Emily Aguirre was looking for ways to feed homeless people when she was just 6 years old.
Now 11, Emily remembers the questions she asked her father, Rick Aguirre, when she spotted someone living on the streets while they were driving around McAllen: “Where does he sleep? Where does he eat? Where is his mom, where is his dad?”
It was cold and drizzling outside at the time, and she worried about how that person would stay warm. So, the father and daughter returned with tamales and a cup of coffee for the homeless man — a deed they have continued to do since that day in 2015 for countless others in the Rio Grande Valley.
What started as a family initiative — which included Emily’s mother, Coni and older sister, Erika — has grown into a community-wide project that carries the mission of helping the homeless. Now called Emily’s Meals, in addition to their promise of handing out meals everyday, they have taken on other initiatives, including installing a food pantry that provides nonperishable foods and a variety of free toiletries.
They also built a shower trailer that they park in the area.
Earlier this year, Emily’s Meals applied to be named the Disney and Points of Light Volunteer Family of the Year, and from over 400 applicants, they were announced as one of the five finalists last Tuesday on Good Morning America. The winner is now at the hands of a national public vote.
Disney and Points of Light, a nonprofit that works to promote community service, will award the winning family with $10,000 for their project, and a family vacation to Walt Disney World. Voting began on Friday, and will be open for two weeks. People can cast their vote at https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/family/story/meet-nominees-disneys-volunteer-family-year-66068395.
Emily, a fifth grader at Our Lady of Sorrows, said that her favorite part of volunteering is “when we give them the meals and we see the smiles on their faces. I love it so much.”
“Maybe they think about why. Why do these people help me,” she added. “They are still children of God, and they are still our brothers and sisters, so it is important to do that.”
Coni, who also works as the chief administrator officer at Tropical Texas Behavioral Health in Edinburg, coordinates with many other families and organizations across the area who volunteer to either prepare and provide meals, or distribute them.
There are almost 1,000 people who have joined Emily’s Meals Facebook group, where Coni posts a monthly schedule of which families and organizations will be providing the food or delivering meals that day. The Aguirres volunteer every Saturday. Rick goes on Wednesdays.
“I am hoping that since it has been such a big part of our lives, that they (Emily and Erika) grow up knowing that volunteering isn’t just something extra you do, it is just something you do,” Coni said.
Meals can vary from sandwiches to spaghetti, which usually is paired with a drink and soft fruit. And each “blessing box” includes either a prayer card or kind message written by local schools.
Coni said that there have been a few instances when the homeless person asked her to read the note for them because they couldn’t read, and after hearing the message, they ended up in tears.
“A kid somewhere that they do not know cares enough to put a little message in his lunch bag,” she said.
Emily’s Meals is grounded on the mantra that the people they are helping are “homeless not nameless.”
Erika, a sophomore at Juan Diego Academy in Mission, said that volunteering has taught her how to be grateful for what she has.
“I hope this inspires other families to do this too,” she said.
“This changes their (the homeless) day, and they will now think about helping others. This teaches them how to help others and shows them there are people who care out there.”