Op-Ed: Lessons From Serving The Brownsville Community For Seventy Years

by | Feb 23, 2023 | Opinion

When I first arrived to Good Neighbor Settlement House in April 2022, I found an organization that despite COVID-19 had only shut down for one day during the entire pandemic. We were in the middle of remodeling our kitchen and converting an old auditorium into a brand-new dining room for our unsheltered clients. Our meals were served as “take-out” due to both COVID and the remodeling, yet our kitchen staff managed to cook between 400-600 meals a day out of the First United Methodist Church. I was impressed by both the logistics involved and the resilience of staff. Not once did I hear of anyone complaining; staff consistently went above and beyond to make sure clients got their meals on time, and still warm.

Good Neighbor Settlement House has been serving the Brownsville community for 70 years after being founded by a group of women from the United Methodist Church. Since its inception in 1953, GNSH’s mission has been to offer a place for local residents to find support and help. Good Neighbor began providing classic settlement services which included education, healthcare, childcare, and employment resources to the Buena Vida families of one neighborhood; as Brownsville grew and evolved, homelessness became a concern. Many individuals and families found themselves on the street without food, hygiene or support services. In the 1970s GNSH extended services to the homeless population, offering meals, showers, clothing, a medical clinic, and other support. New structures were added to the facility and programs developed to meet growing needs. Outreach to individuals and families expanded by offering kindergartens, a playground, and a daycare program, as well as classes in sewing, cooking, hygiene, and adult education.

Today Good Neighbor serves the hungry, the unsheltered, and the migrants; we exist to support those who need it the most with compassion, respect, and dignity. Our core programs are our Soup Kitchen, Food Pantry – Mesa Llena, Client Services (one-on-one case management), Shower and Laundry, and Respite. The heart of Good Neighbor continues to be its staff.

We start the day at 6:30 am to make sure showers are ready for our clients, and we shut down at 6 pm after we finish serving the last meal at our Soup Kitchen. The staff’s passion and inspiration to serve our clients with a smile, kindness, and true connection are what make GNSH special. Our people, staff and clients, keep it special. 

Good Neighbor has seen thousands of volunteers come through its doors. Some voluntarily, while others mandated by court. Regardless, they all find in Good Neighbor a community of support. Juana’s  story is one of them: she started out as a community-service worker, after a ticket. At first, the judge wanted her to go to another location that was inconvenient for her. She asked to be at Good Neighbor knowing it would be a lot of work. When she started her community service she was assigned to the kitchen and assisted in prepping, cooking, and serving meals. It was a somewhat natural job for her because she had worked in food service and catering. In Juana’s words, “I love the atmosphere in the kitchen and by the time I was done with community service I decided to become a volunteer. Every morning since then, I’ve been volunteering to prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and leaving by afternoon to report to my job. I even had my son Francisco do his honor-roll community service here.  He came and volunteered until he found a job. I am so happy to help and love the friendships I have developed with the staff.”

Good Neighbor’s vision is to help people help themselves, with dignity and compassion, one client at a time. We believe homelessness can be a temporary condition, and that when desired, with the right support, it can be overcome with personal healing, educational assistance, housing, and employment. Unfortunately, Cameron County is one of the poorest counties in the nation; like in many other towns, there’s a lack of affordable housing in Brownsville. Regardless, our client-services case workers go above and beyond with the limited resources we have, to find homes for our clients.

During 2022, we were able to house 16 people, some through the rapid rehousing program and others through the barriers program. It has been crucial for our clients to have a support network at Good Neighbor. For example, Ms. Cruz arrived in September 2021; she was a registered nurse in a foreign country and therefore couldn’t practice in Brownsville. Despite being homeless she enrolled in GED classes and was attending school while being on the streets. We were able to submit a housing voucher, and she got housed in March 2022; until this day she continues in her new home.  Ms. Cruz has kept up her GED classes and is now working in a warehouse.  She is very grateful for the holistic support and assistance she received from GNSH during her time of need. While not all of our clients are ready, we meet them where they are with the ultimate goal to reintegrate them into the community, while providing resources they need.

We celebrate 70 years of serving the Brownsville community and creating a legacy of positive change in individual lives; we look forward to continue being a community pillar, always true to our mission of being a haven for everybody who needs one.

Astrid Dominguez is the Executive Director of Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville, Texas

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