For families who live near Carrizo Springs or Crystal City, Texas, all it takes one rough patch in life to truly set you back and on the path of relentlessly struggling to find food, shelter, and healthcare.
Even before the onset of the pandemic, the Texas rural counties of Dimmit and Zavala were ranked some of the least healthy communities in Texas, struggling with food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, homelessness, and substance abuse issues, according to County Health Rankings.org.
Serving as a Wesley Community Nurse in Dimmit County, Charlotte Slack, R.N. deeply knows the palpable need in this community. According to Texas County Health rankings, a sobering 40 percent of children were living in poverty and 20 percent were uninsured in Zavala County in 2020.
“The pandemic really brought our need to the surface and to the attention to larger organizations,” Slack said. “We have 700 in the community already dependent on the commodities.”
Since 2015, HEALTH-RCMI's Taking Texas Tobacco Free’s outreach partner, Home of Living Faith has been one trusted place families can turn when they stumble upon tough times. Their heartfelt mission is to help the working poor who struggle to make ends meet and live paycheck to paycheck.
When Home of Living Faith holds a food distribution, their Community Emergency Response Team will typically feed more than 200 in the food drive line, according to Slack.
“If we didn’t have Home of Living Faith, I would have no place to refer people,” Slack said. “Since food insecurity is our No. 1 issue, it’s so important to just have them available. They're forming a wellness hub. They just bolster people’s spirit. Home of Living Faith is like a lighthouse. They do so much with what they have. There is nobody like them in either county—of all the churches, of all the organizations.”
When encouragement, nourishment and hope are brought into rural Texas communities like Zavala and Dimmit counties, the collective effort ushers in fresh opportunities. Deeply rooted in Home of Living Faith’s purpose is the faith-inspired compassion of loving your neighbor. They strive to feed the hungry, clothe the oppressed and provide support to those who are fighting substance abuse addiction.
For Pastor Eloy Vera and his wife, co-pastor Laura Vera, the mission to give back to their neighbors was placed upon their heart. It was the right thing to do to meet the needs of their community when their faith called them to serve.
"We took on a challenge when the winter storm hit, but we responded and opened our doors,” Vera said. “We had eight distribution teams running at the same time every week, distributing food to all these families and communities at the same time. It was amazing how God brought the helpers.”
Serving a combined population of 18,285 in Dimmit and Zavala counties, Home of Living Faith has expanded from food and clothing drives to helping provide support for those who wish to kick their addiction to cigarettes and alcohol.
“Home of Living Faith is really embedded, which is why I ended up helping them,” Slack said. “They had more inroads to see where the needs were in the counties we serve. We’re a part of a learning collaborative called Thriving Together. We’re in Phase 1. We are inviting people who have lived in these conditions—not just to interview them, but to invite them into leadership, into what these coalitions can do.”
This initiative through Home of Living Faith was a natural fit for Taking Texas Tobacco Free (TTTF) which stepped in and provided training, resources, and support for quitting tobacco use. Spearheading a new endeavor in 2022 through a grant funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), Home of Living Faith in collaboration with TTTF began trainings in smoking cessation and addiction prevention. Funds from the CPRIT grant were used to purchase a starter kit of nicotine replacement therapy that included nicotine gum, nicotine lozenges and nicotine patches.
“It’s a big addiction here which takes a lot of money from their pockets—cigarettes and drinking,” Laura Vera said. “For people dealing with substance abuse issues, it takes trust for them to even come close to you. Trust is first,” Vera said. “They know that they have that level of trust—then they can come to you and tell you that they have an issue. That’s what we try to do. We try to raise awareness. Some people are not ready to quit. We need to educate more about what can happen if they don’t stop. They need to want to stop.”
According to Taking Texas Tobacco Free’s Director Dr. Lorraine Reitzel, many smokers have a real desire to quit smoking at some point, but they often do not know where to start.
“Motivation to quit tobacco use can go up and down, but research suggests that as many as 50-70% of smokers want to quit at any given time,” Reitzel said. “Our program helps to train care providers to harness and further develop that motivation in others and provides them with the tools they need to intervene to help them quit.”
From a personal perspective, Laura Vera said offering support for smoking cessation is close to her heart and was ignited by her mother’s challenge to quit smoking. When Vera was in third grade, she made a poster for parent’s night that showed her mom how much it hurt that she smoked and just how much it was damaging her health.
“My mom used to smoke a pack a day. I drew a picture of her and what she looked like in my eyes—my mom with a huge cigarette,” Vera said. “I told her, ‘I need you to stop. I don’t want you to die.’ I believe that the love she had for me as a daughter made her stop. And the love I had for her made her stop. The addiction was one thing, but her love for me was greater.”
Smoking is a significant problem in Zavala and Dimmit counties, with approximately 21 percent in Zavala and 19 percent of the population in Dimmit addicted to the habit, according to County Health Rankings.org. From Pastor Eloy’s viewpoint, substance abuse and nicotine addiction are deeply interwoven in the issues of food security and poverty in the surrounding counties.
“The number one response in the food drive line is ‘I want my husband to quit smoking because it’s so expensive that I cannot afford my food. And now cigarettes are so high, and I can’t afford my medicine. It would be so good if my husband would stop smoking,’” Pastor Eloy recounted.
Pastor Eloy emphasized that he and his wife found the mission when they were “broken.”
“We had a dollar to our name,” Eloy said. “I started realizing that we were being called to the ministry to do God’s work—to feed the oppressed, clothe them and be an advocate for the people. There have been so many blessings personally.”
An outreach partner of TTTF, Integral Care’s Bryce Kyburz led the nicotine replacement trainings with Home of Living Faith.
“Home of Living Faith fills a need,” Kyburz said. “They could just be a church and minister to people and build their faith that way, but they want to provide food and clothing--and now taking it one step further--to help people live a healthier lifestyle by helping people quit smoking. They’re so energetic and excited about doing it and jump in with both feet. They have no other incentive but to benefit the community—it is not about money or clinical hours. It is all about how to better serve their community.”
For Home of Living Faith, their collective goal and long-term vision is to continue to serve the community through their faith. Pastor Eloy and Laura Vera now want to expand further into creating community gardens—to provide healthier nutritional options for families in the area.
“It’s all about working with the community and working with other agencies to better help the community,” Vera said. “Overall, it’s a blessing for everyone. We are praying for sustainability. Whether the agency is faith-based or not, we try to get the resources to help the families get the help they need.”
By Alison Medley