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Students’ Work in Cameron Park Recognized with Sargent Shriver Award
BROWNSVILLE, TEXASNOV. 18, 2013Miriam Aguayo and Karina Mendieta, both seniors at The University of Texas at Brownsville, share a bond to improve the lives of residents of Cameron Park, a colonia of Brownsville.
They were among 14 students nationwide who received the second annual Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award from the Margaret Casey Foundation; each received a check for $5,000.
“Kari and I both saw a community need, and we had solutions in mind, knowing how we would spend the $5,000, if one or both of us were to win,” Aguayo said. “What a surprise it was for both of us to receive the award, and to have us working in the same colonia, and being the only ones from Texas. It was an exciting day when we were notified, and it was exciting to go to Seattle, such a beautiful city, for the awards ceremony.”
Miriam Aguayo, front, and Karina Mendieta are two of 14 winners nationwide of the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against PovertyMiriam Aguayo, front, and Karina Mendieta are two of 14 winners nationwide of the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award from the Margaret Casey Foundation.
Aguayo, a history major scheduled to graduate in December, focused her winning project on voter registration and participation in Cameron Park. Mendieta, majoring in early childhood through sixth grade bilingual education and scheduled to graduate in December, tackled the regional health issue of obesity and diabetes that is widespread in low-income, low-education communities such as Cameron Park.
Having grown up with her family in Cameron Park, Mendieta began to notice children’s obesity as a serious health issue when she started organizing children’s activities at the neighborhood’s community outreach center, Proyecto Juan Diego, a non-profit organization that provides education, social, and health services to the residents of Cameron Park and surrounding colonias.
“The teens in the youth group I work with decided we wanted to do something about the issue of obesity that is so prevalent in the community,” Mendieta said. “We came up with a ‘Stop the Cycle of Obesity’ event to help 7-12 year-old children learn about obesity, its detrimental effects and ways to avoid getting caught up in the cycle of unhealthy living that it creates.”
Mendieta’ proposal to the Casey Foundation was to use the funding to expand the “Stop the Cycle of Obesity” program that had already gotten off to a good start.
“We continued with having guest speakers to discuss obesity, nutrition and exercise,” she said. “The kids loved the Zumba instructor that we brought in to give them some lessons; now they see exercising can be fun and doesn’t have to be boring.” 
Aguayo, a youth coordinator with Proyecto Juan Diego, proposed to use her award funds to increase voter participation.
“My project was already well on its way, pushing to get people out to vote in the November elections,” she said. “I felt if we could continue in a serious manner, we could realistically hope to increase the Cameron Park voter turnout.”
With her award funds, Aguayo coordinated the youth-led campaign, comprised of 24 youth volunteers, ages 12-20, and 12 of their siblings and parents. They group visited door-to-door throughout the neighborhood, handing out flyers to promote voter participation. They organized a Celebrate your Vote Celebration that took place on Oct. 26, the Saturday of early voting.
“The initiative was to celebrate during early elections as a way to commemorate the right and the privilege to vote,” Aguayo said. “We provided information on the issues on the ballot, and also we made sure everyone needing transportation got a ride to the polls in a van provided by our County Commissioner, Ernie Hernandez. Cameron Park’s turn-out rate during the election comprised 77 percent of Precinct 74’s vote; amazingly, it comprised 78 percent of the early election vote. Precinct 74’s turnout rate during early elections resulted in the highest number of early election precinct votes.”
Neither Aguayo nor Mendieta is new to volunteerism and community activism.
Throughout her college career, Aguayo has sought opportunities to work with immigration and social issues and the legal profession. She interned at the Southern District of Texas Federal Court and at the Law Office of Annabell Alegria in Brownsville. For the fall 2012 semester, Aguayo was one of 33 students from the University of Texas System selected for the Archer Fellowship Program, giving her the opportunity to study at the Archer Center in Washington, D.C. and intern with Immigration Equality, a non-profit organization that represents the LGBT and HIV-positive immigrant community in the federal sector.
As she finishes her last courses in preparation for a December graduation, Aguayo is studying for the law school entrance exam; her goal is to work in a field that helps improve immigration policies. 
Mendieta has spent the semester as a student teacher at Southmost Elementary School. As a resident of Cameron Park, Mendieta has seen improvements take place in the neighborhood, yet knows of the work still to be done. She has been a steady volunteer at Proyecto Juan Diego for more than six years, aiding in the fields of immigration, health, education and government.
Over the years, Mendieta has faithfully visited nursing homes and resident centers for immigrant children; collected food, clothing, shoes and supplies to distribute to destitute families across the border in Mexico; participated in an ongoing youth-led project focused on cleaning up and beautifying Cameron Park; and marched in support of immigration reform and against domestic violence.
“Maybe our stories will help encourage other students to do something positive in their schools and communities,” Mendieta said. “We can all be Warriors Against Poverty.”


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