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Las Cruces organizations keep community afloat

The Aggie Cupboard, located at 906 Gregg St. on the NMSU campus, has been a critical resource for students and staff in need. (Photo by Nicole Liverett/Kokopelli)

While individuals and families have been struggling in many ways throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations across Las Cruces have been making sure people remain fed and supported during these troubling times.

It is no secret that many people have been having a hard time over the past year. Many people have lost their jobs and are being forced to stay at home, which has put stress not only on their wallets, but also on their mental and physical health.

Outreach organizations have struggled to keep up with this increase in demand, but generous community support has kept them going.

The Aggie Health and Wellness Center is one such organization. It provides health and counseling services for the students and staff of New Mexico State University.

According to the center’s executive director, Lori McKee, the number of patients seeking mental health services has not increased, but patients are experiencing “a lot more anxiety and depression because people are closed in and they aren’t able to see their friends and family.”

Aggie Cupboard Program Specialist Amanda Nuñez sits at her desk near the Aggie Cupboard front entrance, where NMSU students and staff can go to get nonperishable goods when they need them. (Photo by Nicole Liverett/Kokopelli)

McKee said that while transitioning to COVID-19 safe practices and changing the center’s entire operation has been difficult, she hopes the use of technology will give people easier access to health services even after the shutdowns have ended.

“I do think that as we go through this pandemic, we are changing the way that we provide services for the future,” McKee said.

The AHWC is currently taking in-person patients with medical needs, while the center’s counseling services are being provided remotely. McKee also recommends that members of the NMSU community utilize other services that the campus provides, such as the Aggie Cupboard.

Aggie Cupboard is an on-campus food pantry that is available to all NMSU students and staff. The pantry is currently open full-time and has mobile events that provide perishable food on the fourth Tuesday of every month right next to O’Donnell Hall.

The Aggie Cupboard’s program specialist Amanda Nuñez said that she has noticed a decrease recently in monthly visitors, but more people have been visiting the mobile food pantry since she started in January of this year. She suspects this may be because fewer students have been on campus due to the reduction in in-person classes. The food pantry has also seen an increase in funding and donations from both the NMSU Foundation and the public.

“We have students that are worried about their food; where they’re going to get it, where they’re going to get their next meal. I think that’s a concern,” Nuñez said.

She also stressed that it was important to reach out to her and her team for more than just issues concerning food.

“We have resources available. We have connections to resources. So if they find themselves in that position, definitely reach out to the cupboard,” Nuñez said.

Outside the NMSU community, people in Las Cruces are dealing with similar issues, and some organizations are trying to help. Like the AHWC, La Piñon Sexual Assault Recovery Services and Child Advocacy Center has moved most of its counseling and mental health services online and over the phone.

Exceptions are made for patients whose home life is deemed too unsafe for them to receive these services remotely, according to Executive Director Stacy Blazer-Clark. These patients are allowed to come into the office and receive assistance in person.

“That’s the challenge with telehealth, because you as the counselor do not know where they are or if they are in a safe place,” Blazer-Clark said.

All of the counselors at La Piñon are currently dealing with full caseloads as they have seen more patients in need of mental health services during the pandemic. Blazer-Clark said that since school is also being taught from home, they are now seeing fewer children referred to their advocacy center because these children no longer have school and other safe spaces to go to when they need help.

While La Piñon has not seen more incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence, Blazer-Clark says the abuse has become more severe. She explained that victims are turning to the center with more injuries than they did before the lockdowns started.

“Isolation has led to what we consider more violence because when we get sexual assault victims that are also victims of domestic violence, they don’t have anywhere to go and their perpetrators [aren’t] leaving,” Blazer-Clark said.

Children participate in an outdoor activity on St. Patrick’s Day 2021 at Jardin De Los Niños in Las Cruces. (Photo courtesy of Jardin De Los Niños)

During the past year, La Piñon has remained opened at half capacity with staff and volunteers being divided in half and rotating each day. While the center receives funding from the city, it also accepts donations and volunteers.

Jardin De Los Niños has also been working hard to help the children and families of Las Cruces. The non-profit organization aims to help homeless and near-homeless children and their families by creating new possibilities for them. The organization provides a plethora of services for struggling families that have been impacted by the pandemic. Services include childcare and educational programs. While the organization’s physical location was closed from mid-March to June 2020, it is now open under the guidance of the Department of Health. 

“Thankfully, we’ve been able to receive funding that helps us to be able to support our families in ways that we may not have been able to in the past,” said CEO Michelle Adames.

Jardin De Los Niños has continued providing families with baskets full of food and cleaning supplies they might need during the pandemic. Adames explained the organization has also been able to help families in new and innovative ways, thanks to its supporters. Many of the changes made have had to do with how staff are now able to communicate with families and offer assistance remotely.

Adames stressed that it’s important to understand that many of the families that need help were thriving and doing well for themselves before the pandemic impacted them.

“All along, I think the biggest thing was that we’ve recognized how important it is to be adaptable, and more importantly, how important it is to communicate,” Adames said.

PFLAG Las Cruces President Ryan Steinmetz stands for a photo near the Frank O’Brien Papen Community Center. The organization has struggled to serve its mission and meet fundraising goals during the pandemic. (Photo by Nicole Liverett/Kokopelli)

Unfortunately, communication has been difficult for other non-profit organizations in the area such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The PFLAG Las Cruces chapter has faced difficulty in gathering with its members since the pandemic began. The organization works to help families and allies support LGBTQ+ people in their daily lives. 

 “A big part of our role within the community has been convening and bringing people together, so that has been challenging,” said local PFLAG President Ryan Steinmetz.

The organization has still been able to provide support services virtually over social media, and now hosts “Drag Story Time,” a livestream event on Facebook. PFLAG has also hosted a live fundraising event on Facebook, but it did not meet the goals set for its annual gala. The organization raised approximately $2,000 compared to last year’s $8,000. 

PFLAG has been able to maintain its scholarship program, but fundraising efforts have fallen short of those from pre-pandemic times.

“We can do virtual events and all of those kinds of things, and we’re doing them and we’re hoping that they have some sort of impact, but it’s not like bringing people together,” Steinmetz said.

In contrast, El Caldito Soup Kitchen has received an increase in funding and donations since last March. While some of the funding comes from the city of Las Cruces and the state of New Mexico, the main source of funding comes from private donations.

“The community has been very, very giving, and what we’ve needed has always come true,” said Gabe Anaya, president of the organization’s board of directors. 

The kitchen has been able to give everyone who comes to the door a contactless, hot meal. That amounts to about 230 people a day. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of volunteers since many were elderly or came from the university and area high schools, which have been largely closed. Weekend volunteers, particularly Sunday volunteers, have been especially scarce. Regardless, El Caldito remains open full time for contactless meal pick-ups.

“I think we’ve learned a lot from this, and when we do open up, we’ll go back to in-house dining because I think that’s the humane thing to do — but not until the state allows restaurants to open up 100 percent,” Anaya said.

Many non-profit organizations around Las Cruces have been able to continue helping the local community thanks to the generous donations and the kindness of volunteers. While some organizations are struggling to keep up, they have allowed those who need help to receive it safely in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

Many of these organizations are always looking for volunteers and donations of supplies or funds. If you find yourself in need of any of these services or would like to help or donate, follow the links below:

Aggie Health and Wellness Center

Aggie Cupboard

La Piñon Sexual Assault Recovery Services and Child Advocacy Center

Jardin De Los Niños

PFLAG Las Cruces

El Caldito Soup Kitchen

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