By John Newton
La Voz Latina
TOOMBS COUNTY, GEORGIA — Antonio Diego doesn’t act like a man who was facing a death sentence just four years ago. Today, the deep lines in the wiry Guatemalan’s face break into a smile with the least provocation. They are the result of a lifetime spent in stoop labor under the hot sun harvesting row crops from Baja California to the sweet onion fields of Vidalia. That’s where a local doctor told him that he was suffering from acute kidney failure and would not survive unless he received an expensive kidney transplant or began dialysis (blood-cleansing) treatments immediately.
According to Andrea (Cruz) Hinojosa, the founder and director of the Southeast Georgia Communities Project (SGCP) or “Proyecto TEMA”, a migrant health and education outreach organization in nearby Lyons, Georgia, Mr. Diego didn’t regard either of those options as realistic ones. “This little man thoughT he was going to die,” she said. “He would cry and get depressed and he really thought his life was ended. It costs about $70,000 a year for dialysis and he knew he couldn’t afford it.”
Founded in 1995, Hinojosa’s organization serves local Spanish-speaking residents and migrant farm workers, a growing community that has struggled with issues of education, health and access to social services since it established itself in the onion fields of southeast Georgia some 30 years ago.
Since its inception, SGCP has created a network of interpreters for medical visits; recruited VISTA volunteers to conduct cultural sensitivity workshops for local health department and hospital staff nurses; established a prenatal education program with follow-up home visits for new migrant farm worker mothers; helped create a farm worker education and prevention program; developed a legal assistance program through the Georgia Legal Services Project; established an annual farm worker health fair attended by over 1,500 farm workers every year and established an afterschool program to reduce gang-violence in the school systems.
In 2002, Hinojosa and her agency stepped in and helped Diego obtain the Medicaid services that now pay for weekly dialysis treatments that have literally saved his life. He responded by planting a tiny garden in a 20’x20’ plot outside his small block home in rural Toombs County and gave away nearly all the corn and squash he produced that first growing season.
“And now he is amazing,” Hinojosa said. “His garden is huge and he feeds so many people. He works in a local onion factory and spends the rest of his time tending this wonderful garden and giving away his vegetables.”
After his landlord offered it, Diego took the raw bottomland that sloped down the hill behind his home and cleared it by hand with a hoe and a shovel. “Someone asked me where I kept the machinery to tend to my garden,” he said. “ I held up both my hands and said- this is my tractor and this is my plow.”
Today his garden covers an area the length…