Gabriela Soto follows along in her packet during a presentation on diabetes by UTRGV graduate social work students Tuesday for Citrus Gardens Colonia residents at the Lost and Found Church of the Nazarene in Brownsville.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

BROWNSVILLE — As COVID-19 swept into the Rio Grande Valley this spring, UTRGV’s graduate class of social work students faced a unique dilemma: how do social workers engage with struggling communities to empower residents and facilitate social change when in-person meetings are off-limits?

The university’s cancellation of in-person classes, on top of local and statewide emergency restrictions, limited the ways in which students could participate in field placements necessary to graduate. Faculty began to explore options, and eventually Dr. Sudershan Pasupuleti, the School of Social Work’s MSSW Accelerated Online Program Director, helped develop a solution: remote training through community networks.

One cohort of students had the opportunity to work with residents of the Citrus Gardens Colonia, near Southmost, over the course of two months. The participants never had the opportunity to meet in person, but the experimental program proved successful beyond what organizers imagined.

Jack White, a lecturer in the program, attended the final gathering of Citrus Gardens residents for a class in preventive health and nutrition for colonia parents at Lost and Found Church of the Nazarene in Brownsville on Tuesday. The congregation has been working with the colonia for a decade and helped facilitate the social work program.

“Brownsville is the poorest city of its size in the United States,” said White. “To my knowledge, Citrus Gardens may be one of the poorest communities in our area. Under all the hardship that COVID-19 presented, we had an amazing opportunity that opened up, and we took it. Students took leadership and came up with ideas to not only serve the community, but to assess what the needs are and to build services around that.”

“Dr. Pasupuleti and the school should get great credit for having the foresight to develop something not only to continue the education of their students, but to provide valuable services to communities and agencies that normally would not be candidates for field placement. We will continue the work. The need is apparent; the challenges are clear,” he said.

Lydia Hernandez, one of the program’s community organizers, has lived in Citrus Gardens for 10 years. She volunteers at the church and offered to help organize the new program.

Graduate students from UTRGV’s social work program provide information on mental health resources, nutrition, and preventative medical care over ZOOM Tuesday for residents of the Citrus Gardens Colonia at the Lost and Found Church of the Nazarene in Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Program leaders selected Hernandez and two other residents to survey the neighborhood house by house. Students trained the three volunteers in technique and sent them out into the community. It took about two weeks, and Hernandez was amazed to find that 47 out of the 60 surveys distributed received responses.

“We tried to do this in three schedules — in the morning, afternoon, and really late at night, because people have to work,” she said. “Last week, we got the results. It was impressive — we have a lot of teenagers living here.”

Responses indicated a fear of walking outside at night due to the lack of streetlights, as well as concern over children walking to school along the side of the road. The colonia has no sidewalks or speed bumps, and Hernandez said it’s common for cars to speed through.

Hernandez said it’s challenging to get people to care about the colonias. Residents may not want to get involved, but she’s optimistic that organizing could facilitate change. “Now, we have a resource list where we can find doctors or dentists where we can pay less,” she said.

“That was more than what we could have expected. Nobody else would ever care for our colonia. I want to thank the students. It’s like something we’re hiding, and nobody does anything. I’ve been there for 10 years. We get used to not having lights. We get used to seeing the cars drive fast. We don’t have to wait for an accident to happen. We have to prevent that.”

A student leader of the Citrus Gardens project, Rosio Mata, emphasized the importance of cultural relevancy in organizing interventions in the colonias, specifically, addressing basic needs like literacy improvement.

“Yes, we can translate documents. But, here in the Valley the rates of illiteracy are above 50 percent. If we’re creating these great documents but they’re going to a population that isn’t literate enough to comprehend them, then we need to meet them where they’re at,” said Mata.

Paula Ortiz listens to a presentation on preventative health measures and nutrition for parents in the Citrus Gardens Colonia Tuesday at the Lost and Found Church of the Nazarene. The presentation was part of an initiative by UTRGV for its graduate social work students to have fieldwork necessary to graduate while providing social change and programs for their community. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“I think the city leaders don’t understand the gravity. The only way you’re going to understand it is by going into the trenches. What we have found is that Lydia is passionate. Her heart is there. She wants to lead, she wants to change, she wants to bring the resources to her community. That passion you can’t buy, you can’t duplicate. We need to be including them.”

In addition to street lights, students found that there was a greater need than anticipated in terms of mental health resources. “Many of [those surveyed] said that they were stressed, that they had depression because of COVID. All of us do, whether we’re willing to admit it or not. But they were feeling it more so,” said Mata.

Students addressed child services, parent services, and community development in trainings attended by community members. But, as Mata explained, the work is a process.

“Sometimes, no one will show up. But, you have to keep pushing and keep working. In social work, you operate from the framework and you don’t take things personally, you don’t put your emotions in it, you just facilitate the process. We keep moving, we keep going, and eventually it’s going to build traction. I’m very proud of our work.”