News & Blog: Learner Stories


Alma Bouwens, a learner in the Adult Tutoring Program, wrote this article for the winter 2017 issue of our learner newsletter, The Reader

Now that I know what vacation is, life seems to be a whole lot better. There was a time when I didn’t know whatstrawberry vacation was. My father was Texas born and met my mother on the other side of the Rio Grande in Mexico. So before I was born, my father would bring up immigrants from Texas to pick vegetables and fruit in Michigan. My father married my mother in the United States, so that made her an American citizen. Every year they would travel for miles from state to state working on farms along the way. My father had a semi-truck and could fit all our relatives and friends in the back. When they would tell us stories about their travels, we would laugh and say “you were like Gypsys.”

My father landed a job in a furniture factory in Holland, Michigan in 1944. My parents decided to make Holland their home. My parents had eight children. Four of the children were born in Holland, Mi. and the last child was born in Grand Rapids, Mi. By the time I was five, we all knew how to work. Now days, it would be called child labor. Back then we had to work just to keep living. My father didn’t make much being a factory worker, so knowing the farms in the area, my parents felt we could all work to earn money for school clothes.

In July, it was strawberry picking time. Then we picked cherries, getting up at four in the morning, getting ready for work. To end up the summer, my father would pack up the woody, a long station wagon, and he would drive us all back to Holland, Michigan. We lived in a little hut, slept on straw made beds, and worked everyday six days a week picking blueberries. My father would visit us every weekend with a watermelon and sweets. We always looked forward to that. I believe one of my brothers ate more then he picked, because his lips were always purple. This all happened through the summer months every year until I turned eighteen years old. I remember when going to grade school, after summer vacation, all my friends would talk about all the places they went and fun they had. Some went to camps, others went to their grandparents by the lake, and some even went to Disney Land. When my friends would ask,” how was my vacation?” I really didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t want them to know that I worked all summer long, so I would just tell them. “I left the city to go to the country.” Lots of kids thought I was lucky to get out of the city.

When I think back about all those years I worked as a child and young adult, in a way I do feel lucky. Even though we worked eight hours a day, six days a week, we met new friends, played when not working, and went to Sunday church. The farm owner’s children became our friends and they made it nice for us every year we were there. It was a sad year when I finally stop working there. Up to this day, we still keep in contact with the owners and their two children. We are all older now, but whenever we see each other we talk about the good times we had on the farm. To many people, it would probably seem like work. For us, it was a vacation.

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