BENJAMIN TREVINO | STAFF WRITER
More than 9,000 people attended this year’s Winter Texan Expo and Health Fair held recently at the McAllen Convention Center. The 27th annual event featured about 200 vendors, showcasing everything from automobiles, to RVs, to Zen dentistry. Also dotting the main floor aisles was an array of local nonprofits and other organizations, so Winter Texan Weekly (WTW) dropped by a few of the booths to talk about volunteer opportunities.
Our first stop was at Children’s Haven International (CHI). The Reynosa orphanage, which is home to some 50 children and young adults, was founded in 1973 by Christian missionaries Lee and Shirley Mendoza. CHI also operates a Christian school that serves another 150 area children. Some of the funding for the home comes from a thrift store at the ministry’s office in Pharr, where Winter Texan volunteers play a key role.
“Winter Texans have formed the foundation of our ministry,” said Ministry Director, Betsy Chacon. “We have many local churches and groups that help us throughout the year, but the Winter Texans will always be essential and they provide so many volunteer hours. From January to March you can go to our office and find anywhere from 10 to 30 volunteers doing different things.”
“It’s a great thing to watch the kids grow up in a situation that’s stable,” said Phyllis Schroeder of Denver, Colorado. Schroeder and her husband, Dale have been doing volunteer work for CHI for 20 years. “So often, they come from situations where they have no food, no home, and we want to take care of them, get them educated so that they can go out and take care of themselves in the future. It’s just wonderful to watch them.”
At the Gladys Porter Zoo booth, WTW met up with Don and Rita Dorst of Ontario, Canada. This is the couple’s 25th year as Winter Texans and they’ve been zoo docents for the past 11 years.
“We just thought it would be a neat thing to do,” said Rita. “We love it. We meet nice people, and learn all about the animals and handling them.”
“It demystifies the whole concept of animals like this tarantula,” added Don. “People are scared to death of them, yet they’re perfectly benign as long as they’re not mistreated.”
Our next stop was at the Food Bank of the RGV booth, where the food bank’s manager of Volunteer and Donor Services told us how Winter Texans bring lots of hard work and cultural diversity to the nonprofit’s mission of feeding the hungry.
“Some of them are really dedicated, volunteering up to 15 hours a week,” said Olivia Lemus. “They’re vital to our community. They bring in a lot of different perspectives, coming from out of state. They bring in a lot of new ideas for fundraising and other things and they just bring a lot of energy. So we’re very thankful for that.”
Our final stop brought us to Christian Resort Ministries. Founded in 2002, this non-denominational ministry has a presence in 20 parks across the Rio Grande Valley thanks to the efforts of volunteer chaplains.
“When people are up north in their sticks and bricks homes they worship denominationally,” said Lee Tracy, Regional Manager at Christian Resort Ministries. “But when they come here, they worship as a park. In our park, for example, we have 28 different denominations coming to church, which is wonderful. That’s the way God intended it. We have Sunday services, Bible studies, minister to hospital patients, we do weddings, funerals, and memorials. We do all of that. We do everything a pastor would do in a small town.”
Show director Kristi Collier and others say volunteerism is just a natural extension of what it means to be a Winter Texan.
“Everybody always talks about the economic impact our Winter Texans have on our area,” said Collier. “But what often goes undocumented is the community service they provide to our local nonprofits and organizations. They truly become part of our community through the works that they do.”
“This isn’t work at all,” said Don Dorst. “There are so many lovely people in this area and it’s just a joy to be associated with them. It brings us a lot of happiness and we like to return it by doing this sort of thing.”