WESLACO — Sometimes connecting sewage hookups or providing garbage dumps in the impoverished colonias along the South Texas border simply requires legwork and an extra set of hands. Plus some knowledge of municipalities and government agencies.
The second part often may be what snags such improvements in the colonias, but by weaving the Texas Agricultural Extension Service’s tradition in community level education with eager members of AmeriCorps, 11 South Texas counties are feeling the impact of environmental, community and youth programs.
A Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence will be presented to the South Texas AmeriCorps Initiative, a special project of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, at the Hyatt Regency in Austin on April 29. The project is being honored in the CLEAN TEXAS 2000 pollution prevention program’s education category.
“We feel very good about the environmental program effort,” said Dr. Bonnie McGee, Extension Service assistant to the director and program director. “Through the AmeriCorps workers, we have an extension of what our county faculty are trying to do.”
AmeriCorps, established by President Clinton in 1993, provides a modest monthly stipend to members who join for one- or two-year stints, plus an annual educational voucher for $4,725. The South Texas project has placed as many as 46 AmeriCorps program participants among 11 Extension offices where they are supervised and receive training from county Extension agents and specialists. The AmeriCorps members then take to the communities to help bring people and pieces together for neighborhood and natural environment improvements.
“The program provides demonstrations and educational programs promoting environmental stewardship and water quality in South Texas, as well as one-on-one assistance for colonia residents,” said Ruben Saldana, project manager.
That’s a formal description, but as Saldana describes the actual impact on the Rio Grande Valley region, his talk is much more animated.
There’s the example of some 80 families getting hooked onto sewage service because AmeriCorps members were able to track down and follow through on the steps necessary to start service, there’s the community that is getting an engineering firm to help design installation of drainage for improved roads, there’s the effort to reduce yard waste and rural burning, and there’s the community that used prison crews to clean up a horrific trash dumping problem. The county then was able to place commercial dumpsters in convenient locations and hired a “trash patrol” to keep the place clean, Saldana noted. And he recalls several parks that had fallen into neglect but now have been “adopted” by communities and are cleaned up and being used once more for public and family events.
But one of the greatest impacts — and potentially long reaching — is the education of children in public schools, he noted. More than 45,000 children were reached by AmeriCorps in 1996 and taught about recycling, waste management, how landfills work, water conservation and cholera education, Saldana said.
“There are lots and lots of gardens that went in and are used to teach about such things as proper pesticide use and soil erosion control,” he said.
McGee said the effort has been a win-win-win situation with the Extension environmental programs being taken to larger numbers of people, communities being improved with environmental projects, and individual AmeriCorps members — about 90 percent of the South Texas project being Hispanic — learning invaluable life and job skills.
“Subject matter specialists taught the members about a full range of environmental topics, also organizational skills and how to work in an office — skills that will serve the members for a lifetime,” McGee said. “And, of course, an AmeriCorps objective is to help the members get an education. Almost 100 percent of the first and second year members in this program have gone on to continue their education. Some have changed their life goals as a result of this experience.”
There are about 50 other AmeriCorps projects in Texas with some 2,000 members currently working on various projects in communities. Nationally, AmeriCorps boasts some 20,000 members.