Empowering Our Community

0
569

For years, when Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez would be interviewed for national television, he was forced to contend with the harsh reality of how the rest of the world views our community. Behind him, violent images of incidents across the border with salacious text about issues that do not reflect our everyday reality were superimposed on the screen. Despite Rio Grande Valley cities often landing within the top 10 safest cities in Texas—U.S. News and World Report just named McAllen the 48th best place to live—outsiders are dead set on painting a half-baked and calculated picture of our home. Cortez took matters into his own hands at the start of 2020 when he created the Hidalgo Prosperity Task Force to tackle our most pressing problem—poverty—by empowering our community to create our opportunities.

“We have formed a coalition of nonprofits, cities, counties, businesses, to accomplish three things: to serve the people in poverty, to move the people out of poverty by creating human capital and to attract investment and jobs to the area,” said Cortez. “Many of our college graduates and people that we have trained and educated have left the RGV because the jobs are not here. So, if we’re not good at attracting jobs and investment, then all of our efforts go to naught.”

The task force is fueled by the following sobering statistics: over a quarter of Hidalgo County residents live under the poverty line—almost double the statewide number—and less than 70% of the Valley has a high school diploma or higher, falling far behind the 91% national average.

With over 160 members, the Prosperity Task Force team’s expertise spans 14 sectors related to finance, higher education, career counseling, and more. The mentorship program they manage will serve as a conduit to filter and introduce individuals to preexisting personal development initiatives led by over 25 partners like Food Bank RGV, South Texas College, and El Milagro Clinic. Uniting successful partner programs in all 22 Hidalgo County cities under one broader network, like the Prosperity Task Force, will ultimately facilitate cross-sector collaboration and innovation to maximize each organization’s reach.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an unfortunate two-year delay in getting the ambitious initiative off the ground. Still, this past Dec., Prosperity Task Force Co-Lead Thomas García was finally able to launch the first trial run of the program, ‘Pathways to Prosperity’, with five mentors and mentees. “It begins with a referral process in which we identify residents who are living below or at the poverty line, and we then place them on a pathway toward job placement while recognizing that every pathway is unique and individualized,” said García. “Every single pathway, though, begins with career mentorship, so the mentor is a gateway for the resident to then access more opportunities regarding wraparound services, job placement, support, professional development, and, of course, the social capital that that mentor brings to the table.”

The successful pilot program formally concluded in April, allowing García to analyze the pathways’ results, assess areas for improvement, and decentralize the structure so that it could be replicated by partner organizations across the county.

Because each pathway is specially tailored to the individual’s needs and goals, the duration varies from person to person. Simple job search assistance can wrap up in just four weeks, but specialized vocational or educational training could take up to a few years. Additionally, beyond assisting in career development, several subgroups within the team employ professionals to address the mentee’s needs regarding travel, food security, mental health, and housing.

While volunteers, mentors, and partner organizations are at the heart of the task force’s rollout, businessmen like Joaquin Spamer, CEO of CIL, are the financial backbone. “I think we need the world to see all of us united, and that’s one of the biggest advantages of the Prosperity Task Force,” said Spamer. “What the judge has been trying to do is get everybody to work together toward the same goal—bringing more industry and better-paid jobs to the Valley—and I think that thanks to his leadership, we’re getting there.”

With the trial period out of the way, the Prosperity Task Force is officially projected to launch this August. Soon, the program will be open to all Hidalgo County residents—regardless of immigration status—and gladly welcomes any volunteer willing to share their unique skills or simply lend a helping hand. “Just by showing that you care and love those around you, we’re creating an environment that’s conducive to what we want to be: a wholesome, clean community in which people can raise their families, conduct a business, or have a job that gives them a happy life,” said Cortez.

Our community may fall victim to the misconceptions of foreigners who’ve never even visited the Valley but the Prosperity Task Force presents an opportunity for us to reclaim control of our narrative. Cortez’s ultimate hope is that through genuine collaboration, Hidalgo County will attract investors and create new opportunities for everyone to thrive. We don’t need to correct every exaggerated lie about our home to prove our worth; instead, we can help uplift our neighbors out of poverty and cut through old statistics at the root.