MCALLEN, Texas – Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. and Texas A&M University School of Public Health announced a partnership to tackle water safety in Rio Grande Valley colonias. In a press conference held at the Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen, the entities outlined their two-pronged approach that will entail a toxic contaminant study and targeted community engagement.
“Our strategic plan in two words is ‘health equity,’” said Jaime Wesolowski, president and CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. “We’re trying to make sure that we assist people and give them a fair and just opportunity for health and wellness as they live their lives.”
Wesolowski, who visited Valley colonias shortly after becoming CEO of the nonprofit, recounted his experience and how it ultimately led to the collaboration.
“I went back with two messages,” said Wesolowki. “…The need down here is so great that even though we are blessed with many resources, we can’t do it alone. We need partners to do some of the work down here. And, the second thing I said was ‘I had no idea that here, in the United States, we have people living without water.’”
Greg Hartman, chief operating officer and senior vice president for strategic partnerships at TAMU, said that as a land-grant institute, these are the opportunities for which the college was tailor-made. He sees the undertaking as the first of many steps toward a healthier population.
“Through this partnership with Methodist Healthcare Ministries, we are helping Texas take a big step forward, ensuring everyone in South Texas has access to a fundamental need for good health: clean and reliable drinking water,” said Hartman.
Among the attendees were distinguished guests Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr. as well as Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez.
In his remarks, Cortez praised the partnership, saying “this is the way to get things done.” He noted that the research will help elected officials better understand how to best serve colonia residents moving forward.
Sen. Lucio, who has born in a colonia and has advocated for residents on many initiatives, spoke about his life’s work and his hope this latest collaborative effort.
“As a state senator, one of my driving passions in the legislature has been the welfare of colonia residents when it comes to healthcare issues, housing and, of course, infrastructure issues,” said Lucio. “…Without water, there is no life.”
He added, “Nobody in this day should have to live without access to safe drinking water, and I am confident that this project will bring us closer to insuring that nobody has to.”
The two-year project will be headed by TAMU School of Public Health professors Dr. Taehyun Roh and Dr. Garett Sansom. Roh, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics, will test levels of arsenic and other contaminants in the drinking water of residents and assess their exposure. He will also educate residents on the health risks of contaminated water and provide them with water testing kits and five-stage filters.
“Arsenic exposure from contaminated drinking water increases the risks of diverse cancers and non-cancer diseases,” said Roh. “Underserved and low-resourced populations relying on unsafe drinking water sources in Texas border communities are disproportionately affected by this. We expect our study will contribute to reducing health disparities in these communities.”
Dr. Sansom, research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, will focus on outreach. He will recruit and train high schoolers for citizen science teams and host community meetings to address resident concerns. He emphasized the importance of being invited into communities when creating long-term solutions and said groups like Proyecto Azteca, A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE), and La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) will be part of their local council.
“It has to be something that is built in, cooked in, baked into the community from the beginning,” said Sansom. “So, it’s the kind of solutions that take into account cultural differences, the lives that they’re actually experiencing.”
The studies will initially concentrate on San Carlos area colonias but will be expanded with successful dissemination efforts by community members. They will wrap up in 2024, and the data will be presented before the 2025 legislative body to influence future public policy.
“We want to stress, too, that a lot of good work has been done on colonias,” said Christine Yanas, vice president of policy & advocacy at Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. “…The elected officials here have really done a lot of good work in making sure that a lot of things are taken care of. We want to come in and see what else needs to be done. So, we want to acknowledge the work that’s been done by the judge, local officials and the state reps. – Sen. Hinojosa and Sen. Lucio.”
“We’re not reinventing the wheel; we’re maybe helping, together, improve a little bit,” added Samson.
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