Jocelyn Skolnik is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
I was born and raised in Guatemala. I moved to Jupiter, Florida in 2003 to attend University. I was nervous about the move. I thought I’d be the only Guatemalan living in this beautiful coastal South Florida community. It wasn’t until my college advisor asked me to assist him with a research project on migration that I learned Jupiter was also home to a growing immigrant community.
Beginning in the boom of the 1990s, jobs in construction and landscaping began attracting migrants from Guatemala and Southern Mexico to Jupiter. Today, Jupiter’s Latinos make up 14% of the Town’s population. But in the early 2000s, most Jupiter residents were only aware of the immigrant community via an open-air “labor market” where groups of men frequently waited to be picked up for temporary work.
As part of the research project, I went door-to-door conducting interviews. Most respondents knew little to no English, were unfamiliar with American norms and customs, many worked in high-risk jobs and they would painfully tell stories of discrimination, wage theft, and crime. I remember one father who told me he was riding his bike on his way home from work and being followed by two local teenagers taunting him. Others told stories of working for weeks without being paid. Several respondents reported that they had been victims of crimes, but feared reporting to local authorities.
The day-labor situation created legitimate human health and safety problems. Residents began to complain about the migrant presence, generating great friction between immigrants and established residents. As a university student I participated in Town Hall meetings where I witnessed these tense exchanges, some with harsh racial undertones. While I was still a student, I began interning with Corn Maya Inc. a small non-profit that served as a precursor to El Sol. We started an ESL program and a pilot labor center. We didn’t have many resources, but I managed to borrow a van and reserve university classrooms twice a week for our classes. We quickly learned that demand for our services was high.
The pilot program, along with the advocacy of a small group of neighbors, community leaders, and university students eventually convinced town authorities to approve the opening of El Sol in 2006. As with most new ventures, the stakes were high and there were many doubts. But when El Sol opened its doors in 2006, we witnessed a rapid and orderly transition from the open-air day labor market to the safe and coordinated system of the Center. El Sol rapidly evolved into a multi-service immigrant integration center, providing vocational training, computer literacy classes, health and legal workshops, and civic education (among other services). Our success stories include workers who are now fully employed, attending university, or who own their own businesses.
An event that transpired at the Center during the holiday season provides a telling example. A worker entered and came up to me as the center was about to close. I asked what I could do for him and he looked down and reached out his hand with forty dollars and said, "When I lost my job I came to the center and I was able to improve my English and find steady work. . . . I know it is not much, but I wanted to give something back to El Sol."
This young man’s gesture captures the essence of what El Sol means to Jupiter. My hope is that other communities may learn from our experience and replicate El Sol’s model.
Jocelyn Skolnik is the Executive Director of El Sol since 2009.