The Ocala Farm Ministry’s motto is: “We are the people who take care of the people who take care of the horses.”
The children call her Señora Lolita. Everyone calls him Chaplain Bob. Dolores “Dee” and Bob Miller have been serving local horse farm hands and their families for 20 years through the Ocala Farm Ministry.
In Marion and Levy counties, many horse farm workers are Hispanic and do not speak English. The nonprofit’s website notes that many horse racing tracks have a labor population that is almost entirely composed of single males but, on Ocala farms, many in the workforce are people with families and children.
In 2004 , a group of local horse farm owners came together and founded the Ocala Farm Ministry, a chapter of the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America. Unlike other chapters, it is not affiliated with a public racetrack but is a farm-based chaplaincy and a 501(c)(3).
“The Ocala Farm Ministry set out to serve an area larger than Rhode Island,” says Bob Miller, “containing close to 1,000 farms, from 5-acre farms to 5,000-acre farms.”
In the beginning, the ministry was a traveling circuit for Chaplain Bob. The board gave him a pickup truck and he would map out the area he would travel to each day. He would call ahead to ask for permission to walk among the barns and tell farm hands about the ministry. He often visited five to six farms a day.
Before long, the group purchased seven acres across from the Ocala Estates community in northwest Marion County, where many of the farm families live.
A soccer field was created with donations from Florida Farm Managers and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association. The nonprofit purchased a modular building to house a community center, with two classrooms and an area for church services, Boy Scout meetings, consulate services, health clinics and other programs. A donation in 2018 allowed the ministry to construct a concrete building that now houses the after-school program.
Ocala Farm Ministry outreaches include soccer for 4- to 14-year-olds and after the youngsters finish playing, the adults are welcome to play on the lighted fields.
There is an after-school program for kindergarten to high school students three afternoons a week, a scholarship program for students wanting to go to college, assistance connecting to medical care and language translation help with school, work or immigration documents.
Sunday mornings offer a church service in English, with a service in Spanish in the evening. A couple of weekday evenings, there are Bible studies in Spanish and English.
Bob and Dolores are bilingual. He spent his childhood largely between Cuba, where he says his father was a missionary until Fidel Castro expelled all Americans, as well as Ecuador and Miami. She grew up in Cuba and says her family fled the Castro regime and she came to the United States when she was 7 years old.
Dolores, who was a teacher at Redeemer Christian School for 13 years, started running the school program at Ocala Farm Ministry six years ago. The children call the schoolhouse La Escuelita, “the little school,” and fondly refer to her as Señora Lolita. The thrice-weekly sessions begin at 3pm, with about 20 students.
“They take off their shoes and unload their backpacks,” she says. “They begin their homework, if they have any, and we are there to help them.”
The youngsters are given a snack or meal and learn and play games like chess until the last half hour of each session, when “we all settle down on the carpet and have Bible time,” Dolores notes.
“The ‘Escuelita’ is fundamentally an English language remedial program,” Bob offers. “Most of the children who attend were born here but are struggling in public school. None have dropped out, and some have successfully graduated from high school.”
Dolores and Bob are two of four paid staffers. The 12-person board of directors meets monthly to address needs and oversee programs as well as the ministry’s main fundraiser, the annual Call to the Post auction.
The auction in April at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company included items such as National Rodeo tickets, Jack Russell terrier puppies and a diamond necklace. The nonprofit relies on the fundraiser and private donations throughout the year.
The ministry’s campus includes a large playground, a fitness course and an open pavilion weight room. The website notes that the Marion County Sheriff’s Office has credited the community center and playing fields with reducing juvenile crime in the area by more than 20% and that the school program has “an incredible success rate and our kids have gone from failing in school to 90% on the A/B honor roll.”
It also states that the campus has become a great gathering place for local farmworkers and their families and that the ministry “has helped to grow a true sense of community.” OS
To learn more, go to www.ocalafarmministry.org or find them on Facebook.