BROWNSVILLE, August 12 - Two Brownsville Border Youth leaders have each won a major community activism award and $5,000 to help improve the lives of families in Cameron Park, the largest colonia in the United States.
Miriam Aguayo and Karina Mendieta received their Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors against Poverty Leadership awards from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a national, independent grant-making foundation dedicated to helping low-income families strengthen their voice and mobilize their communities.
Aguayo and Mendieta are both aged 22. Both are set to graduate from UT-Brownsville later this year. Aguayo, who is studying history at UTB, hopes to become an immigration lawyer. She will use her prize money from Marguerite Casey on voter registration and voter turnout projects in Cameron Park. Mendieta, who is studying teaching at UTB, hopes to become a bilingual teacher. She will use her prize money from Marguerite Casey to help fight obesity among the youth in Cameron Park.
“People talk about our young people being future leaders. Karina and Miriam are leaders already. They have already proved themselves. They come here every day with energy and ideas. I think they have the energy to change the world. I am so proud of them,” said Lupita Sanchez, coordinator of community services for Proyecto Juan Diego in Cameron Park.
Sanchez said that like other members of Brownsville Border Youth, Aguayo and Mendieta are hard workers. “They think nothing of working out in the sun all day or putting on a vigil to help immigrants, or flying to Austin to advocate for our community. To me they are the heroes of our community,” Sanchez said.
Cameron Park, just north of Brownsville, is unincorporated and has 8,000 residents, of which about half are below the age of 18. One of the poorest parts of the United States, the average income is between $16,000 and $24,000, according to Sanchez.
Sargent Shriver was the driving force behind the creation of the Peace Corps, founded the Job Corps, Head Start and other programs as the "architect" of President Johnson's “War on Poverty.” A member of the Kenney family through marriage, Shriver served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He was a U.S. ambassador to France and later was George McGovern’s running mate in the 1972 presidential election.
Aguayo and Mendieta both received a book about Shriver’s life, titled “A Good Man,” in addition to their award and $5,000.
Aguayo and Mendieta were nominated for the Marguerite Casey award by the RGV Equal Voice Network. Each had to submit ideas on how to transform their community. In order to win the award they had to develop concrete plans to put their ideas into practice.
“Voter turnout in the 2012 general election in Cameron Park was 39 percent. We want to improve upon that. We want to get a ten percent increase, at least,” Aguayo told the Guardian. Her proposal is to go door-to-door encouraging people to register and vote, to hold a registration event at a Cameron Park citizenship ceremony, to hold a Get out the Vote fair, to hold a pledge campaign and to stage a town hall meeting in Cameron Park with local candidates. “We want to get the youth involved, to start a culture of voting,” Aguayo said.
Aguayo started working at Cameron Park as a part-time youth worker at the start of the year. She said she is in awe of the work done in the community by her peers in the Brownsville Border Youth. In recognizing Aguayo, Marguerite Casey said it liked her previous work helping to tutor Army veterans and the children of migrant workers.
Mendieta was born and raised in Cameron Park. When she was young the colonia lacked paved streets and street lighting. She has worked on youth issues with Proyecto Juan Diego for the past eight years. She said she got the idea for an initiative on obesity after visiting schools for observation days as part of her degree course. In recognizing Mendieta, Marguerite Casey said it liked her previous work in staging a Stop the Cycle of Obesity seminar for young people that focused on what to do to prevent obesity. The group also noted Mendieta was part of a successful campaign to stop smoking in public places in Brownsville.
“Visiting the schools, I noticed how many kids were overweight. I thought, we have to do something about this so we organized a Stop the Cycle of Obesity event. We want to do an even bigger event, either later in the year or early the following year,” Mendieta said. Plans include bringing in a zumba dance instructor, bringing in experts to talk to youth about the importance of eating healthy foods, and getting more recreational activities in local schools. Mendieta noted that nearby Gallegos Elementary School has a gym but no playground. “The nearest park is about a ten minute drive from Cameron Park. I think we could make room for a park on the abandoned lots within Cameron Park,” Mendieta said.
Sister Phyllis Peters, of Proyecto Juan Diego, said she is very proud of the youth because they have done a lot in the past and they have a lot of good ideas for the future. “We want the youth to be the instigators of the changes because they believe in justice,” Peters said.
Marguerite Casey Foundation President and CEO Luz Vega-Marquis said 14 Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors against Poverty Award winners were chosen from across the United States. She said each, including Aguayo and Mendieta, has a unique and inspiring story. “Each is a local hero whose work is a powerful example of Sargent Shriver’s call to ‘serve, serve, serve’,” she said.
Vega-Marquis said of the Award winners: “Their activism, born out of necessity and rooted in personal experience, is fueled by their belief in a better tomorrow for themselves, their families and future generations. These young people are passionate and courageous and poised to take the reins as a new generation of leaders.”