Joe Boland

The Zeller family has been farming in northeast Ohio for more than 90 years.  They are the proud owners of K.W. Zeller and Sons, Inc., a large farm in Hartville, Ohio, that employs approximately 150 people--100 of whom are seasonal migrant workers that help cultivate and harvest an array of crops to feed thousands of people across the country. 

The fertile, jet-black soil of this area is perfectly suited for the cultivation of “wet vegetables.”  With 750 acres of land to work, the farm grows lettuce, kale, radishes, beets, parsley, cilantro, green onions and endives.  The operation is massive and methodical: food is planted, picked, cleaned, refrigerated and immediately shipped to market from the farm. The  Zellers ship more than one million crates of fresh vegetables during the growing season to as far east as Boston, as far west as Chicago, and as far south as Miami.

The scale of this operation requires outside help.  Hartville is a town of less than 3,000 people, and while Zeller’s employs local people, they also must look to other states for seasonal employees.  Migrant farm workers travel to Ohio in May and stay through October.  Many come from the southern states, such as Georgia, Florida or Texas. 

Alma Ciriello, a Church leader funded by Catholic Extension, in the field with Maricela, an active Catholic woman, as she picks green onions.

The farm collaborates closely with the local faith community.  On Sunday, 70 people pack into the company-owned chapel for Mass, which is celebrated by a local priest.  During the week, the Diocese of Youngstown, with Catholic Extension’s support, offers religious education for children and adults.  

Being grounded in a faith community is critical for migrant people who are constantly on the move.  This is especially true for school-age children. 

This year, the Diocese of Youngstown asked Catholic Extension to help fund a Migrant Bible Camp for approximately 50 children. Held just down the road from the fields where their parents work, the children spend their days learning Scripture, crafts and science. 

Karina Hernandez, a 13-year-old who is preparing for her confirmation this year, participates in the camp.  From October to May she lives in Florida; from May to October she lives in Ohio.  She appreciates the opportunity to learn and to make new and deeper friendships at the camp. 

Karina is particularly thankful to the special donors who made this year’s Bible camp possible.  She was aware that a youth group from Salinas, California, made a designated gift to Catholic Extension to fund the Bible camp.  The youth group in California is largely comprised of people who were raised by migrant farm-worker parents in the Salinas Valley. 

“The Migrant Bible Camp Kids in Hartville, Ohio”

Empathy knows no limitations.  So, even though the youth group of Cristo Rey Church in the Diocese of Monterey is located more than 2,500 miles away from Hartville, they were still able to make a difference in the lives of other young people who share the farm worker experience. 

Their act of generosity provides a vivid reminder of the ultimate purpose of Catholic Extension, which is to serve as the vehicle to connect Catholics in mission from one coast to another. 

Catholic Extension seeks, to “awaken the missionary spirit” in all Catholics, as our founder, Father Francis Clement Kelley had envisioned. Catholic Extension nurtures the core of our ecclesial identity, which is that as Catholics we take part in a Church that is greater than just our own parish or diocese.  We are not simply a collection of churches with a mission, but sharers in a mission (Christ’s mission) which has a Church.   

While the migrant children learned many things this week in Hartville, perhaps the most important lesson they learned is that the love of God and neighbor described in the Scriptures is still alive today in the hearts of the faithful, starting with the youth of the Salinas Valley. 

The migrant children in Hartville put together a thank you card for their counterparts in Salinas.  Along with all of their signatures, was a very simple yet profound message:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.” Luke 18:16,

To our sponsors:

God bless people like you who are concerned that children know and come to Jesus. From the bottom of our hearts, Thank you!

Hartville, OH