From the initial struggle to understand how a grease trap works and the importance of one to coordinating the management of thousands of asylum seekers released into downtown Brownsville, Jack White has made his mark on the long history of the Good Neighbor Settlement House.
White, who retired from voluntarily serving as the nonprofit’s executive director in May, stepped up to lead the floundering nonprofit three years ago.
“I look back at the lessons that I’ve learned. I didn’t know what a grease trap was, not a damn clue,” White said. “And it took me a couple hours to look at that grease trap and realize the importance it represented.”
White said nearly every system in the complex was problematic and the shelter’s previous executive director had been in ill health for quite awhile and fundraising had dropped off.
“I inherited a challenge and I was blessed because I went to the United Way,” White said.
But he didn’t know how much he could ask the United Way for toward the $70,000 in unpaid bills the Good Neighbor Settlement House had racked up. So he asked for $30,000.
“They wrote back and said no,” White said.
The United Way insisted on providing the full amount.
“And that just impressed me with the kind of community spirit Brownsville represents, and the United Way came through and they helped us that summer with the Legacy Foundation,” he said.
White again found himself in a familiar place. This time the nonprofit needed $80,000 and he asked for half that amount.
“And they said no,” White said.
Instead, the Legacy Foundation provided the full amount.
“With that kind of support, you couldn’t be but humbled and want to serve,” White said.
Over the next few years, White fixed the place up and with the help of community members, a small army of volunteers formed to serve the Buena Vida neighborhood and the homeless population. The nonprofit also partnered with the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley to open a pantry.
Then in September of last year, Sister Norma Pimentel from the McAllen Respite called White to tell him there was a problem at the bus station.
“And you know when Sister Pimentel tells you there’s a problem, you jump. And you ask how high,” White said. “So I went to the bus station and saw what the issues with ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) dropping off asylees with no belts, no shoelaces and this blank stare on their face.”
All of a sudden, White was in charge of a 24/7 operation as a team of volunteers that eventually became known as Team Brownsville worked around the clock to feed migrants, help them get in touch with loved ones, let them shower and send them on their way to destinations across the United States.
Now, White’s legacy lives on in a new generation of volunteers who continue the more than six decades of service the Good Neighbor Settlement House has provided the community.
“I’ve gotten a lot of accolades, but I don’t know if I earned a damn one of them,” White said. “I was just in a great place getting great support for wonderful people in the community.”