lakes Migrant Coalition that includes advocates from other area agencies as well, Medina said. She described Sirvent as a go-getter.

"She’s the leader," Medina said. "She identifies the need and then she immediately starts researching for resources. That’s the kind of person she is."

Sirvent has a knack for cutting through the climate of fear that pervades the life of a migrant worker, said Peter Mares of Catholic Charities of Wayne County, who has worked alongside her as a translator.

He also serves with her on the coalition, where she has served in many capacities, and remarked that her award is well-deserved.

"She opens up and tells her feelings and keeps in contact with whatever issues are going on," Mares said. "She’s very sharp. She’s very smart and friendly and approachable. I’ve always just been able to call her."

Sirvent didn’t start out as an advocate and supporter of migrant workers, however.

Growing up in Mexico City, she obtained a degree in agricultural engineering from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. She developed courses in urban planting at the National Institute for Adult Education, an organization similar to Cornell Cooperative Extension, Sirvent said. Even then, she recalls helping people go back to school and finish middle and high school, as many the people she was working with were illiterate, Sirvent said.

Later, she obtained a certificate for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from the University of California and taught at a private school and began writing curriculum for kindergarten through sixth grade.

Meanwhile, her parents retired more than a decade ago and moved back to the Naples area, where she had spent time while growing up when her mother would miss home, she said. Her mother was a missionary in Mexico for many years before meeting her father, a lawyer in Mexico. Because of the challenges he would have had trying to practice law in the United States, her parents stayed in Mexico. When her two brothers also moved back to the area, though, Sirvent said she eventually followed.

Family wasn’t the only reason she chose to move to the Finger Lakes region in 1999. She had considered pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in agricultural engineering and Cornell University in Ithaca, which was one of five universities to offer such options at that time, she explained.

However, when she arrived, she had no idea what she would do, Sirvent said. A neighbor encouraged her to apply for a job as an interpreter at Rushville Health Center. After a short time there, she was recruited to work with the Finger Lakes Migrant Health Project, which is now known as Finger Lakes Community Health. Soon after she came on board in 2000, she became supervisor of the community health workers and became involved with the center’s medical mobile program, she said. Sirvent also offers a medical translation program to staff as well as outside agencies.

When she began overseeing the mobile program, teams visited about 12 migrant camps a year out of the 300 farms that are in the center’s reach, Sirvent said. She increased the staff from 13 people to 180, and now the teams, which provide screening and on-site medical services, visit as many camps as possible.

The center serves nearly 24,000 people annually, including patients at several locations throughout the Finger Lakes, Sirvent said.

In addition to extending access to the mobile service, Sirvent said that she also changed its approach. Teams go out in the evenings and on weekends so as to not interfere with workers’ schedules. Both staff and volunteer medical providers are told to operate in a matter akin to "Doctors without Borders" when they go out to the camps, she said, providing whatever treatment is necessary in the moment.

"We are serving the underserved," she remarked.

Sometimes, the teams also may have to coax workers into getting screenings or treatments, and that’s where her Spanish spoken with a native Mexican accent comes in handy, she said.

"This is my passion, to be with them," she said of the workers.

Sirvent’s work with the mobile program has saved many people, Medina noted.

"I commend her for the work she does every day," she added.

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