Yvette Jimenez was nearing graduation from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacagdoches when the pandemic struck, causing the loss of her university job and leaving her in need of an internship to complete her graduation.
The Los Fresnos native discovered the Brownsville Wellness Coalition, whose director told her about Get Shift Done, a program that pays workers out of a job because of the pandemic to help feed residents suffering from food insecurity. GSD, which uses the SmartShift app for workers to pick up shifts, started in the Rio Grande Valley in May. Jimenez started with GSD in June.
She spoke to The Brownsville Herald on Sept. 11 after a 7 a.m. to noon shift helping serve the hundreds of people who showed up at the Brownsville Event Center in their cars to receive produce and other groceries. It’s labor intensive work but she does it because she wants to give back to the community she loves, plus the $10 an hour helps Jimenez make ends meet during tough times, she said.
Her internship ended and she graduated in August, though Jimenez plans to keep working with GSD, BWC and United Way of Southern Cameron County, which spearheaded the launch of GSD in the Rio Grande Valley, for the long haul.
“I want to be there until the very last food distribution that we’re allowed to have,” she said. “I’d like to in the future have my family go to help out, even if it’s just at the food distributions or the community gardens, or wherever else there is food insecurity in the community.”
Jimenez said she was largely unfamiliar with the nonprofit world before the pandemic, but not anymore.
“I know since I’ve worked hand in hand with them I’m kind of familiarized with what they do and how much they do and how much they make an impact on the community, so it’s very rewarding,” she said.
Although it’s sad to see need on such a scale, Jimenez said she feels like she’s making a difference when someone tells her “thanks” or “God bless you” when she’s helping load a car. It’s also been an opportunity to make new friends, Jimenez said. With graduation behind her, Jimenez is ready to start applying to graduate schools, though the nonprofit experience has influenced her plans.
“Initially I wanted to do occupational therapy and that’s still a goal of mine, but through United Way I became aware of Moody Clinic, which is affiliated with the United Way and they are a nonprofit as well and they do therapy,” she said. “I’d really love to become an occupational therapist and either expand Moody Clinic or do some nonprofit therapy of my own. … Through Get Shift Done I learned a new passion, which is helping the community and giving back.”
Wendy De Leon, UWSCC director of development and communications, said GSD was originally scheduled to end June 30, though the program has been extended, possibly through the end of the year, thanks to generous donations. Funding is through the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation and various other foundations, plus anonymous donors and individual small donations to UWSCC’s United Against Hunger fund, she said.
“The need is very much still here,” De Leon said.
The mass food distributions alternate between the Event Center and Southmost every Friday, with about 1,600 bags of food given out each time, she said. De Leon said she always asks the people in the cars at the front of the line what time they arrived.
“Usually it’s about 4 or 4:30 a.m.,” she said. “Today the first car in line was there at midnight and the second car got there at 1:53 a.m. That just tells you everything. The need is still there. People are lining up for miles and are waiting eight hours, because they know we start at 8 a.m.”
The SmartShift app is similar to Uber, De Leon said.
“You sign up you create your account,” she said. “All these shifts start popping up that are near you and you pick up what works for your schedule. You get paid $10 an hour and the payment starts processing that same day, but can take up to five to seven days depending on your bank. … We have shifts available in Brownsville. We have shifts available at the Salvation Army in McAllen, and we have shifts available in Edinburg as well.”
More than 170 workers are picking up GSD shifts around the Valley, De Leon said.
“We have extended funding and we are now going to be pushing this program through the next couple of months,” she said. “So we are asking people that need extra cash, people that aren’t working, furloughed workers or just anyone who wants to pick up shifts, to sign up, and they can do so by downloading the SmartShift app on their cell phones.”
Javier Guajardo was a full-time employee of Las Ramblas cocktail bar with a burgeoning cheesecake-baking business on the side when the pandemic hit, knocking out his sources of income. His employers extended him and his fellow employees small loans to help them get by until they could figure something out, and he had some savings, but there were no obvious solutions to the lost income situation, plus being home all day doing nothing got old fast, he said.
“After a while, just being home every day, it takes its toll, especially because I was so used to working,” Guajardo said. “I worked multiple jobs and I did multiple things. When all of that came to halt I kind of didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Then he heard that United Against Hunger, which actually predated GSD in Brownsville, was paying people who’d lost their jobs to help prepare food boxes for needy families. Guajardo signed on, partly because of the paycheck but also because it was a way to help people who were hurting.
“Granted, I’m being paid, but I’m also helping out the community by working at the Good Neighbor (Settlement House), feeding homeless people, working in the community gardens,” he said. “I’ve gone to work at the Food Bank, Amigos del Valle in Edinburg. Sometimes those are the only shifts available and I want to work, so I’m willing to do the drive.”
Guajardo said he knew the people at BWC and UWSCC, since they were customers where he worked, though he never really understood what they did. Now he knows, and Guajardo hopes his experience will lead to a regular job with a nonprofit. At any rate, he plans to stick with GSD until it’s over, though he’s maintaining cheesecake as a sideline and has already starting rebuilding his commercial clientele.
Guajardo recommends the GSD program to anyone stuck in a spot like he was, and has recommended it to many restaurant employees in Brownsville he knows who suddenly found themselves without jobs.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “It’s taught me a lot of stuff. It’s given me a lot of perspective and a little bit more purpose. Not that I did not enjoy what I was doing before, but I feel like I have more purpose in what I’m doing, because I am helping out and helping feed somebody.”