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’I have empathy with these people:’ Central Florida woman honored for helping migrant farm workers

Mexican-American founder of nonprofit named Orlando’s ‘Unsung Hero’

Isaret Jeffers was recently honored for her work with Colectivo Arbol.
Isaret Jeffers was recently honored for her work with Colectivo Arbol. (Courtesy of Colectivo Arbol)

She is a proud Mexican-American. She is the founder of a nonprofit. She is the daughter of a Texas migrant farmer. Now, Isaret Jeffers holds the title as one of the City of Orlando’s Hispanic Heritage Month Unsung Hero.

“I’m surprised,” Jeffers said in her best English. “When they told me Hispanic Hero. Me? No, I am not a hero, I am only - I have empathy with these people, but I am not a hero.”

Don’t let the humbleness behind Jeffers’ wide smile fool you. To thousands of migrant farmworkers across five counties in Central Florida, she is their hero.

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Jeffers is the founder of the nonprofit Colectivo Arbol, which in English translates to “Collective Tree.”

Colectivo Arbol, we are an organization, we are working for immigrant families in the field (who are) picking up vegetables,” Jeffers said in a Zoom call earlier this week.

It’s an organization that in normal times provides food, medical supplies and educational services to migrant farmworkers in Osceola, Orange, Polk, Hillsborough and Highland Counties. However, as we all know we are not living in normal times.

Jeffers said the pandemic has shut down many restaurants, hotels, cruise ships and more, which in turn cut down the hours of many farmworkers already barely surviving on picking peppers by the pound.

“They only work two or three days a week and a couple of hours,” Jeffers said.

So Jeffers, being a one-woman operation spanning five counties, knew she needed to do more.

Colectivo Arbol provides migrant farm-workers with a variety of services.
Colectivo Arbol provides migrant farm-workers with a variety of services. (Colectivo Arbol)

University of Central Florida journalism lecturer and Cuban-American Dr. Erica Rodriguez Kight met Jeffers through a study she and a colleague, UCF associate instructor Katie Coronado, were doing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They knew they wanted to get involved.

“When I met Isa, I saw her giving back to this community with an all-in approach. I witnessed her walk through the fields and read health information from a brochure as they were working, answering questions about new rules regarding immigration, taking attorneys out there, she goes straight to the farms to do this,” Kight said.

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Kight has also joined Colectivo Arbol as a volunteer communications specialist talking about how Jeffers has doubled down on her efforts for these farm-workers during the pandemic.

“Isa has distributed about 800 gallons of milk per week to families all over Central Florida,” Kight said. “Masks, food, basic grocery supplies, staples like rice and beans, she takes doctors out there from a clinic.”

“And testing,” Jeffers added to the conversation.

“She had testing where they can drive-up and get tested, all kinds of services,” Kight said. “This community does not necessarily qualify for the stimulus packages and unemployment benefits that the rest of us qualify for, so the pandemic has hit them especially hard.”

[FULL INTERVIEW: Watch Jeffers' reaction as she is awarded a grant]

It’s why Kight and Coronado submitted for a grant through the Nielsen Foundation and during News 6′s interview, they surprised Jeffers with the announcement that $7,000 is coming their way for a public service announcement campaign to further their reach to farm-workers in need during this time.

Though it may seem impossible, Jeffers' wide smile got even bigger as she danced in excitement holding her dog.

“Thank you, everybody, for supporting Colectivo Arbol, for supporting Isa Jeffers and for supporting the migrant community, really thank you very much for everybody,” Jeffers said.

It’s this kind of service that led the City of Orlando to honor Jeffers as a Hispanic Heritage Month Unsung Hero.

“During the pandemic, Isaret has distributed free COVID-19 personal protective equipment, food and milk to about 400 farmworkers' families per week. Therefore, the city is proud to select Isaret ‘La Paisanita’ Jeffers as a Hispanic Heritage Month Unsung Hero,” wrote Luis Martinez, deputy manager of multicultural affairs and international relations for the City of Orlando.

It’s also why News 6 wanted to feature Jeffers for Somos Central Florida, our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico to a mother who was born in Texas, Jeffers is proud to be a Mexican-American.

“My grandparents and my mom are farmers too. My mom, she was a farmer when she was 8 years old, she was working in Texas,” Jeffers said. “For me, this is very important, really. I am a Mexican, I am an immigrant woman and people like me, that makes my community - my people - strong.”


For more Somos Central Florida stories, check out clickorlando.com/hispanicheritage.


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