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Giving the community more than just roof tops

6/15/2017

Comite De Bien Estar in San Luis, Arizona, "strives to enhance the economic and social well-being of the community through cooperative land development, housing, lending and social services." Serving an area where more than 21 percent of the population is defined as living in poverty by the U.S. Census Bureau, this NeighborWorks organization plays a critical role.

Children sit around a table, eating oranges and a nutritious meal

Comite began by addressing the community's housing needs, but soon realized the area it serves needed far more than roof tops. In 1998, the organization applied for a USDA nutrition program designed to provide meals for children in day care. The program provides reimbursement to day-care providers for three meals and snacks a day for children under 12 years of age.

What Comite found is that day care for children often is the responsibility of grandparents or other extended family members. According to Alex Ruiz, deputy director of Comite, "in this area families want to leave children with a trusted sister or grandparent. They know their children are going to be in good hands."

Comites is charged with providing nutrition classes for the child care providers, and conducting property safety and health inspections. Program Director Erica Vega says, "The program is also bringing back the old-fashioned meal time at the family table. You'd be impressed to see how it has made a difference in the families." In addition to the social and health benefits the program also has an economic benefit. In fiscal year 2016 the program deployed $1.4 million to child care providers.

A woman feeds a baby sitting in a high chairComites' nutrition program started with a meager 20-30 participants. However, it now has grown to be the fourth-largest provider in Arizona, with 300-340 participants. The program serves Yuma County which includes the cities and towns of: San Luis, Gadsden, Somerton, Yuma and Wellton, Arizona. The organization estimates 1,998 children now are receiving nutritious meals, helping curb the high incidence of child obesity and most likely impacting residents' future health.

Ruiz says, "I had no idea how this program operated when I started working for Comite De Bien Estar. It has been most rewarding, job I've ever done." Ruiz adds, however that there is an upfront cost of about $200 per site for providers to satisfy the safety and health requirements. For some, this can be a roadblock. Comite is currently trying to raise funds to help defray that cost.

Comite De Bien Estar strives to be innovative in an area where basic necessities are difficult to obtain. For example, it recently opened the Comite S Mart Gas Station, which has become a social enterprise for the organization and a vital seller of groceries, which were previously nonexistent in the area.

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