By CLINT FOSTER
Independence Day weekend turned out to be a rough one for the members of Palo Pinto Challenge this year. The non-profit teaching program that employs mentally and physically challenged adults fell victim to multiple acts of vandalism throughout the holiday weekend and into last week.
Palo Pinto Challenge's Strawn headquarters has a garden, for the personal use and enjoyment of its employees, that was recently equipped with a new soaker system. Sometime over the Fourth of July, the system was turned all the way up and left running, pumping 16,000 gallons of water into the garden, flooding it and virtually destroying it.
Also vandalized was a large rock that was set in front of the building in 2000. Believed to be an Indian grinding stone, the approximately 10-inch tall and 2-foot wide rock was systematically destroyed and was found last week broken down to its base. Strawn police are investigating these acts of vandalism.
"Of course, the soaker system means a lot to us financially, but the rock was just kind of their symbol of 'tough,'" Executive Director Barbara Cranfill said as she held back tears. "[One of the employees] Poncho's daddy said, 'It's as tough as Poncho.' We're talking one incredibly beautiful rock. For someone to come in and do that is unreal."
Adding to the list of offenses against Palo Pinto Challenge, Cranfill said someone also set off fireworks Fourth of July weekend in the lot adjacent to the program's wooden storage building. Trash and a lighter were left at the scene, but Cranfill said thankfully, nothing caught on fire.
Just when it seemed things could not get much worse, Cranfill said she discovered someone had keyed her van right through the Palo Pinto Challenge sign on its door as it sat under her carport in Mineral Wells last Thursday night. Thursday was Cranfill's birthday.
Cranfill said the men and women of Palo Pinto Challenge "make and sell the world's best picante sauce and candied jalapenos." As a licensed food processor that buys products commercially, the acts of vandalism will not effect the program's salsa production. However, Cranfill said the workers are visibly upset about the destruction.
"They are really concerned that someone is tearing their things up," she said. "[They have said] 'Who would do this to us?' They give things away from their garden. The salsa workers are still working hard, but it's just sad. It's no fun to go sit on the rock anymore, because the rock's just about gone."
Cranfill explained that the garden was not only a fun activity for the workers, but also a very important teaching tool.
"The garden is truly a life skill," she said. "It teaches social skills like, 'Let me grow this for you,' 'Let me pick this for you.' [Some] have even taken gardening skills home to their families."
Besides the emotional toll, Cranfill said the flooding of the garden created a significant financial issue for the program. Not only will they have to repair the damage, but they will also have to foot the steep water bill on top of normal expenses. She explained that all profit from the salsa goes back into buying the products required to make it. As a non-profit organization, they rely heavily on donations. She said they are going to approach city council for help.
"We're in such a financial scrape right now, because we're a non-profit, I'm not sure how we're going to recoop," she said. "We are down $10,000 on our annual donations just from grants that were lost. Our big fundraiser is the Salsa Baron's Ball that happens at the end of February. That money's just about gone now. But God hasn't closed us down and there's going to be a way."
In spite of the trials, Cranfill said the group is holding together and trusting in each other.
"They see themselves as a family," she said. "They're just the 'Salsa Crew.' What one doesn't know how to do, someone else will go and help. They work together as a family. We'll bounce back from it, but what a dirty deal. Actually, we might have to swim back from it."
Palo Pinto Challenge hopes to raise some of the needed funds during this month's tamale sale. Cranfill said orders can be placed now through mid-August and the pork tamales are $10 per dozen. Pick up dates are July 23 at the Mineral Wells Chamber of Commerce and July 24 at the Palo Pinto Challenge building in Strawn. To order call 940-325-7100 or 254-672-5891.
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