Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro may be keeping humanitarian aid from getting into the country out of fear that such efforts could loosen his grip on the Venezuelan people.
But nonprofits led by Venezuelan expatriates in North Texas have found a way to break through the political blockade by sending packages back home via private shipping companies.
Zeanly Gomez, a teaching assistant in Frisco, is among those leading the charge in Dallas-Fort Worth. Gomez has been shipping vitamins, nutritional shakes, medical equipment, over-the-counter medicines, clothes, hygiene products and food thousands of miles to Venezuela back home through Rayito De Luz, a nonprofit she founded in March 2015.
"At my house I was taught that if I have one arepa and you don't have one, then we each have half an arepa," Gomez said.
The nonprofit, named after a group in Venezuela, focuses on collecting medical supplies to help clinics and families treating children with cancer.
But with the scarcity of food and other essentials in Venezuela, Gomez said, Rayito De Luz started collecting and sending anything it could to people of all ages.
"I feel indignant. I feel much impotence. And I feel much pain at seeing the images from back home of sick children, dead children," Gomez said. "But this is affecting everyone. Adults. Grandparents. Everyone."
At least 200 people gathered in February to help groups like Rayito de Luz, VeneDallas, Hope 4 Venezuela and Ayuda A Venezuela pack hundreds of boxes full of food, medicine, clothes and other essentials.
Gomez said the volunteers managed to pack about six tons of supplies that were shipped to Miami free, thanks to a shipping group in the area. From Miami, the aid is expected to arrive in Venezuela by next month.
As volunteers worked, two trucks full of humanitarian aid were set on fire at a bridge near Cucuta, Colombia, that connects to Venezuela. The opposition, led by Juan Guaido, who became president of the National Assembly in January, alleges that the Venezuelan military set fire to the trucks.
Shipping individual boxes through private companies is one way these groups have found to deliver help to Venezuelan families. But it's expensive.
The last time Rayito De Luz shipped a container full of about 120 boxes was about three months ago. It cost the group $10,000 to ship it to Venezuela.
Carla Rincon is one of the Venezuelan expatriates who showed up to help last month. Seeing the trucks burn, she said, was a motivation for her to keep working.
"Seeing Venezuelans stay until 1 or 2 in the morning filling boxes to send back home was beautiful and it made clear that Venezuelans are united for change. But to see people who aren't Venezuelan staying that late with us, even though they have no family or anything tying them there, that was unforgettable," Rincon said.
Rincon is the founder of VeneDallas, a nonprofit founded in 2012 that initially focused on educating Dallas-area residents about the ongoing political turmoil in Venezuela.
But as the population of Venezuelans leaving home because of the country's economic collapse swelled in North Texas, VeneDallas started collecting and giving away furniture, clothes and anything that could make life somewhat easier to those adapting to life in the U.S.
The worsening situation in Venezuela forced VeneDallas to expand its scope of whom to help, and the group became involved in area efforts to ship aid back home. Now, Rincon said, it's important for those who want to help people in Venezuela to know that there are groups like hers that send relief to people there.
"We need a lot of help and each of the groups working in the metroplex needs help from the Dallas community so that we can keep helping people back home," Rincon said.
David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy nongovernmental organization, said one of Maduro's last options now is to double down and keep Venezuelans reliant on CLAP boxes, a monthly supply of food handed out to many families.
Maduro introduced the CLAP box policy in 2016 and it's one of the main reasons why his government retains support among the country's poorest citizens.
"To accept international aid undermines the government's own self-definition. It's really hard for them to accept that situations are so bad that they would require humanitarian aid," Smilde said.
Right now, only those with access to foreign currencies, specifically U.S. dollars, Smilde said, have an easy time buying the essentials to feed their families. Lower-income families in Venezuela sometimes work to make $5 a month.
Images have surfaced from inside the country that show Venezuelans eating from garbage trucks and malnourished, bed-ridden children in need of medicine.
Atala Sosa, who works with Venezolanos en Accion en Dallas, a group of volunteers who help the various nonprofits in their efforts to provide aid to Venezuelans, said the images are heartbreaking and motivate her to stay involved in these local efforts.
"Sometimes you want to be optimistic, but you see so much corruption. You try to understand how someone can be so sick to do this to their own country," Sosa said.
Sosa has been living outside Venezuela since 2001, most of that time in Dallas. The last time she visited her home country was in 2016. She said she can't see herself going back until Maduro is gone from power. And now the only thing she can do, she said, is keep collecting aid to send home.
"It's not about who is the president, it's not about what party is in power," Sosa said. "It's about how you can be the best citizen and how you can contribute to the country."