Volunteers impact Texas immigration nonprofit ARISE


Community organizer at A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE) Support Center Ramona Casas remembered founder Sister Gerrie Naughton wanted the organization to serve all people equally.  

“She said this program can be for everybody,” Casas said. “If they are American citizens, they are low income families or an economic situation, it’s for everybody.”

ARISE is a nonprofit organization that aids colonias in South Texas. “Colonias” are unincorporated territories on the border of Mexico and the U.S. that are generally low income and lack basic services.

Webster nursing student Cathy Periandri gives a presentation on health while Spanish professor Silvia Navia Mednez-Bonito translates. (Photo by Christine Tannous)

Over fall break, a team of Webster University faculty and students visited Donna, Texas, to volunteer at ARISE. The team consisted of nursing faculty and students as well as both a Spanish and law professor.

Mary Ann Drake, a nursing professor at Webster, led the trip. She said she originally planned on bringing nursing students with her for hands-on experience in community health.

Drake said after spending time at ARISE in August, she realized the organization could use other help from Webster as well.

“When I was down there I thought, ‘There are health needs there, but there’s a whole lot of other stuff too,’” Drake said. “So I put out a call on with the faculty and I said, ‘This is what I did in August. I would love to start doing another trip, anybody interested?’”

Serving the Colonias

ARISE currently operates four centers. Casas said the organization focuses on serving the colonias in different areas, or pillars: education, immigration, civic engagement, housing, youth, leadership, environment and health.

Casas said ARISE started in 1987 by offering English classes. She said ARISE bases the pillars they focus on over what services are most needed.

“We developed these programs because they are the more concerning issues the community has,” Casas said.

Andrea Olvera has worked at ARISE for 21 years. She said she first became involved at ARISE when she was trying to find somewhere to take English classes. She said she was unable to sign up for classes elsewhere because she had no social security card when she first immigrated to America.

Currently the coordinator of the health pillar at ARISE, Olvera said she and her children were able to take classes through the organization. She said her English class led to a volunteer early childhood teaching position, which eventually transitioned into the job she currently has.

“I was saying ‘I don’t know how to work with kids, my only experience is with my own children,’” Olvera said. “What if another child who is not my child misbehaves, what do I do? But that’s how I started.”

Casas said she thinks staff members’ dedication is a result of their love for serving others and engaging in their communities. She said employees are given opportunities to learn new skills and develop programs to better help the areas they serve.

Olvera said she continues to work at ARISE because her entire family participated in the organization.

“One of the main worries for a mother is like, what do you do with your kids? You don’t want to leave them alone at home,” Olvera said. “Everybody was here, involved.”

Webster students collaborate with ARISE to solve community problems (Photo by Christine Tannous)

Casas said she plans on inviting more youth to participate in ARISE so the organization can grow. She said she currently teaches a program to young people about ARISE’s values.

“My hope is that ARISE never ends and that it can be in the hands of the new generation,” Casas said.

Webster impacts ARISE

During the Webster trip, nurses gave presentations on health concerns in the community ARISE serves, such as cancer and diabetes. Professor of legal studies at Webster Anne Geraghty-Rathert gave a presentation on immigration.

Kerry Belpulsi is a nursing student at Webster who gave a presentation on diabetes during the trip. She said she hoped the members she spoke to at ARISE learned how to prevent diabetes in their community.

“[I hope they learned] how to take care of themselves better and share with others what they’ve learned,” Belpulsi said. “Obesity and diabetes are a big problem in society in general, and I think especially for them.”

Drake said she hoped the trip widened her students’ eyes to the reality of health for people outside of the hospitals they work at.

“We have poverty in St Louis too, and nurses take care of people in situations all the time, but they really kind of develop their plan of care based on the person in that bedroom,” Drake said. “They don’t really think of where they’re coming from and where they’re going back to.”

Casas said volunteers are important to ARISE because they help empower employees. She said as a nonprofit organization, volunteers help ARISE save money by teaching skills they need to learn.

Casas said Webster’s volunteers taught employees new skills that will benefit the communities the organization serves. She said volunteering at ARISE benefits both the organization and the volunteers themselves.

“The volunteers are giving a lot of energy to us, but also we believe it is giving a lot of learning experience for the people who come as volunteers,” Casas said. “Learning about the life at the border, to learning about the immigrants and learning about an organization that is serving in the rural communities.”

Belpulsi said she has always wanted to help on a mission trip and working at ARISE gave her the opportunity. She said the experience made her realize she wants to pursue work similar to what she did on the trip in the future.

“I like helping people, and it’s another avenue of helping people,” Belpulsi said.

Drake said she is already planning a trip back in the spring with more student involvement. She said she is planning on involving students from the nursing, Spanish and legal studies department.

Drake said she is excited about building a long term relationship with ARISE.

“I was really impressed with the relationships with the people that we had,” Drake said. “We certainly had skills on our team to offer them what they were looking for.”


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