Local Heroes 2012

These Tucsonans have made our community a better place

Susan Canty

The Amphi Clothing Bank helps hundreds of families each semester

It's midmorning on a Tuesday at the Amphi Clothing Bank, but the activity level is just this side of Black Friday.

Young mothers are walking between the racks of meticulously arranged and clearly labeled clothing, picking out a coat here and a pair of pants there. One mother is asking whether there are any shoes, while another asks whether she can get something for her kids who aren't old enough to go to school. In the center of the beehive of activity is Susan Canty, ridiculously upbeat and cheerful despite (or perhaps because of) all that is going on around her.

Susan and her husband, Mike, are the only ones working the bank that morning. There are only four volunteers, total, and that puts a strain on everybody. Mike and Susan, both retired, regularly put in 40-hour weeks. Mike neither looks nor feels well on this particular day. He starts off with "I've got this stomach thing ..." But then he pulls off a spectacular, whiplash-inducing non-sequitur with " ... we just got done with Stuff the Bus. We got lots and lots of donations of stuffed animals for kids. And coming up, we're going to have a special afternoon thing where high school girls can come in and get prom dresses for the winter formals that are coming up."

He actually sounded better after having gotten that out.

The Amphi Clothing Bank, which serves any and all kids in the Amphitheater School District, is in a small warehouse just south of the main entrance to Amphi High, in an alley off Stone Avenue. It's open for Amphi families on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. until noon, and on Wednesday afternoons from 3 to 6 p.m. Donations can be dropped off at any Amphi district school or at the Clothing Bank when it's open. The clothing bank also takes cash donations, which are used to buy things like new underwear and socks for kids.

(Having grown up in poverty myself, I know that even needy people draw the line at used underwear. My problem was more of the hand-me-down variety: I had six sisters and no brothers.)

Mike and Susan are originally from Grand Island, N.Y. (between Buffalo and Niagara Falls). They fell in love back there and then jointly fell in love with Tucson and moved here in 1970. Except for a seven-year stretch when they moved back East after Mike got a job with the Department of Energy, they've been Tucsonans ever since.

Susan taught kindergarten and first grade at Donaldson Elementary in the Amphi district before retiring. She readily admits that she probably puts in more hours per week now than she did when she was teaching. But it is definitely a labor of love. "It's just so rewarding to be able to help and to give back."

A meticulous record-keeper, Susan informs me that the young family that she is helping at that moment is the 253rd family the Clothing Bank has served this semester. There are usually rushes of activity right before school starts and then again when the weather starts turning cold.

She echoes her husband and says that they certainly could use some more help. Even if people want to put in just a few hours per week, it would make a huge difference.

One of the young mothers, on her way out, searched for the words and then told me, "It's wonderful what they do. They're like ... angels." — Tom Danehy

Demion Clinco and the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation

They refuse to let Tucson's history meet the wrecking ball

Cars dash along Drachman Street, breezing past bright business signs that mock the folly of time. There's one from the long-defunct Tropicana Motor Hotel, and another from Magic Carpet Golf. To the east, the tall, neon ghost of Medina's Sporting Goods shimmers in the afternoon's fading light.

Resurrected from Tucson's dusty narrative, these lovely signs provide a colorful window into our not-so-distant, small-town past. They also offer glimpses into the vital, painstaking work of the Tucson Historic Preservation foundation. From helping to restore the adobe Matus/Meza house—one of the few surviving early 20th-century buildings in Tucson's Old Pascua Yaqui neighborhood—to rescuing the circa 1951 screen from the Cactus Drive-in, the foundation has been fighting the good fight for more than 20 years.

It has campaigned to save the historic Mountain View Officer's Club, an African-American social site at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista. Foundation members have spent years trying to protect downtown's two-story adobe Marist College. Members have spearheaded a book about early Tucson architect Josias Joesler, and another about midcentury Tucson architect Tom Gist.

In November, the foundation hosted Tucson Modernism Week, highlighting distinctive, mid-20th-century architecture that could face demolition because of a proposed widening of Broadway Boulevard.

But just as history is a work in progress, preservation of the past is never finished. The fate of Broadway's modernistic flourishes resides in the halls of bureaucracy. And any future for the Marist College lies in the mercurial hands of its owner, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.

The foundation is also working closely with city officials and property owners to streamline Tucson's prohibitively cumbersome historic landmark ordinance. "As a result of the current process, which is pricey and onerous, there are only five city landmarks in Tucson," says foundation president Demion Clinco. "And the last one—the El Con water tower—was created 20 years ago."

As Clinco sees it, a revamped ordinance could extend protection to countless properties around town and keep a bit more of our collective past alive.

While most of these achievements are relatively recent, or slated for the immediate future, they belie one cardinal rule: Preservation is all about the long game. That's why folks with the foundation just keep plugging along, sign by sign, building by building, ordinance by ordinance.

Admittedly, that determined pace can give way to a fast trot. "This has been a very busy year for us," Clinco says, ticking off the $100,000 sign-restoration project, the Marist, the landmark ordinance change and a half-dozen other projects now in the works.

In terms of immediacy, completing the vintage-sign project was a big boost, he says. "They are a fragile resource. Unlike a building that takes quite a while to tear down—up to two weeks, during which people tend to notice—a sign can be gone in two hours. It just sort of vanishes from our collective memory. But I think there's a value to these signs, in terms of how the community responds to them and loves them and photographs them."

The same goes for all history that falls prey to our future. But from Clinco's perspective, the two are inextricably linked. "For me, it's really about the future of our city," he says.

"When we're competing to attract businesses to our city and we're trying to retain a creative class here ... if we don't preserve and protect the places that make Tucson unique and special—if we don't preserve these places that have a unique sense of Tucson—then we as a community will lose a competitive edge."

Now that's a thought worth saving. — Tim Vanderpool

Engel Indo

He's a musician with an immense sense of community

Engel Indo sits in his office at the newly-opened Kino Veterans' Workforce Center, holding a Harley-Davidson coffee mug in one hand while answering nonstop phone calls from people who desperately need his help.

One caller asks if Indo can get a free pair of prescription glasses for a 90-something veteran who has lost his; another asks Indo to help raise money for a veteran's funeral; and another wants to know if Indo had an extra TV at home that he could donate to an impoverished veteran who wants to start watching the news again.

In the span of an hour, Indo has figured out how to help all of them. That's how his days go since he became a volunteer for AmeriCorps VISTA a couple of months ago.

Indo is the veteran peer navigator at Rally Point Tucson, a new program that acts as a middle-man between veterans and the world. The program has been active since September, after VISTA helped get a grant to fund it. Since then, thanks to volunteers like Indo, RPT has reached out to more than 70 veterans and their families.

"A lot of these veterans are going through a very hard time emotionally and economically, so I try to help them in any way that I can," Indo says. "I help them find a job, find scholarships to pay for school, and any other type of resources they need."

Indo was discharged from the military in 2008. As a veteran himself, he knew it was important to give back to that community. A friend approached him about the project and, although it was a full-time unpaid position, Indo immediately became involved. However, RPT isn't Indo's first experience with community work.

Many people know Indo through the Latin rock band A Son y Sol. But his aspirations have always gone beyond performing. In the past couple of years, Indo has created various projects that benefit Tucson and communities south of the border, all the way to his hometown of Callao, Peru.

In 2010, Indo created De La Perla a Las Estrellas (From La Perla to the Stars), a program that used music to teach English to children growing up in Callao's La Perla district. It's one of the poorest districts in Peru, and where Indo grew up.

Earlier this year, Indo started Identificame/Identify Me, an organization that helps identify the remains of migrants who have died in the Sonoran desert and informs their families.

And a couple of months ago, Indo founded Indo Cottons, a clothing company that uses Peruvian textiles. All proceeds from the sales go right back to Peru to help poor families pay for things such as medical bills and utilities, or to help them start a small business.

However, Indo has had to put From La Perla to the Stars and Identify Me on hold because there's not enough money to fund them.

"Everything I do is out of my own pocket," Indo says. "So, unfortunately, that is also one of the things that holds me back from doing more: not having enough money. But as long as I have the will to help, and I keep trying, something good will come out of it."

Indo remembers that at age 14, he was already involved in helping his community. Growing up surrounded by poverty made him realize how important it is to create a sense of support in the community we live in.

"If you don't have a sense of community, then why the hell do you live in one?" Indo says. "It is hard for one person alone to get through hard situations. It is important to know that you can turn to your neighbor for help. It's very easy to help." — Inés Taracena

Caroline Isaacs

An "overdeveloped sense of justice" informs her work fighting private prisons

Caroline Isaacs is a great example of a consummate Tucson hero. By night, she performs with the popular Tucson folk-group Silver Thread Trio. So the fact that she plays a mean washboard while she sings is by Tucson standards terribly cool.

What makes her a full-fledged hero, however, is her day job as director of the American Friends Service Committee's Tucson office. Isaacs is taking on the private-prison system, working hard to end our state government's love affair with a business that profits from incarcerating criminals and undocumented immigrants.

Isaacs, who grew up in Philadelphia, says her mother always told her she had an "overdeveloped sense of justice." It's what motivated her to come to Tucson after college for a one-year paid internship with BorderLinks.

After her BorderLinks stint, she stayed in Tucson and interned with AFSC. Back then, the organization worked on everything from border issues to ending the death penalty. There was also a program called Alternatives to Violence, which provided conflict resolution workshops in prisons and the community.

"'Hey, intern, go do an AVP workshop,'" Isaacs recalled being told one day. "So, I walked in the federal men's prison, medium security on Wilmot (Road), fearing for my life, thinking, 'I am this young woman, going to the prison for a weekend.' I was scared.'"

It turned out to be life-changing instead of life-threatening. She met people she described as "some of the coolest, funniest and most interesting people—the prisoners."

A couple of the prisoners she met there educated her about "the prison industrial complex," and she realized that everything she felt was wrong in the country, everything she wanted to fix, intersected with the prison system—racism and economic and social injustice.

"Felons are the most discriminated against," she says, "and they are also often people of color and poor people."

Isaacs became the AFSC's Tucson office program coordinator in 2001 and was promoted to director in 2004. The office's focus on prison reform includes fighting laws that benefit that industry, such as SB 1070, which has boosted the number of immigrants in detention.

"We have three different campaigns or areas of work: sentencing reform, reducing the prison population, and the private prison industry," Isaacs says. "But really they are entwined. ... If you're just fighting with one, the other is going to bite you. You have to take on the laws, too," Isaacs says.

In February, the AFSC's Tucson office issued a report written by Isaacs that gets to the heart of her work—exposing the unethical connections between state government and private prison corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America. Although Arizona's prisoner population is on the decline, the state continues to expand its prison system through private-prison contracts.

One of the challenges of collecting information on the private prison system is the lack of transparency. Unlike state- or federal-run prisons, private prisons don't have to respond to public-information requests. Isaacs' report was based on months of research that allowed her to tell a story about an industry full of abuses and safety issues.

To get the information used in the report, the AFSC had to sue to force the Arizona Department of Corrections to comply with a law that requires it to review private prisons.

"Certainly in Arizona, the state Legislature is enamored with private prisons. They are also used for immigration detention. Because of SB 1070, we are at ground zero for that," Isaacs says.

The report has put the AFSC's Tucson office and Isaacs on the map as an authority on the private-prison industry, which is growing across the country and internationally. Isaacs was invited to New Hampshire recently to speak about private prisons, and she gets calls from reporters in other countries seeking information about the industry.

"This is what's so crazy. You have these government entities that aren't paying attention to the industry at all and are just handing out the money without doing any studies," Isaacs says.

Much work remains to be done in Arizona, Isaacs says. "We can put a Band-Aid on it, but if we want to fix it, we have to go to the source, which in Arizona is our crazy Legislature." — Mari Herreras

Robin Landers

She has brought dignity to a senior community for 20 years

A Christmas tree sparkles in one corner of downtown's Armory Park Senior Center as Robin Landers hustles past with an armload of files, cell phone pasted to her ear. I follow, finding myself in an office that overflows with more files, books, stuffed toys and photographs.

You might call it ground zero. From this unpretentious room flows Landers' passionate, 20-year crusade to better the lives of Armory Park's very lucky seniors.

But hers is also a mobile mission extending to any hub, such as this, that brings people together rather than prying them apart. After all, she learned her chops at the Northwest Neighborhood Center, where in 1988, the surrounding, largely African-American enclave was hardly thrilled at having a white 26-year-old running their hard-won outpost. That acrimony almost landed her in court, before Landers began unearthing her own stubborn preconceptions.

This journey was spurred by Baiza Muhammad, a former Tucson community activist who taught Landers that racism can just as easily emerge from context—one black neighborhood in a dominant white society—as from personal predilections.

"That started me on a journey I never expected," Landers says. "I really took it to heart." She turned Muhammad's message inward and dropped her own defenses. Soon, folks who bristled around her did the same.

The result was remarkable: Before leaving the Northwest Center in 1993, Landers had earned the Tucson Human Relations Commission's coveted Make a Difference award, and had learned profound lessons about dignity and community and the process of simply listening.

Those lessons quickly found a new home at the Armory Park center. Built alongside senior apartments, it had become family for those who had none. Landers set about nourishing that sense with a packed agenda of events, a popular meal program and the rich texture of camaraderie. Two decades later, she remains part social worker and part mother hen, and her spirit imbues this place. Today, Christmas music wafts past the pool tables where older men hover, brows furrowed in competitive concentration. It flows through the computer lab and the fitness center, and fills a broad lobby populated by deep couches and a bubbling aquarium.

And some 20 years after coming to Armory, Landers still listens closely to that inner voice. Its message is particularly salient now, as her seniors undergo a trying transition to new quarters in the recently built Sentinel Plaza apartments, some 2 miles away. In fact, she was key to smoothing the logistics of their move, arranging for a small army of volunteers who helped pack decades of memories into big cardboard boxes.

Not surprisingly, Landers is a beloved character. As we sit at her desk, a staffer brings in a huge teddy bear. It's a gift from one of the center's daily patrons. "You can see I have plenty of room for it," she jokes, motioning me to a chair.

According to Landers, the secret of her work inhabits that steep learning curve between how she started at Northwest and how she left. "That's where I spend my life," she says. "I came to understand that I was truly just a steward of that facility, and I had a responsibility to that community.

"That first year was probably the toughest year of my life. The rest was the biggest blessing of my life, and I've met so many of the most amazing people."

And the lesson lives on. "We are in a unique position to make a difference in people's lives every single day," Landers says. "When somebody walks in that door, my staff knows their names. That's a big deal, because first and foremost, they get that sense of belonging." — Tim Vanderpool

Patsy Lee

Turning the walls of the Chinese Cultural Center into a history lesson

When the Pesqueira brothers retired and closed the El Grande Tortilla Factory, it marked the end of an era. The tortilleria was the last westside reminder of the 150 or so barrio-based Chinese markets that were its best customers. Those markets had shuttered decades ago as customers flocked to new supermarkets. Their owners' descendants pursued other fields, and their history dissipated with them.

Longtime high-school volleyball coach Patsy Lee has worked to recapture that era's unique sense of community and share it with future generations so they may learn their history—and also life lessons—from that now-invisible past.

Lee grew up at her dad's grocery in Barrio Hollywood. The Pesqueiras' mom was among her mother's best friends. Under their tutelage, Mrs. Lee learned to speak both Spanish and English. Relationships like that played out for generations throughout the barrios.

"We had a language barrier; they had a language barrier," Lee says. "They also had a financial problem: They couldn't walk into the bank and say, 'Can I get a loan for $200?' The banker would look at them all crazy." But Chinese grocers gave them credit. "They could buy a whole week's worth of groceries, and sign their name, and come back on a Friday with their paycheck."

As a longtime supporter and board member of the Chinese Cultural Center, and an educator for 38 years, Lee undertook an effort to make the structure's walls a teaching tool. She put up a storyboard about her family's history. At first, Lee says, "I could only talk about how I grew up, what my family did. But all my friends my age grew up the same way and brought their stories and old family photos." Lee soon had storyboards for nearly all the stores in her parents' generation. When she engaged a group of seniors for whom she hosts lunch at the center every Thursday, she really hit pay dirt. "Everybody got excited, so the stories on the boards started getting a little older. Some of my seniors grew up in Tucson in the 1910s and 20s!"

Storyboards already lined two walls of the center when Lee asked the Pesqueiras—and other barrio residents past and present—to help find photos and addresses of long-lost groceries. "We involved the Latino community," Lee says, "because they're the ones who helped us achieve our financial success." That project led to recording oral histories from the era, and last September, Lee took the show on the road. "We had a rolling history party," she says. "We rented a bus and went to Barrio Hollywood, Barrio Anita and Barrio Viejo. We ended up with a party, and the mariachi kids did a Lion Dance with us."

Lee waxes nostalgic for the sense of community she enjoyed while growing up. "I thought I was Mexican," she says. "I didn't know I was Chinese."

She hopes her work provides a model for how future generations of Americans might erase the ethnic divide. — Linda Ray

Sally Stevens

Her innovative thinking is changing science education and drug treatment for women

With the guidance of executive director Sally Stevens, the Southwest Institute for Research on Women brings in millions of dollars in grants every year.

For instance, a $1.6 million grant jump-started a three-year substance-abuse-treatment program for working moms last January.

In May, the National Science Foundation gave SIROW almost $1.2 million to establish i-STEM. The science-education and mentoring program targets students in two Tucson Unified School District schools near the Pascua Yaqui reservation.

Stevens is the senior project adviser for the first program and directs the second—but she's also working on programs that reach out to LGBT youth and investigate the juvenile-court system.

"Her work ethic is simply unmatched," said SIROW research professor Rosi Andrade. "She's the hardest working woman I know."

But Stevens is quick to emphasize the work of her colleagues and the institution.

"It really takes a village, if you will," Stevens said. "We have a great team of writers and a variety of personnel at SIROW that is incredibly talented."

The University of Arizona institute was founded in 1979 to research issues that affect women and children. Federal grants give SIROW the luxury of conducting research that measures the impact of their programs in the long-term, Stevens said.

Stevens joined SIROW in 1995 as a research professor and became executive director in 2004. Her involvement in women's health issues is almost as extensive as her career in psychology.

After graduating from the UA with a doctorate in educational psychology in 1987, Stevens worked for nonprofits.

At the time, many drug treatment programs were one-size-fits-all.

"Women are not just little men," Stevens said. "We really need to be treated differently, looked at differently and perhaps have different interventions."

In the world of psychology, intervention is a term that can be used to describe various programs, from drug treatment to educational outreach.

In most places, women who sought substance abuse treatment were often separated from their children.

"You could see the look of depression or of anxiety around not having their kids," Stevens said. One of her first major projects investigated how women fared in treatment when they brought their kids with them.

The result? Women and—surprisingly—men improved more than those treated while separated from their families.

"That really inspired me to look at other groups, to look at other interventions and really think outside the box in terms of what people really need," Stevens said.

More often than not, the analysis of one project will lead to a new issue. After reviewing data from adult women in the late 1990s, researchers at SIROW realized that many of their substance abuse, self-esteem and mental-health problems began between the ages of 13 and 15.

"Maybe if we began our work earlier, with groups of people who are younger, we can make a bigger difference," Stevens recalls thinking. The period marked a shift in her career, as SIROW began to invest more time in youth-centered projects. Shortly after this epiphany, it applied for and received federal grants to expand existing programs to reach adolescents.

Stevens talks about SIROW's acronym-titled programs like they're her children.

"There are so many projects and they're all very different and have their own personalities," Stevens said.

I-Stem, which just received the NSF grant, is in its "terrible twos," Stevens joked. She's in the midst of recruiting mentors, planning curriculum and coordinating field trips. But the process is cyclical: As the project matures, she'll analyze results and eventually begin writing the next grant.

"That's what my love of life is all about," Stevens said. "It's really thinking creatively and innovatively about partnerships and interventions." — Mariana Dale

Haile Thomas

This St. Gregory sixth-grader is an advocate for healthy food

Haile Thomas proves that age doesn't matter when it comes to making a difference.

On a sunny Saturday morning, sixth-grader Haile Thomas is doling out fresh greens during the Tucson Village Farm's Harvest Festival. Tomorrow, she'll run in a 5k and give a presentation for a local health-related kids group.

Typical 21st-century preteen? Probably not, but Haile is on a mission to give a voice to her generation about the benefits of healthy eating and ending childhood obesity. She believes kids have good ideas and that they should be heard.

Haile's mission started when she was "about 5 years old," she says. She wanted to learn how to cook, and her mom, Charmaine, encouraged her. As she became more accomplished, she wanted to know more about the food she ate.

And she wanted to make a difference.

"I guess I give myself the title of health advocate for kids," she says.

Being a child of the digital age, she took videos of her cooking and then launched an online cooking show with her sister Nia called Kids Can Cook.

Haile wanted to reach a larger audience. She discovered the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and its youth-advisory board. She began serving on the board in 2012.

Then she heard about the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a recipe contest for kids sponsored by Epicurious, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Education and first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative. She entered her recipe for quinoa, black bean and corn salad and was floored when she won the right to represent Arizona in the challenge. The contest culminated in the Kid's State Dinner at the White House. Her recipe was one of six on the menu. She met both Michelle Obama and the president when he "crashed" the lunch.

Because of her work on the board, Haile was invited to give a speech at the Partnership for a Healthier America in Washington, D.C., last November. PHA describes itself as an "independent, nonpartisan organization" dedicated to bringing together the private and public sectors to fight the obesity epidemic. Its honorary chairwoman is the first lady. Haile told the audience of more than 700 people: "Kids have an important voice. We have great ideas. We can help adults make a positive change in our world." She brought the crowd to its feet.

She got to cook with Tom Colicchio, which she says was "a dream come true."

She also met White House assistant chef Sam Kass, who invited her to the White House. There she met Michelle Obama for a second time. (Haile was also one of the kids who greeted the first lady when she visited Tucson last April.)

Of Michelle Obama, Haile says, "She likes to give a lot of hugs, but she also tries to motivate kids to have a part in the community and to attack this childhood-obesity problem. She's really active in the community, and I think she's a great role model for everyone, even adults."

The speech also brought her to the attention of Hyatt Hotels, a PHA partner.

"After giving that speech, a few months later, I got contacted by Hyatt to partner together to make a new menu for kids, "For Kid, By Kids. It's a fun, fresh and flavorful kids menu." Haile helped develop the menu, a process that allowed her to meet Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, another of her role models.

She has a second website called, 'The Healthy Girls Adventures Club.'

"Basically, we motivate and inspire each other to get healthy. And its girls from all over just sharing their healthy adventures and all their experiences, their recipes, things like that."

She also started the Healthy Kids Club at her school, St Gregory's Preparatory School. Club members promote healthy lifestyle choices through school and community projects. They're also working on changing the food choices at St. Gregory's.

One requirement of the youth-advisory board for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation is to carry out a service project on Global Youth Service Day.

Haile's project is called H.E.A.L (Healthy Eating, Active Lifestyle) Festival. Last year, she partnered with the Pivorotto Health and Wellness Center at the UA Medical Center and the Grow 2B Fit Foundation, a local health-awareness organization. She was able to obtain several grants and the support of a group of sponsors. Held at the medical center, the event included booths packed with nutritional information, cooking demonstrations from local restaurants and physical fitness activities.

Haile is already hard at work organizing next year's H.E.A.L. Festival and aims to make it bigger and better. — Rita Connelly

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