Tuesday 03.03.2020

Sister Phylis Peters is Called to Help the Poorest Among Us

sr phylis peters03They may be on the other side of the world from each other, but the people of Ethiopia and the Rio Grande Valley have a lot in common.

That’s according to Sister Phylis Peters, Daughter of Charity, founder and executive director of Proyecto Juan Diego, headquartered in Cameron Park colonia. She should know. The Wisconsin native lived in the East African nation for 10 years helping rebuild families and society after years of war, and 17 years ago established PJD to meet the needs of Cameron Park residents, though its reach continues to expand.

“The people here are very family oriented,” Peters said. They’re very family oriented over there. … Personal relationships are vital, and their faith is very vital.”

And like Ethiopian culture, the Valley refrains from placing a premium on punctuality, said Peters, who entered the Daughters of Charity religious organization after graduating from nursing school. She worked for several years in hospital administration before deciding her true calling lay elsewhere.

“I kind of wanted to get into something in a Third World country, and I really wanted to serve the poor in a different way than in administration,” she said.

That’s how she wound up in Africa, though after a decade it was time to step back and leave things to the new crop of young, local sisters coming in. Peters started looking around for a new gig.

“I wanted to do something similar,” she said. “I wanted to work with the poorest of the poor. I wanted to really serve the people and find out what their needs are so they could tell me what to get done. We looked around for a long time. And then Father Mike (Seifert) over here at the parish said would you like to start in Cameron Park. I said I’d love to.”

The parish supplied a patch of land on Eduardo Avenue where PJD’s 20-plus staff and four classrooms were jammed into four mobile units. Several hundred surveys were sent out to neighboring households to find out what was most needed, Peters said.

“The highest need was health care, second was education and the third was social services,” she said.

It formed the basis for the expanding range of services PJD provides today, some of them through partnerships with other entities and extending to other parts of Brownsville and the Valley. PJD contracts with the University of Texas School of Public Health, for instance, to fight diabetes Valley-wide through the Salud y Vida program. Today PJD is its own nonprofit entity, funded by 16 or 17 entities around the United States, and last year moved into a spacious new headquarters/community center at 3910 Paredes Line Road.

The organization’s staff has grown to more than 30 employees, many of them Cameron Park residents, and it is the staff that deserve the credit for the good PJD does, Peters said.

“It’s not me,” she said. “The thing you have to realize, it’s the people we have. We develop the people, our employees, and then the employees go out and develop other people. That’s the most important thing. They’re the best people to be able to talk to their neighbors and really understand where they’re coming from. All I do is facilitate and motivate and kind of push a little bit.”

Let’s keep striving to ensure that everyone has a place to call home; not just a structure, but a place of belonging, security, nurturance, and love.

Originally published by the Brownsville Herald.