Twisting through the winding roads of the scenic landscape of the Jeff Davis mountains is Mobile Comunidad, a sizeable custom van offering full-service assistance directly to residents of Jeff Davis County.  A collaborative effort between Friends of the Jeff Davis County Library, Jeff Davis County Library and the Food Pantry of Jeff Davis County, Mobile Comunidad’s mission is to offer support and programs in literacy, nutrition, health, social services, and digital connectivity for residents of this remote region. 

I had an opportunity to sit down with Vicki Gibson, the executive director of the Food Pantry, to find out more about this ground-breaking program and why it’s vital to the wellbeing of the region.  

Why do you think Mobile Comunidad is vital for the Jeff Davis region?

“People who visit and the people who live here, they see the beautiful mountains, this wild and remote place with skies so dark you can sometimes sit outside and read a book by the light of the Milky Way. Along with the beauty of the place, there are a lot of people experiencing hunger, isolation, mental and health problems, and economic challenges. In a lot of ways, this little corner of Texas is the last frontier. There is this culture of rugged individualism that is kind of a double-edged sword. On one hand, people take pride in being able to do things for themselves and not asking for help. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who need a lot of help. Fortunately, there are a lot of people in our community who believe in neighbors helping each other. There are many people in this community that I have met who would give you the shirt off their back, literally. Even if they don’t agree with you politically, or don’t agree with your lifestyle or whatever. But you’re my neighbor, you’re my friend. And if you need help, I will help you.”

There’s a lot of research recently about how important it is to bring your services to those who need it rather than bring them to you and that’s exactly what you are doing.

“It’s kind of, I don’t know, selfish and self-important that I would think, ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing, come over and get it from me.’ That’s just not how I think. I think if I’ve got this thing that other people need or want, I need to go out to where they are.”

There are multiple things that you’re bringing into these communities. Can you spotlight some of them? 

“The two main things that Mobile Comunidad offer are food and library services.  Food is a very important part.  Second, when people think of the library, they often just think of checking out books. Libraries today are so much more than that. They are often the hub of the community, and especially in a small, remote place like Fort Davis and Jeff Davis County, that is certainly the case. Mobile Comunidad has all sorts of services—for instance, DVDs. That’s important because 90% of the county does not have internet is not covered by internet service. We also have printing services, faxing and notary services. We also offer a library of things, like crock pots, food dehydrators and garden tools, or any number of things you can check out from the library.” 

Why did you choose the name Mobile Comunidad?

“Well, of course, ‘comunidad’ means community in Spanish. And when we were trying to think of a name, we wanted to come up with something that captured the spirit of the mission. And that is to lift up people by meeting a variety of social service needs and bringing those things right to where they live. It is really neighbors helping neighbors, even in the most remote areas of our community.” 

What does it mean on a personal level? 

“I feel like it’s my job as a human being to go out and meet people where they live, and not to wait for people to come to me. Dorothy Day was a Catholic worker. She’s one of my biggest heroes, and she talks a lot about community. One of the things that she says is that the only answer in this life to the loneliness that we are bound to feel is community. And that just speaks to me. When I think of community I think of food. When we are building bridges, or building bonds with people, we do that over food. That’s a way that we build community. So I guess I’m taking this little piece of what I have to offer out into the community, trying to build bridges and bonds, and helping people with the basics of life.”

Why is it important to have a mobile unit?

“Our county is approximately 2,300 square miles with approximately 2,300 people, that makes an average of one person per square mile. It can be 25 miles from their house to get to the road to get to Fort Davis. About 13% of our whole population in the county lives below the poverty line. People under the age of 18 make up 35% of the people who are living in poverty. That’s why we have such a big focus on children; because children are not only the most vulnerable, but they are the neediest in our community. By going to these areas with no wireless internet providers and often either spotty or no cellular service we can offer WiFi for free, while we are there. If someone needs to fill out an online job application, or you need to file for unemployment, or apply for Social Security or Medicare, they can use our mobile internet to fill out applications, and get important documents notarized. They can also check out a computer or a book, apply for SNAP benefits, register to vote, etc., and of course, like we offer at the food pantry, they can receive food.

“Because of this setup, with people gathering outside of the van or sitting in their car when the weather gets cold, we can provide these resources all year round and with any shutdowns that might be part of the COVID era.”

When you go to them, it seems like a great opportunity to build trust. They can check out a book, then maybe fill out an application, and then, slowly open up about their other needs.  

“Absolutely. There is so much shame involved. Just the simple fact that you might be in need is somehow shameful. The biggest obstacle I as a food pantry director have to overcome is to get past the shame that people feel in their reluctance to ask for help. People are much more likely to come to a church parking lot or the firehouse or wherever we’re parked and just check out a book or DVD and kind of scope it out and see what’s happening, rather than driving up to the food pantry and parking their car and ringing the doorbell.” 

Can you tell me a bit about the founders of Mobile Comunidad and how you all came up with the idea?

“Gwin Grimes is the director of the Jeff Davis County Library. Jeanine Bishop is the president of the Friends of the Jeff Davis County Library. We believe that one charitable organization can’t bring every service to everybody. We have a weekly lunch meeting at the Old Drug Store Café. We eat and talk for an hour or more about what the problems are, and whether we can we come up with solutions. And people who pass our table, look at us and laugh and make comments that are like, oh, look out! What are they up to now? 

“It’s really nice to be involved with people like that—powerful women who are empowering other women and their community. We’re all stirring the pot of our community, making a stew to feed our neighbors.

“For this project, we started researching other projects and found little seeds of it. Other places have libraries who partner with food pantries. But one of the unique problems in this area is the remoteness, how far apart we live and work from each other. And so that was the hardest piece to put together. And that’s how we came up with the van idea.”

What’s important for a traveler/tourist to understand if they see this van?

“I hope visitors take back the beauty of this place, but also understand that it’s not an easy place to live. I’d like them to understand that people are fiercely independent, but they’re also very friendly and kind and compassionate, and willing to take care of their neighbors. I also hope that if they came here, and they got something from this place, that they would maybe consider giving a little something back to our community—maybe drop a little donation in the jar or something. Because every little bit helps. We are such a tiny community. We have to have help from outside of our community.”

What’s your ‘dreamy’ hope, your ‘realistic’ hope, and your ‘call to the world?’ 

“For my dreamy goal, I go back to Dorothy Day. She said, “We must always aim for the impossible. Because if we lower our goal, we also diminish our effort.”  And so my big dream is a world where everybody has their basic needs met, and people treat each other with kindness and compassion. That’s what I’m working for. 

“My realistic goal is that Mobile Comunidad makes a real and measurable difference in the lives of people in our community, that they would be healthier, that they would be happier. My realistic goal is to be able to provide a free school lunch to every kid in our county.

“My call to the world is to do things big or small, with great love, like Mother Teresa. I really believe that the solution to just about every single problem in the world is love. And love doesn’t live in isolation, you know. Where you plant that little seed, it’s gonna blossom.” 

by Carolyn Campbell