Steven Mainster, who spent more than 30 years as executive director of Centro Campesino Farmworker Center in Homestead, once reflected on a question his parents had posed.
“My parents often asked me if I was ever going to get a real job. There were times I wondered that myself,” Mainster told the Miami Herald in 1986. Ten years earlier, in 1976, he had begun leading the nonprofit South Miami-Dade farmworker advocacy organization.
Mainster, who died July 10 of a heart attack at age 76, soon had an answer for his parents — and for himself. “When I see the housing projects in Naranja and the Redland, the work at the camp, the Centro staff who used to be picking beans, it’s all worth it.”
Under Mainster’s guidance, Centro evolved to help migrants get food and learn job skills. Centro provides access to affordable housing and homeownership support, economic advancement and educational programs.
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Mainster, a licensed home builder, was a member of the We Will Rebuild team in South Miami-Dade after Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. When Hurricanes Charley and Francis struck Florida in 2004, Mainster established an office in DeSoto County to help farmworkers rebuild and negotiated with FEMA to buy trailers to serve as mobile homes for the displaced.
Mainster expanded Centro’s services to include dropout prevention and academic enrichment programs for farmworkers’ children. The Youth Build Program for at-risk youth offered GED assistance and work in construction through building homes.
“A truly good man who made such a difference in so many lives — a blessing in and for our community,” said David Lawrence Jr., chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida and former publisher of the Miami Herald.
Mexican migrant workers began coming to South Miami-Dade in large numbers in the 1950s. Central Americans followed in the 1980s and Haitians in the 1990s, according to Centro Campesino.
In 2007, the United Way honored Mainster with its Essie Silva Community Builder Award.
Born in Brooklyn, Mainster attended seven schools in 10 years because his father’s job as a troubleshooter for a meat company required travel. After earning a political science degree at Cornell University, Mainster and his first wife, Barbara, served a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Peru.
His parents, perplexed a bit by his choices, “were humanists, caring people, but not liberals caught up in the social consciousness thing. I simply enjoyed doing what I could to help poor people,” Mainster told the Herald in 1986.
In Peru, Mainster showed farmers how to improve planting and irrigation systems. He adopted his son Jessie, then 5, and in 1966 moved to upstate New York where he taught English to Mexican-American migrants. In Rochester, he taught special education classes to disadvantaged children and adopted another son, Ken, then 16.
While visiting his parents in North Miami Beach in the early ’70s, he heard of work being done on behalf of migrants in South Miami-Dade by the former Organization for Migrants in Community Action. He volunteered and found a career that served his calling.
“My husband at a very young age became involved in civil rights way back, during the marches in Selma, and then he joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Cornell. That turned his life toward helping those people who were disadvantaged and those people whose voices had been silenced,” his wife, Juanita Sanchez Mainster, said.
After retiring from Centro in 2008, Mainster continued his social justice work. He served on the board of the Everglades Farm Worker Village and negotiated with U.S. Sugar to buy homes it owned in Palm Beach County to convert into family housing.
Most recently, in January, Mainster protested Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to comply with President Donald Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities.
He also fought for the restoration of voting rights for felons who had completed all terms of their sentences. “He put hours after hours getting petitions signed and lobbying people, everything he could do. That was his goal to get that done,” his wife said.
Sanchez Mainster grew up as a migrant worker and was president of the Mexican-American Cultural Arts Council. She married Mainster in 1982.
“We call our family the United Nations Family because we have adopted children, his kids and my kids,” she said. “His world centered around other people but when it came to family it was all about our children and grandchildren. We’d take the sailboat out and anchor in the middle of the bay a whole day. We always had a child with us. He loved watching our kids grow up and helping them understand how to plan for their futures.”
Mainster’s survivors also include his children Ken and Jessie Mainster, Sarah Hall, Kim Bealer, Nick Sanchez and Gloria Sanchez-Lane; 14 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by son Ricky Sanchez. Services were held.