In its more than three decades serving San Antonio’s South Side community, nonprofit organization Fuerza Unida – “United Force” in Spanish – has had its share of ups and downs, coming close on more than one occasion to having to close its doors for good.

Now, despite the tremendous economic impact that the pandemic had on nonprofits – particularly small ones like Fuerza – this small but mighty team founded by and still led by seamstresses left jobless following the closures of former Levi Strauss plants in the mid-1990s is thriving like never before and quite optimistic of their future serving their mostly low-income members and clients.

How did that come about?

They made an unprecedented and concerted effort to fundraise not just to barely maintain an existence but, for the first time, actually try to grow – and they succeeded.

In great part thanks to two separate two-year grants from the San Antonio Area Foundation totaling nearly $88,000, Fuerza Unida has been able to more than double its budget as well as double its staff, according to Executive Director Petra Mata, who leads an all-woman staff – apt recognition during national Woman’s History Month.

“We’re extremely grateful,” she said. “Without this funding, thing would still be as hard as they were before – this has helped us not just economically but also psychologically, giving us a badly-needed mental boost.”

The grants from the Area Foundation come through a partnership with the City of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District through a federal program from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) meant to improve the local public health infrastructure.

One grant has allowed Fuerza to offer expanded programming and services to the community, such as immunization clinics, awareness campaigns on major health issues and even start a community garden to grow natural medicinal herbs.

It has also been able to increase its order of food boxes from the San Antonio Food Bank from 50 to 110, which are distributed for free at the organization’s community meetings.

The other grant is geared toward operational sustenance, allowing the nonprofit to expand staffing levels – literally doubling in size from five to 10 – which until now had remained mostly a pipe dream.

Thanks to reinvigorated leadership push starting with the Board of Directors and CEO Marjie French, the Area Foundation, backed with a new strategic plan including a new mission and vision, is set on a path to connect with and serve those in most in need in our community like never before.

That’s why small nonprofits like Fuerza Unida, which may have been overlooked for grant funding opportunities in the past, are now playing a central role in the Area Foundation’s new direction on grantmaking.

“Our support of great nonprofits like Fuerza Unida is emblematic of an intentional direction we’ve taken,” said Patricia Mejia, the Area Foundation’s Vice President for Community Engagement and Impact.

“We’re more determined than ever to honor the tremendous effort that organizations like Fuerza Unida have taken on for decades. Our grant funding is merely a recognition of their hard work lifting up our community in reaching toward more equitable outcomes for all,” Mejia added.

Being able to keep serving the community also allows Fuerza to keep honoring the spirit of many activists that came before them advocating for workers’ rights – such as the indefatigable and iconic organizer, Cesar

Chavez, whose legacy is hailed every year on his birthday (March 31) in what has become the federally recognized Cesar Chavez Day.

In observation and recognition of Chavez’s influence on their own work, Mata and her Fuerza team was in force last weekend in the official City of San Antonio annual Cesar Chavez March.

Most of all these days, Mata noted, is feeling thankful for the philanthropic recognition of her organization’s 33-year history proudly serving South San Antonio.

“It’s nothing short of a lifetime honor for me personally to have attained the interest and support of such a great organization in the community as the Area Foundation,” Mata said. “Being worthy of such an investment means everything to us.”

The Area Foundation has changed its grantmaking structure from an annual to multi-year process, currently providing funding for three-year periods – the current one being 2023-2025.

Grants are issued based on four major impact areas. While applications are now closed for Cultural Vibrancy and Youth Success impact areas, nonprofits will be able to apply in the Successful Aging and Livable and Resilient Communities impact areas starting next month.

Click here for more information on grant information and the application process. Anyone interested in making donations directly to one (or more) of the impact areas can do so here.

Hernán Rozemberg is the Executive Director for Marketing and Communications at the Area Foundation.