Update 2 p.m. Dec. 20: This story was updated with the number of graduates and job placements.
An ordinary flyer posted on an El Paso Community College campus wall changed Candy Gutierrez’s life.
As an EPCC student, Gutierrez wasn’t sure if college was for her, nor did she feel confident that she had the discipline to pursue a professional career. Then she noticed a Project ARRIBA flyer offering to help students earn a profession. She signed up.
On Saturday, thanks to the financial assistance, guidance, and mentoring that the local nonprofit Project ARRIBA offers to its clients – primarily low-income Hispanic individuals – she graduated with a nursing degree from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s Hunt School of Nursing.
“Being a part of the program helped ease the stress of financially covering tuition, scrubs, and equipment, and helped me focus on more important things like school,” she said. “Without Project ARRIBA, I would have faced additional challenges that could have possibly given me enough reason to not follow through with the nursing program.”
Over the past 23 years, Project ARRIBA — Advanced Retraining and Redevelopment Initiative in Border Areas — has helped almost 1,797 participants graduate. Project ARRIBA also helped 1,661 individuals with job placements. Project participants earn, on average, $49,000 a year in high-demand careers, such as the medical industry.
“Project ARRIBA is a workforce, and economic development initiative focused on promoting the quality of life of underserved/vulnerable adults by helping them succeed at a postsecondary education that leads to greater economic mobility and quality job opportunities,” Project ARRIBA President and CEO Roman Ortiz said. “The organization promotes a working partnership between community-based organizations, training institutions, and private corporate partners.”
Last week, the El Paso County Commissioners Court awarded Project ARRIBA $1 million so the non-profit can continue to help.
The organization connects students wanting to acquire higher skills with an industry needing a skilled workforce.
“To me, this is one of the most successful programs that I’ve seen,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. “It comes at a very important time when we need medical personnel.”
‘Tax takers to tax makers’
On Dec. 15, the El Paso County Commissioners Court unanimously awarded the organization $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds. Ortiz said the funds would be spread out in two years, $500,000 each year.
“We could see about a 30% increase in overall growth,” he said. “This would essentially help us bring in twice the number of new participants over the course of the next 24 months. Last year, 84 cents of every dollar went to program services.”
Project ARRIBA board member Daniel Tirres addressed the Commissioners Court before the vote that the money will be used to increase enrollment.
“Your decision to invest this one-time historic amount of funding will go a long way for our families and our economy at a time when there is an enormous need,” he said. “Now is the time for the court to double down rather than let up.”
Ortiz told the court that, on average, graduates from the program have contributed about $175 million to the economy in taxes to the city, county, and state.
“We’re looking at the next 20 years, and we have a great opportunity here to make some major changes with the high need of employment,” he said. “Our people go from being tax takers to tax makers.”
The organization’s innovations lie in its intense participant-centered case management approach, where students are guided, motivated, and empowered. Case managers work with them to access training and services, monitor the participant’s progress and effectiveness, and provide counseling and accountability.
“This support increases accessibility, persistence, and graduation rates at the local junior college and university,” Ortiz said. “Project ARRIBA case managers play a pivotal role in the program’s high retention, graduation, and job placement rates and maintain a student-to-case manager ratio of no more than 60 to 1.”
ARRIBA spends about $6,500 per participant for about two years to help them obtain postsecondary training in occupations such as nursing and other healthcare-related jobs.
“Our mission is to assist economically disadvantaged individuals in gaining the education and job skills needed for demand occupations that pay a family-sustaining, living wage in El Paso, Texas,” Ortiz said.
Project ARRIBA’s economic impact
A Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness study released in May 2021 stated that for every $1 invested in Project ARRIBA, the local economy receives $28 back. Ortiz said that the program’s 2021 graduates are earning more than $52,000 a year.
“Over the last two decades, our ROI (Return On Investment) is phenomenal with over $890 million in economic impact to the El Paso community,” Ortiz said. “I am proud of the almost 2,000 families that work in El Paso in the areas of most need like nursing and healthcare.”
Project ARRIBA was created in the late 1990s by the grassroots organization El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, which is responsible for bringing water and sewage service to more than 100,000 people in the colonias in El Paso. It began as an organization wanting to get better housing for the people in the region.
“We found out early on that, more importantly, we needed some occupations and work that would pay a living-wage salary,” said EPISO leader Eloiso De Avila.
When Project ARRIBA started, factories were closing in the area, displacing workers. At the same time, some high-paying jobs were vacant due to a lack of workers with the available skillset to perform those duties, said EPISO leader organizer Surya Kalra.
“This labor market intermediary concept is to train people that are not making very much money for these jobs that are actually in the community,” she said. “Project ARRIBA is part of a strategy.”
In 1998 ARRIBA was incorporated as a public, not-for-profit El Paso-based economic development initiative. As a model, De Avila and others in EPISO looked at Project Quest in San Antonio, a non-profit that specialized in specific job training — the very thing EPISO wanted to bring to the people of El Paso.
“We grew from that experience and gathered institution leaders, priests, and people and the business community in El Paso to come up with this program,” said De Avila. “We do ‘house meetings.’ We gather a group of people together and try to find out what is happening with them. What ails them, and what is it that can be done to improve their lives?”
Rev. Ed Roden-Lucero, one of the project founders, said that in 1997 Project Quest already had a 10-year track record of success.
“We believed that it was possible to adapt it to the city of El Paso and El Paso County needs,” he said. “At the time, the unemployment rate in El Paso County was pretty severe. People didn’t have the resources to go back to school. People at the very bottom of the economic ladder … they had zero opportunities to advance themselves. Especially those who live further out on the county and don’t have transportation.”
Project Quest continues its efforts in San Antonio with 2,057 participants, which resulted in 578 graduates, and 295 job placements in 36 in-demand occupations making graduates an average of $21.56 hourly salary, according to their 2021 annual report. During its 29-year history, the organization has served more than 8,200 participants with a 91% job placement rate.
“These strategies around labor market intermediaries didn’t just happen in El Paso and San Antonio,” said Kalra. “There’s now 13 of them across the southwest region. We convene ourselves as organizations, both the grassroots and with the workforce projects, so they can learn from one another. You’ll see innovation in one place that can be copied elsewhere.”
The workforce model of the San Antonio-based organization has been replicated nationally and internationally with models in Austin, Houston, Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, and in Monroe, Louisiana, Des Moines, Iowa, and Tucson and Phoenix.
This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.