DONNA, RGV – As the Rio Grande Valley continues to grow, civil and business leaders must recognize the importance of developing not just a skilled workforce but also a healthy one.

This is the view of Salomon Torres, program manager for policy and development with Unidos Contra La Diabetes (UCD), a non-profit group that is hosted by UT Health Science Center-Houston, in affiliation with the School of Public Health in Brownsville.

“We focus so much on Valley growth in our respective roles but as that growth happens, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the health condition of our population is going to have a direct impact on the quality of our workforce,” Torres said.

“And, it will have a direct correlation to how our communities get graded by outside investors. All of it is connected. If we can reverse the rate of diabetes, reverse the negative health condition of our population, we will be contributing to smart Valley growth, not just Valley growth.”

Linda S. Nelson, RN, MSN

Torres made his remarks in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian while UCD participated in a health fair at Plaza Amistad, an outreach ministry being developed in the middle of a number of colonias north of Donna by the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.

Plaza Amistad is situated on 14 acres of farmland just off Mile 13 near Salinas Boulevard, north of Donna. The land was donated to the Diocese by the Bonham Family. The plan is to have a health clinic, a farmer’s market classrooms, recreation such as soccer and volleyball, a church, and farming.

While UCD staff were educating colonia residents about the need to check for diabetes, UT-Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine had its “Unimóvil” medical mobile health clinic at the plaza, with medical school students giving flu shots to those who needed them.

“It is a wonderful time to be collaborating with partners on improving healthcare,” Torres said. “Today, we are combining forces with UTRGV School of Medicine to bring health services and also awareness about serious health conditions that are afflicting our Valley population.”

Torres used to work for Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, both in Washington, D.C. and the Valley. He is also a former executive director of San Benito Economic Development Corporation. He joined UCD last fall.

Salomon Torres

Asked to explain the work UCD has been doing, Torres said: “We have been partnering with groups around the Valley for the last two years, the clinics, the educational institutions, the non-profits that specialize in delivering healthcare services to the local communities. We have been setting up a structure whereby, under different specialty committees, involving subjects such as lifestyle changes, medical integration, screening services, we can now take on initiatives to execute, whether they are regulatory, legislative, or community based initiatives to improve health conditions.”

Torres said Brownsville is a great example for other municipalities to follow.

“In Brownsville, they have initiated a lot of wellness activities and connected them to medical providers. Now we want to take that Valleywide. My role is to help them execute policy initiatives in 2018, with a special focus on diabetes, given the diabetic condition of our population.”

Torres said one of the goals he has set himself is to broaden the constituent groups UCD is connected with. Hence his presence at Plaza Amistad.

“The academics are here, the clinics are here, but we want to make sure all the significant players that are connected to the grassroots, to the local population, are in this united campaign. To me that meant connecting with the Diocese, So, when I reached out to the Diocese to partner with them on health initiatives, Plaza Amistad was a natural place to begin our collaboration.”

Asked how he learned about Plaza Amistad, Torres said: “I joined this campaign right before Thanksgiving. That was the time Plaza Amsted got publicized locally as an initiative of the Diocese.”

Torres said he was intrigued by Plaza Amsted’s unique approach.

“It was unique because of how it had almost no government involvement. It was basically a private initiative, a private landowner (the Bonham Family) donating land to the diocese. On their own, taking on this challenge to create a very forward looking and progressive community next to a colonia in the middle of Hidalgo County.”

Torres said UCD is now committed to helping Plaza Amistad succeed.

“For us at UCD and the School of Public Health, it was a natural thing to say, how can we help this Diocese project be successful. Through us, we will be the conduit to connect them with other healthcare providers, with non-profits, anybody who wants to collaborate with the Diocese, so the Diocese knows they have a full array of partners.”

Linda Nelson, senior director of clinical operations for UTRGV School of Medicine was also at Plaza Amistad for the health fair.

“We are pleased as punch to be here. This is a great endeavor for the community and we are so glad to be part of the inaugural health fair today. What we have here today is our Unimóvil, a mobile medical van that UTRGV dedicated approximately 18 months ago. We are out in approximately 12 communities seeing patients for primary care, acute and chronic care, we do a little bit of everything.”

Asked to elaborate, Nelson said: “We do vision screening, hearing screening, some immunizations. Today we are giving free flu shots. We also do labs and physical exams, and continuity of care. We are so proud of our bus.”

Asked what she thought of Plaza Amistad, Nelson said: “This will be a spectacular location. We hope to participate in running the clinic that will be built here. We want to augment what is in the community.”

Asked how the medical school was developing, Nelson said: “We are a community Med School. We now have about 102 medical students and we are almost ready to initiate our third class this summer. We are just delighted to be here, delighted to be part of this great event.”

To the colonia residents, Nelson said: “Thank you for being a part of our lives. These are the most wonderful people I have met.”

In addition to the Unidos Contra La Diabetes and UTRGV School of Medicine students, the Plaza Amistad health fair provided healthy meals courtesy of Boka 400 Restaurant in McAllen.