Liz Williams found refuge on Victoria’s south side as a 10-year-old, when she and her mom moved to Victoria.

Williams was searching for a safe haven during a childhood marked by sexual violence, trauma and a turbulent home life.

Williams found it, in part, on the south side, also known as the neighborhood “Under the Hill.”

“I was always gone, I was always leaving the house. I had to find someone that would accept me,” Williams said.

When Williams was a child, the neighborhood was home to a laundromat, a free kids club and multiple grocery stores, all resources that created a safe haven for Williams in moments when she didn’t feel at home in her house. She also found supportive friends and knew which homes she could go to for a meal and a hug.

Today, many of those resources are gone. Williams said she feels like the neighborhood has been forgotten by the rest of Victoria.

Williams, 53, is part of a new coalition that’s working to bring investment back to Victoria’s south side, which has historically been one of the city’s poorest areas. The group, which began meeting in January, had its first major event Friday, when it hosted a block party just down the street from Williams’ home. The block was stocked with games, a slip ‘n’ slide, a bouncy house and more, plus informational booths with local nonprofits, service agencies and city departments and officials.

Organizers like Williams are hoping the block party will help spread the word about the new group and its ambitions to help neighborhood residents work together and advocate for the changes and resources they want to see.

Primary among those changes is a grocery store, which was the gap that first got Bethany Castro interested in forming the coalition. Castro began seeing the opportunity in the south side when she would drive to her job as executive director of Perpetual Help Home. Castro said that during her morning drive to work, she couldn’t help but see opportunity in the area’s vacant lots.

“My mind can’t help but think, ‘Gosh, if that was a basketball court, the kids could come and play after school; how amazing would that be?’” Castro said. “What if this were a community center where we could have ESL class in the evening and a kids program? Why aren’t those things happening on the south side?”

As Castro was thinking about the opportunities the south side offered, the Be Well Victoria mental health coalition started organizing in summer 2018. The coalition, funded by a grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, is working as part of Victoria County’s public health department to address the root factors that affect a community’s well-being. Castro approached the community health workers who were starting Be Well Victoria, and a natural partnership emerged.

The group faced its first challenge shortly after it started, when residents learned that a local elementary school on the south side, F.W. Gross, was one of three schools the Victoria Independent School District was considering closing. The group organized and went door-to-door, informing parents of the school district’s upcoming decision and encouraging them to voice their opinion to the school board.

School data shows Gross had a higher percentage of poor students than any other Victoria school – with 98% of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the metric that Texas uses to determine how many students are economically disadvantaged.

Parents of students at Gross said the school was one of the neighborhood’s most invaluable resources and praised the strong connections between teachers and families. Despite widespread opposition from parents and students at all three schools, the school board voted to close them.

“It was tough. It was a big loss,” said Jodi Sandoval, one of the community health workers with Be Well Victoria. “But I think that having a place, a safe place, where they could talk about the loss and be able to vent was important at the time. And I think it was also important to be able to say, ‘OK, that’s closed, but what can we do now?’”

Castro is still hopeful that long-term, the group can work to bring a grocery store back to the area. A 2017 analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that most of neighborhood meets the definition of a food desert because most households are low-income and the closest grocery store is more than a mile away. Census data also shows at least 20% of households don’t have a car. Together, these factors make accessing fresh food, such as fruits, vegetables and meat, difficult for families.

Castro said she was inspired by Mission Waco, a nonprofit based in Waco that has built a cooperative, nonprofit grocery store where residents and donors could buy shares of the business before it opened to help it get off the ground. The grocery store in Waco was able to open thanks to buy-in from residents, giving the North Waco community its first market in decades. With innovative models like the one used by Mission Waco, community grocery stores have opened or are planned in cities such as Detroit; Washington, D.C.; and Iola, Kan.

“The basic idea is living and working right alongside the people in neighborhoods that might be underserved or under-resourced and trying to learn from them about what it is that they need and how you can move forward together,” Castro said, describing the community-centered approach.

Members of the group and residents of the neighborhood say they want the coalition to be a democratic initiative steered by what people in the south side want to see next. Williams, who has been involved with the coalition from its earliest days, said she wants to harness the community’s support and recreate some of the safe havens she craved as a child.

“I just know what these children are going through,” Williams said. “I don’t want them to be left behind.”

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597 or on Twitter at @mccarthy_ciara.

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Health Reporter

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can contact her by emailing cmccarthy@vicad.com.

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