Philip Kellerman comes by his passion for social justice genetically. His grandmother, a social worker, spent her life caring for the poor. His father was an ophthalmologist, and his parents lived at various times in the Caribbean and Africa, providing medical care to people there.
Kellerman, who grew up in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, in Manhasset, N.Y., began his working life as a special education teacher, then worked 22 years for the Eastern Stream Center on Resources and Training [ESCORT], an organization in New York State dedicated to improving educational opportunities for migrant farmworkers and their children. For 16 years, as part of that job, he answered the National Migrant Education Hotline, established by the federal government at ESCORT.
When his grandmother died in 1996, she left him a substantial inheritance from his grandparents’ investments in the stock market. He knew immediately what he wanted to do with it.
From his years of answering calls on the hotline, he knew there was a vast need for short-term emergency help for migrant workers whose cars break down, who need immediate medical care, help with paying utility bills, and even replacement clothing.
“From all those thousands of calls on the hotline I learned that migrants are largely invisible and unrecognized,” he said. “They are people who do the hard work and who really have earned our support.”
In 1997 he created the Harvest of Hope Foundation where he lives in Gainesville, Fla. This past summer, the foundation gave out its millionth dollar of direct aid. Kellerman estimates it has helped around 10,000 migrant workers. He believes Harvest of Hope is the only national foundation that focuses exclusively on a broad range of immediate care needs of migrants.
Kellerman, a member of the UU Fellowship of Gainesville*, spends his days—and evenings—answering calls for help, raising money, and speaking with groups about migrant care. The foundation gives money only to companies providing services—mechanics, utility companies, and rental agents, for example.
He notes that while some of the people the foundation helps are undocumented, many are U.S. citizens getting by on little money. They have no cushion for emergencies. He remembers the worker in Michigan who tested positive for tuberculosis, the family in California whose apartment burned, the family that needed funds to send a father’s body back to Mexico for burial, the farmworker who collapsed with an inoperable tumor.
“We’re serving a very small percentage of the need,” Kellerman said. I could use 10 times the money we have.” The foundation has an annual budget of around $100,000 and about three-fourths of that goes out in direct aid.
What keeps him going after hearing all these stories? “Most days I go to bed knowing I have helped people who really need it and who have nowhere else to turn,” Kellerman said. “We’ll fix someone’s vehicle, get someone a scholarship, help someone else keep the electricity on.”
The lack of immigration reform makes his job difficult, he added. “It’s so difficult to help someone without papers.”
When he speaks to civic groups he tailors his presentation to the group. “If it’s a business group, I’ll address immigration from an economic angle—immigration as a dysfunctional system. If it’s a group of elders, many of whom likely grew up on farms, I’ll stress my close relationship with my grandmother, and point out that migrant workers are doing a lot of our farmwork now, raising our food. And I’ll note that what the foundation does is give a hand up, not a handout.”
The foundation and its supporters around the country hold a variety of fundraisers for it annually, including a pool tournament, concerts, and bake sales. Kellerman said antique items, including political campaign items, are another significant source of income for the foundation. “I’ve collected campaign buttons for many years. We also get a lot of donated political items. We’ve raised $50,000 in that way in the past 10 years. Now we’re getting more antiques and other collectibles. That’s a good way to support nonprofits.”
The foundation also collects used shoes for farmworkers. In the past year it has distributed more than 1,200 pairs of shoes and sneakers to migrant programs around the country. “We accept all sizes, but sizes six to nine are preferred,” he said. Detailed information on the shoe donation program is on the foundation’s website.
The foundation is connected with a local interfaith group in Gainesville. It receives support from congregations of several denominations. “We hope more UU congregations will support us with contributions, shoe collections, or in other ways,” he said.
He said he can’t imagine doing anything else with his life. “This has been life-changing for me, both personally and professionally,” Kellerman said. “When I get notes from people we’ve helped it really invigorates me. We’re doing what no other national foundation does, and it’s important that we continue to be here.”
Correction 10.4.12: An earlier version of this story omitted Philip Kellerman's congregational affiliation. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
- Hold up those lights 2012 Justice General Assembly
- Congregations as allies in the fight for immigrant rights
- Florida UUs campaign for impoverished migrant workers
- Harvest of Hope Foundation Official website of the foundation that assists migrant workers with daily needs. (harvestofhope.net)