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Tucson at Its Best 

We profile six organizations (out of many) working hard to make Tucson the sort of place we want to live

Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter

Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter was the first no-kill, cageless shelter in the entire United States when it opened in 1965.

It started with the animal-loving Sister Seraphim, a Russian Orthodox nun. Her order in Northern California wouldn't allow her to keep animals. To solve this problem, Sister Seraphim relocated to Tucson, bought a house and started filling it with homeless animals.

"She'd bring in birds and cats and lizards and anything she could find," said Ryan Inama, adoptions manager at Hermitage. Slowly, her home turned into a real shelter, one that has been caring for needy cats in Southern Arizona for 48 years.

Sister Seraphim lived in the house up until her death in 1990.

Hermitage is a cat enthusiast's heaven. According to Inama, there are about 250 cats in its care. Although the majority are adults, there are also several kittens. The shelter has a handful of elderly kitties and about 50 cats with feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus. The cats are separated based on these characteristics.

All the cats have access to indoor and outdoor spaces. In total, Inama said, about 8,000 square feet are available for the cats.

There is a room for cats that have allergies or dietary restrictions, a newly built birthing room, a geriatric ward and even a physical therapy room. In January, the staff plans to add a veterinarian so that vaccinations and surgeries can be done on-site.

Inama spoke of one cat, Captain, that survived a coyote attack, and another, Crisp, that was dropped off during the night.

"We came into work one morning and saw a box sitting out front. Everybody knows what the box means," he said. "The box was taped shut. When we opened it, ants had gotten in the box and he had nowhere to run or go or hide. So he was just covered, in his eyes and ears, just covered in ants."

Both Crisp and Captain are doing much better now.

Hermitage was recently recognized as an animal sanctuary by the federal government, making it eligible for more grants.

There have been many ups and downs in the shelter's long history.

"There was a time not so long ago that they were concerned about how they were going to stay open; dipping into savings and really struggling to stay afloat," Inama said.

But that is no longer the case.

"We've done more adoptions this year than we have in any year in our past," Inama said. As of the beginning of December, 510 cats had been adopted from Hermitage this year.

A pair of recent adopters, Eric and Christine Schwamberger, brought a rescued cat to the shelter 13 years ago. Since then, they've relocated to New Mexico, but Hermitage left an impression.

Recently, Christine Schwamberger found an abandoned kitten at her workplace. Because they were already heading to Tucson for Thanksgiving, the pair decided to take the kitten to Hermitage.

"That evening, my wife was having second thoughts," Eric Schwamberger said. "So we drove back and adopted the same cat the next day."

Christine Schwamberger said that what sets Hermitage apart from other shelters is its rigorous screening process for adoptions.

"They do more than anyone else does that I'm aware of," she said. "That was the most reassuring thing."

Eric Schwamberger said he believes no-kill shelters are important and he's impressed with the diligence in care that Hermitage provides, although he knows it comes with a price.

"The problem is always, 'Do they have the funding?'" he said.

Inama agreed. "I understand why there aren't more no-kill shelters," he said. "They are very costly, very time-consuming and very hard to care for."

But Inama said he goes home at night feeling satisfied that he's working for a worthy cause.

"I wish that all shelters were no-kill," he said. "I want people to re-evaluate their beliefs or whatever taught them that animals are less than us. They're not. They're alive—they're here just the same as we are."

The Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter is at 5278 E. 21st St. For more information, call 571-7839 or go to hermitagecatshelter.org.

— A. Greene, mailbag@tucsonweekly.com

Our Place Clubhouse

The last time the Tucson Weekly talked to Mindy Bernstein, director of Our Place Clubhouse, the focus was a writing group that was meeting regularly with board member Sheila Wilensky. The group members dedicated hours every week to writing essays, poetry and other works for a chap book Wilensky received funding for through a grant. (See "More than Mental Illness," Nov. 29, 2012).

The project was inspired by a discussion that took place between Wilensky and a writing group member shortly after the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others at a Congress on Your Corner event. Referring to shooter Jared Loughner, they discussed how those with mental illness are portrayed after incidents like the shooting.

The goal of the chap book project was decided then: There is more to people with mental illnesses than the traits of their illness.

Next month, the project's goal will be achieved with the publication of A Certain Slant of Light: Emerging from the Shadows of Mental Illness, designed by Tucson designer Julie Ray. The signing and reception takes place from 5 to 7 p.m., Friday, Jan. 17, at Our Place Clubhouse, 66 E. Pennington St. There will also be another signing with Suzi Hileman, a Jan. 8 survivor at her annual Roll and Stroll event at Christina-Taylor Green Park on Saturday, Jan. 11. Hileman wrote the prologue for the book.

From a table at Café 54, part of Our Place Clubhouse downtown, Bernstein says the writing project is a bright spot and an example of the good that can happen in the recovery process for those with mental illness, or as Bernstein prefers to call it, brain diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

"Recovery happens when our clients change their attitude about themselves in building self-esteem," she says. "The writing group has been more than just about a book. It's a huge recovery tool as the group has been collectively working. It's another example of what we do at the clubhouse."

Our Place, which receives most of its funding through the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, puts people to work doing what they can and want to do, either at the organization's thrift shop, its restaurant or in the clubhouse office. It also is involved in things like the writing group and getting people jobs with employers outside Our Place.

"We're looking for more offices in town who can hire our people—entry-level positions. We have people ready to work and it is an expectation at the clubhouse," she says.

"We expect you to get a job. Just because you have a mental illness doesn't mean you don't work."

Wilensky, a Tucson writer, editor and teacher, says the chap book is divided into five chapters with an introduction from her on the writers and their work, and from Bernstein on the clubhouse.

"This is about educating the public; that's the purpose of this book," Wilensky says.

"People with mental illness don't need to live and work in the shadows. We want to change that."

— Mari Herreras, mherreras@tucsonweekly.com

John Valenzuela Youth Center

If you've been paying attention the past two years, you know that the John Valenzuela Youth Center has increasingly served as an important community gathering place for our firestorms of late—Mexican-American Studies organizing, Chicana feminist community-building and, more recently, as a force for helping South Tucson parents and teachers organize to prevent Tucson Unified School District schools from closing.

Executive director Gloria Hamelitz-Lopez says everything the center is involved in is youth-focused. That was also the goal of the center when it was founded in 1939 by the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic, also known as the "white sisters," the order that opened the Pio Decimo Center. The idea was to focus on keeping kids active and therefore out of trouble. In the 1980s, the city of South Tucson got involved and helped the center offer recreation classes.

For the first 50 or so years, the center never had a permanent home, but that changed after a tragic incident in 1993, when Tucson Police Department officer John Valenzuela was fatally shot while serving an arrest warrant. According to Hamelitz-Lopez, Valenzuela, who served as a school resource officer for Ochoa and Mission elementary schools, was scheduled to give a speech at a graduation ceremony for fifth-graders.

"He was religious, lived with his parents, and spent a lot of his own money helping kids from South Tucson. He died with $29 in his bank account," she says.

His father found a copy of the speech, in which Valenzuela talked about his desire for kids in South Tucson to have a safe place go. That spurred the community to raise the money needed to buy a permanent home for the center. When it opened in 1994 at 1550 S. Sixth Ave., it was named in his honor.

"That spirit of how we were formed informs what we do. The center is a tribute to his office, and even more so, a tribute to the parents in this community," Hamelitz-Lopez says.

The center continues its focus on after-school programs for youth of all ages, and is an active after-school feeder program for Ochoa students. Programs are also offered all summer for kids in the surrounding neighborhoods, and the center is always available for community meetings.

"What happens here is not based on my personal beliefs, but what is needed and what the community wants—we're community-driven as opposed to driven by me," she says.

Hamelitz-Lopez says that hosting meetings about TUSD's embattled Mexican-American Studies, or MAS, program was spurred by students who'd taken MAS classes, and supporting TUSD neighborhood schools, where many center youth come from, is a no-brainer.

"Our support was generated from our kids—our kids who came in upset, our kids who saw the books being taken out of their classrooms—who asked to borrow microphones, use our spaces because their MEChA meetings were being monitored. They knew this was their safe haven and we loved every minute of it," she says.

"In great times and even in bad times this has been a place for the fight and eventually the healing part," she added, referring to the Chicana and queer feminist group and blog MalintZINE.

The center receives funding from the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, the city of South Tucson, and from donations. More than half the staff are former participants in center programs and residents of South Tucson. She says kids from the area trust people who have lived in the area, so peer leadership is stressed in programs and classes.

"What I've learned and what the community knows is that if an agency says it can fix all the problems, they are lying to you," she says. "It takes a village to raise a child."

— Mari Herreras, mherreras@tucsonweekly.com

Cakes for Causes

Rene Luedeman was at the Home and Patio Show with the Icing on the Cake baking club on Jan. 8, 2011, when she heard that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others had been shot outside a grocery store on the north side of town.

"When things like that happen, people are hurting. The community hurts, everybody hurts, and you really want to help," Luedeman said.

She went home and pitched the idea of forming a nonprofit to her husband, who agreed to support the endeavor. "Blindly," she adds. "I'm a retired scientist and he's a computer man. We knew nothing about filing for nonprofit status, but we made our way through."

Luedeman rounded up several members of the baking club and became the founder and executive director of Cakes for Causes, a nonprofit that bakes cakes and cookies for other nonprofits. The organization consists of about 45 bakers, including a modest operation in Phoenix.

Jess Bemiss, who runs the custom cake business Sweets by Jess out of her home, is one of the bakers Luedeman recruited from the club. Bemiss is in charge of scheduling events and organizing bakers.

"It's just something that I really love to do," Bemiss said, adding that the work has introduced her to a lot projects and people in Tucson. "It's a lot of fun ... it's the people. It's so great to work with them."

While they speak fondly of many of Tucson's nonprofits, Luedeman and Bemiss seem to agree that the most rewarding work they do is for the Diamond Children's Center at University of Arizona Medical Center. When chronically ill children are in the hospital on their birthdays, staffers call Bemiss to see if someone has time to bake a birthday cake.

"I like to do that because those kids wouldn't get a cake otherwise," Bemiss said. "They'll give us a theme and we can just go crazy with it." She recalls decorating one cake with handcuffs and a cop's hat for a little boy who wanted to be a police officer when he grew up.

The bakers also run a monthly program called "You've Been Caked for Kindness" that takes nominations for people working or volunteering at a nonprofit, and bakes them a cake to say thank you.

"We don't expect (to charge other nonprofits)," Luedeman said. "If we have the baker power and we have the funds to do it, we don't expect a donation. We save other groups some of their budget."

Cakes for Causes recently started turning down some requests because it doesn't have the resources to keep up with the volume. But the bakers take on as much work as they can.

"I always tell the crew, 'All right, I have to talk about the F-word again.' It's fundraising," Luedeman says with a laugh. "You gotta have money to get ingredients—and a temporary food permit is $60 each time. That's at least three or four cakes we could make for the Diamond center."

In an effort to spread the budget as far as possible, the Cakes for Causes board voted to serve food only at events that agree to pay for the permit. Otherwise, volunteers are happy to drop the sweets off before an event.

"Since Jan. 1 of this year, we have made about 17,000 treats and helped out 95 events between here and Phoenix," Luedeman says, noting that with only about 45 bakers, it can get a little hectic. "Cue circus music," she adds, referring to the frenzied schedule. "We learned food is love. It can heal; it can say thank you. Not only can it bring happiness to people, but it also feeds them. It's a passion. Everyone does it from their heart, and we always get it done."

Cakes for Causes requires that all bakers have a Pima County Health Department certificate and be registered with the state of Arizona under the cottage food law, which allows them to bake from home. For information about volunteering to help bake cakes or to request help with an event, go to cakesforcauses.org.

— Chelo Grubb, mailbag@tucsonweekly.com

Sky Island Alliance

In 1943, Natt N. Dodge wrote an article in Arizona Highways in which he characterized the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona as a "mountain island in a desert sea." In 1967, also referring to the legendary Chiricahuas, author Weldon Heald coined the term "sky island" to describe the phenomenon of islands of mountain habitat surrounded by intervening seas of grasslands and desert.

For more than 20 years, the Sky Island Alliance has been working to protect and restore the spectacular mountain ranges that inspired Dodge and Heald. "We work with private landowners, federal agencies, and other nongovernmental organizations in the region to protect and conserve wild places across borders and jurisdictions, largely in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico," said Carianne Campbell, the Tucson-based organization's landscape restoration program manager.

The sky island region of Southern Arizona, extreme southwest New Mexico and northern Sonora is a global biodiversity hot spot. Dramatic differences in elevation, precipitation and vegetation support an incredible array of species, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. A large portion of Arizona's sky island mountain ranges are included in the Coronado National Forest, the biodiversity of which is among the highest of any national forest.

Our region's kaleidoscopic variety of life forms is also boosted by geographic coincidence. It lies at the intersection of several overlapping biotic influences—the Sierra Madre and neotropics to the south, the Rocky Mountains to the north, the Chihuahuan Desert and Great Plains to the east and the Sonoran Desert to the west. Many of the species that inhabit this region are at the edges of their ranges, such as jaguars, coatis and numerous neotropical birds from the south.

If you've spent any time in the hinterlands of this region, you've probably seen Sky Island Alliance's handiwork, whether it's a restored stream bed, a healing erosion scar or a newly built pond full of endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs. Campbell said, "We're out there on the ground with an army of intrepid volunteers, planting native grasses and trees, installing low-tech restoration structures in streams, removing invasive species, assessing the ecological health and restoration potential of springs, building relationships and having a great time."

Sky Island Alliance connects people to place—and citizens to science—in a way that few groups ever have. Their popular "volunteer weekends" take people to stunningly beautiful wild areas for fascinating days of hands-on work and fun nights around the campfire. Volunteers rub shoulders with scientists and experts and learn what makes our region so special, as well as how to protect and restore it.

Over the past two decades, thousands of SIA volunteers have logged tens of thousands of hours working in the wilds of the sky islands, constructing natural features to improve habitat, removing damaging and obsolete human infrastructure, tracking wildlife, monitoring streams and cienegas, and recording the observations and data they collect so that they can be used by landowners and land managers to further the group's goals.

In the process of accomplishing all of that, volunteers also develop a deep camaraderie. "When you get out there to these beautiful places and get your feet wet and your hands dirty, you can't help but build a relationship to the plants, the animals, the land and the good people you're working with," Campbell said.

Volunteer opportunities happen on a regular basis all year long—rain or shine, heat or cold. "We're working on our 2014 calendar of volunteer events right now, and it's full of trips to the Catalinas, Whetstones, Chiricahuas, Pinaleños, Galiuros—not to mention mountain ranges south of the border," Campbell said. "I'm looking forward to experiencing these places with friends, new and old."

To find out more or sign up to get your feet wet and your hands dirty, visit skyislandalliance.org or call Carianne Campbell at 624-7080, ext. 14.

— Randy Serraglio, rserraglio@tucsonweekly.com

Scholarships A-Z

Francisco Salcido graduated from Sunnyside High School in 2012 in the top three of his class. For his work, Pima Community College rewarded him with a two-year scholarship. But soon into his first year, the scholarship was taken away when his undocumented immigration status was discovered.

Sitting in a PCC Desert Vista campus classroom, Salcido says he remembers feeling devastated, yet he's continued to go to school at Pima and he owes that to Scholarships A-Z, a scholarship and student resource organization for all students in Arizona, but particularly students who are undocumented, like Tucson DREAMer Salcido.

Salcido says the organization, which just recently got its nonprofit status, started informally in May 2009 when a PCC student put together an extensive list of scholarships and other funding sources available to all students, regardless of immigration status. That list was shared with a PCC advisor and word got out as more and more students who came to the U.S. at a young age realized it would be difficult to go to college because they are undocumented and lack the Social Security number needed for certain grants and some scholarships.

Salcido says the organization locally, as well as in the rest of Arizona, Georgia and California, is mostly run by student teams. Those teams go to area high schools to help students, citizen and noncitizen, learn about the resources available to help get to college. The team, Salcido says, consists of about 17 students in the area and they are like a family, working together on obtaining resources and tackling DREAMer issues.

"Those resources are on our website and we go to schools to do presentations—how to apply for scholarships, how to apply to college," he says.

"Aside from most organizations that are out there more focused on immigration issues and immigration actions, we are more focused on education. When we started, our main focus was on resources and we were a force in getting PCC to change its policy to allow DREAMers in-state tuition."

So far, Scholarship A-Z has helped area students get about $47,000 in scholarships, and that doesn't include the hundreds of students the organization has helped through its outreach.

As Salcido and his fellow team members continue to raise money for scholarships—the group has an annual dinner, and with the nonprofit status it's easier to accept and ask for donations—there is another fight on the horizon that concerns team members. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne filed suit this year against Maricopa Community College challenging its decision to allow DREAMers in-state tuition. It was the first college in the state to do so, and inspired PCC's governing board to make a similar decision. And it inspired DREAMers to continue to put pressure on the Arizona Board of Regents to do the same for undocumented students at the state's universities.

"The situation right now is really difficult. If Maricopa loses we automatically lose because we have the same policy," Salcido says. "We've been meeting with the board and asking them what they are doing—pushing them to keep fighting and thanking them for their decision. Our chancellor said he's willing take it further to action and willing to go to the Supreme Court to fight."

This year's Scholarship A-Z annual dinner was the first year the organization raised a substantial amount—more than $10,000, Salcido says. That money will go to help pay for conferences, travel expenses and other needed resources, and a micro-loan program for team members. One goal is to organize a state DREAMer conference for teachers and counselors. One has taken place in San Francisco, but Salcido says another must take place in Arizona.

"When I was in high school my teachers and counselors didn't know what to do with me when I told them I was undocumented," he says. "We need to help them understand what to tell their undocumented students, what resources are available and that they can help their students get to college."

— Mari Herreras, mherreras@tucsonweekly.com

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