Valley Interfaith to Lawmakers “Don’t Zero Out Funds for VIDA”

This story is from The Rio Grande Guardian dated 4/20/2011

AUSTIN, TX- Valley Interfaith in the Rio Grande Valley and EPiSO in El Paso are very concerned that funding for a highly successful workforce training program will be “zeroed out” of the 2012-13 state budget.

Project VIDA in the Valley and Project ARRIBA in El Paso have helped thousands of low-income, unemployed and underemployed border residents get the training they need to secure high-skilled, high-wage jobs.

“Project VIDA has been a great success,” said Estella Sosa Garza, a Valley Interfaith leader and parishioner at Holy Spirit Church in McAllen. “We have seen participants go from minimum wage jobs to skilled employment that pays upwards of $17 an hour. You can see how that impacts not only the families but the whole community.”

The Rev. Wayne Kendrick, pastor at Peace Lutheran ELCA in El Paso and vice chair of Project ARRIBA, said that for every dollar spent on ARRIBA, $26 is returned to the local community.

 “I have seen over and over again the profound transformations that this Project has made in the lives of El Pasoans,” Kendrick told the Guardian. “As a pastor, I believe these are resurrection stories – not from life to death, but from the dead ends of minimum wage jobs and poverty to the new life of tax payers, home owners, and role models of college graduation for their children.”

State funding for ARRIBA and VIDA is currently administered through the State Comptroller’s Jobs, Employment and Training (JET) Fund. During the last legislative session, Valley Interfaith and EPiSO, working closely with Comptroller Susan Combs, were able to get $25 million for the JET Fund. Of this, $10 million went to local non-profits involved in job training initiatives. The fund provides matching state dollars to regional programs that help provide career opportunities for Texans that would otherwise go without.

This legislative session, however, money is tight, partly due to the impact of the recession and partly due to the state’s self-inflicted $10 billion structural deficit. In the House version of the budget, $25 million is allocated for the JET Fund, but the money is in Article XI, which is merely a “wish list.” In the Senate’s version of the budget, $5 million is allocated for the JET Fund, but again, it is in the “wish list” part of the appropriations bill.

Valley Interfaith and EPiSO are hoping the “wish list” funds are made real when the two versions of the budget are reconciled by a joint House and Senate conference committee.

“Continuing the funding for JET will allow more lives to be transformed in El Paso and throughout the state,” Kendrick said.

“We know the funding is tight but we have a proven record. We are only asking for a little bit of money. Please consider the success we have had and continue to help us so we can continue the good work,” was Sosa Garza’s message to legislators.

Burt Blacksher, executive vice president of Bank of the West in El Paso and chair of Project ARRIBA, concurred.

“As a business leader and a Project Arriba board member I implore you to find a way to continue the JET funding for the next two years,” Blacksher told legislators, via the Guardian.

“The matching feature of these funds is vital for our community and Project Arriba in our continuing efforts to move deserving individuals from poverty and public assistance to a career in an in-demand job that pays a living wage through their higher education attainment. It is an investment that provides an exponential return to both the State as well as our community.”

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, is vice chair of the Senate Committee on Finance. He is expected to be named to a conference committee that will settle differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget.

Hinojosa said he knows how successful Project VIDA has been in the Valley. He vowed to fight for funding for the JET Fund.

“I plan to fight for those JET funds. They are very important in providing training for people so that they can secure better paying jobs. I know that Project VIDA has a very successful record. I see the results and how effective the program is,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa was one of a number of Valley legislators who championed Project VIDA at a news conference held in Weslaco in October 2009. The event was called to announce that $700,000 from the JET Fund was coming to the Valley to fund VIDA.

In developing the JET legislation in advance of 2009 legislative session, the Industrial Areas Foundation, which includes Valley Interfaith and EPiSO, cited a report by the Commission on Higher Education and Global Competitiveness that recommended a state fund to match local dollars “for innovative modes to deliver services to adults and assist them to prepare for and transition to postsecondary education and the workforce.”

The report cited Project Quest in San Antonio, Project VIDA in the Valley, Capital IDEA in Austin and Project ARRIBA in El Paso as successful examples of local and regional programs. Comptroller Susan Combs was a big supporter.

“For me, this (Project VIDA) ranks right up there with the historic colonia legislation we passed all those years ago,” Valley Interfaith leader Eddie Anaya told the Guardian at the time. “Just like our colonia bill, it was grassroots driven. We wrote it, we pushed it. It is a great victory for the community.”

Anaya said the extra funds for VIDA would allow those on the program to have their tuition, books, day care, counseling, and gas money to be paid for. “It gets people off of welfare and off of minimum wage,” Anaya said.

Anaya pointed out Comptroller Combs personally visited several of the IAF projects and that she lauded the fact that, on average, earnings of low-income adults in the projects average $30,718, with benefits and a career path. The job retention rate averages 92.8 percent and more than 9,000 adults have been placed in jobs through the projects.

Last October, Project VIDA’s 15th anniversary was celebrated at the Best Western hotel in Weslaco by project staff, project recipients, Valley Interfaith and elected officials such as Hinojosa and state Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen.

At the event, supporters of VIDA explained how the project came about. Valley Interfaith leaders were noticing that the Valley was changing from a predominantly agriculture-based economy. Higher skill jobs and salaries were available, but people were not trained for those jobs.

After extensive research and meetings with business leaders throughout the Valley, the organization initiated VIDA, a labor market intermediary to connect workers to training programs for high skilled, high wage jobs. Today, as a consequence of that training, VIDA has trained over 3,500 people for jobs that pay an average of $17.25 per hour plus benefits.

In El Paso, Project ARRIBA has been going for 12 years. Its work has been analyzed by the Institute for Policy and Economic Development at the University of Texas at El Paso. In a report released in July 2010, researchers David A. Schauer and Elizabeth Gibson found that ARRIBA had assisted over 1,400 individuals in building their stock of human capital with the intent of increasing their work-life earning capacity.

Between mid-1999 thru 2009, ARRIBA had 763 graduates, the report found. Pre-Project ARRIBA participants averaged 31 years and earned $7,500 per year. Project ARRIBA program graduates averaged age 32 and earned $37,731, the report found.