Local Heroes

Seven groups and individuals who strive to make Tucson a better place

BICAS' Mario Lizarazu with kids in the ongoing "Weed and Seed" program.


This organization's goal: Use bicycles and bike repair to make Tucson a cleaner, healthier place

When it comes to highlighting a single hero within the BICAS organization, it's a nut that won't crack--an impenetrable shield of good-natured unity.

"We run as a collective," says administrator Ignacio Rivera de Rosales. "No decision is made without a consensus."

Using bicycles donated by the community, BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage) teaches homeless people, low-income children and whoever else cares to learn how to build, repair and maintain bicycles--bicycles that participants keep once the workshop is completed.

"The way that we're different from other organizations is that we're not a charity," says Rosales. "We're here to teach people, to empower them, to help them attain knowledge and skills that they can use to change their lives and help Tucson become a cleaner, healthier, safer place. We're definitely into the empowering stage of social change--we don't want to give away handouts; we want to teach the value and merit of work and earning something."

Since its inception, BICAS has helped "easily thousands of people," says Rosales. "I would say we've gotten thousands of bikes out there. ... In the first year I was here, from September 2003 to September 2004, we got more than 600 bikes out on the road."

When asked how people who get involved with BICAS programs are changed by the experience, Rosales takes a deep breath.

"I mean ... we've had high school kids who come down here just looking to fulfill their 20 hours of community service for graduation or whatever, who end up being community partners who come down every day and work five, six hours after school. Kids from the richest school in town come down here and are working side-by-side next to homeless people; it's a whole strata of community members looking at each other face to face.

"And you should see the pride in people's faces when they walk out with their new bikes," Rosales continues. "It's just awesome. You can see that the accomplishment definitely makes them feel better about themselves."

In addition to regular workshops, BICAS also has "really cool programs running through different grants." One of them, Rosales explains, is a "Weed and Seed" grant through the Tucson Police Department that allows BICAS to work with inner-city kids from Tucson's westside. Every Saturday, these children--more than 40, so far--participate in classes in which they learn bike mechanics, safety and repair. At the end of six weeks, they have a finished bike they can take home.

Through CONAHEC--the Consortium of North American Higher Education Collaboration--BICAS is also partnering with a technical college in Nogales, Sonora, teaching students bicycle mechanics and repair "with the goal that they will then take the theories and ideas they've learned and use them to create other products using bicycle parts," Rosales explains. "We're essentially trying to help them create some sort of micro enterprise that can continue to help fund their school and projects."

BICAS works thanks to the efforts of a whole group of heroes, whose titles represent only a fraction of what they actually do--among them, mechanics Troy Neiman, Mario Lizarazu and Jeff Collins; community class teacher George Fritz; art and metal works coordinator Kenneth Armstrong; Dawn Villareal, who--according to Rosales--"does everything"; volunteer Simon Kowara; and, clearly, Rosales himself.

Tucsonans can help BICAS' effort by donating old bicycles (monetary donations are accepted, too, of course) and their time--volunteers are always needed to help organize the workspace and strip bikes that have been donated. Artists, too, are welcome at BICAS--"We've got a huge basement of a warehouse that needs artistic decoration," says Rosales.

Plenty of holiday gifts are still available--recycled books, bags, purses and more, all made out of bike parts--and keep an eye out for "Bike-In Movies," screened on BICAS' warehouse wall the last Saturday of every month (except December).

BICAS is located at 44 W. Sixth St. (628-7950); they're open from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, and online at http://www.consensus.net/bicas.html.

--Laurel Allen

Maiola Coleman

"It is the size of her heart and her willingness to share and care with all her heart"

Maiola Coleman sees her life as a gift. She is not about to permit fibromyalgia or diabetes, inept politicians or intransigent bureaucrats, or even a timid physician to get in the way of her many tasks--most of which revolve around giving.

When she was leveled by illness and wracked with pain, doctors didn't expect her to bounce back. She proved them wrong.

"I told them, 'You know, that means God has more for me to do,'" Coleman says, from her desk at the headquarters of the Desert Waste Not Warehouse. "God has blessed me."

Eight years ago, Coleman was so run down that she was forced to stay in her home for five months. It didn't suit her.

"I can't live like that," she says. "I'd rather be out with the pain than stuck at home. God has blessed me."

Get used that last line. Coleman uses it frequently to describe her life, her job, her charity, her daughter and her sons--the youngest of whom is studying at Howard University.

On a particularly busy day, organizing the placement of recycled and refurbished computers for schools that serve low-income families, in a busy week that will include wrapping hundreds of Christmas gifts for children who otherwise would receive none, Coleman says simply, "God has blessed me."

Maiola Coleman grew up on Tucson's southside. Her father and mother were influences and taught her the importance of religion and faith. Her mother, Tommie Thomas, was legendary for her work in the church and in the community for civil rights, equal opportunity and good old grass-roots activism. She knew how to knock on doors and also how to knock down government and establishment barriers. Maiola learned well.

From Wakefield Junior High, she went to Pueblo High School. During the break between eighth grade and her freshman year, Coleman was picked for a leadership training program conducted by legends in Tucson education: Maria Urquides, Florence Reynolds, Etta Mae Dawson and Elgie Batteau.

Coleman, who later was among the Pueblo students transferred to the new Cholla High School, credits those educators and that program as being the most influential in her life.

These days, Coleman orchestrates giving from the Desert Waste Not Warehouse. The nonprofit annually adopts nine schools throughout Tucson that are chosen by the high levels of free and reduced lunch recipients. Waste Not Warehouse provides computers for those schools.

Caring, sharing, advocating, even agitating were all things that may have been discounted by many in Coleman's generation.

"We were all busy working and trying to make money and take care of our own families," Coleman says. "But it is coming back. People are giving back. We may not have passed it on as well as we could, but I think it is being restored."

Much of Coleman's work is with friends and fellow parishioners of the vibrant Grace Temple Baptist Church in the South Park neighborhood. Much of her work is advocating for children and their parents with schools and school bureaucracies. And much is never seen.

"With Maiola, it is the size of her heart and her willingness to share and care with all her heart," said Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez, a Democrat who has known Coleman since he was a teenager. "She is a never-ending advocate. She does it all. She not only talks and advocates, but personally delivers. She is involved at every level personally."

U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, the Phoenix Democrat who represented parts of Tucson for a dozen years, honored Coleman in the House of Representatives in April 2002. Pastor called her "an agent of change."

"Maiola is able to engage multiple resources, because she is a bridge builder who is constantly linking people and organizations to maximize their effectiveness," Pastor noted. "She has a wide range of personal contacts and friends who respect her work from the heart and who trust her community spirit to work for the greatest good for all."

Coleman, the Arizona president for the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc., the 108-year-old organization created through mergers of African-American women's associations, is gracious when recognized.

"God," she says, "has blessed me."

--Chris Limberis

Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter

Home to 500 cats, Hermitage's goal is to save as many felines from euthanasia as possible

Artie has snagged my pen. Sure, it's just a cheap blue Bic, and Artie is only a color-splotched cat. But from a reporter's perspective, this is a practical matter.

Regardless, the year-old tabby now guards his new toy from 500 highly interested fellow residents of The Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter. "Sorry about that," says shelter Director Lori Poppa. "Artie's frisky in the morning."

He's also in good company in this sprawling feline Xanadu, a midtown refuge where cats get due respect, and the Grim Pet Reaper is kept at bay. Here, you'll find the rambunctious and the infirm, wildly hopping kittens and grumpy, whiskered geezers. "But even cats who can't get around are pretty happy," says Poppa. "They don't know they're messed up."

In fact, any cat landing at The Hermitage has already cashed in several good-Karma chips. Each day, a rotating cadre of 70 devoted volunteers descends upon this teeming shelter to clean the poop of incontinent seniors, change infinite litter boxes, help crippled cats get along and entertain rowdy youngsters.

All creatures deserve dignity, Poppa explains, as she chases Artie around the "Adoption Room," a breezy, screened porch where cats lounge on shelves or frolic in corners. "Animals are treated as disposable objects, and cats more so, because there are so many of them," she says. "Cats also get a bad rap. It's been a real love-hate relationship with people--in ancient Egypt, they were worshipped as gods, and then during Europe's witchcraft scare, they were the devil incarnate, and people were killing them."

But here, they just enjoy life as they have since 1967, when a Russian Orthodox Nun named Sister Seraphim started an informal shelter. The Hermitage now continues her legacy as a refuge, and also finds new homes for up to 350 cats a year.

But other guests are long-termers. "We're unique (for Tucson) in that we have a sanctuary for un-adoptable cats," Poppa says. "For about half of our population, this is going to be their permanent home. These are cats with health or behavioral problems that would keep them from making good pets. In shelters that don't have a no-kill philosophy, they're cats that would automatically just be slated for euthanasia."

Still, Poppa calls euthanasia "a necessary evil right now, because people in general have just been irresponsible" about spaying and neutering pets. "Here in town, the Humane Society takes in about 15,000 animals a year, and we turn away 2,500."

Most disturbing, she says, is that only 20 percent of pets are adopted from shelters. "The vast majority of people are still getting their pets from pet stores or backyard breeders, and that's a shame, because that's just encouraging overpopulation."

The problem is hardly unique to Tucson. Each year, between 8 million and 12 million animals across the nation enter shelter doors, and up to 5 million are euthanized.

On the bright side, there are now an estimated 3,000 no-kill shelters such as The Hermitage in the United States. And they're all addressing a basic obligation, says Poppa. "Regardless of your philosophical or religious opinions about animals as compared to people, I think we do have a responsibility to treat animals humanely and take care of them."

The Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter is located at 5278 E. 21st St. and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for Christmas, New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Easter. For information on adoptions, donations or volunteering, call 571-7839 or visit www.hermitagecats.org .

--Tim Vanderpool

Katherine Josten

The Global Art Project promotes peace through exchanging works of art around the world

Katherine Josten's hero status expands far beyond the reaches of Tucson. As founder and director of the Global Art Project--a nonprofit whose mission is to spread world peace by promoting tolerance and nonviolence through art--Josten has communicated with artists and community members around the globe. The project strives to express the idea that "we are all one" by connecting people who choose to create and share a vision of global unity.

Josten is an artist herself, with a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Atlantic College of Art, and a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin. She began work on the project in 1993, after spending 12 years working on a large installation of artwork called The Origins.

"The Origins is an installation that involves poetry, painting and sculpture that works together as a whole. ... The Global Art Project is a natural progression of my own artwork. I have my studio art, and my public art," says Josten.

But right now, the Global Art Project takes priority. While vast in its application, the idea behind the nonprofit is simple: Participants create a work of art, in any medium, expressing their vision of global unity, and exchange it with individuals and groups around the world.

"Anyone throughout the world who wants to participate sends in their name and address, and we match them with a participant in another part of the world. In March (biennially), each participant creates a work of art. In April, they share their artwork with their community. Then (from April 23-30), each participant exchanges their art with the person or group they were matched with so that simultaneously around the world, all of these visions of global unity are encircling the Earth," says Josten.

In the last exchange, in April 2004, there were 16,000 participants. Since its inception in 1993, 67,000 participants from seven continents have participated.

Although the public cannot see the vast amount of artwork created in one location, Josten wants "to have a big touring exhibition so people can see this inspiring stuff."

She points to a painting created by a 15-year-old Romanian girl named Andra. A multi-colored face is displayed with the words, "The colour of our skin is different, but we all see the same world united through peace!" Andra also writes that the Global Art Project is the most wonderful thing she's ever been involved in. It's this type of correspondence that keeps Josten going, month after month, year after year.

When asked how many hours a week she works, Josten laughs, and says, "How many hours are in a week? ... I work constantly. Basically, my work is my life." Since the project's headquarters doubles as her home, "Obviously, there is no separation."

Her small midtown home is jammed with photos, slides, every envelope sent to the project, books of letters, news clippings, art and more. Also stored there are thousands of paper hands created by people around the world, each with their wish for global peace, name and country attached. There hands represent a second element of the project, called "Let's All Join Hands."

Josten lives modestly, almost cramped between the project's vast records. She keeps the nonprofit alive with her dedication, monetary support from registration fees and only two major donors.

But Josten has bigger dreams. Besides an exhibition of the creations from the project, she would love to see a center with artist studios and gallery. Josten admits she has a lot of work ahead of her; with thousands of participants, the project has grown to the point where a permanent space and full-time staff are needed. Josten is seeking people who would like the opportunity to help fund the project and to join in fund-raising activities. But until those people arrive, she strives forward.

"The project has taken on a life of its own. How can I not continue to do this? It's too wonderful. ... We have the power to create whatever we choose. Let's create our future in the way we want it to be. ... So let's create peace."

For more information, visit www.global-art.org.

--Irene Messina

Maria Ochoa

After working at her full-time job, she spends her free time trying to save the lives of ailing migrants

Maria Ochoa grew up bilingual in the border town of Brownsville, speaking the Spanish of South Texas. But in the last couple of years, she's heard regional variants of Spanish as it's spoken all over Mexico and Central America.

"I'm used to the different accents and words," the Tucson resident says. "People in different parts of Mexico will call one thing by five names. And there's a really different accent in Guatemala."

But Ochoa hasn't been traveling--at least, not far. As a volunteer for Samaritans and Humane Borders, she's been ministering to the desperate border crossers who flood Southern Arizona every year in hopes of earning a living in the United States.

"Most of the people we see are from Mexico, and mostly from the southern part," she says. The southerners hail from such states as Chiapas, where NAFTA dumps cheap corn from Iowa and undercuts the livelihood of local peasants. "People from Sonora have a better chance; they know the area better."

What she means is the chance to survive. This past fiscal year, 141 migrants died in Southern Arizona deserts, losing their lives to exposure, dehydration and car accidents.

"I do it to help people stay alive," says Ochoa. "I know the (negative) feelings that people here have about migrants. It's very unfair to judge if you don't know their situation. ... They're coming here because of the conditions at home. They have no means to support their families."

Ochoa agrees that there are no easy answers. The huge numbers of migrants crossing public lands and private ranches is "bad for the people who live along the border. It's bad for the economy. And it's bad for the migrants. It's not something that's going to get solved overnight. The governments have to get together."

In the meantime, Ochoa does what she can to save lives. It's not that her own life isn't already busy. She works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week, as an employment counselor for the state, trying to help the jobless get jobs. But three years ago, she signed on as a weekend volunteer with Humane Borders, a church-based group that maintains water stations in the desert.

Set up in insulated containers in shady locations, and marked by big blue flags overhead, the water stations are intended to keep migrants from dying of thirst. Ochoa and the other Humane Borders volunteers roam to locations as far-flung as Silverbell mine northeast of Tucson, and to Arivaca and the Buenos Aires National Refuge, to the south and west.

"We go to check the water stations and pick up trash," she says. "We do cleanups once a month. We invite churches and student groups to help us. Sometimes, the ranchers invite us in to clean up." Lately she says, they've been finding many baby items--diapers, a Snugli chest carrier for an infant, even a stroller.

One or two weekend days a month, Ochoa rides out on patrol with the Samaritans, a separate group that tries to find migrants in trouble and offer them food and water. The Samaritans begin their days early, at 5 a.m. in summer and at 6:30 a.m. in winter, and put in a full day driving the roads and walking the migrant trails.

"The people who let themselves be seen want help," says Ochoa, who works as the team's Spanish speaker. "What we've seen are people with exhaustion and heat stroke, people who have gotten lost and separated from their group. I have seen minors separated from the group, and families separated from the group."

If the migrants are in desperate medical straits, the Samaritans call the Border Patrol, whose agents include EMTs trained to handle emergencies.

More than half of those they meet, discouraged by the rigors of the long trip, are ready to give up and go home, Ochoa says. For these people, too, they call the Border Patrol.

Ochoa dismisses the criticism sometimes voiced, that the help her organizations provide in the hostile desert somehow encourages people to come. That contention belies the perilous economic conditions the migrants face at home.

"People are crossing anyway," she says. "I've never found anyone who said, 'I knew it was dangerous, but I knew I could get help.'

"It's a really good feeling when we hear a good ending--when a person is re-united with their family."

--Margaret Regan

Barbara Seyda

The Art Room brings art into the lives of children in shelters

It was the week before Christmas, and instead of being snug in their own beds, visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, these six kids were at an emergency homeless shelter.

Ages 3 to 10, the children had landed at a northside shelter for "newly homeless families" run by New Beginnings for Women and Children. They and their moms had fled any number of crises, "physical, social or sexual violence, or terminal illness," said local photographer Barbara Seyda. "They're going through incredible challenges. They've maybe lived in 15 different places in the last few months. Maybe they've slept on the couch at Grandma's, or went to the mother's boyfriend's house or stayed in a parking lot. Lots of them are caught in the undertow of their parents' lives."

Five years ago, Seyda founded a nonprofit called The Art Room, a program that gives the kids a two-hour art respite from their troubles once a week. On this particular Tuesday night, the shelter kids were making Christmas cards in a slump-block room gaily decorated with posters of paintings. The young artists could choose the color of construction paper they wanted to use, decide which Christmas stamp to print--anything from a Christmas tree to an angel to a reindeer--and they could elect to use whatever wild color they wanted to paint the stamp. Thus, 4-year-old Sebrina made a lavender tree, and 3-year-old Julio, with lots of persuading, made his red.

For two hours, they controlled their universe, even if that universe was only an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of colored paper. And for two hours, they basked in the individual attention lavished by the six adult staff members and volunteers.

Nine-year-old Mariah cheerfully reminisced about last Christmas, telling staff member Jessica Zaslav how her dad brought home a truckload of snow along with the tree. The cards she's working on this year, though, are going not to Dad, but to her aunt and uncle and grandpa. Zaslav didn't ask why; instead, she let Mariah lead the conversation, and carefully listened and responded to everything the little girl had to say.

"We bring in the materials and visiting artists, but it's really about being present for each child," Seyda said. "We see a violation of their spirit. Every kid comes into this world with gifts, but no one says to these kids, 'You're amazing. You can do anything you want.' We nourish the creative spirit of the child."

Seyda got the idea for the nonprofit about five years ago, when she was working on a book about Tucson's homeless (Nomads of a Desert City, UA Press, 2001).

"My eyes were opened to the number of homeless children," she says. What's more, she found that most shelter programs concentrated on the very real needs of their mothers. Not much was offered for the traumatized kids.

Grant funding got her going. Right now, she operates The Art Room at three separate sites: at this northside shelter; at Casa Amparo, another temporary haven on the southside; and at the longer-term La Promesa, which provides transitional apartments. Over the years, she estimates that 1,200 to 1,500 kids have taken at least one of the art classes. Last fall, some of the young artists even had a professionally mounted art show at the Temple Gallery, sponsored by Etherton.

Despite the successes--and kids like 10-year-old Alex, who on this evening cheerfully declared, "I'm going to be an artist, like Van Gogh or Picasso. I'm going to paint beaches and landscapes"--The Art Room will shut down at the end of this month.

"We've struggled all along," Seyda said, "from a lack of funding, from a lack of community support."

She's in negotiations with a national program called DrawBridge in San Francisco, in hopes that The Art Room will come back to life in a somewhat different form. Meanwhile, she and her staff intend to keep volunteering with the kids.

"These kids are the local heroes, not us," said Seyda. "Print a picture of their art. They've been my source of inspiration. They're my mentors."

--Margaret Regan

Nancy Young Wright

When she saw parks, schools and open space being disregarded, she got involved

Here's the story of how Nancy Young Wright got to be a hell-raisin' hero in these parts:

Way back in the late '80s, when her kids were still teeny tots, Wright was dismayed to discover that the Oro Valley parks didn't offer much in the way of swing sets and sandboxes.

Wright, who had recently moved here from her native New Mexico, called the county to find out why bond funds hadn't paid for promised fix-up, only to be told the money had been spent elsewhere.

"That sort of pissed me off," she says with a laugh, before softening her rhetoric. "Made me angry. That's probably a better word."

So she went looking for money--and, because she's stubborn and determined, she eventually found it, combining a Heritage Fund grant with a contribution from Oro Valley.

Along the way, Wright took a spot on the town's fledgling parks board and soon found herself in the thick of the fight to save the northwest corridor's rapidly vanishing open space, including a rare riparian habitat known as Honey Bee Canyon. Back then, she laughs, "I didn't even know what 'riparian' meant."

But she learned fast--and effectively managed to make Honey Bee Canyon a rallying cry and household word in Oro Valley.

Her kids played a role in her next political step, too. When she noticed that classrooms in the Amphi School District were overcrowded, she started talking to some friends about finding someone to run for the school board in 1996. She talked to 30 different people, but there were no takers.

"Everybody kept saying no, and now I know why," says Wright, who ended being the candidate who won the seat. "It's so much work!"

Wright ran into static with her fellow board members and the administration when she began asking questions about why the district had purchased two large parcels of land without appraisals. Her colleagues warned her any investigation would be counter productive.

"I'm from stubborn stock," Wright says. "If you tell me to go hush and sit in the corner, like they tried, it really gets me going."

Wright continued to pull at the thread--and soon, an entire rotten quilt of corruption began to unravel. Those were the days of endangered pygmy owls, teacher walk-outs, federal lawsuits and even a fight over the right of citizens to address the board.

Wright showed her fortitude throughout the fight--and came out on top when outraged Amphi voters recalled the ruling majority in the spring of 2000.

Wright says she couldn't have done it without her husband, Allen, an IBM exec she met when both were students at New Mexico State.

"He put up signs, paid campaign bills and put up with a lot of frozen pizza and a lot of aggravation," Wright says. "He was one of the main reasons I did all this. He would not let me quit or ever, ever, ever back down."

The last four years were considerably less tumultuous. This year, Wright was re-elected to a third term with no opposition.

"It's an odd feeling, because I'm used to fighting for what I get," she says.

Wright's latest fight is against illiteracy among Native American students. She's now working to find a firm financial footing for ArtsReach, a nonprofit outfit that puts Native American authors in tribal classrooms to talk about writing.

The writers and artists--including Sherwin Bitsui, Madeline Kiser, Rita Marie Magdaleno, Kit McIlroy and Marge Pellegrino--work with kids individually, teaching them the magic in language and the power in poetry.

The fruits of the program can be found in Dancing With the Wind, a slim volume of poetry and illustrations by Native American kids.

"We let them know they can write about what's important to them," Wright says. "A lot of the kids will tell you they don't like writing because they don't like what they're assigned to do. But if you tell them what's they want to write about, it unleashes something inside of them they don't know they have."

For more information about ArtsReach, call 798-3196 or visit www.users.qwest.net/~artsreach.

--Jim Nintzel