March 16, 2022
Volunteers open their toolboxes—and their eyes—in the Rio Grande Valley
Ms. Maura couldn’t see who was working on her new home in Hargill, Texas—but she could hear the sounds of hope.
With fading vision caused by diabetes, she took her husband’s arm as they stood in front of their home, simply smiling together.
Inside, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers from Ohio and Pennsylvania taped and mudded interior ceilings while outside they completed a set of stairs leading down from the front porch. “I can’t see the volunteers,” said Ms. Maura, in Spanish, translated by MDS Project Director Carl Dube. “But I can hear them working. I know in my heart they are doing a good job. They are a blessing from God.”
Ms. Maura’s house is one of six new builds that will be completed by MDS volunteers in the Rio Grande Valley, with at least four more repair jobs in the planning stages.
Neighborhoods like Ms. Maura’s—called “colonias”—bore the brunt of 2018 and 2019 flooding that swept into the tributaries of the Rio Grande River. Flood recovery has been slowed to a crawl by a lack of resources from Hidalgo County and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The work was also delayed by COVID-19 restrictions that shut down the flow of winter Texans, who often volunteer with local recovery organizations.
The colonias suffer frequently from flooding due to poor storm drainage, and also have to deal with a lack of well-paved roads and reliable septic, water, or electric service.
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Who are we helping?
As weekly MDS volunteers come to build homes in the Rio Grande Valley, they also open their eyes about who they’re helping. Volunteers learn that at least half the residents in the colonias in the Rio Grande Valley are U.S. citizens or otherwise legally in the U.S., and that many are going through the process of applying for asylum.
Part of each week of MDS service entails dedicating Wednesday afternoons to education on immigration and border issues. The project is currently the only MDS site with this type of education component.
The sessions are led by local residents of the Rio Grande Valley, including Mennonite Central Committee service workers, lawyers offering pro-bono legal aid to immigrants seeking asylum, and members of local churches. Volunteers learn what it’s like to be a person on the move. They learn about the forces of war, gang violence and persecution that prompt people to leave their home countries.
When volunteers sign up to serve in McAllen, they can opt out of the learning piece—but Dube said so far nobody has refused to participate.
“Volunteers seem to be willing and openminded,” said Dube—no matter their age or where they’re from. “We’ve had a couple of young people who said, ‘what border issues?’ They get their eyes and ears opened a little.”
Through storytelling and roleplaying, volunteers learn why people are risking their lives to come across the border. Jennifer Harbury, a frequent speaker at the education program, often shares stories that leave people stunned, sad, and angry—but also newly determined to help.
Harbury is an attorney, activist and member of the Angry Tias and Abuelas (Angry Aunts and Grandmothers), an organization that feeds the hungry, visits the imprisoned and comforts grieving people stranded by U.S immigration policy at the U.S southern border.
“Why are people coming from South America and Central America?” Harbury asked. “Basically what we’re seeing now are civilians fleeing north from an absolute horror show brought on by the death squads that are now drug lords,” she said. “Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world. I’m thinking of all the people running north to get their kids out of there.”
Harbury has met—and has helped—many of them personally. For these people on the move, when a flood strikes, they’re especially vulnerable.
“I can’t see the volunteers, but I can hear them working. I know in my heart they are doing a good job. They are a blessing from God.”
— Ms. Maura, Homeowner
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Showing God’s love
In McAllen, MDS works with partner organizations, including the Rio Texas Disaster Response Ministry of the United Methodist Church, Rio Grande Valley Long Term Disaster Recovery, and La Posada Providencia, a local ministry that offers hospitality to asylum seekers.
United Methodist Committee on Disaster Relief Construction Manager Roland Pecina said MDS volunteers provide not only skilled labor but also a sense of accompaniment for the people in the community.
“I grew up five blocks away,” said Pecina as he stood, thoughtfully watching MDS volunteers work on a colonia home. “I think Jesus called us here—that this is our sanctuary and this is our gospel. What better way to show God’s love?”
Though many people living in the colonias are categorized as “low-income” by U.S. Census standards and often hurtfully labeled, in fact their lives are full of meaning, said Pecina.
“The families are close, and people take care of each other,” he said. “I grew up in a generation that didn’t know we were poor.”
Susan Hellums, head of the Rio Grande Valley Long Term Disaster Recovery, said her organization has 38 cases open of people who need new homes or repairs for badly damaged residences. As the organization handles case management, MDS sees no shortage of work.
Like Pecina, Hellums said she not only appreciates the care with which MDS volunteers do their home-building, she also appreciates the care they show toward those they’re helping.
“Your quality of work is excellent,” she said, speaking to volunteers. “But it’s your spirit, the way you’d do your work—it says a lot.”
During the rest of 2022, in addition to continuing work on homes, MDS will be involved in building a 60×90-foot administrative building and three dormitory buildings for La Posada Providencia, a temporary shelter for immigrants who are pursuing asylum claims in the US.
Meanwhile, many volunteers who serve in the Rio Grande Valley share that their eyes are opened about who immigrants really are: they are neighbors in need.
MDS volunteer Jay Witmer said he’d been thinking about who dwells in the house of the Lord.
“I turned 76, and that’s the average age of the white American male to live,” he said.
For many in the colonias, the average life span is shorter—and many have risked their lives to get there. Witmer and other volunteers are working so that Ms. Maura and many others will dwell in homes built by people who are showing God’s love.
“At the end of my days, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” Witmer said. “Until then, I’m going to help as many people as I can until I begin my adventure in heaven.”
Susan Kim, MDS writer