Editor’s Note: In observance of Women’s History Month, The Monitor is recognizing local women who inspire us. This is the sixth of eight profiles on those who made our 2019 list of “Women We Love,” a series we’ll publish every Monday and Thursday in March.
Dora Alicia Proa, 66, has spent more than half her life making sure her community is aware there is help out there for those who need it.
For 36 years now, she has either volunteered or worked for a number of nonprofits that connect low-income residents with much-needed services and care.
Whether they’re looking for information on food pantries, help with utility bills, access to family planning services or medical care for their families, Proa can point them in the right direction.
It’s knowledge she has accumulated through years of service, and it’s knowledge she’s disseminated one neighborhood at a time.
Being a promotora, or community outreach worker, can be grueling work. Those who serve in the position often go door-to-door spreading information about available resources to those living in low-income areas. They bare triple-digit heat and are sometimes forced to outrun dogs in their pursuit to help others.
And though Proa has been serving as a promotora for 25 years now, her journey helping others began much earlier.
SHRINERS CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL-HOUSTON
Proa began volunteering for the Houston hospital in 1983 while living in Reynosa, Mexico. Shriners is a network of 22 nonprofit hospitals that treat children regardless of their parent’s ability to pay.
As a volunteer in Reynosa, Proa was in charge of collecting applications for a program that allowed low-income children living with disabilities in the Mexican border town to seek medical care in the U.S.
Families from as far as Monterrey traveled to her home, where she filled out the applications and sent them to Houston.
The hospital would send back a list of children to be bused to La Feria, where Houston doctors would treat them. Proa also raised funds for gasoline costs and served as the chaperone.
“One time, I had parents who brought a young child who didn’t have arms or legs. He came in with some little legs they had made for him, but they were homemade and they were made out of wood. And around the wood they had put some belts to tie around his waist,” she remembered Tuesday. “So I filled out the application for him, and eventually he would come in with all of his prostheses, and he would even wear pants and shoes and everything.
“It was very satisfying to see those children get help and see them grow.”
Proa volunteered with the hospital for 12 years before moving to the U.S. with her five children.
BECOMING A PROMOTORA
After settling in Las Milpas in 1994, Proa was surprised at the amount of free time she had while her children were in school.
“I remember that in Mexico, I would take them to kinder and it was only for a little while. And (here) they even fed them and brought them home in a bus,” Proa recalled Tuesday. “So I stayed alone and I thought, ‘what am I going to do with so much time?’”
The answer came in the form of a Planned Parenthood meeting.
The nonprofit organized a gathering at one of her neighbor’s homes and encouraged nearby residents to become promotoras.
“A promotora is a person who comes from the same neighborhood or community or location,” said Patricio Gonzales, who previously worked with Proa at Planned Parenthood and continues to do so as CEO of Access Esperanza, where they both now work. “She’s almost a peer to the people she’s talking to. She knows what they are going through; she can understand them and sees all the barriers they are facing.”
Twelve women attended the meeting in 1994, Proa remembered, and eight of them went on to become promotoras, learning about an array of issues ranging from birth control to STDs to puberty and hygiene.
Their primary task as promotoras was to speak to their family, friends and neighbors about family planning and what they had learned through trainings the nonprofit provided them, but these weren’t easy subjects to tackle, especially in the mid 1990s, Proa remembered.
“We weren’t used to all that information,” she said. “In fact, we didn’t even know the names of the illnesses — Chlamydia, gonorrhea and all that. Those names didn’t exist in my head.”
So most women started with a simple question: have you had a pap smear yet?
“Many women would say no, and the majority didn’t have documents, so they would say ‘well, no. We don’t know where to go,’” Proa recalled.
And even for those who knew about the Planned Parenthood clinic in McAllen, getting there presented its own set of problems.
“Typically, the families only had one car and the husband would go to work and they would stay home,” Proa said. “At the beginning we would offer to take them to the clinics.”
Then another local nonprofit stepped in to help clear the transportation barrier.
“ARISE, which still exists today, saw that women wanted to learn to drive, so they started a program to teach them, and they would even take them to take their driver’s license exams,” Proa said. “People began to wake up more and more and started going to the programs.”
Soon, the number of women planning families and seeking treatment led Planned Parenthood to open a satellite clinic in Las Milpas and in other surrounding communities.
“And I realized that for a lot of people that was the only place where they could access a clinic,” Proa said. “They didn’t have insurance, and they had kids and kids and kids, and they weren’t taking care of themselves.
“Or they would use the pill, which is the cheapest, but with so many kids they would forget, and they didn’t have access to an IUD or other methods that cost more.”
For more than a decade, the promotora program helped bridge that gap, but in 2011, the Texas Legislature handed the nonprofit a huge blow that upended services in South Texas.
“HORRIBLE, DRASTIC CUTS”
During the 2011 Legislative Session, Texas legislators cut two-thirds of the funds geared toward family planning services, Gonzales said.
At the time, Gonzales was working for Planned Parenthood, which he said was being targeted for it’s stance on providing abortion services. And even though Planned Parenthood of South Texas has never offered abortions, the name alone guaranteed the local branch saw budget cuts.
“About 80 percent of our budget was (cut),” Gonzales said. “We had to close five clinics and we lost 16,000 women overnight. Within 30 days we couldn’t serve them anymore.”
About half of the staff was also laid off.
“We had 67 or 68 (staff) and we went down to 30 or 32,” he said. “It was horrible, drastic cuts that affected so many women throughout the state and in our area.”
Proa, who had now been with the organization for about 17 years and was a paid staff member, said she was prepared for the worst.
“I had a plan. If they laid me off, I would go back to being a volunteer,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave.
Gonzales, her boss, wasn’t surprised by her determination.
“She always struck me as a person who was totally committed toward the agency’s goal and mission — education, information and helping people access family planning services,” he said. “It was a drastic cut, but she kept going. She never stopped her message to the community.”
As a response to the cuts, the organization changed its name and began operating under Access Esperanza clinics in 2013. Access now has four full-time clinics and operates a satellite location at the South Texas College campus in Weslaco, where it offers family planning services to college students.
“Imagine, we had to find people all over again and give them new information,” Proa said.
At 66 years old, Proa is often asked why she hasn’t retired.
“Even people from work tell me. And I tell them, ‘I still want to work, and I still have the drive,’” she said. “I’m gonna keep going until I can’t.”
Why stay home alone now that her children are all grown up and living their own lives, she asked rhetorically.
“I know there’s things to do at home and I can do them over the weekend, but this fills me. I know that it matters,” Proa said. “If you like it and you do it from the heart, it comes naturally.”
On Tuesday, while knocking on doors in an Edinburg colonia off of Val Verde Road, the importance of her role in the community was apparent.
“Hi, I’m here with Access Esperanza Clinics. Have you heard about our services,” she asked a shy young woman who opened the door to a small trailer home.
“Yes,” replied the woman who identified herself as Yadira. “I was taking care of myself at the (Edinburg) clinic, but I missed my last appointment and I got pregnant.”
“After you give birth, we’ll be there for you,” Proa told her. “The services are free, you know that, right?”
“Yes,” the young woman replied before exchanging a few more pleasantries and closing the door.
Dora Proa’s years of service
1983-1994: Volunteered for Houston-based Shriners Hospital for Children while living in Reynosa
1989-1998: Volunteered at Hidalgo Independent School District’s parental involvement program
1994 – Present: Promotora for Planned Parenthood/Access Esperanza
1999-2002: Worked part-time for the Rio Grande Valley Council for Drug and Alcohol Abuse outreach program
2002-2010: Promotora for REACH coalition, a diabetes prevention program at the UT Border Health Office at the University of Texas – Pan American
2002-2008: Worked part-time at Mujeres Unidas/Women Together, a domestic violence prevention nonprofit
2003: Certified as a Texas State Community Health Worker during the state’s second-ever cohort
2008 – Present: Colonia leader for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health
2012-2013: Worked with LIVESTRONG as a mentor for cancer survivors
Boards and Committees
>> Served two years on March of Dimes Community Committee
>> Served two years on ARISE Board of Directors
>> Served four years on South Texas Promotora Association Board of Directors
>> Joined the AVANCE Board of Directors in 2014
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