Giving Back

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Holidays are normally a time for us to gather around and celebrate with our loved ones. They’re a time for cheer and holiday spirit — we can almost always feel the holiday warmth in the air no matter what the weather may be. This season, things look different, but they don’t have to feel different.

Year-round, we have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of many individuals by supporting a nonprofit organization that continues to give back.

UNITED WAY: STREAMLINING COMMUNITY SUPPORT

As individuals and entities across the region strive to make a difference and give back, one organization’s mission focuses on enabling and empowering them to do so.

“United Way saves the community thousands of dollars by consolidating fundraising efforts, providing a clear form of accountability, and investing in a diverse group of local nonprofits,” United Way of South Texas President and CPO Lilly Lopez-Killelea wrote in an email.

An overwhelming majority of those efforts remain in Hidalgo and Starr counties, Lopez-Killelea added. United Way funds over 100 programs through nearly two dozen partner agencies — including numerous community impact grant recipients. Some of those beneficiaries include the Boys & Girls Club of Pharr and San Juan, Palmer Drug Abuse Program, Latina Hope, and Comfort House, among others.

“Through these programs, we are helping youth succeed, strengthening and supporting families by providing employment placement for the disabled, elderly assistance, transportation assistance, emergency shelter, CPR training, and many other critical services,” Lopez-Killelea wrote.

Like ripples over water, the impact has extended to serve at least 225,500 RGV residents, she added. Last year, United Way partnered with The Monitor newspaper to directly impact local families in need. The 10-story Spirit of Christmas project inspired awareness alongside monetary and in-kind donations.

“It takes everyone working together to build something better,” Lopez-Killelea wrote. “Each of us can give, advocate, and volunteer.”

Learn how you can give back at unitedwayofsotx.com.

FOOD BANK OF THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY: SETTING THE EXTRA PLATE

During the height of the pandemic in the Rio Grande Valley, the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley Inc. heeded the community’s call for help. CEO Stuart Haniff recalls that a significant portion of the families the food bank helped represented a new segment of the population who had never needed such assistance before.

COVID-19 took many things from many people.

Still, Haniff saw a bright side of the pandemic — if there could be one.

“One result of COVID-19 — a silver lining, if you will: food banks are in the national spotlight like never before,” he said. “People are aware of the work food banks do all year long.”

That has led to a bigger drive for donations when people need them the most.

“The biggest time of year for giving is always around the holidays,” Haniff said. “People are in a very generous, thoughtful frame of mind. About two-thirds of all the funds raised for the food bank come in the last third of the year — especially in November and December.”

As people shop for presents and plan family gatherings in regular holiday settings, they also often give back to those less fortunate.

“Thanksgiving, people are very mindful of hunger — setting the extra plate,” Haniff said. “Doing food drives. Christmas, same kind of things.”

The challenge comes during the rest of the year, when the community’s need for food support has not waned.

“Unfortunately, hunger is not seasonal,” Haniff said. “People are very aware of giving during the holidays. But the same folks are struggling with hunger and the awareness is not as high in summer, or in February.”

He urges RGV residents to donate to the food bank no matter what time of year it is. The organization partners with entities across the region to get assistance into the hands of the people who need it the most. Even a dollar is enough for five nutritious meals, Haniff said.

Every little bit counts no matter what time of the year it is. Learn more at foodbankrgv.com.

TOYS FOR TOTS: MAKING THE SEASON BRIGHT

As the holiday season approaches, Toys for Tots Coordinator HM1 Sergio Gonzalez and the rest of his team of volunteers work hard to overcome the challenges that COVID-19 has presented. This includes reorganizing or canceling events that typically do much to raise awareness and drive donations of toys to gift to local kids.

But businesses and individuals can still help the organization meet its goals to deliver happiness to the youngest population on Christmas. This includes becoming a set location for donation drop-offs or donating money for gifts online during October, November, and December.

Last year, residents of the Rio Grande Valley from South Padre Island to Rio Grande City came together to donate roughly 32,000 new and unwrapped toys for local children. Then, 20,000 children received gifts to brighten their holiday season.

Now, though, Gonzalez anticipates that more gifts may be required to bring holiday joy to everyone who may call for it.

“This year, I think is going to be the time of need because of the pandemic,” he said. “We’re asking the community to help us out as much as possible by either donating or, if your children are in need because of the financial crisis this year, register online. We would be more than happy to help anyone out that is in need.”

Churches, nonprofits, and individuals can register children and families to receive gifts this holiday season by visiting harlingen-tx.toysfortots.org.

CASA: HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

CASA of Hidalgo County in Edinburg is one of 1,000 CASA programs nationwide and 71 programs in Texas alone. CASA’s executive director, Veronica Whitacre, expresses that their goal is to ensure that every child in the county who needs an advocate has one.

“We take care of, assist, and are the voice for abused, neglected foster children who are identified by Child Protective Services,” Whitacre said.

Upon providing housing and a family for these children, they then reach out to Foster Angels to help provide them with the basic needs. With schools educating students through distance learning, it has become difficult for teachers to recognize signs of a difficult living situation, which is where volunteers come in.

“We look for ordinary people that want to be a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) and train them for three weekends in a row every other month out of the year. Then [they] are sworn in and certified by Judge Carlos Villalon,” Whitacre said.

Those seeking to become a CASA volunteer must meet a set of requirements that includes an interview, paperwork, and an extensive background check. To learn more about becoming a CASA of Hidalgo County Volunteer Advocate, visit their website at casaofhidalgo.com/us/ or call (956) 381-0346.

FOSTER ANGELS OF SOUTH TEXAS: THE GIFT OF GIVING

Foster Angels of South Texas is a nonprofit organization spanning 18 counties throughout South Texas. Simply put, their mission is to fulfill the basic needs of these foster kids, and break the cycle.

The organization works closely with other nonprofits in the area, such as CASA and Dentists Who Care, in order to continue to fulfill requests for the foster children in their care. The daily requests focus areas include housing, education, recreation, adoption, food, transportation, and medical services.

In one of their most recent cases, there were a couple of siblings that had been sent to a home, but the home they went to did not have beds for them to sleep in. Foster Angels was able to provide them with bunk beds in order to help bring some normalcy into their lives.

With funding and donations, Foster Angels is able to provide children with added elements that help make their home transition easier.

One of the events they hold is the Give Them Wings Shoe Drive, where hundreds of foster children and teens receive new shoes to kick off the school year with confidence before every school year begins. In 2019, over 300 pairs of shoes were delivered to the CPS offices in Region 11.

Another event the organization takes pride in is the Focus on Foster Teens Christmas Drive, where Foster Angels provides often overlooked foster teens with Christmas gifts, giving them a memorable holiday. Last year, this was the case for 176 South Texas teens. G

“Working with Foster Angels is the most rewarding job,” said Lucy Ann Wolthoff, outreach director.  “Just showing the kids how much we care can change their entire lives and I just want to break the cycle and fill in the gaps wherever we can.”

For information on how to volunteer or donate, visit their website at fosterangelsstx.org/.

GIVE BACK TODAY

Despite being in the midst of a pandemic and the mere act of celebrating holidays looking different this year, nonprofits like these could really use your help. Make a difference in someone’s life by volunteering or donating — giving back will go a long way this season more than ever.