PEÑITAS—Almost ten years ago, a handful of Catholic sisters had a desire to do something more for the poor people of the colonias. As they considered where to go and what to do, a tornado drew them to a colonia near Peñitas – Pueblo de Palmas.
“This area was tornado hit, and some of the houses were destroyed,” said Sister Emily Jocson, of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who has worked with the center since its beginning in 2004.
“We were sent by the bishop to come here and find out who these people were,” she added.
Those first efforts to bring relief to the families affected by the tornado led to the sisters getting permission to survey the needs of the people there and establish a long-term program and organization to serve the colonia residents in that area. Soon, a non-profit organization, Proyecto Desarrollo Humano, was formed for that purpose.
Jocson was brought in from Brownsville, while other sisters joined her from La Joya to visit the colonias. She explained they were already looking at assisting and learning about the community members prior to the tornado damage.
“We wanted to build a community for all the people. When we started, the first thing we did was meet with the people here,” Jocson said. “We wanted to know their dreams and hopes; the first thing the community wanted was for us to teach them English.”
The Proyecto Desarrollo Humano community center, located in the middle of colonia Pueblo de Palmas, on Sabal Palm Drive just south of 7 Mile Road, today services families from this and two more nearby colonias, Taurus and Salida del Sol. The center has blossomed since its opening in 2004 with the additions of classrooms, a medical/dental clinic and an organic garden.
Sister Fatima Santiago explained there are four major areas of emphasis they have since established in the community: health, social services, education and evangelization.
Jocson said in 2004 there were not many homes in the colonia and neighbors rarely came out and visited with each other.
“When we started, people were afraid to come out of their homes,” Jocson said. “We had the opportunity to build the community and people started expressing themselves.”
Since the center’s creation, it has offered English as a second language (ESL) classes, a medical clinic and a nutrition program. Winter Texans have given a great deal of assistance in teaching, building and donations to the center according to the sisters.
Paula Baldwin, a Bentsen Grove Park Resident, assists with teaching English courses. Baldwin has taught English for 40 years and said she enjoys her time spent at the center. On Wednesday she sat with community member Luisa Flores, while she trained for her GED exam.
“Taking an exam can be very difficult, especially in a language you don’t understand,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said she enjoys volunteering at the center, she said during Christmas her park along with Green Gate Grove Resort donates food, toys and quilts to the colonia residents.
“This last year we donated 90 quilts, and at the park next door they are already working on quilts for next year,” Baldwin said.
Volunteer doctors, nurses and dentists donate their time to servicing members of the community in the small clinic.
Jocson said there are a lot of cases of diabetes within the Hispanic community, the nutrition program assists in keeping members knowledgeable of health issues and proper foods. In 2011, the center received the help of two agronomists from the University of Texas-Pan American who trained center members in growing organic gardens in planter boxes.
Many people have since tilled their own yards to expand on their gardens. Jocson added the center does have plans to eventually create a cooperative where the community can grow and sell their home grown products.
Zumba classes are offered at the center, as well as parenting classes through a mental health program.
The center has received building additions since 2004 that has housed an early learning facility for pre-school children in 2007. Now, the additional building holds a 10-computer media room, small library, arts and crafts room and a medical office with multiple patient rooms.
An after school tutorial program is provided for children in the first grade and older with volunteers operating the program on a daily basis. Jocson said the students are able to have 30 minutes of supervised free time on the computers, but mainly use the media room for study and research. Internet access is also provided there.
In the beginning, the largest room in the community center was used to hold Catholic mass services, but only held a capacity of 100 people at a time. Soon the residents were asking for a church, which brought on the building of St. Anne’s Church in 2009.
Jocson said when the church was under construction they had problems with vandalism and theft of building materials.
“When we were building, it was a challenge….We started to think ‘Do people really need us here’,” Jocson said. “It’s almost trying to rip you from your sense of dignity. We knew if this is God’s work, it is going to flourish.”
Santiago said the church now has between 200 and 300 people in attendance and they hold catechism classes every Wednesday night that cater to the youth from the community, a total of 140 children attend. She said over the eight years they have been with the community the growth has been tremendous.
Over the years, the sisters have seen the families in the area build homes and manage a hard-working lifestyle. Jocson added seeing the community socialize, trust in one another and strengthen their faith has been the biggest achievement through the center.
“In a spiritual sense, we want them to be the person they are meant to be,” Jocson said. “We want them to have a sense of dignity as children of God…To be able to own that identity.”
Santiago said they work with many volunteers, Hidalgo County, Winter Texans and youth groups who donate their time to the colonias as well.
“As families were growing, we really needed all this help,” Santiago said. “Now we are instilling in the children they also need to give back to their community.”
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