Perhaps, in a few years, it will be unimaginable that farmworkers would labor in the fields without carrying or wearing a device capable of alerting them to heat warnings.
And when workers are regularly receiving those notifications, maybe it will be unimaginable that the life-saving (and productivity-enhancing) technology sprang from the mind of a high school student in La Cañada Flintridge.
A descendant of generations of farmworkers, Faith Florez appreciates what it takes for fruits and vegetables you enjoy to reach your plate. That’s why she and a team of USC software programming graduate students developed Calor (meaning heat, in Spanish), an app designed to improve farmworkers’ safety by changing the thinking from “work or health” to “work and health.”
“Originally, I’m from a town called Shafter, California, in the heart of the Central Valley,” said Florez, wearing a Brown University lanyard around her neck — and her heart on the sleeve of her LCHS Choral T-shirt. “I’m very devoted to the town.
“Even though I’ve moved here [to LCF], I wanted to find a project that incorporated that aspect of my life and my dedication to my Latina heritage,” she continued. “I wanted to give back, and I thought, ‘The majority of the Latinos here are farmworkers, so I might as well try to start a project that helps them.’”
For her first 10 years, Florez, now a LCHS senior, lived in Shafter. Her father and all of her grandparents and great-grandparents picked grapes, almonds, roses, cotton, watermelons, strawberries or carrots.
“A lot of them lived there and built houses from the ground up, using their own tools,” she said. “But my dad decided he wanted to go to college. A lot of people didn’t do that, or didn’t even finish their high school education, but he graduated and spent two years at Bakersfield College before he transferred to UCLA and from there, he went to Harvard.”
And from there, Dean Florez became a California state assemblyman and state Senator, representing the Central Valley and fighting on behalf of his constituents for overtime pay and to reduce pollutants.
“We moved from the Central Valley kind of midway through Faith’s life,” Dean Florez said. “And even though it’s only 100 miles away, it’s two different worlds. Our biggest issue was how she was going to adjust from going from a 98% Latino student population to the opposite here. And she’s done great — the fact that she continues to reach back and use her great education here to do some good for the folks back home makes us feel good as parents.”
As the Florez family makes regular visits to Shafter, Faith has embraced opportunities available in LCF, where she’s lived since 7th grade. She’s signed up for AP courses, explored theater and choir at school and, about a year and a half ago, applied to a program at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, which called for project ideas blending technology with social justice-related causes.
Akshay Aggarwal is among eight USC students who responded to Florez’s idea. He and the rest of the Calor team have built an app designed to send periodic weather notifications and heat warnings to registered contact numbers in addition to providing information to help educate farmworkers about their rights.
“Ideally,” Faith said, “I see farmworkers picking fruits and vegetables on a really hot day and getting notifications so they can say, ‘OK, it’s 95 degrees, I need a 10-minute break.’ Or if it crosses this threshold, you need to have this many cups of water and you need to get in the shade.”
Those regulations are in place, she said, but workers often don’t know about them or aren’t tracking them.
“When it’s 108 degrees outside and they’re doing very arduous labor, a lot of them are suffering from heat stress, heat illness and heat stroke, and a lot of them were, unfortunately, fatal,” she said.
According to her research, there were 55 agricultural deaths investigated in California between 2008 and 2014 and in 2013, 70% of farms were determined to be operating in compliance with heat enforcement law.
“We had to choose a project, and when we saw this one, we unanimously voted to do it,” Aggarwal said. “It offered us the opportunity to work on something that would be really meaningful to a lot of people. And, honestly, when we read the project description, we were like, ‘OK, there must be a whole team of people who created this. There’s got to be an organization behind this and we’re really excited to meet everyone.’
“Then we found out it was Faith who wrote the whole thing.”
Dean Florez said he’s been wowed by his daughter’s ability to work with such an elite group of scholars.
“My wife and I, we wondered, ‘How is she going to talk to these graduate students?’” he said. “But to watch her have a clear vision of what she wanted to see built and to watch her communicate it to people who aren’t from rural areas at all, that really amazed us.”
Said Faith: “They’re an amazing group. They’re really down to earth and really kind, despite being, like, crazy, awesome, intelligent, smart graduate students.”
Aggarwal said the group quickly forgot it was working with a high school student.
“We don’t see her as someone younger; I don’t think she acts that way,” said Aggarwal, describing four-hour meetings during which Florez wouldn’t miss a beat, and a trip to the Central Valley, where she led discussions with the farmworkers they’re trying to help.
“One thing I’ve noticed about her is that she listens a lot,” Aggarwal said. “Instead of going directly to speak, she’ll listen and then she’ll chime in and I think that’s a really important thing.”
Faith said she’s learned that she’ll need to pitch the app differently depending on her audience: While some farmers seem receptive to the humanitarian angle, others are more interested in avoiding fines and enhancing productivity.
She’s hoping the app will have the same appeal with the public that it had with Aggarwal and his colleagues at USC — an online crowdsourcing fundraiser has recently launched to help pay to convert Calor from its web-based platform into an iOS application that could be used on an Apple watch. The goal is to raise at least $60,000.
“It’s nice to see everyone working with her,” Dean Florez said. “She’s the right messenger, in a way. Who’s going to tell this 17-year-old kid, ‘No, I don’t share your vision’?”
Indeed, the app recently was selected to receive a HERlead Project Grant, which is awarded to help further implementable projects.
“She brought a lot of maturity to the table,” Aggarwal said. “And excitement and passion. If someone is excited and passionate about what they’re doing, that to me is the most important thing.”
“In some ways,” said Faith, who has her eye on Brown University, “it’s a little stressful; I’m in the midst of college apps, I’ve got some AP classes, I’m doing a research paper, but this definitely takes priority in my life. It’s something I want to continue throughout college and after that as well. I want to help my community.”
For more information, visit startsomegood.com/calorapp.