HARLINGEN, TX – On a local sign shop’s marquee, the words of our 39th president and Nobel Peace Prize winner remind passers-by of the honorable ideals that led to our country’s founding:
“America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense human rights invented America.” – Jimmy Carter
The city of Harlingen, situated in the heart of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, minutes away from the U.S-Mexico border, has some tough socioeconomic statistics to contend with, as low income and high rates of illiteracy create generational cycles of poverty and often-insurmountable hurdles that make it difficult for hard-working families to succeed. According to 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Cameron County, where Harlingen is located, has one of the lowest median incomes of all Texas counties. Coupled with the National Center for Education Statistics’ data which lists Cameron County as one of the counties in Texas with the highest illiteracy rates at a staggering 43 percent, the gravity of this situation is clear.
Since September 2014, BCFS Health and Human Services has been influencing change in the Harlingen community, working to make a positive difference in the lives of this promising population. Upon his arrival, Director Jeff Wolpers learned of a Read Across America initiative and elected to host literacy events as a way to introduce the BCFS Health and Human Services’ mission to the children and families of the Rio Grande Valley. Wolpers and his staff envisioned a strategic education platform that would engage and inform the community that BCFS was here to help. Wolpers then submitted a proposal of his vision to The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The concept was approved and they began preparing for implementation.
The events would become an integral part of BCFS’ Project HOPES (Health Outcomes through Prevention and Early Support) parent education course, delivering reading material to children in the community, while offering parents useful information about effective parenting styles, tips on how to reduce the risk of accidents in the home, nutrition and counseling services. For the kids, each literacy event would feature instructional crafting sessions, face painting, and lively story time experiences led by a BCFS staff member or a special guest reader from the community.
Community leaders responded positively and many have accepted the invitation to lead story times at the events, including Harlingen City Commissioner Victor Leal, Valley Morning Star Newspaper Publisher Lilia Jones, La Feria Mayor Pro Tem Esmeralda Lozano, Rio Hondo Justice of the Peace Guadalupe Ayala, San Benito Police Chief Martin Morales and San Benito CISD representative Ben Gomez.
Melody, a 20-year- old mother of two, who spent some of her youth in foster care, has found valuable knowledge and information through Project HOPES.
“The two parts that helped me most,” she explains, “were the book of safety and precaution, and the house evaluation; how to eliminate hazards and how to prevent accidents.”
She adds that, through Project HOPES, she learned important knowledge about motherhood by asking questions during visits with her case manager. “The HOPES program really helped me a lot and gave me reassurance about what I was doing right, and how I could do some things better. It was a good reinforcement for me to feel better, stronger as a mother.”
Another HOPES graduate, Mrs. Reyes, a stay-at- home mom, shared her gratitude for the tips she learned in the program that helped improve interaction with her children.
“We struggled with the behavior of the kids, and the program has helped me out a lot with that. It’s helped me with my daughter and made our relationship better.”
Within six months, through cooperation with like-minded organizations and an all-around enriching experience for the participants, Project HOPES and the literacy events have become a beacon of positive engagement for the families of Harlingen fighting to triumph over the challenges of poverty and illiteracy.
“The first event, at Lemoyne Gardens in Harlingen,” explains Wolpers, “we had 50 kids there. It’s pretty impressive to be able to get that many families engaged and excited about a literacy event!”
Subsequent program events in the surrounding small towns of La Feria, San Benito and Rio Hondo, and separate literacy-event collaborations with the Brownsville Children’s Museum and Harlingen’s Su Clínica Familiar, a medical group practice, were also successful. At Su Clínica Familiar’s back-to- school event, Wild About Healthcare, BCFS handed out 600 backpacks filled with school supplies to local schoolchildren.
“68% of the people we serve in Cameron County have an annual family income of less than $10k,” describes Wolpers. “We appreciate being able to provide books to the children that, unfortunately, their families might not be able to purchase themselves.”
In just over a year, the program has become well known in the region. Awareness for the center has grown and the community has embraced the efforts to uplift families. In 2015, Project HOPES served more than 325 Cameron County families.
The success is met with measured celebration, as Wolpers looks to expand Project HOPES’ reach. “We still have a lot of work to do. We’d like to get out to some of the other nearby communities; become more active in the city of Brownsville.”
For now, Wolpers and his staff continue to build the events to focus even more on positive parent-child interaction. “We’d like to complement the parent curriculum in Project HOPES with some of the activities we do in the literacy events,” he adds. “It’s a win for everyone involved.”
Literacy events are routinely held approximately every three weeks at various community locations.
BCFS Health and Human Services’ consistent outreach efforts, high-quality programming, and attentive, involved community members, cultivate this South Texas region for the benefit of its individuals and families. Through education, knowledge, respect and genuine care, and in a manner inspired by the American values of education, community development and family, BCFS works to uplift, improve, include and invest in the communities it serves.
Literacy by the Numbers
- The effects of low literacy cost the U.S. more than $225 annually in non-productivity in the workforce and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment
- 1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read (WriteExpress Corporation. “Literacy Statistics.” Begin to Read. Accessed April 16, 2014)
- Reports show that the rate of low literacy in the U.S. directly costs the healthcare industry more than $70 million each year (WriteExpress Corporation. “Literacy Statistics.” Begin To Read. Accessed February 24, 2015)
- 6 out of 10 households do not buy a single book in a year
- Raising literacy and numeracy for people at the bottom of the skills distribution is more important to economic growth than producing more highly skilled graduates (2005 C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, “Public Investment in skills: Are Canadian Governments Doing Enough?” by Serge Coulombe and Jean-Francois Tremblay)
BCFS is a global system of health and human service non-profit organizations with locations and programs throughout the United States as well as Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. The organization is a national leader in medical sheltering and emergency management and response, providing critical emergency support services to federal, state and local governments. BCFS also provides residential services and emergency shelters for children who are abused or neglected; assisted living services and vocational training for adults with intellectual disabilities; mental health services for children and families, foster care and adoption services; medical services; early education; transitional living services for youth who are at-risk and those in the juvenile justice system; residential camping and retreats for children and families; and international humanitarian aid for children living in impoverished conditions in developing countries.