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Texas ministry brings hope to poor

Work with survivors of Hurricane Dolly is just the latest project for this 20-year-old ministry.

BY PJ HELLER | LOS FRESNOS, TX | September 8, 2008

As a long-term recovery committee slowly takes shape to aid south Texans impacted by Hurricane Dolly, individuals and other faith-based organizations are doing what they can to fill the void.

One of them is Southwest Good Samaritan Ministries (SWGSM), which has been serving the region for more than two decades. Its work is carried out on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, operating an orphanage for 55 children in Matamoros, Mexico, as well as assisting with a clinic for the poor in that area. The organization also helps political refugees who come to the U.S., providing them with everything from food and clothing to health care and housing.

Its track record in the Texas colonias — impoverished communities, some of which lack basic essential services such as water and sewerage and where most of the residents do not speak English — made it an obvious candidate to assist those impacted by Dolly.

"We have been assisting a lot of families, many families," said the Rev. Feliberto Pereira, director of SWGSM. "Through our Week of Compassion (Disciples of Christ), we were receiving funds that we were distributing amongst 58 different persons and families."

Pereira, pastor at Iglesia Cristiana Ebenezer in Los Fresnos, said some members of his church lost everything when Dolly roared ashore on July 23 with 100 mph winds. Other members of the Christian Church (Disciples) suffered heavy damage.

Among those receiving help is a blind couple in their 70s whose mobile home was heavily damaged in the storm, Pereira reported. The couple, both illegal immigrants, have been living in the U.S. since 1988. They have no children or other family members in the area, he said.

"This is a family, they are not receiving any assistance because they are illegal. They don't have any papers, they don't have any food stamps or Medicare or anything," he said. "They cannot be assisted by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), anybody."

FEMA requires applicants to be U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals or qualified aliens — those holding green cards — to be eligible for its cash-assistance programs. Undocumented immigrants could be eligible for short-term, non-cash, emergency aid provided by FEMA, the agency said. They may also be eligible "under many different programs run by state and local agencies and voluntary agencies for various types of cash assistance," it noted.

Pereira said the mobile home that the couple was living in, which had been provided to them by another church group, was "very, very damaged.

"We are in the process with mission work groups to put a new roof to the mobile home and fix the ceiling that was very damaged, too," he said.

Work was also under way to aid a family with two children whose mobile home in Lozano was destroyed in the hurricane. The family is currently living with relatives.

"We are now trying to help them, too," Pereira said.

Pereira said SWGSM has been trying to help residents both apply for FEMA assistance and to aid those whose applications have been rejected.

"FEMA has been denying a lot of people," he said. "We are now working on cases of appeal."

Pereira noted that one member of his church had the roof blown off his house and a request for FEMA assistance was denied.

"We assigned one of my staff to help people like this to appeal because I believe in justice," he said.

He said he believed one of the reasons for the denials was because applicants, most of whom don't speak English, had difficulty filling out and understanding the questionnaires. Assistance applications are available online in both English and Spanish.

"If they don't have all the questions (answered) and all that for any little reason, I believe they deny," he said.

One Spanish-speaking resident in the Del Mar Heights colonia said she had been denied FEMA assistance and was then sent an SBA loan application printed in English. She needed to have a friend come to her house to translate the document and fill in the answers; a decision on her application is still pending.

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