LIBERTY — On the first day of her new job in 2006, Alexis Cordova got a set of keys. To the building door. Her office door. And one more – a unique key with a purple ring. It would eventually open more than a building.
“I was told it was a key to the parish hall at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church across the street from our offices,” Cordova recalls. “We didn’t have a meeting room in our building, so we were allowed to use the parish hall for community meetings.”
As the new Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service family and consumer sciences agent for Liberty County, Cordova quickly began scheduling educational meetings. The purple-ringed key opened the parish hall for her clientele like a floodgate on the nearby Trinity River. Nutrition classes. Parenting programs. Health awareness meetings.
“I started forming my relationships with the community and trying to get to know the people in the community so we could identify the needs in Liberty County,” Cordova said.
Ironically, her goals were echoed by the parish priest, though the two had not yet met.
The Rev. Ted Smith became pastoral leader at St. Stephen’s in 2006, bringing with him a strong opinion of church doors — that they should open for a congregation to spill out into the community, tending to those in need.
“We were taught in seminary to get out into the community and interact. That’s where ministry is,” Smith said. “Fortunately, this parish was already accustomed to doing that.”
Call them programs or call them ministries, Liberty County has its share of need. With more than 70,000 people, the median income per household is less than $40,000, according to census data. More than 14 percent of the population is below the poverty line, including almost 20 percent of the children under age 18 and 15 percent of the people age 65 or over. Access to health care, lack of knowledge about healthy lifestyle options, substance abuse and domestic violence all take a toll, Smith said.
Smith soon noticed that St. Stephen’s parish hall was frequently filled with people from the community. Not only that, the instructor was providing information on all kinds of issues facing the community. Nutrition. Parenting. Health awareness.
He took a closer look.
One such meeting initiated by the Methodist congregation pertained to a summer feeding program for children. Cordova pulled together various individuals, Smith and several other ministers joined the cause, and Hunger Busters was launched in 2008. Because a large number of children live in rural areas or don’t have transportation to school cafeterias in the summer, the Hunger Busters program set up 11 distribution centers close enough for children to access.
Over the years, the program has fed more than 100,000 meals to children in the 49 days school is recessed for the summer, Smith said.
That gave Smith a taste of what AgriLife Extension is about.
“I had no idea what AgriLife Extension was before Hunger Busters,” he said. “I thought they were there only to help farmers. I had no idea that Extension was involved in child rearing and everything about family life. The more I got involved, the more I realized that if you want to get involved with anything in the county, go to Extension. They are like a smartphone app – they have a program for everything.”
Many additional community efforts followed the initial summer feeding program, and Smith became more involved with Cordova’s Family and Consumer Sciences Advisory Board. Through that board, on which he now serves as president, Smith has continued to involve the community and his parishioners in addressing needs.
“Jesus didn’t tell his disciples ‘Wait here and I’ll go take care of everything,’” Smith said. “Making disciples is going out into the community and sending others out as Jesus did, in helping people who want to be well to have a better, healthier life. We have to go out and be Christ to others, to be his hands and feet, his voice.”
The lively AgriLife Extension-community coalition eventually turned the heads of Texas Rural Leadership Program leaders who selected Liberty County to pilot its new effort to “build vibrant communities through creative vision and inclusive leadership.”
Because more than 85 percent of the high school graduates in Liberty County do not go to college, leadership training for young people already “was on the radar,” Cordova said.
“Texas Rural Leadership was a great fit for us, because the goal is not only to enhance the community but to build leaders,” she said. “It looks at the positive aspects of a community, and it uses deliberative dialogue to learn how to communicate with everyone, establish networks, link resources and maximize efforts.”
To this point, it’s a story of people working together to provide community needs — things educational and things spiritual — based on their individual area of expertise.
But there’s another side of the purple-ringed key.
“We often joke about the fact that I had a key to St. Stephen’s before he did,” Cordova said of Smith.
As the two collaborated in community efforts, Smith invited Cordova several times to bring her family to St. Stephen’s.
“He kept saying, ‘Since you have a key to the church, why don’t you come to church some Sunday,” Cordova recalls. “At the time we were a young family. I had two young girls, and I was busy with Extension programming at night and during the day.”
Finally, she did visit a Sunday service at St. Stephen’s. One month later in September 2011, Cordova’s husband was killed in a tragic car accident.
“Fr. Ted drove to the funeral, which was in Corpus Christi, and then the church family came together in Liberty and hosted a reception for the local community,” she recalled.
“That was a big eye-opener for me because as an Extension agent you want to build community relationships so you can make those connections and offer resources to help families and people in the community,” said Cordova, who later joined the church with her daughters. “And here I was the one who was needing support. That church family is not only a big supporter in my programming but in my life.”
Smith said that’s what it’s about.
“This church is really a family to the community,” he said. “We all need to work together and reach out to each other.”
For Cordova too, building the sense of community is not just a job responsibility.
“For me, it’s a way of life. The dollar on the paycheck at the end of the month is not my priority. It’s building relationships and seeing people have the ‘aha’ moments and making those connections and having people ask how we can work together,” she said.
Nutrition classes. Parenting programs. Health awareness meetings. Programs. Ministries. All of these are words to describe the actions of people, the two agree. Underneath the actions are people.
Ultimately, when it mattered most, Cordova did not have to stick the purple-ringed key into the keyhole and turn it. Community relationships and response to need were unlocked there years ago.