Laredo nonprofit steps up to feed thousands of families in need during COVID-19 pandemic

Leaders say they have ‘seen the face of poverty change’

LAREDO, Texas – Just like the familiar images of seemingly endless food lines in San Antonio, the twice-weekly distribution at Holding Institute Community Center in Laredo may be smaller, but the demand is still the same.

Pastor Mike Smith said before the pandemic, the nonprofit helped under 100 families and now sees 250 to 300 families a week, representing several thousand within those households.

“That’s a dramatic increase for us,” Smith said. “The question is, how do we keep it up for so long? I don’t know.”

Like nonprofits nationwide, he said that without the needed financial contributions because of the pandemic, the center is one of only a few in Laredo still standing with the community.

Yet, Smith said, the demand has grown with 80% of those in need now unemployed, from restaurant workers to home health aides known as “palomitas” or little doves, who’d assisted the homebound now in self-quarantine.

Smith said the center has seen the face of poverty dramatically change, with many asking for help for the first-time.

Embarrassed and unaware of how to go about it, Smith said he tells them, “I’ll take your word for it. I’m not going to ask you to show proof of income. If you tell me that you need this and that your household is this size, we’re here to help you.”

Smith said the center is still trying to help feed asylum seekers stranded in Nuevo Laredo, awaiting their hearings in the United States.

Before COVID-19 spread on both sides of the border, Smith said, “It was fairly easy to get food into Mexico. Now, it’s difficult.”

Even so, Smith said, “We’re very careful in how we transport food, how we get it there.”

“But I can tell you that we transport several hundred pounds of food every week to shelters directly across from us,” Smith said.

The pastor said the center also tries to provide participants with personal protection equipment.

“If you think it’s hard to get here, it’s so much harder to get in Mexico,” Smith said. “So, included in the food we send are face masks, hand sanitizers, gel, stuff like that -- cleaning supplies, as much as we can.”

Vicente Hernandez, who is temporarily staying at the Holding Institute Community Center while he awaits his housing assistance, said Smith has “a heart for the people.”

Hernandez said the Bible has taught him, “Those that help the poor and the needy really know God.”

Smith said despite the challenges of never knowing what food banks in Laredo can provide or whether it will be enough, somehow, the Holding Institute Community Center fulfills its mission.

“I know that we have to trust in something bigger and better than ourselves if we’re able to do this,” Smith said.

Related: Federal travel restrictions impact Laredo economy

About the Authors

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.

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