When our region began feeling the pervasive impact of the quickly-spreading coronavirus pandemic in March, students suddenly saw their Spring Break extended by a few days.
Then some more days.
Weeks went by and students and their parents began hearing what seemed like the inevitable – classes would be cancelled for good for the remainder of the academic year.
Sure, there was a chaotic scramble to come up with ad hoc distance learning modules. But even that move wouldn’t provide any respite to Viridiana Carrizales and her team, who were stunned in seeing their fledgling nonprofit essentially tank overnight.
“When COVID hit, suddenly everything came to a halt and we just couldn’t do any of our programs,” recalled Carrizales, co-founder and CEO of IMMSCHOOLS, a nonprofit agency headquartered in San Antonio with operations in Dallas and New York City focused on helping immigrant and undocumented students and their families.
Carrizales, who lives and represents the agency in San Antonio, is a former “dreamer” – one among hundreds of thousands of child immigrants who were brought into the United States undocumented with their families. She eventually gained legal status and became an American citizen.
Her fellow agency co-founders Vanessa Luna and Lorena Tule-Romain share similar personal journeys.
Thus, it may come as no surprise that their life work has focused on helping undocumented youngsters and their families navigate the U.S. educational system.
Yet IMMSCHOOLS – founded just three years ago – is there as much as a support system to school districts as it is for students and parents.
The nonprofit contracts with districts to provide various forms of training (including seminars, workshops and presentations) to assist administrators and teachers learn about how they can best help immigrant and undocumented students in their classrooms.
“An African proverb suggests that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ It also takes a village to educate and empower children,”said Tiffany Grant, Chief of Staff for Board & Superintendent Services at San Antonio Independent School District.
“IMMSCHOOLS is part of our village and we are thankful for their contributions and commitment to children in the SAISD and Great San Antonio community,” Grant added.
Down But Not Out
With schools suddenly shuttered due to the pandemic, Carrizales and her team found themselves literally shut out. Scheduled presentations and training sessions were cancelled.
As with many if not most nonprofit organizations across our community, IMMSCHOOLS was forced to pivot. The agency quickly discovered that helping fill basic needs for undocumented families had to become their priority.
“What we heard the most is that parents had seen a significant reduction in work hours or lost their jobs altogether,” Carrizales said.
Due to their legally unauthorized immigration status in a largely unwelcoming environment with the country fiercely divided on immigration, many of these families fell through societal cracks and did not receive any assistance. Neither did they feel safe approaching local government agencies, fearing they could potentially end up facing deportation.
So IMMSCHOOLS set about filling that need. The agency started an emergency fund. The objective was to provide essentials – help with rent, cleaning and safety supplies, groceries, getting internet access so children could participate in academic remote learning.
COVID-19 Response Boost
As part of the fundraising effort, Carrizales applied for and was awarded a $26,000 grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund, managed by the San Antonio Area Foundation in collaboration with the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County.
That infusion enabled IMMSCHOOLS to provide up to $800 a month for 20 families to help cover rent, utility bills and groceries.
“Without those funds, we wouldn’t have been able to help our families,” an emotional Carrizales recalled. “The effort will stay with me forever to help me remember that we were able to quickly mobilize to support the community.”
Gavin Nichols understands and appreciates that sentiment.
Nichols is a Senior Program Officer with the Area Foundation’s Community Engagement and Impact team. Nichols and other senior program officers – each representing the organization’s four main grantmaking impact areas – along with an external advisory committee share the responsibility of selecting nonprofits seeking funding.
Nichols said IMMSCHOOLS was approved because it made a clear case delineating the crucial role it plays serving a highly underserved community.
“Immigrant and undocumented families are often forgotten yet they’re our neighbors and friends,” Nichols explained. “We all need to get behind the great work of IMMSCHOOLS and that’s why the Area Foundation will continue doing all we can to support them.”
For the Rodriguez family, the helping hand that IMMSCHOOLS provided was quite literally a godsend. It wasn’t just about the money – of course that helped a great deal, but it was also about feeling not left out.
“Thank you for not forgetting about us immigrants,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who along with his wife has two students in Northside Independent School District. The pandemic left both husband and wife unemployed – both losing their office cleaning jobs.
“I had not slept for days thinking how I’m going to provide for my kids,” Mr. Rodriguez continued. “You have no idea what this help means to us. We have a roof over heads and food on our table because of you.”
Similarly, the pandemic forced Ms. Gonzalez to face a daunting crisis taking care of her three children enrolled in San Antonio Independent School District schools.
“I honestly don’t think we would’ve managed to pay all the bills, our rent and provide food for my kids without this support,” she said. “Thank you for thinking of us.”
As humbled and honored as she feels, Carrizales knows the work is not done.
Far from it.
The pandemic is sadly very much still here with us, ensuring a precarious transition as kids head back to school. Carrizales said the future of IMMSCHOOLS remains bright with plenty of opportunities in the horizon yet challenges abound with looming funding shortages.
“We’re still trying to figure out how our programs will look like this new school year,” she stated. “But we must remain optimistic because we know the community will continue needing us as a crucial support system in this time of crisis.”
Please visit our COVID-19 page for more information about the community response fund and other work the Area Foundation has done to help nonprofits during these unprecedented times.