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Florida's fighting grandma.

In March 1991, Mary Ellen Beaver lost her patience. For weeks she had been trying to visit the 2,000 sugarcane cutters at the Okeelanta Sugar Company, near South Bay, Florida, but the company insisted that she couldn't set foot on its property. As an advocate for migrants, Beaver wanted to talk to migrant workers to be sure they understood their rights and were working under adequate conditions.

"It was getting near the end of cutting season and I had to do something," Beaver says. "Finally, I just decided to go."

Arriving at the plant, she began talking to workers, but five company officials cornered Beaver and tried to intimidate her. "They said to me, |You can't be here. This is company property.' I said, |Like hell I can't. The workers live here.' I wasn't scared. What could they do? Kill me in front of all those workers?"

To keep Beaver off its property, Okeelanta sued her employer, Florida Rural Legal Services. But the agency counter-sued and won.

It was another victory for Beaver. Each year since 1989, the sixty-two-year-old grandmother has logged more than 40,000 miles in her Plymouth Colt to reach out to workers in Florida and South Carolina.

"Her energy is enormous," says Greg Shell, Beaver's supervisor at Florida Rural Legal Services. "Mary Ellen inspires me whenever I get down on the job. She is working at a very tough job at an age when most people are getting ready to retire."

Beaver, a devoted Roman Catholic, gives a simple answer when asked why she has dedicated her life to the welfare of migrant workers: "I do it because I believe defrauding a laborer of wages is a great sin."

In 1969, Beaver was nearly forty and the mother of seven children when she became interested in migrant-worker conditions. She couldn't ignore the shabbily dressed black men and women who passed by her rural Pennsylvania farm in dilapidated buses on their way to the tomato fields. Beaver took clothing to the workers and helped organize local Catholic churches to provide social services to the tomato pickers. An ironing board and a kitchen table served as her office.

"I was outraged," Beaver recalls. "They had no rights and were being exploited. Nobody should be treated that way."

Beaver became the catalyst for Pennsylvania's 1978 Farm Labor Law. Among the toughest laws of its kind in the nation, it ensures that anyone providing legal and social services to farm workers can have access to migrant camps.

Two years later, Beaver decided that workers needed a lobbying support group, so she began knocking on the doors of foundations and raised enough money to help start Friends of Farm Workers. In 1984, Pope John Paul awarded Beaver a medal for humanitarian work on behalf of Pennsylvania migrants.

Beaver worked for the Friends of Farm Workers until 1985, when she joined Maryland Legal Aid. The first year, the agency had no money to pay Beaver, so she worked as a volunteer, even though by then she was divorced and struggling to make ends meet. She would sleep in her office during the week and make a five-and-a-half-hour commute on the weekends to her Pennsylvania farm.

Today, Beaver divides her time between Florida and South Carolina, where she works for the Neighborhood Legal Assistance Program, trying to improve working conditions in the state's peach fields, which are among the worst in the nation.

Beaver admits her job can often be frustrating. Still, she feels rewarded. "It's worth it when a worker comes Up to me and says, |No one has ever treated me with respect before.'"

That is what makes Beaver effective. "The workers see she is obviously concerned about people," says her colleague Greg Shell.

"Her faith shines through. She gives workers the hope that maybe something can be done about their problems. They know someone is on their side."
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Title Annotation:Mary Ellen Beaver, advocate for migrant workers
Author:Chepesiuk, Ron
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:649
Previous Article:Turn it off.
Next Article:Battling the religious right.
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