EDINBURG — Among walls decorated with pictures and symbolism, the stories of those who have struggled engulfed the room filling the silence. With watery eyes, Jaime Longoria on Thursday looked around his office at the photograph of his children and those who inspired him to help people in need.
It was as though, in a single moment, he relived 58 years of life.
For Jaime, executive director for the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency, these photos are more than just moments in time, they stand for what he believes in: people help people. He and his staff spend their days helping those who are vulnerable by providing basic necessities such as food, housing, water, and other forms of help.
As a kid who grew up around the Catholic church, Jaime was influenced by nuns who fought for social justice and kindness toward others. When he entered college he majored in political science with a minor in economics, but his want to help others never faded.
He worked with the state in colonias to help people in vulnerable populations. However, it was during that period that his family fell into their own hard times.
The death of his 6-year-old son, who had a heart transplant in 2006, left his family in mourning.
“We were a vulnerable family too,” Jaime said with heaviness in his voice as he looked at a framed photo of his son’s footprint that had a Winnie the Pooh quote written next to it.
Doctors and friends supported Jaime and his family throughout his son’s time in the hospital, giving them someone to lean on during tough times.
“He had a tremendous medical journey, more than you can imagine,” Jaime said. “Through that situation, we realized that people can be vulnerable at any moment.”
He filled his office with photographs of his family along with images of Wrigley Field and the New York Yankees. Wrigley Field reminds Jaime of the kindness and dedication of his son’s doctors who were from Chicago. He keeps the Yankees photo as a tribute to his father.
Despite the difficulties and tragedy he’s faced, Jaime’s learned to translate those experiences by helping touch other families.
Jaime went on to work for the Hidalgo County judge for four years and then moved on to the service agency where he has worked for the past seven years.
Now as he reaches 25 years of working in aiding his community, he looks back at how many lives he has changed and how they have changed him.
The agency serves around 80 to 100 people a day. He said each call is a “call of desperation.”
According to Jaime, poverty is the biggest challenge facing the Rio Grande Valley, encompassing a spectrum of issues such as housing, medical treatment, access to health care and other necessities.
With the help of local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, the United Way, the Salvation Army and other organizations the agency helps provide clients with adequate assistance and care.
Although he has experienced much throughout his career, some cases stayed with him, such as the time a woman called the agency to ask for help for her father, who was in the final stages of cancer.
When Jaime and his team arrived at the man’s home they found him in a rundown trailer where grass was growing between the floorboards of the rat-infested living space. He recalled entering the trailer on a hot summer day in the middle of July and the man was boiling water on a hot plate to keep his tracheostomy tube moist.
“We went to go visit with him and really he didn’t want our help, he thought we were part of the system that was going to get his hopes up and then drop him like everybody else,” Jaime said, his soft tone belying the emotional heaviness of the situation. ”He literally threw a liquor bottle at us, he wanted us out of his home.”
After easing him into accepting their help, Jaime and the agency were able to move the man out of his trailer and into an apartment where he died two weeks after moving in. His daughter called Jaime with gratitude and thanked him for allowing her father to die with dignity and comfort.
Jaime keeps a photo of this man on his phone as a reminder of the situations they want to change.
This isn’t the only case he keeps close to his heart.
During his time working for the state Jaime received a call from a woman, Rosa Linda Vallejo, who was seeking help to provide water services for her neighborhood.
“She told me, ‘I think I’m going to die before I ever get water service,’” Jaime said “True to her word she ended up passing away before the water was approved in her neighborhood.”
He recalled wanting to tell her the moment he received news that the water had been approved for her community. When he arrived at her home, Rosa Linda’s daughter told him that she had died.
He keeps a photo of her as a reminder of the importance of working efficiently to help those who are vulnerable. Her photo is displayed on his desk next to a photo of his son, a juxtaposition that further emphasizes Jaime’s devotion to the community.
Although not every story is a success he continues to strive to make people’s lives better. Constant criticism from those who believe government support systems are only there to help people who don’t deserve it, or those who scam the system, is what makes working as a community servant difficult, he explained.
DEEDS OVER DOUBT
When people believe the agency only works to benefit themselves and profit off people’s pain, or that they don’t truly care for the community has led Jaime to second-guess if he could remain in the agency.
“It’s hard when we hear that kind of criticism … It wears on the staff,” Jaime said.
But when he remembers the people whose lives have changed because of his work, it motivates him to continue helping vulnerable communities.
In fact, he often visits people he’s helped just to see how they’re doing. Seeing his clients prosper after everything they have been through has worked as a continuous source of comfort knowing he’s made a difference.
Not only has he touched the lives of the community but he has also impacted the lives of his staff. He recalled feeling hopeful and happy after one of his staff members took it upon themselves to help a little boy with leukemia.
The staff member organized a fundraiser with the agency to raise money and buy him video games along with a Nintendo Switch that was gifted to the boy in a giant basket.
He smiled as he thought of his staff and the initiative they take everyday to provide assistance. He was especially proud of his team’s dedication during the pandemic in which they would wear gowns, shields, gloves and other gear just so they could keep helping others.
One moment in particular has stuck with him throughout the course of the pandemic. During its peak, he remembered receiving a call from a woman who cried and believed she was going to die after she and her family got COVID-19.
She called him sobbing in fear of not being able to feed her family. Jaime and his group, although never having met her face to face, delivered food outside the family’s home for two weeks until they recovered.
The pandemic quadrupled the need for organizations such as the Community Service Agency to help the overwhelming number of people affected by the virus.
“It brought a whole other dimension. These were all people that were living on the edge, they were on the edge of falling into poverty, into vulnerability,” Jaime explained, adding that the pandemic increased the number of impoverished.
Now near a post-pandemic time it is not unusual for him to receive three to five emergency case calls on a daily basis.
Most recently, in fact, Jaime and his team responded to a call from a woman who was struggling to get a new apartment after being evicted. It was the day before the Monday night storm and he called her to let her know that they had secured a hotel room for her and her family.
On the day of the storm, she called him crying as she thanked him for his help.
“I remember thinking, ‘Thank God we got her out of the rain,’” Jaime said.
The next day, after the rain had passed, the agency was ready to assist those affected by the storm. They helped 11 people in western Hidalgo County along with a family in Edinburg who lost part of their homes to the severe weather.
After the mass shooting deaths of 18 school children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on Tuesday, Jaime said he spoke to officials there to offer whatever assistance the agency could extend.
You can also call for help by reaching Jaime, or other agency staff members at (956) 383-6240. The office is located at 2524 N. Closner Blvd. in Edinburg.