Resilient, Generous, Versatile

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As IDEA Public Schools COO Irma Muñoz grappled with the initial shock of hearing about the spread of COVID-19, her thoughts turned to IDEA’s 53,000 students, their families, and teachers and staff.

“We began making plans for the new normal — what that would look like at our schools physically and what that would look like for our staff and students online,” she said.

McAllen restaurateurs Larry and Jessica Delgado watched the developments with horror as their successful restaurants — house.wine, Salt: A New American table, and Salomé on Main — were turned upside down as a part of the response to the pandemic.

“When the realization came that this was going to close our businesses, it just doubled down,” Larry said.

Manny Vela, president and CEO of Valley Baptist Health System, steeled his staff for the possibility of overwhelmed intensive care units like those in the news from across the nation, around the world.

“As we continue to navigate the constant changes regarding the COVID-19 situation, rest assured Valley Baptist Health System is prepared to continue in its mission to provide outstanding, compassionate health care to our community as we have for more than 95 years,” he said in a video produced by RGVision at the end of March.

For everyone in the Rio Grande Valley, life changed.

Many people lost their jobs. Other businesses had to quickly adapt to conducting operations remotely, hastily setting up home offices at kitchen tables or in bedroom corners. Those workers deemed essential continued to venture out, the front line of those facing down the threat of COVID-19.

School years ground to an abrupt halt around Spring Break. Teachers rushed to modify classroom instruction into online curriculum. Parents balanced working from home with a new responsibility of home schooling their young students.

We stayed inside. We scrolled endless newsfeeds, counted the infected in our cities, tallied each unexpected disruption of normalcy with stunned grief. We held our breath, tied bandanas around our mouths, and stared at the masses of masked shoppers standing in line outside of H-E-B to buy groceries.

Life as we knew it before ended.

And yet. And yet.

It kept going. We kept going. We found new ways to teach and learn, new ways to support the local businesses that make up the backbone of our community, new ways to protect our health — and the health of those around us.

The Rio Grande Valley’s vibrant resilience shone. We didn’t give up. We were generous, donating goods, bolstering one another with online tip jars, and forming Facebook groups to get and give advice on how to find what product and where. We were versatile, pivoting to modify our lives and businesses as well as we could.

Collectively, the RGV dug its heels in when faced with the challenges presented by a pandemic. For us, the silver lining in this storm shines bright.

Protect the Students, Flatten the Curve

IDEA shuttered campuses to flatten the curve, an effort to slow the rate of COVID-19 infections, but it couldn’t cease all of its services.

“Because of the communities that we serve, we needed to keep providing essential services,” Muñoz said. “We left our cafeterias open and we continued meal service for all of our families and all of the families in the communities that surround our schools.”

At the time of publication, IDEA has served more than 700,000 meals to families in need, continuing service over holidays and weekends.

“Our staff gets there at 4:30 every day to make meals and bundle them for families that come through the pickup line,” Muñoz said. “After they finish the pickup line at 10, they run inside to the cafeteria and they have tables set up, making protective masks that they are then distributing to other cafeterias throughout our network and to families and healthcare workers that need them.”

IDEA also opened childcare centers for parents working on the front lines — health care, first responders, county and city personnel.

“We knew as they are taking care of all of us, we needed to help care for all of their families —that’s the least that we could do,” Muñoz said.

One of the greatest challenges was transforming in-person instruction to remote learning, ensuring that students had the technology and internet access required to continue their studies at home.

“We wanted to provide some comfort during this time in having a structured learning environment and making sure that kids know that during these times, our families are there with them,” Muñoz said. “They care and they will do whatever they can to support not just instructionally, but social and emotionally.”

Muñoz has marveled at the resiliency of children during this time, including older students helping their younger siblings with online learning, or her own first-grader, Olivia, setting up a chat group with her classmates.

“Obviously, this has been really tough for everyone involved. Our kids are missing their friends, our seniors are really mourning their senior year and all that comes along with it,” Muñoz said. The silver lining moments keep everyone going — along with IDEA’s unwavering dedication to its students.

“People are rising to the challenge because they are so committed to our families and, more importantly, because they know it’s the right thing to do.”

A New Recipe for Innovation

“We saw it coming,” Larry Delgado said. He and Jessica are trustees for the Texas Restaurant Association Education Foundation and board members of the Texas Restaurant Association. “So as things started to unfold and we saw that there were closures around the country, we sort of braced for it.

“It was clear that curbside and delivery was going to be the only lifeline we had for any kind of revenue with dining rooms closed.”

The Delgados and restaurateurs like them in the RGV had to quickly revamp their operations in order to stay in business. They revised their menu, offering lower price points and family meals. A statewide waiver allowed for the continued sale and delivery of alcohol with food — a vital component of revenue.

“We just scratched and clawed for every opportunity there was to offer a meal to our guests,” Larry said, adding that his business also started to sell grocery kits and meal kits for customers to make at home. “We continued to listen to what our customers and community wants, what they’re needing, and we react and make sure that we can deliver on one front or another.”

A dedicated fan base — and supporters of buying local — have helped.

“The response has just been really wonderful,” Jessica said. “Our loyal fans are sticking it out with us and supporting us as much as they can. We’ve definitely taken a huge decrease in sales, but the support has been really beautiful.

“It’s really special in this really difficult time.”

Innovation and versatility have been key factors in making the new operations work. At the same time, current limitations have inspired new products and services that used to only be ideas. The Delgados have struck a deal with H-E-B to sell their pre-prepped, oven-ready meals in stores.

“Being in this situation just forces us to really make things happen and to have flexibility and the mindset really that our team has to just go after these things and make them work for us,” Larry said. “For the sake of everyone that works on our team, we all realize we have to do these things to make sure that we get through this thing and we see ourselves on the other side.

“I can’t tell you how proud Jessica and I are of our team and the resilience of not just our team but other people in our industry.”

Heroes in Health Care

“As a community, the situation surrounding COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, has thrust us into a challenging and unprecedented time,” Vela said in a public service announcement video. “We all have a role to play in meeting what lies before us and ensuring that we and those we love remain safe and healthy.”

Those responsibilities shifted and developed to respond to the changing situation. At the time of publication, recommendations and regulations included:

  • Practicing social distancing
  • Staying home unless travel is necessary
  • Adhering to curfews, as determined by county
  • Washing your hands regularly
  • Avoiding touching your face
  • Wearing a face mask when in public

“Above all, continue to show compassion and respect for others in your community as we face this challenge head-on with the determination residents of the Rio Grande Valley and Texans are known for,” Vela said. “God bless our physicians, employees, and our entire community and give us all wisdom, courage, and strength as we continue to face this situation together.”

Vela had a special message for individuals working in health care across the region.

“Your courage, compassion, and dedication in providing outstanding health care for the communities we all love and serve has not wavered in the face of these challenges, and for that we continue to be grateful.”

What has been your silver lining moment in the COVID-19 crisis? #JoinTheConversation at facebook.com/rgvisionmagazine.