Project ARRIBA lands $1 million award toward economic development

Story by Christian Betancourt, El Paso Matters

December 20, 2022

An ordinary flyer posted on an El Paso Community College campus wall changed Candy Gutierrez’s life. 

As an EPCC student, Gutierrez wasn’t sure if college was for her, nor did she feel confident that she had the discipline to pursue a professional career. Then she noticed a Project ARRIBA flyer offering to help students earn a profession. She signed up.

On Saturday, thanks to the financial assistance, guidance, and mentoring that the local nonprofit Project ARRIBA offers to its clients – primarily low-income Hispanic individuals – she graduated with a nursing degree from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s Hunt School of Nursing.

“Being a part of the program helped ease the stress of financially covering tuition, scrubs, and equipment, and helped me focus on more important things like school,” she said. “Without Project ARRIBA, I would have faced additional challenges that could have possibly given me enough reason to not follow through with the nursing program.”

Over the past 23 years, Project ARRIBA — Advanced Retraining and Redevelopment Initiative in Border Areas — has helped almost 1,797 participants graduate. Project ARRIBA also helped 1,661 individuals with job placements. Project participants earn, on average, $49,000 a year in high-demand careers, such as the medical industry. 

“Project ARRIBA is a workforce, and economic development initiative focused on promoting the quality of life of underserved/vulnerable adults by helping them succeed at a postsecondary education that leads to greater economic mobility and quality job opportunities,” Project ARRIBA President and CEO Roman Ortiz said. “The organization promotes a working partnership between community-based organizations, training institutions, and private corporate partners.”

Last week, the El Paso County Commissioners Court awarded Project ARRIBA $1 million so the non-profit can continue to help.

The organization connects students wanting to acquire higher skills with an industry needing a skilled workforce.

“To me, this is one of the most successful programs that I’ve seen,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. “It comes at a very important time when we need medical personnel.”

‘Tax takers to tax makers’

On Dec. 15, the El Paso County Commissioners Court unanimously awarded the organization $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds. Ortiz said the funds would be spread out in two years, $500,000 each year. 

“We could see about a 30% increase in overall growth,” he said. “This would essentially help us bring in twice the number of new participants over the course of the next 24 months. Last year, 84 cents of every dollar went to program services.”

Project ARRIBA board member Daniel Tirres addressed the Commissioners Court before the vote that the money will be used to increase enrollment. 

“Your decision to invest this one-time historic amount of funding will go a long way for our families and our economy at a time when there is an enormous need,” he said. “Now is the time for the court to double down rather than let up.”

Ortiz told the court that, on average, graduates from the program have contributed about $175 million to the economy in taxes to the city, county, and state.

“We’re looking at the next 20 years, and we have a great opportunity here to make some major changes with the high need of employment,” he said. “Our people go from being tax takers to tax makers.”

The organization’s innovations lie in its intense participant-centered case management approach, where students are guided, motivated, and empowered. Case managers work with them to access training and services, monitor the participant’s progress and effectiveness, and provide counseling and accountability.

“This support increases accessibility, persistence, and graduation rates at the local junior college and university,” Ortiz said. “Project ARRIBA case managers play a pivotal role in the program’s high retention, graduation, and job placement rates and maintain a student-to-case manager ratio of no more than 60 to 1.”

ARRIBA spends about $6,500 per participant for about two years to help them obtain postsecondary training in occupations such as nursing and other healthcare-related jobs.

“Our mission is to assist economically disadvantaged individuals in gaining the education and job skills needed for demand occupations that pay a family-sustaining, living wage in El Paso, Texas,” Ortiz said.

Project ARRIBA’s economic impact

A Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness study released in May 2021 stated that for every $1 invested in Project ARRIBA, the local economy receives $28 back. Ortiz said that the program’s 2021 graduates are earning more than $52,000 a year. 

“Over the last two decades, our ROI (Return On Investment) is phenomenal with over $890 million in economic impact to the El Paso community,” Ortiz said. “I am proud of the almost 2,000 families that work in El Paso in the areas of most need like nursing and healthcare.”

Project ARRIBA was created in the late 1990s by the grassroots organization El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, which is responsible for bringing water and sewage service to more than 100,000 people in the colonias in El Paso. It began as an organization wanting to get better housing for the people in the region.

“We found out early on that, more importantly, we needed some occupations and work that would pay a living-wage salary,” said EPISO leader Eloiso De Avila.

When Project ARRIBA started, factories were closing in the area, displacing workers. At the same time, some high-paying jobs were vacant due to a lack of workers with the available skillset to perform those duties, said EPISO leader organizer Surya Kalra.

“This labor market intermediary concept is to train people that are not making very much money for these jobs that are actually in the community,” she said. “Project ARRIBA is part of a strategy.”

In 1998 ARRIBA was incorporated as a public, not-for-profit El Paso-based economic development initiative. As a model, De Avila and others in EPISO looked at Project Quest in San Antonio, a non-profit that specialized in specific job training — the very thing EPISO wanted to bring to the people of El Paso.

“We grew from that experience and gathered institution leaders, priests, and people and the business community in El Paso to come up with this program,” said De Avila. “We do ‘house meetings.’ We gather a group of people together and try to find out what is happening with them. What ails them, and what is it that can be done to improve their lives?”

Rev. Ed Roden-Lucero, one of the project founders, said that in 1997 Project Quest already had a 10-year track record of success.

“We believed that it was possible to adapt it to the city of El Paso and El Paso County needs,” he said. “At the time, the unemployment rate in El Paso County was pretty severe. People didn’t have the resources to go back to school. People at the very bottom of the economic ladder … they had zero opportunities to advance themselves. Especially those who live further out on the county and don’t have transportation.”

Project Quest continues its efforts in San Antonio with 2,057 participants, which resulted in 578 graduates, and 295 job placements in 36 in-demand occupations making graduates an average of $21.56 hourly salary, according to their 2021 annual report. During its 29-year history, the organization has served more than 8,200 participants with a 91% job placement rate.

“These strategies around labor market intermediaries didn’t just happen in El Paso and San Antonio,” said Kalra. “There’s now 13 of them across the southwest region. We convene ourselves as organizations, both the grassroots and with the workforce projects, so they can learn from one another. You’ll see innovation in one place that can be copied elsewhere.”

The workforce model of the San Antonio-based organization has been replicated nationally and internationally with models in Austin, Houston, Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, and in Monroe, Louisiana, Des Moines, Iowa, and Tucson and Phoenix.

Photo credit: Rafael Paz Parra

Project ARRIBA lands $1 million award toward economic development, Christian Betancourt, El Paso Matters


Pope Francis Blesses EPISO/BI Leaders Ahead of 40th Anniversary

(Pope Francis congratulates Silvia Camacho of San Juan Diego Catholic Church on October 14, 2022 at his residence.)

Last Friday evening at St. Thomas Aquinas, close to 400 EPISO and Border Interfaith leaders celebrated a landmark event-- four decades of organizing in El Paso. But something they never anticipated also came to pass-- two weeks earlier, leaders representing EPISO and Border Interfaith were invited to join a delegation of 20 people from across their broader community organizing network, the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation, to share with the Pope the courageous work of countless leaders to bring water, sewer, and drainage to the colonias in El Paso. To these stories, Pope Francis responded,

"Hombres y mujeres así son los que hacen la historia. No se conforman con los limites. Seguramente los habrán criticado mucho. Pero la gente escucha la critica, porque es humilde, y va adelante." - Pope Francis

("Men and women like these are those who make history. They don't conform to limits. Surely they have been criticized a lot. But the people listen to the criticism, because they are humble, and they keep moving forward."

He sent his blessing and his medallion to each organization, and closed with encouragement to leaders to keep working, and to not rest on their laurels.

(Co-Chair Rosa Lujan shares the medallion with others at EPISO/BI's 40th Anniversary.)

And rest EPISO/BI leaders do not. At their 40th Anniversary celebration, they recognized the work of their founding leaders, the major accomplishments of the organizations, and charged forward with a vision for the work ahead. Bishop Mark Seitz delivered a keynote address congratulating EPISO/BI on their achievements, but also recognized leaders for listening to people on the peripheries, and for taking action. 

Honorees included Sr. Elisa Rodriguez, Fr. James Hall, and Alicia Franco. Had it not been for their courage and persistence, there would never have been an organization with the power to bring water and sewer to 100,000 people on the border, or to start Project ARRIBA, a workforce development project with over 20 years of success in training people for in-demand occupations in healthcare and education. 

But leaders acknowledged that the work is far from over. K. Denisse Garcia, a second generation EPISO/BI leader shared that after a harrowing recovery from COVID-19, she now has to work three jobs to support herself through El Paso Community College, and that many of her peers have fallen through the cracks. Amanda Ozer of University Presbyterian Church presented on the state of the economy, and the need to shore up efforts for workforce training and direct cash assistance for people living on the edge.

Judge Ricardo Samaniego reacted to EPISO/BI's proposals for action by committing to finding American Rescue Plan funds to invest in Project ARRIBA. "It's a no-brainer," the Judge quipped when asked if he would support the project. 

(K. Denisse Garcia and Ivan Bernal speak to the need for greater investment in the new workforce of El Paso.)

EPISO/BI is continuing a hard money campaign to raise funds for the organization until December 31, 2022. Missed the Anniversary but want to make an investment? You can now invest online at episo-iaf.org/invest. 

Press and Photos

Forty Years Later, EPISO Founders Remember Their Victories, Struggles, El Paso Matters

InSeitz into the Faith, A Podcast with Bishop Mark Seitz on EPISO/BI's Papal Visit

EPISO/Border Interfaith Meets with Pope Francis, West/Southwest IAF

Photos of EPISO/BI 40th Anniversary

Photo credit to Rabbi John Linder (Visit with Pope Francis), 40th Anniversary Photo credits to Rafael Paz Parra


EPISO/Border Interfaith Meets with Pope Francis

Our organization had the rare opportunity to visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican as part of an interfaith delegation of 20 leaders and organizers from the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation.

We met with him to share our collective work of broad based organizing at a time when the Pope is guiding the global church in a historic Synod listening process.

The Holy Father sat side by side with us in his residence, thanking us for inconveniencing ourselves to come see him.  What ensued was a true dialogue, a 90-minute conversation in Spanish with lots of back and forth engagement.  The encounter was filled with many graced moments about both the joys and the struggles of our work, and the work of the Church, past, present, and to come. 

This invitation to meet was in large part due to the recognition of our work by local Bishops, particularly those involved with the 'Recognizing the Stranger' strategy, which is dedicated to formation and leadership development of immigrant parishioners. As well, our involvement to support the Synod process in multiple dioceses has helped to bring those in the margins to the center of the synodal dialogue. 

As we shared our experiences of organizing, we were struck by how carefully he listened, asked questions, and engaged with lots of humor. Early on, he reflected back to us, “Usaron mucho las palabras ‘ver’ y ‘escuchar,’... Me impresiona que ninguno de ustedes es parte de alguna teoría.  Ninguno dice ‘leí un libro y me interesó eso.’” (You constantly use the words “to see” and “to listen.. I am impressed that none of you start with any theory. No one says ‘I read a book and that interested me.’)  “El peligro es intelectualizar el problema” (The danger is when you intellectualize a problem).

He stressed the importance of being with people and paying  attention to their reality, emphasizing Amor Concreto, love concretely in action, saying that he understood our work as seeing and hearing of injustice in the real lives of our people, acting to change the situation, and being changed ourselves as a result. He expressed his appreciation for our focus on what we are doing, rather than to complain about what is not being done or to disparage anyone. Ustedes no menospreciaron a nadie.”

Before concluding, he thanked us for our visit, saying that although he had never known of IAF before, he was glad that he knew us now, and he welcomed further conversation around our continuing work with the Synod process.

We teach that power recognizes power.  For Pope Francis, “el verdadero poder es el servicio,” (“true power is service”).  Recounting the Good Samaritan, he clearly stated that the Gospel cannot be understood without acting with those who are suffering.  He recognized the leaders and organizations of the IAF and the powerful work that is happening every day at the margins. He referred to the IAF as “Good News for the United States.”

We are humbled to represent the many decades of work from those who preceded us, and we are encouraged in the continuation of our work into the future.  

Delegation of West/Southwest IAF leaders and organizers stands with Pope Francis. [Photos credit: Rabbi John Linder]

EPISO/Border Interfaith Challenges Candidates with 3 Key Questions

[Excerpts]

The El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO) and Border Interfaith held its first in-person candidate accountability session Sunday since the pandemic.

The six El Paso County Commissioners Court candidates remaining in the May 24 primary runoff election for Precincts 2 and 4 were invited to the session where they were asked to state their position on policies such as colonias, education and economic development programs....

The incumbent for Precinct 2, David Stout, and Judy Gutiérrez, a candidate for Precinct 2, both attended the meeting.

Sergio Coronado and David Adams, are both candidates for Precinct 4, and they were in attendance.

"I thought it was a great meeting. I wish more organizations, people would take the time to inform themselves, of what their candidates are willing and wanting to do for the people... how you’re [candidates] aligning to my needs," Coronado said.

Precinct 2 & 4 Candidates Feeling Confident After Attending Community MeetingFOX News 14 [pdf]


National Catholic Reporter Spotlights EPISO's Preparation of 222 to Lead Synodal Conversations

In preparation for the synod, EPISO/Border Interfaith and Bishop Mark Seitz of the El Paso Catholic Diocese convened 222 ministry leaders from 39 parishes for two days of training in how to lead effective conversations.   

Sponsored by CCHD, Mission & Ministry Impact, EPISO/Border Interfaith, and Organizers Institute, Recognizing the Stranger prepares trainees to put their faith in action through institutional organizing practices designed to strengthen their parishes.  Teachings from Ezra and Nehemiah were recently integrated to support synodal strategies. 

[Excerpt]

In the colonias, or unincorporated communities, surrounding El Paso, Texas, volunteers are knocking on doors, asking residents how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted them, and how the church can help them regroup and get back on their feet.

"It takes a lot of initiative to meet with people who aren't already in your [social and church] circles," said Surya Kalra, a lead organizer with the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, which is working with the Diocese of El Paso to listen to local voices for the synod.

"If you're doing a consultation with the people who are already in the pews, who are already coming to church, that's great, and helpful," Kalra told NCR. "The difficult part is figuring out how to reach out to people we don't see [in church], who used to be here, or would be here if we were different. That requires much more persistence and creativity."

Pope Francis Says Synod Should Hear 'Excluded' VoicesNational Catholic Reporter [pdf][pdf]


Fr. Ed Roden-Lucero, with EPISO/Border Interfaith, Leaves Legacy of Fighting for Justice

[Excerpts]

For four decades, the Rev. Ed Roden-Lucero has influenced El Paso far beyond the walls of the parishes he pastored. He has been a key part of efforts to bring water and sewer services to tens of thousands of homes, and train hundreds of El Pasoans for jobs that paid a living wage and altered lives....

Those who worked with him said he fought poverty and injustice wherever he saw it. EPISO was involved in efforts to build El Paso Children’s Hospital and expand University Medical Center clinics across the county so that more people would have access to health care.

While Roden-Lucero served as pastor of San Juan Diego Catholic Church in Montana Vista, EPISO led an effort to divide the Clint Independent School District Board of Trustees into single-member districts so that power and resources were more evenly divided.

Roden-Lucero arrived in El Paso a couple of years after a group of mostly Catholic churches formed the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, or EPISO, a nonprofit organization that trained community-based leaders to advocate for issues important to them. He had received training from the Industrial Areas Foundation, EPISO’s parent organization, before coming to El Paso.

EPISO leaders quickly focused on the dire situation in colonias, neighborhoods along the U.S.-Mexico border that had been developed without the most basic human services. By the mid-1980s, more than 80,000 El Paso County residents lived in homes without water or wastewater services. Many of them developed hepatitis A because they drank from water wells dug next to septic tanks.

State and local leaders had shown little interest in addressing the growing crisis. So EPISO and other IAF affiliates across Texas organized and turned up the heat, bringing national media attention to shameful conditions along the border.

Dolores DeAvila, an educator in El Paso’s Lower Valley and EPISO member, met Roden-Lucero in the early 1980s and was part of the fight to bring water to the colonias.

“I have learned a lot from him in terms of his being very courageous, acting on his beliefs and working with his parishioners, engaging them in their needs,” she said.

Years of lobbying and public pressure by EPISO and its sister organizations paid off in 1989, when Texas voters passed a bond issue to begin the process of providing water and wastewater infrastructure to border colonias....

[Photo Credit: Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters]

The Priest Who Spent 40 Years Fighting to Reshape El Paso, El Paso Matters


Texas IAF Blocks $10 Billion Dollar Corporate Tax Giveaway to Big Oil

[Excerpts]

When organizers set out to overturn Texas’s giveaway program for the oil and gas industry, they had a long game in mind. Over 20 years, the tax exemption program known as Chapter 313 had delivered $10 billion in tax cuts to corporations operating in Texas — with petrochemical firms being the biggest winners. This year, for the first time in a decade, the program was up for reauthorization. [Texas IAF] organizers decided to challenge it for the first time....

At 4 a.m. last Thursday, it became clear that something unexpected was happening: The deadline for reauthorization passed. “The bill never came up,” Greco told The Intercept. Organizers stayed vigilant until the legislative session officially closed on Monday at midnight, but the reauthorization did not materialize....

In 19 months, Texas’s subsidy program will expire, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over.

“We know there’s going to be a big conversation over the interim — we are under no illusions that this is not going to be a long-term battle.”

Organizers, though, recognize that the subsidy’s defeat marks a shift: “The table has been reset.”

In Blow to Big Oil, Corporate Subsidy Quietly Dies in Texas, The Intercept [pdf]

How Skeptical Texas Lawmakers Put an End to a Controversial Tax Incentive Program, Houston Chronicle [pdf]

Texas Legislature Dooms Chapter 331, Which Gives Tax Breaks to Big Businesses, Business Journal [pdf]

Missed Deadline Could Doom Controversial $10B Tax-Break Program, Houston Chronicle [pdf]

A Texas Law Offers Tax Breaks to Companies, but It's Renewal Isn't a Done DealTexas Tribune [pdf]

Losers and Winners from Chapter 313Central Texas Interfaith


EPISO, with Texas IAF, Bishops & Faithful Call on Lt. Governor and Senate to Reject 'Permitless Carry' Legislation

Bishops, rabbis, clergy and faithful from across Texas convened to express vocal opposition to the passage of proposed legislation HB1927 which would allow "permitless carry" in the state of Texas.

Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz referenced the massacre in El Paso which resulted in dozens of residents dead and seriously injured. Baptist Rev. Darryl Crooms from San Antonio testified to the "unnaturalness" of adults burying children.  Lutheran Rev. Jessica Cain testified to the impact of last weekend's shooting in North Austin on local worshippers.  Rabbi David Lyon recalled last year's deadly shooting in Santa Fe High School.

Together -- with Lutheran Bishop Erik Gronberg, Episcopal Bishop Suffragan Kathryn Ryan, Methodist Director of Missional Outreach Andy Lewis, Dallas Catholic Bishop Gregory Kelly and several lay leaders -- all expressed concern that passage of HB1927 would increase gun violence.  States that have passed similar laws, removing the required license and training needed to carry a handgun, experienced spikes in homicides and gun violence.

"You’ll find no scripture that will support this kind of legislation,” said Pastor John Ogletree, First Metropolitan Church of Houston. 

“...it makes our church much less safe,” said El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz.

Video of Press Conference

Texas Faith Leaders Come Out Against 'Permitless Carry'CBS Austin [pdf]

Bishop Mark J. Seitz, Other Religious Leaders Oppose Bill That Would Ease Carrying of GunsEl Paso Times [pdf]

Group of Texas State Leaders Say They're Opposed to Permitless CarryFOX KDFW

Religious Leaders Speak Against Texas Bill That Could Allow You to Carry Gun Without LicenseABC13 Houston [pdf]

Esto Opinan Líderes Religiosos en Tejas Sobre la Propuesta Legislativa de Portar Armas Sin LicenciaUnivision Dallas 

El Paso Bishop, Gun Store Weigh In On Texas 'Constitutional Carry' Bill DebateKFOX14 [pdf]

Bishops and Faith leaders Call on Lt. Governor/Senate to Reject HB1927 Dropping License & Training Requirement to Carry GunsTexas IAF


Texas Bishops: 'Electrical Grid Failure in Texas Was No Accident'

[Excerpt below]

While we desperately need immediate relief, we must also seek long-term systemic change.

As faith leaders, we have a responsibility to cry out for the vulnerable and seek the common good, and this means the reform of a utility system that has served as a means for profit, putting profit before people.

Last week, The Network of Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Organizations with interfaith leaders from across the state held a press conference, urging the governor and legislature to take responsibility and put people before profits. It is time to direct recovery resources and restructure utility oversight to protect all, especially the poorer residents already on the edge because of the pandemic.

Bishops in Texas: Electrical Grid Failure was Preventable.  Without Accountability, It Will Happen AgainAmerica Magazine [pdf

'They Were Not Prepared': After Winter Crisis, Texas Will Have to Confront its Energy, Politics and Culture, Dallas Morning News [pdf]


EPISO/Border Interfaith Leverages Half Million in Emergency Cash Aid for 1,000 Families in El Paso

[Excerpts]

El Paso County commissioners on Monday approved contributing $275,000 to a partnership that will provide emergency financial assistance to El Pasoans, with a focus on helping people excluded from earlier pandemic stimulus funds.

The Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation is offering a five-year, $500,000 match for the program, and unnamed national funders are contributing $150,000, organizers said. Other key partners are El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO)/Border Interfaith and the Family Independence Initiative.

At least 1,000 El Paso County families this year will benefit from cash grants of up to $500, which they can use to cover any expense or financial obligation. The partnership especially wants to reach undocumented and mixed immigration status households that were barred from receiving $1,200 stimulus checks and other COVID-19 relief help approved by Congress.

“They were already in the shadows and now even more in the sense that their poverty became even bigger poverty in the sense of things were not moving,” said Rev. Pablo Matta, a Catholic priest and a leader with EPISO/Border Interfaith, which will assist FII in reaching families in need of assistance. “They work so hard and they’re a big part of the economy of El Paso and all throughout the U.S., but never very much taken into account at all.”

Woody Hunt, the El Paso businessman who chairs his family’s philanthropic foundation, said the $500,000 donation builds off of efforts in the spring to shore up the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank in the early stages of the pandemic.

“And during that time period, I had some discussions with EPISO, which I’ve kind of met with regularly over a very long period of time, and I know they had concerns about those within the community that were at the very bottom end that in some cases didn’t qualify for some of the federal programs that were coming out,” Hunt said.

“FII has a platform, they’ve been doing it for 20 years, they’ve got the technology to do it. They need local partners like an EPISO who can really identify either directly or through the Catholic Church that they work with, those that really have the greatest need,” Hunt said.

Many low-income families in El Paso face cumbersome application processes and a lack of access to computers and other technology to apply for assistance, said Dolores De Avila, a longtime leader with EPISO.

[Photo Credit: Robert Moore/El Paso Matters]

Low-Income El Pasoans Can Get Emergency Financial Help From New Partnership, El Paso Matters [pdf]

Hunt Foundation Partners with Border Faith Group to Help Families Struggling with Poverty, El Paso Times [pdf]



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