South Texas Colonias: Health Care in their Pocket
By Elva Michal*
December 16, 2010—In 2008, Hurricane Dolly hit South Texas. Measured as only a Category 2 storm, the hurricane didn’t seem too bad to Lower Rio Grande Valley residents—that is, to those in urban areas. Many colonias—small, rural neighborhoods located outside city limits—were, in fact, in shambles.
In San Cristobal, for example, many mobile homes of 1970 vintage, already in need of repair, were destroyed; flooding was everywhere; much of the standing water was contaminated with sewage. There was no electricity, no food, and no drinking water, and there were hordes of mosquitoes. Clearly, a health emergency was imminent.
But the colonias were ill prepared for such an emergency. Many of the residents are extremely poor, and health care for them is practically nonexistent. They lack insurance, transportation, and money for medical fees. Filled with fear and distrust, they often rely on misinformation and superstition and make do with home remedies, willpower, and a lot of prayer.
The Pharr Literacy Project and Cultural Arts Center (PLP) in Pharr, Texas, was moved by this situation to create a community-based primary health project as part of PLP’s services to the colonias. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) had been active in the response to survivors of Hurricane Dolly and wanted to support that effort.
UMCOR’s Health unit invited PLP staff members Miguel Ahumada and Juan Jara to attend a community health promoters training in Panama in 2009. The training was run by Jane Dunn, a consultant for United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM), and also attended by Patricia Magyar of UMCOR Health.
Ahumada and Jara were part of PLP’s Faith Community Project Outreach and its committee to research and design the organization’s Community-based Primary Health (CBPH) Project. When they returned to Texas, the committee drew up a five-year plan for the CBPH Project and got it started in three colonias: El Paraíso, La Mesa, and San Cristobal.
Included in the plan was a training program for 20 health promoters. The training, which would be completed in three phases, would provide 120 training hours to colonia resident trainees, plus another 120 hours of on-site practice. The format focuses on physical, spiritual, mental, and alternative health.
A very important component of the CBPH plan is the development of skills and the confidence levels of colonia residents as they participate fully in the planning, training, and implementation of this program.
PLP has recently received grants to support the living expenses of a lay missioner and to hire a part-time community developer for this project. The 20 CBPH-provider trainees completed the first phase of their studies on November 19, 2010, when they also received their first certificate of participation.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley has long been known as one of four “great pockets” of poverty in the United States. Poverty and poor health are partners, and each affects the other in a debilitating way.
For many residents, life in a colonia is limited and hopeless. They feel constrained by the poverty, injustice, and lack of opportunity.
PLP’s Community-based Primary Health project seeks to nurture and encourage those residents to make a positive impact on their own future. It offers them a model of systemic change that can be replicated in other settings. And it offers colonia residents hope for a better quality of life.
*Elva Michal is the co-founder of the Pharr Literacy Project in Pharr, Texas.