For a week in early February, McAllen businessman and City of McAllen Public Utilities Vice Chairman Tony Aguirre spent countless hours at Edinburg Regional Medical Center where his mom was a patient. He watched TV with her and sang conjunto songs playing on his phone’s Pandora app with her. He monitored her vitals while she slept and had conversations with all of the medical professionals treating her.
One of the nurses treating Tony’s mom was Maria Herrera. Both petite in stature and quiet in nature, Herrera exhibited the qualities of someone destined to serve in this field — knowledge, compassion and commitment to her patients. One day, as Herrera tended to his mom, Aguirre asked her how long she had been working as a nurse.
“Seven years,” she responded. During the course of their conversation, Aguirre asked Herrera if she had received any help to complete school.
“Yes,” she readily answered. “From VIDA.” Aguirre nodded his head and Herrera expressed a bit of surprise. “You know about VIDA?” she asked him, and again, he nodded.
Herrera, still caring for Aguirre’s mom throughout their conversation, told him she had been an unemployed, single mother with two daughters. She was taking an introductory class in nursing at South Texas College in McAllen. Herrera was completely uncertain as to how she would continue because of the cost of higher education.
“Nursing school is stressful as it is,” Herrera said. The financial concern adds even more.
A turning point
Herrera’s instructor told the class about the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement. The program by design takes Rio Grande Valley workers out of poverty and into high-demand, high-paying jobs that will change the trajectory of their lives.
Herrera did some research of her own on VIDA and applied for the program. She received financial assistance for her books and to pay tuition costs not covered by financial aid. Her case manager at VIDA helped her tremendously, checking with her to make sure she attended tutoring when needed and encouraging her during difficult moments.
Herrera wanted to know how Aguirre knew about VIDA, so he decided to tell her. Aguirre is the chairman of the VIDA board of directors. Herrera’s story and the stories of so many others over the past 25 years of VIDA’s existence embody why he serves on this board.
A better life
Keen to this serendipitous meeting, Herrera told the rest of her story. She graduated from STC with an associate’s degree in nursing. Within one month of graduation, she took the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and passed. Herrera accepted an RN position starting at $21 per hour. Now, seven years later, she earns $36 an hour. It includes a differential for working in ERMC’s Intensive Care Unit plus benefits.
“I had no home and no car,” Herrera said. “I was on food stamps, on public assistance, and my daughters and I were living with my mom.” Now, she said, she has a home and a car, as well as a husband and two more children.
“Thanks to the VIDA program,” said Herrera, “I have accomplished one of the most important goals in my life — to become a nurse. The VIDA program has made a huge impact on my family and me … and definitely on generations to come.”