Nora Caldera, left, a student of Diann Whisnand, right, at the Pharr Literacy Project. Working in the snack bar gives students a chance to practice their conversational English skills
Nora Caldera, left, a student of Diann Whisnand, right, at the Pharr Literacy Project. Working in the snack bar gives students a chance to practice their conversational English skills

Whisnand partners with literacy center to meet needs in Rio Grande Valley

Moving from Seattle, Wash., to South Texas last year provided a stark contrast in climates and cultures for Diann Whisnand

 

By contributing writer Greg Warner

In cool and moist Seattle, Diann, one the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s field personnel, served among a migratory Hispanic population ‒ in what she refers to as short-term “relief work.” In the hot and humid region of the Rio Grande Valley bordering Mexico, however, the work addresses entrenched, systemic poverty, requiring long-term development work.

Last June Diann, along with her husband, Philip, transferred to McAllen, Texas, to become CBF’s first field personnel along the U.S.-Mexico border. They now work with Spanish speakers from the colonias, the tiny hard-scrabble neighborhoods that usually spring up on undeveloped land along the Texas side of the Rio Grande river. Hidalgo County, which includes McAllen, has the highest concentration of poverty of any U.S. county, with around 1000 documented colonias.

With little or no education, a family can get caught in the poverty cycle for several generations.

“This is development ministry,” said Diann. “Nothing is going to happen quickly.”

When Diann, a former teacher, learned that there was only one comprehensive adult literacy program in Hidalgo County, she saw a way to use her skills in this specific ministry.

With the high rate of illiteracy in the area, the Pharr Literacy Project (PLP) provides an important ministry. The PLP, a faith-based nonprofit started by a local United Methodist church, has only two full-time employees but serves more than 800 adults a year.

Supported in part by the local government, volunteers teach five levels of English, GED classes in English and Spanish, job skills, sewing, computer, retail sales and English immersion opportunities, such as public speaking, singing and drama classes. The PLP also facilitates weekly Bible studies in the most underserved colonias.

“They’ve got a good thing going, but the center is understaffed and under-supported,” Diann said.

So, since moving to the area, she has focused on helping the PLP by teaching classes, recruiting volunteers and partner churches and soliciting supplies.

“Thankfully, CBF has answered the call to address the heart-breaking poverty along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Diann. “I’m honored to be able to continue working among the Mexican people, who are some of the most beautiful and warmest people anywhere.”