New chamber seeks to foster job opportunities for people with disabilities

PHARR — With the start of a new year and decade, a nonprofit organization designed to create job opportunities for people with disabilities is planning to launch in the Rio Grande Valley.

Announced in December by Precinct 2 Hidalgo County Commissioner Eduardo “Eddie” Cantu at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the inclusive park in Hidalgo, the Disability Chamber of Commerce Rio Grande Valley hopes to foster these job opportunities and spread resources and awareness for businesses throughout the Valley.

This chamber is the brainchild of cofounders Evelyn Cano, president, Esmeralda Leal, board member, and Stephanie Wilson, who each have children with autism. According to Cano, the new chamber will be only the fourth such organization in the entire United States.

“Like any other chamber in the Rio Grande Valley, we want DCCRGV to help us build a vibrant and prosperous community in the business sector,” Cano said. “Like any other chamber, it’s going to be a membership organization for businesses and nonprofits. We’re going to include students and also self-advocates, individuals with various disabilities who want to join independently.”

Cano said that the main purpose of the chamber will be to help individuals with disabilities of all backgrounds, including veterans.

“Anyone who has felt that they’ve been excluded from the community. We want to give them a voice with this chamber,” Cano said. “We want this chamber to be the chamber that’s inclusive of all people of all disabilities in our community so they have a voice. More than that, as a chamber, we’re very interested in making sure that the employers feel that they have all the necessary tools, all the necessary strategies, or all the necessary resources that they need so that they feel confident in hiring people of all abilities.”

“We’re trying to create a network of businesses that are interested, or have shown interest in the past, in hiring individuals with disabilities,” Leal said. “Phase one will be to educate the business community, all of the employers in the Rio Grande Valley, and help them understand the value in hiring, training and keeping them.”

Cano said that there are employers in the Valley who have hired employees with disabilities, but she emphasized that the new chamber intends to provide individuals with disabilities with “meaningful, dignified, supportive employment.”

“That’s the difference. Meaningful and dignified are key,” Cano said. “Many people with disabilities are just given a position that no one else wants to do. No one asks them what are they highly motivated by. Nobody asks them, ‘What are your dreams and aspirations, and what value do you bring to the table?’

“We tend to see individuals with disabilities as second-class citizens. …Esmer and I, and our other founder Stephanie Wilson, we’re three mothers of kids with autism. We all three believe that these individuals bring so much to the table, and they are not second-class citizens. It’s actually an untapped part of the labor market that no one is actually tapping into that can bring a lot of value to your business, if and when they’re given the opportunity.”

So far, the chamber already has board members made up of parents of individuals with disabilities and members of the business sector among others. The new chamber also has an advisory committee that will include individuals with disabilities, as well as members of the veteran community.

“We have an advisory committee that is made up of only individuals with disabilities,” Leal said. “That one is taking shape, too. It’s not final yet, but that committee is only made up of them. They need to have a voice in this particular chamber, so we created that advisory board just for them.”

Cano said that the 501(c)(3) will depend on membership fees in order to support programs, activities and networking that the chamber has planned.

“We do have a few speakers lined up, but we have yet to add to the schedule. Definitely first quarter, we have a few things that we will be presenting,” Leal said. “We’re very excited.”

“It’s history in the making, honestly,” added Cano.

For more information about the chamber, visit its Facebook page.