Ten volunteers launched into action the fourth week of 2022 in south Texas to rejuvenate and expand Global Volunteer’s development partnership in the Rio Grande Valley. Eager to demonstrate genuine compassion and acceptance through their service to families and refugees touched by hardship and poverty, they offered their skills and energy to community partner Proyecto Azteca and affiliated organizations. Inspired by César Chávez, the organization’s name translates to “Aztec Project” and refers to the activist’s heritage and work for justice for oppressed minorities. The team shares their reflections here and invites all to follow in their footsteps on Global Volunteer’s renewed service program:
In a modest, single-story wood-frame office, Proyecto Azteca Director Ann Cass explained that volunteers working alongside her staff and local residents bring respect, recognition and hope to so many who feel rejected and forgotten in the dusty borderlands of south Texas. Global Volunteers’ partnership with Proyecto Azteca extended from 1994 through 2000, until the self-help organization’s diminished funding required our service program suspension. Now, as the public’s eyes are trained on the U.S.-Mexico border, Global Volunteers eagerly accepts the community’s invitation to work in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley with local non-profits who center their programs around refugee resettlement and the 33 percent of the Valley’s residents currently living in poverty.
Motivated by the statistics, and buoyed by Ann’s encouragement, Bonnie, Carlos, David, Kristin, Margy, Nancy, Pat, Pepper, Rose and Walt dispersed to four work sites in San Juan and McAllen.
As Global Volunteers’ lead community partner, Proyecto Azteca, immediately engaged Walt and Dave at one of their San Juan offices to help move furniture and remove the floor tiles so the sub-floor could be prepped for the installation of new tiles. Both men were grateful for the labor projects, and although the work was tiring, they appreciated their sore muscles at the end of the day. Proyecto Azteca builds up to 50 homes annually with residents living in the colonias of Hidalgo County, but benefits from volunteers’ extra “helping hands” to attend to their own structures.
Meanwhile, at the short-staffed El Milagro Clinic in McAllen, the team’s three retired nurses got to work processing paperwork, checking in non-insured patients, reporting test results and generally serving as an extra pair of hands. The clinic provides comprehensive primary, behavioral and non-emergency care to Valley residents who are unable to pay for services.
Volunteer Margy Siembieda remarked, “All the employees were welcoming, professional, knowledgeable, and most importantly, kind to the patients and each other.” The patients were sometimes anxious about their condition,” she said, but they too were always polite and kind.
Added volunteer Kristen Silva: “The work flow was smooth and efficient. I think I can speak for the three of us that we felt productive by positively contributing to the clinic, and we enjoyed ourselves working alongside the staff who were so welcoming.” She also provided nursing skills at the Humanitarian Respite Center, operated by Catholic Charities, in McAllen. “I spent most of the time behind the farmacia table, distributing everything from OTC meds and diapers to formula, combs, nail clippers and any of the other myriad needs of the refugees,” she recalled. “I finally found a thermometer and checked a couple temps, looked at some sore throats and skin rashes, found a working glucometer, and tested a blood glucose and blood pressure on a diabetic woman who hadn’t had her blood glucose checked in five days.”
Health conditions plague residents of the impoverished neighborhoods (colonias) located in food deserts – rural areas more than ten miles from a supermarket. Volunteer Pepper VanBeest said the team saw these conditions first-hand on a community tour. “Most alarming was that as we drove through the area, we never saw a grocery store where residents have easy access to fresh meat and produce.” Because impoverished people rely on cheap, processed, low-quality foods that are available in nearer convenience stores, people develop diabetes and malnutrition, often in the form of obesity, because of inadequate vitamins and minerals, and excessive carbohydrates, sugar and fat.
To address these pervasive circumstances, the clinic offers health education, wellness activities and food distribution in addition to diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.
Providing Life’s Basics Where Access is Limited
Down the road at the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, several volunteers worked shifts each day loading boxes and preparing food for transport to some of the program’s 50 distribution sites serving 76,000 people experiencing food insecurity weekly in a three-county area. Incorporated in 1986, the Food Bank now supports more clients than any other South Texas charity.
Volunteer Bonnie Burrows was pleased that she and volunteer Rose Eagan were able to help pack 60 or 70 boxes of food staples on 24 pallets. “That sounds like a lot,” she said, “but on the chart Lara, the Senior Box supervisor, showed me, some days they need 1,200 boxes!”
Pepper explained the organization’s twice-monthly direct food distribution event: “We each had a station outside where we placed food items into families’ cars as they drove through the line. There was ham, chicken, pasta, pistachios, soup, fresh peppers, tomatoes and more. We served over 500 families, yet left many wanting as the 7:00 to 10:00 a.m. distribution time expired. Global Volunteers’ USA Operations Director Peter Kelly explained the police and fire departments limit the food distribution event to these three morning hours to avoid severe traffic interruptions around the site. But, he said, “I left (the food bank) about 10:30, and there were still probably 60 or 70 cars, and people still pulling up, thinking that they could still get some food that day.” These families are directed to the daily food distribution at the center, he said, and the following week, a local elementary school will set up a produce market to enable students on a Friday to select food they to take home for the weekend for their families.
Kristen said she learned that people lined up in their cars for ten miles at 2:00 a.m. for the 7:00 a.m. food distribution. “Without our group helping, I think it would have been a struggle for the remaining volunteers who were there. That was a sobering (and sad) realization of the severe poverty in the area.”
Every team member also spent at least part of the week playing with children, serving meals, organizing and distributing donated clothes and pharmaceuticals, and encouraging clients of the Respite Center. This agency was initiated as a direct response to the refugee relief crisis that began in June of 2014 in the Rio Grande Valley and has since served some 100,000 refugees. Peter said the INS Border Control who picks people up where they cross into the United States, allow some to stay in the country, pending an asylum hearing, or because they’re going through the normal immigration process. “It’s very complicated and very complex, and it depends on which border agent you deal with,” he said. “But, people who come to the Respite Center are allowed (to stay) in the country.”
“It’s essentially a way station for people who are likely going to go stay with family or friends, or who have sponsors in the United States,” he added. They might stay for three or four hours, or three or four days to recover and recoup.” During their stop at the Respite Center, the staff supplies them with much of what they need for travel to their next destination, Peter said, “because a lot of them come into the country with just the clothes on their back and they don’t have anything else.”
Peter said another immediate need is feeding families when they are brought to the center by Border Control agents. The volunteers helped serve breakfast, lunch or dinner – depending upon when the refugees arrived – and packed meals for their transit. “When they leave, when they go off to wherever they’re going, either to the airport or the bus station, the Respite Center gives them a care package including sandwiches, fruit and other things for every day that they’re going to travel,” he added.
“The biggest impact (for me) was gaining a better understanding of what people go through when they arrive in the U.S.,” Rose reflected. “There was an El Salvadoran dad and daughter who had been on the road for 17 days, mostly walking. He carried his daughter on his shoulders as they crossed the river. His wife can’t join him for three years.”
The assignments with adults and children varied each day. “Pepper and I started out sorting clothes with two staff members. They were young women who worked hard and were joking and happy,” Rose recalled. “But, the best part of my day was working at the children’s activity table – not really hard work, but fun. They were happy kids who had big hearts and just enjoyed being kids. I loved every minute of this three-hour assignment. A mom of a three-year-old came up to me and said, ‘My daughter loves you!’ Melted my heart.”
Bonnie continued: “Our afternoon sped by with much the same focus – supporting a positive experience for each migrant. Although we initially were frustrated by the lack of inventory to give each person a change of clothes, all that was forgotten when we spotted an adorable toddler laughing and twirling around the room in her new tights and T-shirt that we had found at the last minute.”
A Delicious Mix of Tex-Mex Flavor and Culture
A local cook prepared authentic South Texas team dinners each evening. “Everybody raved about the homemade tamales, chicken mole, Mexican chicken soup and all the meals,” Peter asserted. “On the final evening of the program, everybody came out to the car that she was sitting in and gave her a round of applause for her cooking.”
Their work assignments, combined with evening presentations by local hosts, seasoned the team’s “taste” of South Texas culture. “On the first day, Proyecto Azteca Director Ann Cass told us about the organization’s history, what they do – the model, and life in the Rio Grande Valley – a lot of demographics and just a lot of information about the people in the community,” Peter shared. The team toured the community within sight of the border wall one evening and stopped to discuss U.S. policy – past and present. Another evening speaker offered a frank perspective of the socioeconomic conditions driving refugees to the border.
“It was an eye-opening experience. I know I touched some lives,” said Rose.
Bonnie was deeply moved by local people’s gratitude for the team’s service. At the food bank, Lara thanked her for traveling from California to assist the community. “When I replied that it was certainly my pleasure, she insisted, ‘No, it means a lot’ and showed me her arm as she said, ‘It gives me goose bumps to know you came to help.’ Obviously, that had a profound effect on me.”
Kristin said she’ll certainly return to the Valley for another service program. “My experience spending a week in San Juan with Global Volunteers was nothing short of incredible – so much so, that I’m thinking of going back with a couple friends later this spring.”