MCALLEN, Texas – For the second year in a row, Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA) was awarded a Texas Talent Connection Grant through the Texas Workforce Commission. The grant, which uses Wagner-Peyser federal funds and is managed by TWC, totaled $350,000 and will go towards the nonprofit’s services.

To celebrate, VIDA hosted a check-signing ceremony with TWC Executive Director Ed Serna and former TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez. Felida Villarreal, president and CEO of VIDA, expressed her gratitude to Alvarez and Serna for being advocates for the organization.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank both of them and Texas Workforce Commission for their invaluable support in promoting innovation with program training development, and making sure that we continue to align workforce skills with our emerging industry demands,” said Villarreal.

Since its founding in 1995, VIDA has had incredible success in helping unemployed and underemployed individuals in the Rio Grande Valley reach their careers goals. Through tuition and other financial support as well as counseling, VIDA has assisted thousands as they earn degrees, certifications and credentials.

Last year alone, VIDA served 534 students of which 60% were adult learners (those 25 years old and older) and over 80% were first generation college students. The nonprofit also boasted a 94% persistence rate, where students enrolled consecutively semester to semester until they graduated. The average starting salary for those who completed the program was around $48,000.

“I’m very proud of VIDA,” said Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, one of the event’s speakers. “I’ve always been a strong supporter of VIDA. VIDA is really the template that is used throughout the state to show how an organization – a group of dedicated volunteers and employees – can work with partners in the community to identify the jobs that are available and then take people from the barrios … and teach them skills that make them employable.”

South Texas College President Ricardo Solis praised VIDA for their work in the community. As one of their main educational partners, Solis spoke of the nonprofit’s critical role in the evolving higher-ed environment. With the huge demand for employees across all sectors, he says VIDA will be a bridge for many students in the region.

“We’ve seen that change the pandemic caused amongst the citizens of the Valley – the mental, health and the financial burdens it created – but most importantly, how it transformed the mentality of the learning student, who are now going to shorter terms, short-term certificates,” said Solis. “… No longer are you going to be seeing the long-term 4, 5, 6 years that it takes to get an education. It’s going to be shorter … This is what South Texas College is doing and definitely this is what VIDA is going to be enhancing … We are going to be able to deliver this education through VIDA to the students of the Valley.”

One of the highest in-demand fields for students is nursing. In the Valley, there is currently a shortage of about 6,000 nurses. By 2032, Texas will need around 57,000 more. To put this in perspective, Kennetha Foster, system chief nursing officer for South Texas Health System, explained that it takes 20 nurses a day to run just one ICU unit at STHS McAllen. By partnering with VIDA, she hopes to see more students pursue health care careers and fill these desperately needed positions.

“It’s really given us the opportunity to get in front of people who may not think they can do it, but, yes, they can,” said Foster. “And, it’s not just nursing. Nursing is a small piece of health care. We need those radiology techs, pharmacy, EVS [environmental services], everybody. That’s what it takes to run a hospital.”

Lyanna Solis, a recent STC graduate and VIDA participant, gave her testimonial about the program. The single mom had always put off going to college because she had to work. Through VIDA, she was able to afford tuition, books and supplies as she studied to become a LVN. After a challenging year, with many tears and words of encouragement from her counselor, she earned her certification. Now, she’s continuing her education and pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing.

“Another tough year it’s going to be,” said Lyanna Solis. “But with VIDA, I have them on my side.”

In his remarks, Alvarez said the highly-competitive grant is being well-served through groups like VIDA that uplift residents and, in turn, the region.

“This grant is obviously very impactful,” said Alvarez. “…You heard earlier from the testimony how it affects people. So, we have a young lady here who would never have gone back to school if it hadn’t been programs like VIDA whose (sic) put this into place.”

Before endorsing the check, Serna noted VIDA’s success with their first Texas Talent Connection Grant. He said, ultimately, TWC is dedicated to helping its constituency and reiterated his confidence in the organization’s ability to make the best use of the funds.

“In everything that we do, it’s about affecting lives,” said Serna. “It’s not just about getting a job, or getting an education or learning a trade – although, all those things are important – it’s really about affecting lives.”

Eduardo “Eddie” Anaya, VIDA board member and Valley Interfaith leader, said the funds will help the group continue building on the work it started 27 years ago.

“We change lives, giving people dignity and respect, not just for themselves and their families, but for their kids and the next generation, and the next generation,” said Anaya. “And, in the end, … they’re giving back.”

Editor’s Note: For more information about VIDA or to view their annual reports, visit their website here.

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