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Dr. Lidia Fonseca of McAllen, Christian Torres of Pharr, Valley Association of Independent Living of McAllen, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg earn top honors from Gov. Abbott for their efforts on behalf of Texans with disabilities - Texans with disabilities - Titans of the Texas Legislature

FEATURED: Katalin Novák, President of the Republic of Hungary, and Gov. Greg Abb0tt, along with top officials from both governments, met at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin on Thursday, September 21, 2023 to discuss strengthening and expanding the international economic partnership between Texas and Hungary. As part of their meeting, they explored Texas’ ability to use its robust oil and gas industry to support Hungary’s energy needs, emphasizing the importance of this specific economic relationship to bolster national security interests in both the United States and Hungary. 



Dr. Lidia Fonseca of McAllen, Christian Torres of Pharr, Valley Association of Independent Living of McAllen, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg earn top honors from Gov. Abbott for their efforts on behalf of Texans with disabilities

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The Office of the Texas Governor on Thursday, October 26, 2023 – in an impressive showing statewide for the Rio Grande Valley – awarded Dr. Lidia Fonseca of McAllen, Christian Torres of Pharr, the Valley Association for Independent Living of McAllen, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, top honors for their dedication on behalf of Texans with disabilities, Gov. Greg Abbott recently announced.

On Thursday, October 19, 2o23, those South Texas individuals and organizations were publicly praised by 

the Office of the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities (GCPD), which declared those and three other winners of the annual Lex Frieden Employment Awards (LFEA), along with the results of the Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM) Poster Art Competition. 

The LFEA and DEAM Poster Art Competition coincide with Disability Employment Awareness Month recognized each October in Texas.

Named in honor of disability rights champion Lex Frieden, the LFEA are bestowed upon Texans who have displayed a commitment to empowering their employees, co-workers, and fellow Texans with disabilities.

Frieden, born March 5, 1949, is an American educator, researcher, disability policy expert and disability rights activist. Frieden has been called “a chief architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” He is also regarded as a founder and leader of the independent living movement by people with disabilities in the U.S.

The respective awards, by category, bestowed upon the Valley individuals/organizations are:

• Governor’s Trophy: Dr. Lidia Fonseca (McAllen);

• Entrepreneurship of the Year: Christian Torres,Christian’s Cookie House (Pharr); 

• Martha Arbuckle Award: Valley Association for Independent Living (McAllen); and 

• Large Employer: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (Edinburg).

The other recipients of the LFEA, based on categories, were: 

• Medium Employer: TrueHarvet Farms, LLC (Belton);

• Small Employer: Nacho’s Restaurant Cantina and Grill (San Angelo); 

• Nonprofit Employer: Upshur County Public Library (Gilmer); and

• DEAM 2023 Poster Art Competition Winner: Víctor Vera (Allen).

“Our lives are not defined by how we are challenged, but rather, how we respond to that challenge. After my life-altering accident that left me paralyzed 39 years ago, I made the decision to not let my life be defined by the enormous challenge that I faced,” said Abbott. “In Texas, there is freedom and opportunity for everyone — including the 5.4 million Texans with a disability. Together, if all Texans band together for disability employment awareness, we will foster a brighter, more inclusive Texas for everyone who calls our great state home. I congratulate the winners of this year’s Lex Frieden Employment Awards and DEAM Poster Art Competition for their work and advocacy for Texans with disabilities across our state.”

After graduating from the University of Texas with a B.B.A. in Finance, he received his law degree from Vanderbilt University. Shortly after graduating from law school, he was partly paralyzed when struck by a falling tree while jogging. Despite his life-changing accident, he went on to become a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, Texas attorney general, and now governor of Texas. Abbott is an avid sportsman and hunter. He and his wife, Cecilia, have been married for thirty-four years. She is a former schoolteacher and principal and the first Hispanic First Lady of Texas. They live in Austin. Their daughter, Audrey, attends college.

The Governor’s Trophy

Dr. Lidia Fonseca


The Governor’s Trophy is the Governor’s Committee’s highest honor and is awarded to the person who has achieved the highest success in enhancing the empowerment and employment of Texans with disabilities. The Governor’s Trophy recognizes long-term commitment and outstanding efforts at both the community and state level.

Dr. Lidia Fonseca of the Valley Association for Independent Living in McAllen works around the clock to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities through coordination of job fairs, assistive technology demonstrations, employment preparatory programs, ensuring accessibility of facilities, and other support. 

She has a broad reach with impact on transportation programs, education, healthcare, youth employment, community engagement, and statewide and national leadership with various organizations focused on the goal of competitive integrated employment. 

Fonseca’s efforts are marked by a passionate and unwavering sprit of advocacy and empowerment. She embodies the principles of disability justice and leaves her mark on a wide range of disability issues covering local, state, and national levels.

The Entrepreneurship Award

Christian Torres
Christian’s Cookie House

The Entrepreneurship Award is presented to a living entrepreneur with a disability who has shown extraordinary  ingenuity and drive to create and sustain a successful business that has created jobs and/or accessible services.

(Entrepreneurship is the activity of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit. An entrepreneur is  a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.)

Christian Torres, owner and founder of Christian’s Cookie House in Pharr, embodies resilience and determination. Growing up, Christian overcame difficulty with social interactions and understanding subtle nuances of communication and nonverbal cues. 

This experience made Christian a stronger person — someone who would go on to hold two jobs while building his dream career. Today, Christian’s Cookie House presents stuffed cookies and other sweets to Texans in the Rio Grande Valley. 

Christian is a member of several community organizations and donates to charitable causes near home. Christian’s story is a perfect example of empowerment, community, and passion pursued with heart.

Martha Arbuckle Award

Valley Association for Independent Living 

The Martha Arbuckle Award recognizes the most innovative local committee project, and is presented in memory of Austin’s long-time disability advocated Martha Arbuckle.

With a core principle of consumer control, the Valley Association for Independent Living (VAIL) in McAllen is actively managed and staffed by people with disabilities. 

VAIL collaborates with other service providers, educational institutions, commercial business, and other supportive organizations to help their constituents identify employment opportunities, participate in job fairs, earn certifications for specific careers, access assistive technology, and work toward permanent employment. 

VAIL’s program can and should be easily implemented in communities across Texas.

The Large Employer Award (More than 500 employees)

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Located in Edinburg, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) is dedicated to upholding Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action principles. The institution adheres to all governmental directives to ensure nondiscrimination across all educational programs and student activities including employment. 

Among other proactive efforts, UTRGV stepped onto the world stage by nominating their Sustainable Opportunities for Advancement and Recruiting SOAR Project to the UTRGV Enactus Group EXPO and brought home first prize. 

SOAR collaborates with Texas Workforce Solutions VR Services, the Valley Association for Independent Living, and the Disability Chamber of Commerce Rio Grande Valley and addresses all aspects of the employment experience, including interests, application, interview, accommodations, job retention, and advancement.

“UTRGV was nominated for the award through the work with Texas Workforce – Vocational Rehab,” said Kristina Chávez, Director, Compensation and Talent Acquisition, Office of Human Resources. “Within HR, we have been placing individuals with disabilities with various HR departments.”

Those UTRGV departments include:

• UMC/Print Shop.

• Facilities.

• Human Resources.

• Child Development Center.

• Student Affairs.

• SOM Clinic.

• IT.

• Athletics.

• Records.

• Student Service Center.

• Student Accessibility Services.

• Military and Veterans Success Center.

• School of Music.

“We are ecstatic about this statewide recognition for a project that has such specific impact in our local community,” Chávez said. “These projects help the community by encouraging individuals with disabilities to be independent.”

Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities

The Committee is composed of 12 members, at least seven of whom must be persons with disabilities. The Governor’s Committee provides information and referral services about programs offered by other state agencies or disability organizations. 

Officials from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Texas Education Agency, Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and Texas State Independent Living Council serve as non-voting advisory ex-officio members. 

Members of the Governor’s Committee are appointed by the governor for staggered terms of two years, with half the members’ terms expiring each year. For more information contact the Governor’s appointments office at 512-463-1828. 

The Committee and staff serve as central sources of information and education on the abilities, rights, problems, and needs of Texans with disabilities and advise the Governor and the Governor’s staff on matters related to full participation of Texans with disabilities in all aspects of Texas life. 

The Committee may also work with legislative committees and with state agencies on the development of laws and policies that affect Texans with disabilities. Although the committee does not have any enforcement legislation linked to its enabling statue in the Texas Human Resources Code, Chapter 115, it develops policy recommendations based on citizen input and research prior to each legislative session and recommends changes in state laws related to Texans with disabilities. 

The Committee develops statewide networks of volunteer community-level committees to help promote the dissemination of information and support the rights of Texans with disabilities. It provides information and technical assistance to public and private agencies and businesses to promote and facilitate disability rights laws. 

The Committee also develops awards and other forms of recognition to persons and organizations making outstanding contributions to the employment of persons with disabilities and to the public awareness of issues impacting Texans with disabilities.


Amanda A. Taylor-Uchoa contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (

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