MedWatch Today: Chaplains in the Valley are Helping Immigrant Workers Cope

Med Watch Today

FRESNO, California (KSEE/KGPE) – In 2012, Community Medical Centers helped start an accredited chaplain education program in the Valley to train individuals providing professional pastoral care to those in hospitals, for first responders and in times of crisis. Now, that training is expanding to other types of chaplains. With the Central Valley providing employment to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, chaplains play a significant role in their mental health and success.

We talked with police chaplain Paul Gendron, who founded Workforce Chaplaincy–
a non-profit organization with a mission to help workers cope with adjusting to their lives while away from their home country, friends and family.

“So one of the thoughts that I had is that most people spend more than half of their waking hours at work so the workplace is an extended place for people–whether that’s farm workers or industrial workers or professional workers– and the opportunity to give care and express care confidentially is something we get to do where they work,” Gendron said.

The Central Valley’s booming agricultural industry is a setting that often sees a deeper need for the work of a chaplain.

“Sometimes the men just feel lonely and so they just need someone they can talk to and just listen to them about their lives back home that they miss while they’re working very long days here. We know that the men love coming here to the United States because they often times earn 7-10 times as much here as they might in Mexico so it’s an incredible opportunity for them. But, it also comes at a cost,” said Gendron.

“Away from families…many of them are dealing with grief, it’s maybe temporary grief, but they miss their family members, they miss their children, they want to see them, but they cannot. So it’s impacting their work, but when a chaplain goes there and supports them, they really get the connection from each other and sometimes they find another meaning–they really find the real meaning of their life–how to be here and make sense,” said Reverend Ki Do Ahn, the program supervisor of the Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, program in the Valley.

Community Medical Centers supports the training program and provides clinical experiences in the hospital for chaplain trainees. Last year, funding expanded to specifically train chaplains who are working with under-served, rural populations like farm workers.

“So, it’s excellent training, it’s very rigorous when it comes to the mental health side of coming alongside people. We’re not therapists, we’re not counselors, but we are skilled listeners and can support people in a variety of different things, whether they’re related to their family, maybe a marriage, but the common things that people struggle with, we like to come alongside and support them in those areas,” Gendron said.

Workforce Chaplaincy sent its employees through CPE training and partnered with fresh harvest, an Ag labor and harvesting company, that recognizes the great importance of providing chaplains for its workers. Chaplain, John Gutierrez explains that it’s not a job to him… it’s about being a friend to someone in need.

“The things that I find very rewarding or surprising to me is becoming friends with them and earning their trust and they talk to me as a friend–not as somebody with authority, not with somebody who has a title, someone they know they can talk to and will listen to them and to me that’s the goal every season that comes up and new individuals come in–I want to earn their trust. I want to be able to know that they can talk to me anytime, any place, anywhere…anything and know that I’m listening,” Gutierrez said.

A typical day for a worker is to wake up, go out to the fields, come back, have dinner, shower and sleep, then repeat–with not much time to make connections in the outside world except for when a chaplain comes and visits. One of the goals of a chaplain is to give workers motivation to work toward something.

“I try to emphasize to them–come with a purpose. Don’t come just to make money because then you’ll go home, throw a big party and spend all your money, and what’s the end result–better your families. You’re away from your family. Use that time to make something with your family and for your family and let your family know how much you care for them and that you’re willing to work hard for them. So that’s one of the things that I try to drill into them,” said Gutierrez.

In order to become a chaplain, students must complete a minimum of 1200 hours of practice and classes. Before Community partnered with other hospitals to set up the accredited training program here, those wanting to be chaplains had to travel far outside the Valley for their training.

“Now with clinical pastoral education at Central Valley, we can do that here in our own backyard. So it’s a great partnership between Community hospitals and CPE and between Fresh Harvest companies that are generous and really want to see young men not only work hard in their company, but also be supported so they can be successful here. So, I really see it as kind of a wide network of relationships that we all bring to the table to support people,” said Gendron.

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