Local Heroes 2016

Andy Morales, Sole Man

Andy Morales has managed to combine his passion for sports, children and community service into the creation of his Kicks4Kids program that provides new shoes to kids in need.

Morales, who works as a phys-ed teacher at Rio Vista Elementary School, began a shoe bank for the students at his lower-income school who did not have the proper footwear for P.E. class. Two years after he started the shoe bank at his school, Morales has handed out more than 2,900 pairs of shoes to 38 schools in four different school districts.

The project has blown up over the past six months with the distribution of 1,200 pairs to 21 new schools since June.

Morales has bigger goals. He wants to get to 3,000 pairs by the end of the month and is primed to eclipse $40,000 worth of shoes since the program's modest beginnings.

In addition to teaching, Morales runs a high school/amateur sports blog, which he turned into a photography business that specializes in team photos and senior portraits. Those ventures have Morales in contact with a variety of local sports teams and people. Many of those he has met have been inspired to help. The Tucson High girl's basketball program, the Catalina Foothills boy's basketball program, the Ironwood Ridge girl's basketball program and the Pusch Ridge boy's basketball program have all made major contributions to Kicks4Kids and those numbers increase every semester as more and more teams and clubs learn about the project.

Two years ago, nearly every shoe was purchased by Morales and his family. This year he gave out over $20,000 worth of shoes, with nearly all of the shoes coming via donation.

He even gets donations from those with no real ties to Tucson. A young girl in Colorado named Kaitlyn sent a single pair of Nikes to Morales. Kaitlyn was a fan of former Marana standout Jamie Swan when she played basketball at the University of Colorado. She learned about Kicks4Kids from Swan and was inspired to help, sending the shoes.

Morales grew up on Tucson's south side and has worked in lower-income schools his entire 27-year teaching career. As a P.E. teacher, he discovered that one constant in schools all over the Old Pueblo seemed to be a need for athletic shoes, especially for girls. All too often, families have the budget for just one pair of shoes, and get something more fashionable and less functional.

"Tennis shoes for girls is not a high priority so a lot of young kids come to school with 'jellies,' dress shoes, boots or even shoes that may look like sneakers but they have heels or go all the way up to their knees as a fashion statement," Morales explained.

This sets them back in P.E. because they cannot fully participate. Other families can't afford new shoes and all too often the kids get hand-me-downs or used shoes.

Three years ago, Morales helped with a blanket drive that saw the girl's basketball teams from Canyon del Oro and Ironwood Ridge high schools, the boy's soccer team at Pusch Ridge and students from Desert Christian collect more than 600 items.

"So, I thought, why not a shoe bank?" Morales said.

That first year Morales put his money where his mouth was and his own family donated $500 to buy 50 pairs of shoes to get things started. Those shoes were gone in about a month and teachers at Rio Vista Elementary began donating shoes to help restock the depleted supplies. One colleague even threw a house party where visitors had to bring a new pair of shoes. Soon an anonymous donor began donating $50 every month. Morales and his students even sold pickles to raise money for new shoes, as well as underwear and socks.

"I'm always running to the store at lunch time buying new shoes," said Morales, who buys everything from the smallest children's shoes to adult sizes.

His initial dream was to have a new pair of shoes for every kindergarten student who comes to the school, but now his goals are far loftier.

"We have some parents who can't afford new shoes at all," said Rio Vista teacher Amanda Larriva. "I had one student who was wearing hand-me-down shoes that did not fit and were falling apart. Andy bought him some shoes that fit and that student was so happy."

All the time and effort is worth it to Morales, who was been taught to be selfless by his father, who worked for social change from both within and outside of his role in local and federal government.

"I cannot describe the feeling I get when I see a kid put on one of our shoes for the first time," Morales said. "The girls are the best because they take a few moments to stare at their shoes before they skip away. That alone was worth the sacrifice my family has made."

His hard work does not come as a shock for his family.

"Andy surprises me by all that he does, not what he does," said his brother, Javier Morales. "He has always been dedicated to his craft, whether it be teaching, coaching or writing. He is a tireless worker who never puts himself above and beyond the subjects he cares about."

When he's not at the school, he's probably at a high school or youth sporting event. Through blogging and reporting for Arizona Interscholastic Association, Morales, who was taking photos for his stories, saw professional photographers at events who charged a lot and did not deliver much for the fees they collected. He looked to change that and now not only does sports photos, but takes team photos and affordable senior photos for students who can't spend a lot.

And what did he do with the extra income? At first, most of it went right back into starting Kicks4Kids and funding pet projects around his school. He still puts money into the project, but thanks to the donations, now his biggest contributions are time based.

Morales is not slowing down. With his youngest daughter playing college softball in Minnesota, Morales has even more time to dedicate to his projects. This school year, he expanded into the Marana and Flowing Wells School school districts and, as of last week, into the Sunnyside School District.

—Brad Allis

Kate Meyer: Socking It To Violence

When most people set out to make the world a better place, they do so with one focused goal—but singularity isn't Kate Meyer's style.

Meyer dedicates her time and energy to nonprofit work, and her contributions to the community seem endless: She's the Coordinator of Prevention at the Community Prevention Coalition, where she works with youth and parents in substance abuse prevention. She's worked with children at the annual Youth and Peace Conference, been active in Tucson's prevalent body positive community and this year she organized a mini conference on emotional intelligence for after-school care providers. Meyer worked at the House of Neighborly Service for seven years, where she helped South Tucson's youth involve themselves in the community. She brought Denim Day to Tucson and is an organizer for the city's annual Take Back the Night event.

"I have areas that I have a lot of passion in and I want to see those things be successful and I think they're important and so I feel like if i can devote even a little bit of time to each one of them, I can help further the cause," Meyer says.

If forced to name a focus to her activism, it would be violence prevention—specifically, sexual violence prevention. In addition to her work with national anti-rape movements Denim Day and Take Back the Night, Meyer has brought her artistic side into her activism with local Hey Baby Art Against Sexual Violence events. This year, Meyer contributed a performance piece.

"I threw paint and wine and glasses at the door," she says. "I was wearing layers of several slips so I took a few layers of slips off and threw them at the doors, which stuck and hung. At the end, when I was exhausted, I laid down in the middle of the rug, in the paint and glass."

The piece finished with Meyer's body being outlined in white tape. A friend filmed the performance, and the video was displayed alongside the affected door and rug. For her, art is a way to further understand and help others visualize the issue.

Meyer is furthering her dedication to educating the world in the ways of sexual good behavior: She is currently volunteering on a community committee looking at policies and curriculum for TUSD's new comprehensive sex ed program, which will educate students from elementary to high school. The committee is working to make the program more relevant, and medically accurate.

"I would very much like to see, even in the curriculum for the younger students, some violence prevention included," says Meyer, adding that she expects everyone on the committee to bring a different perspective to the conversation, hopefully resulting in a well rounded program.

Her impact on local youth extends into her personal life as well: Meyer and her husband, Eric, were foster parents for a few years before adopting their young son.

"For me it was—well, it wasn't an easy-easy decision, but I'm adopted as well," she says. "So, once we got past the 'we're not going to have biological children'—you know there's a loss, I think, involved with that. You're a biological creature, you're hardwired to want to procreate. I thought, 'What do I care, all of my family is not biological.' I love my cousins, I love my parents, I love my aunts and uncles and I'm not related to any of them by blood."

Regardless of genetics, Meyer exemplifies priorities of the family she grew up in.

"My mom really instilled a lot of qualities for wanting to help people and give back," she says. "She always said it's important to volunteer and it's important to be an individual and to speak up for yourself and to speak up for other people."

—Chelo Grubb

Mimi Warwick Coomler: Keeping Families Healthy

"In order to experience wellness, to grow and develop into a healthy adult, it takes more than prescription medications and someone listening to your lungs. It takes somebody who loves kids. Somebody to pay attention to what they need to be happy and experience health and wellbeing."

You have just glimpsed into the heart of local hero Mimi Warwick Coomler, CEO of Children's Clinics. Children's Clinics is southern Arizona's only comprehensive healthcare facility that cares exclusively for children with complex health-care needs. Serving over 5,000 families a year is something that Coomler takes seriously—not just because it is her job, but because it is also personal.

"I am incredibly passionate about kids with special health-care needs," she says. "It is very near and dear to my heart because I am a parent to a child with Type 1 diabetes, so I get it.  I understand on a first-hand basis how critical it is that patients and families have what they need to succeed." What families need to succeed is often not just doctors and medicine, but support in the everyday living of life. Every year, Coomler leads the clinic in not only providing back-to-school fairs, but also trick or treating opportunities and holiday fun. Rather than have kids miss out on Halloween activities because of accessibility issues, she closes the clinic early and the entire staff dresses up. They turn their conference room into a haunted house, and each department hands out candy.

She doesn't stop there though. Coomler pulls out all the stops for Christmas.

"During the holidays, many families do pictures with Santa, but if you have a child with a complex medical health need this can be difficult, and expensive," she says. "Many of our families fall below the federal poverty line, so we bring Santa and Mrs. Claus to the clinic, and the kids get their photo with Santa here, and each kid in their family gets a toy."

As if that wasn't enough, the clinic also hosts their own 'adopt-a-family' program, to support the families that simply cannot afford gifts. She understands the heart of the parent who has to choose between the new Batman figure and shelter, food, transportation and the cost of health care for their child.

You see, Coomler believes that all children, regardless of ability, should get to experience the magic of childhood. Maybe that's because she's a little magical herself. When you ask her what her dream is for the kids of the clinic, she gets wide eyed and misty eyed, at the same time.

"Our dream is to have an adaptive and accessible playground," Coomler says. "I believe that the children's clinics, along with our patients and providers, if we engage in that conversation together, we can really connect children with the space and the ability to play that doesn't exist right now."

You can tell Coomler all you want that the families at children's clinics are lucky to have her, but she'll correct you time and time again.

"I am the lucky one," she says. "This is an organization with 100 employees that come to work every day to fulfill a mission, and I'm just lucky that I get to be at the helm of that. It's hard not to fall in love with our families. I do rounds and inevitably I have a conversation with a kiddo about finding Nemo in our fish tank, or I'll work with a kiddo to change the light colors on our interactive light wall. The people that come here are absolutely incredible, and I feel really blessed that I get to walk among them. "

—Adiba Nelson

Robin Reineke: Honoring the Dead in the Desert

Robin Reineke works to identify human remains found in the Southern Arizona desert to assist families and to honor the dead.

Reineke co-founded the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in response to hundreds of migrants who died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The nonprofit brings together forensic scientists, humanitarians and families of the missing to identify the dead and deter further suffering.

"We do everything that we can to support the families' needs for information about their missing loved ones," she says.

For 10 years, Reineke has worked with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner to create a database of the missing. They're trying to match identifying features to missing persons reports, such as a belt buckle or a gold tooth, making an average of 20 matches per year, she said.

Missing persons reports for migrants are complicated. Families often get turned away by police because their relative was in the act of border-crossing.

"Families of missing migrants really had nowhere consistent to go, and they were calling everywhere," she says.

In response, Reineke and her team started the Missing Migrant Project, working directly with families to create forensically-detailed reports.

"I realized that what I could do was to intentionally build a safe, private, responsive and respectful entity that was designed to be there for the families," she says.

Another problem with identifying the dead is many migrant families have poor or no medical records to match to the remains found in the desert.

In September, Colibrí began traveling to cities with high Mexican and Central American populations to collect DNA from families with relatives who went missing while crossing the border.

For two weeks in December, Reineke and the team traveled to San Francisco to collect DNA from 40 to 50 relatives and record remembrances of missing loved ones.

"What we're trying to do with the families at Colibrí is really remember the person and emphasize that this was a person who was complicated and had many stories, not just the story of being a migrant," Reineke said.

Reyna Araibi, who was part of the founding Colibrí team, will be interviewing 10 to 12 relatives, StoryCorps style. Araibi said Reineke is not just her boss but also her friend and mentor.

"She feels such a deep connection from her soul to the dedication the families have to finding their missing person," Araibi said. "She just feels like the families are working so hard to find their person. They're demonstrating so much love and commitment, and she feels a commitment to honor that search."

Reineke began this work in 2006, with forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson at the medical examiner's office, still unaware what her work would one day become.

"What we get to witness at Colibrí is the extent to which love drives people to never give up on one another," she says. "It's just not good enough to say, 'Well, I guess he must have died crossing the border.' That's not good enough—it wouldn't be good enough for any of us."

For updates on Colibrí's work follow them at facebook.com/colibricenterforhumanrights.

—Danyelle Khmara

Zaira Livier: Community Warrior

Not too long ago, we had the election to end all elections. With the unfathomable win of Donald Trump, the world literally felt like it was on the verge of spinning right off its axis. Many people across the country felt like the nation had been plunged into a four-year darkness.

Here in Tucson, however, on that same ill-fated night, we cracked the door just enough to let in a tiny ray of light called Proposition 206 (the Minimum Wage and Paid Time Off Initiative). And who held the key to that door?

Zaira Livier, that's who.

Mom. One time Mexican immigrant who has completed her path to citizenship. Student. Campaign organizer. Community warrior.

When Zaira was approached by Arizona Healthy Families, she was already a household name within the Arizona Democratic Party. You see, she singlehandedly birthed the popular 'Latinas for Bernie' grassroots organization here in Southern Arizona, and had met her hero, Bernie himself. She saw something akin in Bernie. He was a man of the people. He was tired of the rhetoric. He understood the underlying struggles at the root of our poorest and most underrepresented families. So did Zaira. This made her the perfect person to successfully run this campaign.

"I grew up with two parents who worked very hard but didn't make a lot of money," she says. "I saw my mom and my aunts working odd jobs just to make ends meet. Growing up on the south side, me, my friends, our families, we were all poor. Our families barely made above minimum wage. As an adult, I've struggled as well. I've struggled nearly all of my life to make ends meet—as a student and as a mother. I know exactly what it's like to scramble to pay your bills. I know that a $2 difference—even a $1an hour difference—means the world to families and to individuals. I have friends who are teachers, have master's level degrees, and are driving cabs on the weekends. This campaign was very much in line with my political philosophy of being your brother's keeper. It was important to make sure that the 99 percent (our working class) is healthy, and that our community is thriving."

She is not one to brag, especially because she comes from such humble beginnings, but she says that while she didn't immediately realize the impact of the win, it did hit her a few days after the election. She went to the corner store in her neighborhood, one that she often frequented, and told the sales clerk that Proposition 206 had passed, and she would be getting a $2 an hour raise in a few months. The woman, who was unable to vote in the election due to a prior felony conviction, became incredibly happy.

"That's when it hit me," she says. "The win was less mine (and my team) and our work, but more so the idea that 1.6 million people and half a million children were going be getting a better way of life. They were going to have holidays and birthdays, and maybe even lunch from home! It's almost impossible to describe that or put that into words. It's a very somber, deep and lasting feeling. It's humbling."

We bet it is, Zaira. We bet it is.

—Adiba Nelson