Between County Roads – A Reflection on the Health Hardships and Resilient People of South Texas Colonias

 The Rio Grande Valley is a vibrant hub of US-Mexico hospitality. The distinct foods, rich bi-national culture, and remarkable people create an inviting atmosphere where residents and travelers alike feel at home. Towering palm trees span the terrain between Raymondville to Rio Grande City; painting a picture-perfect view across the four counties that comprise the region. However, behind its tropical setting and charming communities, there is a different picture of the Rio Grande Valley some may not always see.

Resilient People, Structural Inequity

Isolated from nearby towns are rural subdivisions referred to as ‘colonias;’ found throughout unincorporated areas along the Texas-Mexico border. Colonias are home to families with mixed immigration status; children may have a United States citizenship, but their parents may not. While their homes vary in size and appearance, families who live in colonias experience similar challenges. A history of insufficient infrastructure and investment have created barriers that impact health and well-being across a variety of conditions. Deteriorating roads make transportation difficult and sometimes impossible. There is a perpetual concern over life-threatening flooding due to a lack of proper drainage systems. As night falls, most colonias are left in the dark with no streetlights to illuminate the area. The lack of adequate living conditions, medical insurance, and nearby healthcare facilities have contributed to further disparities and years of health inequities. Over the years, the number of colonias has grown, especially near border communities like the Rio Grande Valley. As these problems persist, national organizations like Grantmakers in Health are focusing their attention on the resilient people living there.

Informing National Philanthropy

For more than 40 years, the nonprofit organization has been an arm of support to health funders across the country; including Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. This partnership of philanthropy creates access to a plethora of educational resources; including a network of organizations that fund programs improving the health of all people. The Board of Directors for Grantmakers In Health (GIH), travels to different regions across the country annually to gain insight on key issues affecting communities and cultures; they also meet with different organizations and learn about available tools, resources, and share best practices. Oanh Maroney-Omitade—Vice-President for Organizational Excellence at Methodist Healthcare Ministries and GIH board member explained, “for this year’s retreat the GIH Board was interested in seeing and learning first-hand more about the unique healthcare situations and solutions along the US-Mexico Border as it has been a prime topic in news and politics”. This prompted the most recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley which included visits to colonias. 

A Captivating Culture

Some of Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ executive team joined GIH board members on their trip, which began with a stop at the Museum of South Texas History, in Edinburg. Dotted with designs of Spanish-tile and wrought-iron sculptures from local artists; the museum offers a curated picture into the past, with exhibitions and historical artifacts showcased across its campus. Francisco Guajardo, Ph.D. is the museum’s Chief Executive Officer; he welcomed the group and enlightened them with rich stories and facts emblematic of South Texas history and culture. Along with fellow partners, the Knapp Community Care Foundation and the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation; Methodist Healthcare Ministries invited local funded partners to meet with GIH board members. The museum’s hospitality extended into the early evening as thoughts and strategies were exchanged amongst groups. Jennifer Knoulton, Vice President for Community Health & Wellness for Methodist Healthcare Ministries said about the gathering, “We need to challenge, strengthen, and learn from one another – fostering that level of relationship takes time and intention”.

Pillars of Advocacy

As the trip rippled into the next morning, the visiting representatives traveled to the town of San Juan to meet with staff members from La Unión del Pueblo Entero, otherwise known as LUPE. Murals are seen throughout the property, illustrating a journey from oppression to liberation. The organization’s roots were planted by labor rights activist, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1989 with a shared vision of people working together to impact change. Since then, LUPE has grown in their mission to assist working-class and immigrant families; especially those who reside in colonias. LUPE’s Executive Director, Tania A. Chavez Camacho explained how the organization assists people through social services and English classes and extends to fighting deportation and pushing for adequate streetlights and drainage systems in colonias, but the problems remain; something the GIH group was able to witness firsthand.

Off the Paved Path

LUPE staff invited them to tour nearby colonias; the path took them off major highways and onto rural roads not often travelled. In the small town of Donna, make-shift signs point to a way of life for colonia residents. There are no nearby grocery chains or restaurants in sight; instead, a local business simply called ‘The Little Store,’ was bustling with customers getting their breakfast tacos and items for the day. As the group arrived, they were welcomed with warm smiles and curious onlookers outside the Little Store. As the crowd convened around a set of picnic tables, the staff from LUPE introduced a group of women who live within the colonia. They spoke in Spanish and opened up about their day-to-day lives and the hardships they have endured due to the poor conditions outside their doors. One woman pointed to the countless stray dogs roaming the streets and expressed concern over the growing population. Another woman shared her frustration over the lack of nearby parks or playgrounds, and the limitations it creates for children eager to play. Cracks and craters can be found around every corner of the gravel; it is a regular problem for the colonia, but residents are worried it has become a barrier for emergency vehicles. Through local testimonies the GIH group gained a deeper understanding not only of the obstacles colonia residents experience, but of their welcoming and resilient spirits. 

A Collective Hope

The next colonia was just outside the city of Alamo. A muddied road laid out the path to the next destination; a home that sat at the curb of the colonia. The gate to the chain-linked fence was open and a group of colonia residents and LUPE staff welcomed the visitors onto the property. They gathered under a small canopy and were introduced to the homeowner along with her son. She spoke of the obstacles experienced within her community; something the group had become more familiar with during their trip. Despite the living conditions, she maintained a sense of pride in her home. As any good host would, she prepared refreshments for her guests in anticipation of their arrival. The group was also introduced to a young woman and learned of her plans to pursue a college degree, and her mother, whose overwhelming joy brought her to tears. The camaraderie of the colonia was evident as they shared in each other’s hardships, happiness, and dreams for a better future. “What stands out to me is that colonia residents are not in a situation where they need or want someone to ‘save them’. There is pride of place, of homeownership, and these tax-paying community members want spaces where their voices are heard and acted on. The generosity is astounding, and focusing on their unique strengths and assets is essential in addressing the structural barriers within colonias”, said Knoulton.

A New Outlook

Following the tour, the GIH group departed to their respective areas of the country, carrying newfound knowledge and shared experiences. The insights they gained helped to shed light on different perspectives, from people living within colonias. The investment into learning about the Rio Grande Valley will serve GIH in their mission, and benefit communities faced with similar challenges. Methodist Healthcare Ministries is thankful for its valuable partners and their work toward healthier communities. The bonds created during the GIH tour will continue to strengthen as the path toward health equity is paved forward.

The Rio Grande Valley is booming in business and commerce, with no signs of slowing down. For colonia residents, they are a critical part of that economic and communal fabric of hospitality and culture that makes the RGV so unique. Yet, more work lies ahead for health care funders like GIH and community advocates to address the systemic inequities that persist. Each day, colonia residents are met with a unique set of adversities because of where they live and the scarcity of resources. The focus and support from philanthropic organizations is crucial to these communities striving for change. However, colonia residents continue to navigate through the barriers and bridge opportunities that allow them to amplify their voices. Now, it’s time for the listening to turn into deepened layers of support that allow colonia residents to flourish and thrive.

Funded Partner Spotlight: Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA).

Since 1995, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. has provided over $1.4 billion to improve the well-being of the least served through its clinics, programs, and strategic partnerships. Methodist Healthcare Ministries is proud to partner with organizations that share similar missions and organizational objectives of increasing access to care for uninsured and economically disadvantaged individuals and families across South Texas.  

The Rio Grande Valley’s diverse and binational population is at a crossroads. With over 2.67 million residents in the area, the region surpasses both San Antonio and Austin in population. Despite being one of the largest urban areas in Texas there is a lack of a centralized municipal government which means that resources allocated to the area are often divided among dozens of cities across the region. During the COVID-19 Pandemic this decentralization was even more evident as the unemployment rate in the region increased to 17.3%, far exceeding the statewide rate of 13%, according to the Texas Tribune. However, since 2020 the unemployment rate in the area has dropped to 5.2% in Hidalgo County (the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area) and 4.9% in Cameron County (Brownsville-Harlingen) as of October 2023, according to USA Today.

Part of the effort that is driving this success is the work of the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA). The organization promotes workforce development programs and provides  skilled unemployed or underemployed individuals with connections to employers looking for various types of skilled labor.

 Established in 1995 by Valley Interfaith and industry leaders, VIDA addresses the disconnect between Rio Grande Valley residents and employer demand for skilled labor by providing comprehensive workforce training that better equips program participants to pursue a more gainful means of employment.

For the first time, Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM) is partnering with VIDA to address health equity and the social determinants of health (SDOH). One of these priority areas includes education and workforce development, which overlap with VIDA’s mission and vision.

As an MHM partner receiving 2023 grant dollars, VIDA recently received a capacity building grant of $60,000 to hire a Development Director.  The Development Director will strengthen and cultivate new partnerships as well as identify new sources of funding to support the organization and its programs.

“VIDA was developed as a workforce development intermediary where to help industries fill those jobs that were in high demand evolving with technological advances and at the same time give residents of our region more opportunity to upskill and achieve economic mobility,” said Felida Villarreal, President and CEO of VIDA.

Today, VIDA builds institutional relationships in the Rio Grande Valley that links employers to unemployed and/or underemployed residents and uses these relationships to create necessary support services for their students such as career guidance, intensive case management and financial assistance.

“VIDA offers a variety of wraparound student support services that vary from student to student because it’s very customized to the individual’s needs,” Villareal said. “We can provide anything from tuition, tools, transportation or childcare assistance as well as financial assistance for anything they may need in their career journey to ensure program persistence and completion.”

Prior to joining the program participants typically earned $8 an hour but graduates earn an average annual salary of $47,756. VIDA is opening doors to better employment opportunities that include higher salaries, access to employer sponsored healthcare insurance and established career paths with room for growth.

“That drastic change and being able to achieve that economic prosperity, has a tremendous impact on their lives and that of their families,” Villarreal said. “There’s just no limit to the potential and professional growth from that point on. We’ve even seen some of our graduates become successful business owners.”

According to the Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies, the Rio Grande Valley is currently experiencing a shortage of 6,000 nurses across the region which puts further strain on existing medical staff and their ability to serve patients. In response to this, VIDA recently made national headlines as one of 25 organizations across the nation to be awarded the $3 million Nursing Expansion Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. This will be key in providing services for students pursuing careers in the medical field and alleviating the shortage of nurses in the area.

“We’re truly grateful for the opportunity to be selected as a MHM grant recipient,” said Villarreal “We’ve already expanded our fundraising division and are seeking additional opportunities to grow our programs, serve more students and provide additional services to our community.”

Learn more about VIDA and their programs through their website:

Funded Partner Spotlight: Community Council of South-Central Texas, Inc.

Since 1995, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. has provided over $1 billion to improve the well-being of the least served through its clinics, programs, and strategic partnerships. Methodist Healthcare Ministries is proud to partner with organizations that share similar missions and organizational objectives of increasing access to care for uninsured and economically disadvantaged individuals and families across South Texas.  

In the months following November 1963, just after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson carried on Kennedy’s plans to alleviate the burdens of Americans living in poverty. Later the next year, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which established and funded Community Action Agencies and Programs. By 1968, there were over 1,600 agencies across America serving the country at a local level. 

One of these Community Action Agencies, the Community Council of Comal County was established in 1965. In 1981, the change in funding from the federal government to state Block Grant funding led the organization to be renamed the Community Council of South-Central Texas (CCSCT).  

Almost 60 years later, CCSCT has expanded to serve 31 counties across South, Central and West Texas with the objective of promoting and delivering much needed services to low-income families in their service area. Case by case, CCSCT uses their network of over 1,000 partner nonprofits and programming to help families on their journey to becoming fully self-sufficient.  

In 2023, Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM) provided $100,000 in grant funding to CCSCT to fund their housing support programs across their service area. The grant also supported the renovation of a new public outreach facility in Karnes County, where unhoused individuals can come for connections to resources, as well as use printing and computer services.  

“It (the grant funding) has been instrumental in providing assistance to low-income families when funding is low or when we are unable to serve that population,” Carol Delgado, program officer at CCSCT, commented. “MHM funding has allowed us to provide assistance that we normally wouldn’t be able to provide.”  

The grant provided by MHM will also, in part, go towards the building of a new outreach facility in Karnes County with the hopes of providing basic resources such as a computer lab, breaking down transportation barriers, as well as directing clients to much-needed programs offered by CCSCT.  

 “A homeless person or unhoused person is not going to be able to travel to our Seguin office or our Jourdanton office so they can go through the front door [at our Karnes office],” Kenneth Loy, Program Manager and Veteran’s Resource Coordinator, commented. “It allows people down there to have a local place to help address an unhoused issue.”  

One of the programs CCSCT provides is home and rental assistance in the form of the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance program (TBRA) which offers security and utility deposits as well as rental subsidies for up to 24 months while the household engages in a self-sufficiency program. Securing safe and secure shelter as well as food and water is key to facilitating access to healthcare and other needs for unhoused populations.  

 CCSCT also provides support for eligible former members of the military through their Veteran’s Financial Assistance program. The program is supported by a grant from the Texas Veteran’s Commission Fund for Veteran’s Assistance and provides short-term services such as one-time utility payments and one-time rent or mortgage payments.  

The ERA2 program is an initiative set forth by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to assist eligible families with financial assistance and housing stability. It’s through this program that CCSCT has been able to receive funding to help transition families and individuals out of homelessness and into permanent living spaces. CCSCT has seen a 40% success rate with transitioning eligible households from temporary and semi-permanent living areas and into permanent housing.  

“The two basic needs that people look for are food and shelter,” Loy said. “And so, when you address food and shelter, you allow a person the freedom to do other things like pursue healthcare.”   

If you or a loved one would like to contact the Community Council of South-Central Texas, visit their website and find a location near you to get in contact with a representative today.  

CCSCT Website:  

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Jaime Wesoloski

President & Chief Executive Officer

Jaime Wesolowski is the President and Chief Executive Officer at Methodist Healthcare Ministries. A healthcare executive with three decades of leadership experience, Jaime is responsible for the overall governance and direction of Methodist Healthcare Ministries. Jaime earned his Master’s Degree in Healthcare Administration from Xavier University, and his Bachelor’s of Science from Indiana University in Healthcare Administration. As a cancer survivor, Jaime is a staunch supporter of the American Cancer Society. He serves as Chair of the American Cancer Society’s South Texas Area board of directors and he was appointed as Chair to the recently created South Region Advisory Cabinet, covering eight states from Arizona through Alabama. Jaime believes his personal experience as a cancer survivor has given him more defined insight and compassion to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients and their families.