By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
Lead Regional Trainer Kevin Ramirez of Southwest Key Programs said on Tuesday, Feb. 26, that an “unaccompanied minors shelter” will soon open at the former Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital property in San Benito.
Southwest Key is a nonprofit organization with national reach that, according to the program’s website overview, provides to over 6,000 youth services that include “transformative education,” “innovative safe shelters” and “alternatives to incarceration.”
There are also Southwest Key alternative schools, or Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEP), operating in McAllen and San Benito.
Ramirez, however, said a new San Benito location – reportedly scheduled to open at Dolly Vinsant within the next 60 to 90 days – will be modeled after various programs. “One of them being a shelter program, and that’s what’s going to be opening,” Ramirez said in a telephone interview, further noting that there are similar locations in Brownsville and Harlingen.
Specifically, Tommy Ramirez Jr., Executive Director of the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department, said that the shelter will accommodate at least 100 youth. “They’re looking to house anywhere from 100 to 150 kids,” Tommy Ramirez Jr. said, adding that the shelter will utilize Dolly Vinsant as a permanent location. “It’s going to take over the entire facility and will be offering all kinds of services.”
Among those services, Kevin Ramirez said that immigrant children who’re detained when entering the United States will be provided shelter, food and education. “We’ll connect them with resources to help their cases,” he said.
There are 23 job openings that Tommy Ramirez Jr. and Kevin Ramirez reported, via email correspondence, are being sought to fill for the San Benito shelter. Said openings were also posted on the Southwest Key website as of Feb. 21; they include administrative assistant, assistant program director, case manager, clinician, cook, executive assistant, head cook, lead case manager, lead clinician, lead medical coordinator, lead teacher, maintenance worker, medical coordinator, program director, recreational coordinator, shift leader, shift supervisor, teacher, teaching assistant, trainer, vocational coordinator, youth care worker and relief youth care worker positions.
Remaining unclear are the details surrounding Southwest Key’s acquirement of the Dolly Vinsant property. Kevin Ramirez deferred comment on said acquirement to Tommy Ramirez Jr., who cited his familiarity with Southwest Key founder Dr. Juan Sanchez when explaining his role.
“Dr. Juan Sanchez from Southwest Key – he and I are friends and professional associates, and they got a government contract to open up so many beds for these programs,” Tommy Ramirez Jr. said. “They’re doing one in Houston, El Paso, Arizona, and they wanted to do one somewhere in South Texas. Since I’m very familiar with their programs, not only did I give them the Dolly Vinsant site as a possible site to negotiate, but I wanted them to come to San Benito because I knew it would create jobs and revenue for the city. So I pointed them to (San Benito City Manager) Manuel Lara as a point of contact, they (Southwest Key representatives) came down, negotiated and made it (Dolly Vinsant) useable for the programs.”
Lara said on Tuesday that the extent of his involvement was providing interested parties, one of whom he identified as Ernie Estrada, with contact information to begin the permitting process.
“I met with him and said that if he was to call the (City of San Benito) permit office they’ll provide him with information as to who the owners (of Dolly Vinsant) are,” Lara said of his communication with Estrada.
The city manager added that while a permit application has been filed to conduct work at the property, he’s unaware of what capacity the facility will eventually serve. “I did receive an email from Tommy (Ramirez Jr.) about a company called South(west) Key, and there were a number of jobs listed in the email, but I don’t know much more than that,” Lara said.
Still, there are those in the community who were aware of Southwest Key’s involvement, including SB Wings owner Adolfo Toriz. The restaurateur’s eatery is located across the street from the former Dolly Vinsant property, of which its physical address is E. US Business 77, and has reported seeing much activity taking place at the old hospital, including what appears to be a maintenance crew conducting renovations.
“I’ve been hearing it from all over the place, even in Brownsville a person told me that Southwest Key purchased Dolly Vinsant,” Toriz said. “I think it’s going to be great because I used to work at Southwest Key during the late 1980s, and parents go visit the kids to pick them up. They’re going to be spending a lot of time here in the city, and if it’s anything like the way it used to be when I worked there, expect there to be upwards to 50 jobs since they have morning, afternoon and night shifts.”
It was previously reported that the facility formerly known as Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital would not open its doors for another year, at least according to Eddie Lopez, principal owner of Southern Counties Investment Group, LLC.
It was Southern Counties that acquired the building, which for over half a century served the San Benito area’s medical and hospital needs, following a unanimous decision by the San Benito City Commission on December 4 to accept its $10,000 bid.
A deed provided by the Cameron County Appraisal District confirmed that Dolly Vinsant again changed hands from Southern Counties Investment Group, LLC to 4R Realty Investors, LLC, this just four days after the former had acquired the property.
Lopez has cited a lack of funding to pay for costs associated with Dolly Vinsant’s renovations; he has also said that his group planned to remain involved in the property’s development, which he had reported would be in a health-related capacity.
The amount that 4R Realty Investors, LLC paid for Dolly Vinsant, which was named after Wilma “Dolly” Vinsant, a wartime nurse from San Benito who served and died during World War II, has yet to be disclosed.
Read this story in the March 6 edition of the San Benito News, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.