A view of Highland Avenue in Marfa during sunset.

Highland Avenue in Marfa was bustling with traffic and pedestrians from the Spring Break crowd in early March, but the main street of the touristy West Texas town has been empty since local businesses closed their doors shortly thereafter in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many service workers found themselves out of a job with rent and other bills due soon. Shelley Bernstein, a Marfa resident, recognized the need and rose to the occasion.

Bernstein, who by day works for the “change network” Of/By/For All, initiated an idea to provide financial relief to these workers through the founding of the community volunteer organization Marfa Steps Up. Donations from the group’s GoFundMe campaign will be distributed in gift cards available at the two local grocery stores, Porter’s and The Get Go. The donations are available for those who live in Presidio, Brewster, or Jeff Davis counties, and worked at a hotel, an art gallery or a museum, a restaurant, or a retail store that is within two miles of the Marfa city limits and was closed due to the pandemic. Those who service Airbnbs, like cleaning, managing, or maintaining them, are eligible to apply as well.

Applications in English and Spanish are available online and physical copies are available to pick up and drop off at the Marfa Public Library. The deadline to apply is Friday, April 10 at 11:59 p.m. CST.

Physical copies of the service-worker relief-fund applications are available in English and Spanish at the Marfa Public Library.

Ian Lewis worked at Stellina before the restaurant closed on March 11 and has since volunteered for Marfa Steps Up. He said the organization recognizes that everybody is hurting financially and emotionally during this time, but also that a lot of people who work in these fields live paycheck to paycheck. “We wanted to make the net wide enough to catch as many of these people as we can, which is why we’re focusing on the service industry,” Lewis said. “We can help those that most need the immediate help now.”

Bernstein envisions that the organization will address additional needs as they unfold. There’s a Zoom meeting next week to gather and share information with small-business owners who are navigating loan applications and other resources. She added that Marfa Steps Up may exist beyond the pandemic.

“We have so many people here willing to step up,” Bernstein said. “COVID-19 is the immediate focus, but this kind of community-minded spirit doesn’t go away. Community members stepping up to help others, more generally, could be on our horizon as the most immediate challenge subsides.”

A message of encouragement at the former Palace Theater on Highland Avenue.

The initial goal of $20,000 was raised in less than 24 hours and now totals almost $50,000, with donations ranging from $20 to $1,000. Full-time and part-time Marfa residents have donated, as well as out-of-towners, including people from the service industry and individuals who are currently out of work. The last day to donate to the relief fund is Friday, April 10 at 11:59 p.m. CST.

“Every single gift is significant because people are all jumping in and helping,” said Susan Kirr, a film producer who is volunteering with Marfa Steps Up. “It’s very, very powerful what’s happened.”

It was incredible and unexpected for Lewis to see the number climb as quickly as it did. “We know Marfa has a lot of love, but to see people in other places actually think about the faces and the people of this town, and not just as a tourist place that they like to visit, it’s really affirming,” he said. “It’s really nice in these times.”


“Small-Town Dispatches” is a new series from Texas Highways focused on how COVID-19 is affecting some of our favorite Texas communities, from writers who live there or live close enough to visit often.
Read more from this series.

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