DADE CITY — Georgina Rivera-Singletary still vividly remembers life "back in the day when we were traveling."
Home meant plywood walls and concrete floors in a subdivided barn that had no plumbing and minimal electricity. And that's if she was lucky.
When not at school, she spent her time doing chores, baby-sitting, making sure her parents didn't have to work too hard after a long day in the fields. Playing with friends, well, that was a luxury that didn't happen too often. Not like she necessarily wanted school mates to see the Lacoochee labor camp where her family lived.
By the time high school rolled around, Rivera-Singletary dropped out to get married. Still 14, she had to leave Florida to legally wed.
It was then she began picking fruits and vegetables herself, traveling the country along with the crop seasons.
Despite all this, she recalls, "I always knew in my heart I would do something."
That she has.
Since she left the fields for good in 1987, Rivera-Singletary has completed her GED, associate's degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree and education specialist degree — the first person in her family in generations to go to college. (She's working on her doctorate now.)
She moved from clerical work to counseling to an assistant principal job at Pasco High. She retains a steady focus on helping kids like she was, mentoring them, advising them and volunteering her time to organizations that serve migrant families.
For all that, the state of Florida has named Rivera-Singletary, 43, its 2008 migrant success story of the year.
Angie Black, who ran the county's adult migrant program in the 1980s, still remembers the day Rivera-Singletary rolled up in her gas-guzzling truck. She had recently given birth to a second child, and she was looking for options outside farming.
"Just talking to her, I realized she was way too articulate, much more than the normal client I had seen, in English and Spanish," Black said. "I told her to take the GED and eventually get into college. She pretested for her GED and she was ready to take the test right then and there."
Rivera-Singletary easily passed the exam and began job training through what's now called the Farm Workers Jobs and Education Program.
But "I had to convince my children's father that I needed to do this. That was a little hard," Rivera-Singletary recalled.
After about a year spent working in offices, she gave it up for Pennsylvania apple season.
"She told me that she had to go and migrate up north to go pick to make her car payment," Black said. "I was furious, hurt, devastated."
Those five months of apple picking turned out to be her last, though.
Rivera-Singletary returned to Pasco County, where Black again helped her find a job and return to school.
"I had planted that seed that was still growing strong inside her," Black said.
That decision to go back to school cost Rivera-Singletary her first marriage. Still, as a single parent of three, she was able to succeed while also seeing her children through their own schooling.
"She figured out, 'I don't have to do this (migrant farming). I don't want to do this,' " said her sister, Elvira Guerrero. "She pretty much scratched her way from the bottom to the top."
And having made it to the top, Rivera-Singletary not only doesn't forget, but she strives to help migrant families today as she received help "back in the day."
She collects clothing, furniture and other necessities for the migrant Head Start program in Lakeland. She conducts monthly Spanish-language parent meetings at Pasco High, and keeps tabs on their children. She spends her summers volunteering at migrant camps and centers.
"You know what? The successes would not have come had I not had caring people around me," Rivera-Singletary said. "Now I have all these kids that look up to me, that are my drive. I want for them one day to have stories about me like I have about Angie."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.