Local Heroes

Eight people and groups who strive to make Tucson--and the world--a better place

Lorraine Anderson

Miracle on Church Street assures that needy kids have a merry Christmas

Lorraine Anderson grew up in one of the poorest sections of Boston. Like many children, she dreamt of a festive and magical Christmas with presents, delicious food and a beautiful tree. For some, this dream came true. But for Anderson, it did not.

She grew up during the Depression, with no money for Christmas gifts or a family meal. No Santa. No wonderment of the season. These memories stayed with Anderson.

She vowed that no child in her community would have to face the holiday like she did.

In 1995, Anderson began to change the face of Christmas for Tucson's underprivileged children. She started Miracle on Church Street and threw a party at the Tucson Convention Center.

"I started with 300 children visiting. I thought it was great," says Anderson. This year, she served about 2,200 children on Dec. 17, at the 11th annual gathering.

The six-hour party offers underprivileged youth a chance to experience the magic of Christmas. Mr. and Mrs. Claus arrive with the help of Tucson firefighters via fire truck. There's plenty of ice cream, popcorn and snacks, plus face painting, jumping castles and coloring. Each child goes home with several toys.

And everything is free. But take a look behind the scenes of this massive holiday party, and you'll see free is not the reality.

"Business people determined this would cost more than $63,000 if I had to pay for everything," says Anderson. Corporate sponsors include Lisa Frank, Truly Nolen, Blue Bunny Ice Cream and Crosstown Traders. Donations are 90 percent in-kind goods. A private citizen pays the $4,000 TCC rental fee. A toy drive at Alberstons/Osco also helps.

Even so, Miracle on Church Street needs financial assistance. Some years have seen no surplus, or at most, $2,000.

Anderson, who turns 82 in April, expends a great deal of effort to raise money. "I send out hundreds of letters to every business, every bank, every person, every organization. Everyone knows me. I beg them to take a look at the Web site. Maybe they will understand why I need financial help."

Anderson toils into the early morning hours at her desk, which is piled high with papers and envelopes that need to be mailed out. She sleeps about three hours a night and can field more than 50 phone calls a day. Without any steady volunteers to help during the year, she handles all administrative tasks.

And this doesn't include Anderson's work on the toys. Her garage is stacked with road-racing kits, blocks, Barbie dolls and bags of stuffed animals. She receives many plush toys from resale shops and washes each one. "I wash thousands of toys," Anderson reports. She also repairs tattered ones--sewing holes, fixing hair, replacing bows--all with loving care. Listening to Anderson explain all of this was enough to bring a tear to my eye.

Anderson is clearly making a difference, as the city of Tucson named her Citizen of the Year in 2004. That same year, the Volunteer Center of Southern Arizona named her Volunteer of the Year.

But what's most important to Anderson is the difference she makes with children's health issues. "I get plastic bags and put in educational books about no smoking, no drinking, pencils, coloring books ... and tie it tight. We give this gift bag to the mother or guardian, as children come from all local agencies. That bag is the most important thing I give away. It gets into that home. In there, someone may learn not to smoke or not to drink. That's very important to me. If I help one person to stop that, it's all worthwhile."

What's also important to Anderson is for people to understand the issue of poverty in Tucson. She says she has begged city and county officials to visit the underprivileged children at her annual event--to no avail. According to a city government report using data from the 2000 Census, 26 percent of Tucson children younger than 18 live below the poverty level. She says we all need to know this.

"If this happened to me when I was a child 75 years ago, and it's still going on, it's going to keep going on. ... Please realize how important this 11-year program is. It's a program that needs to be continued. It should be kept going so it's there for the kids."

For more information about Miracle on Church Street, visit www.tucsonmiracle.org.

Irene Messina

Bennett Bernal

As Kathleen Dunbar's aide, he helped neighborhoods and constituents cut through red tape

As a longtime leader in Balboa Heights, Jane Baker has heard a lot of talk about how city officials are going to help her stressed neighborhood near Grant and Oracle roads.

But she hasn't seen many people tackle problems like Bennett Bernal, who is leaving his job handling constituent service in the Ward 3 office in the wake of Republican Kathleen Dunbar's defeat in last month's City Council election.

"Bennett was very in tune with the needs of the neighborhoods," Baker says. "He was out and about every day taking care of those needs. It's going to be a loss to the neighborhoods, because he was constantly available."

Baker says whether the problem revolved around graffiti, abandoned shopping carts or slumlords, Bernal handled it with urgency and efficiency. On top of that, he found ways to cut through red tape for aspiring business people and helped get money to put in streetlights and sidewalks.

And he even worked weekends.

"That job was not a 9-to-5 job for him," Baker said. "He worked 24-7. He would call me, and I would say, 'What the hell are you doing working on a Sunday?' He'd say, 'I've got so much to do to catch up.' It was always like that."

Bernal remains modest about his accomplishments over the last four years, but he says his passion for the job comes from a simple desire to make life better in Tucson neighborhoods.

"I enjoy helping others, because everyone helped me when I was growing up," he says.

A Tucson native, Bernal, 43, was raised in the southside Mission Manor neighborhood. Before he got into government, he was a constant presence at the Tucson Racquet Club, where he got his first job almost three decades ago as a waterboy filling courtside igloos. He worked his way from dishwasher to kitchen manager while finding time to help out with summer camps and plenty else. He still hangs out around the club looking to play ball, at least when he's not driving around neighborhoods making sure nobody's abandoned a mattress in the middle of the road.

Bernal got his first taste of constituent service when he went to work for the colorful Ed Moore, the former Pima County supervisor, in 1993. He found he loved having a chance to help people out.

Bernal's secret to getting the work done: "You just have to keep the politics out and do the right thing."

With Democrat Karin Uhlich taking over the Ward 3 office, Bernal is now packing up his office. Some of the folks he's helped are sure going to miss him.

"I have nothing but high praise and respect and thanks for Bennett," says Kevin Daily, the former president of the Flowing Wells Neighborhood Association. "You can tell he really believed in what he was doing, and he wanted to make a difference."

Daily has watched as Bennett has worked to see more streetlights in neighborhoods, new fences around dangerous drainage canals and fewer drug houses.

"I don't know of a drug house in our neighborhood right now," Daily says. "He cleared out three of them."

Daily credits Bennett with leading the way in the rebirth of Jacobs Park, which now features a remodeled swimming pool, a new Little League park courtesy of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a playground for both normal and disabled kids that was funded by the Catalina Rotary Club.

"Jacobs Park is now what it should be," Daily says. "It's a place where people want to be."

Nick Bradley, president of the Ocotillo Neighborhood Association near Speedway Boulevard and Stone Avenue, says that Bernal has made life a little brighter for neighborhood kids by organizing a chess club and an annual Christmas party.

"He follows through on what he says he's going to do, unlike a lot of political people who give you a lot lip service," Bradley says. "Bennett's never been like that."

Bernal has stuck around the office for the last couple of weeks, showing Uhlich's staff around the ward and introducing them to members of his network.

"Karin's been a class act, letting me stay on through the transition and giving me the opportunity to work with her and keeping these projects moving forward," he says.

Next month, Bernal goes to work for the county's community-investment program. He's hoping to continue work on his latest project: a park inside the Pascua Yaqui village near Grant and 15th Avenue that will focus on physical fitness to help the tribe battle obesity and diabetes. He's lined up $300,000 in Back to Basics money from the Ward 3 office and is working on getting more from the county and the tribe.

He's not planning on getting much of a break between his gigs.

"That's all right," Bennett says. "That's what I want. I'm a workaholic."

Jim Nintzel

Desert Survivors

The nursery offers a chance for at-risk kids, disabled citizens to work and learn about the desert

At the moment, we're squatting next to a globe mallow and contemplating moth larvae. Now, that might not strike everyone as particularly exciting. But Jim Verrier is about to burst.

"A lot of people may not really be into moths," he enthuses, "because they come out at night. But the really cool thing about this garden is that we have pollinator plants and larvae plants. Now we are getting customers who actually pick out plants for both."

True, there are endless metaphors we could wring from that. But suffice it to say that here at Desert Survivors, a remarkable three-acre nursery near downtown, everything is about metamorphosis. Since 1981, Survivors has nurtured at-risk children and developmentally disabled adults alongside mesquite trees, fairy dusters, yuccas, prickly pears and almost everything else near and dear to the Sonoran Desert.

Equal parts nursery and social agency, it provides real jobs for special folks. Together, they help weed, rake, trim and water some 300 species of native flora. The results are disabled citizens with a sense of purpose, and plants so vigorous, they might pop through your sunroof before reaching home. The focus is on plants rooted to this region, from rangy hop-seed bushes to native raspberries.

Desert Survivors was the nonprofit brainchild of Tucson psychologist Dr. Joseph Patterson, who followed a simple dictum: Anyone--including the developmentally disabled--can benefit from filling their days with meaningful tasks. Patterson also recognized the abundant healing powers of dirt and plants and sun and sky. All were combined under the rubric of horticulture therapy, and over the years, his concept has expanded with groundskeeping contracts throughout the county, and a similar program on the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Today, the organization works with at-risk children, developmentally challenged adults and customers who can't decide between a barrel cactus or brittlebush. It's a lushly efficient combination, says Verrier. "I like to think of us as a really cool symbiosis; the nursery is here to provide jobs for the adult-service program. And we generate enough revenue to keep the jobs going. So it's become this great relationship."

Nestled alongside the Santa Cruz River and shimmering under shade trees, this hushed Xanadu is also therapeutic for frazzled customers; they arrive in a flurry, only to be seduced into lazy chats and semi-aimless wandering.

Along the way, those visitors likewise get a primer on where they live. "Desert Survivors is also about education and protection of the Sonoran Desert," Verrier says. Several demonstration gardens, now in the works, are a perfect case-in-point. Take the pollinator patch: If you think it's just a bunch of pretty flowers, think again. "These plants have co-evolved with all of the wildlife, and they provide wonderful habitats," he says. "If you're living in an area that's kind of on the edge of the wild, it can add to the wildlife corridor, and attract birds and local pollinators."

Beyond the offices, Will Romero is supervising a team of disabled staffers. He's been a behavior tech with Desert Survivors for 13 years, and has seen plenty of these clients bloom as well. "It can take awhile--as long as two years," he says. "But we see huge, positive changes."

Back at the pollinator garden, Verrier is inspecting a jungle of leaves and stems. "These globe mallows are particularly great," he says, "because they are a huge native bee plant. The bees are specialized for these guys--they're just the right shape so they can get in there (for pollen) where other bees can't. And they're white and fuzzy and bluish color. It's really cool."

Cool indeed.

Desert Survivors is at 1020 W. Starr Pass Road. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. And their plant sales are legendary; the next one is on March 18, and 25-26. Call 884-8806 for information.

Tim Vanderpool

Mary Dimercurio

As she battles cancer, she fights to get the word out about prevention

On a chilly Sunday morning in early December, Mary Dimercurio was at Oracle Junction before dawn, dressed in sweats and walking shoes. Her mission: to walk all 13.1 miles of the Bobbi Olson Half-Marathon.

Dimercurio wasn't so different from the thousands of others who turned out to walk the race. Training for it each year helps her keep fit, and the race raises money to combat perhaps the most dreaded of women's cancers--ovarian. Called the silent killer, it took the life of Bobbi Olson, wife of Lute.

But Dimercurio was different from the other walkers in at least one important respect: She's had ovarian cancer herself.

"I am a breast and ovarian cancer survivor," Dimercurio tells me on a different morning, when she's tethered to an IV at the Arizona Cancer Center, getting her monthly chemo treatment. Now 59, Dimercurio had a dangerous premenopausal breast cancer at the young age of 34. Her ovarian cancer, diagnosed three years ago when she was 56, was discovered only accidentally.

She'd signed up for Better Than Ever, the training/fundraising program run by the Arizona Cancer Center, and casually mentioned to the group's founder, Heather Alberts, that she'd had early breast cancer. And she described her alarming family history. Her mother had died of ovarian cancer at 67, one sister of ovarian at the same age, another sister of breast cancer at 29 and an aunt of breast cancer at 61. Dismayed, Alberts put Dimercurio in touch with her husband, Dr. David Alberts, now head of the cancer center.

Women with pre-menopausal breast cancer and a family history like Dimercurio's are at high risk for ovarian cancer and another bout of cancer in the remaining breast. Ovarian cancer is hard to detect, and since most cases are found late, it has a 70 percent mortality rate. A prophylactic--preventive--hysterectomy has a 95 percent chance of preventing ovarian cancer and a 50 percent chance of warding off a second breast cancer. Dr. Alberts wanted to know why Mary hadn't had the surgery. In fact, Mary had asked her own doctor about a hysterectomy, but the risk factors are not well-known. He had advised against it.

After consulting with Dr. Molly Brewer at the cancer center, Dimercurio went in to get her ovaries and uterus out. But the surgery came too late: She already had Stage III C ovarian cancer.

Since then, Dimercurio has endured endless cycles of chemo, low white-blood-cell counts, a prophylactic mastectomy of her remaining breast and a recurrence of cancer this year. Her family is her personal support team. "They're wonderful," she says.

Husband, Joe, accompanies her for every single treatment and blood test. Joe, their daughter, Theresa Mercurio-Sakwa, and son-in-law, Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, all shaved their heads before the first chemo so Mary wouldn't be alone in her baldness.

Cancer takes up a big part of her life. "I lose her for four or five days" after each chemo session, Joe says. "She sleeps a lot." Even so, Mary devotes much of her time to the cause, publicizing the risks of ovarian cancer.

"If I can help just one person by sharing my story, I'm glad that I can help," she says.

She's spoken with most of the local media, and has published an article detailing her experiences. She wants other women in families riddled with cancer to recognize the potential dangers. A gene mutation called the BRCA1 often runs in families, and it puts the women at high risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. Dimercurio was tested after getting her diagnosis, and was not surprised to learn she had the mutation.

The cancer center now has a high-risk clinic where women who've had pre-menopausal breast cancer or are worried about their family history can go to be evaluated and tested. The clinic's physician-researchers, high-powered docs like Dr. Brewer, are spreading the news to the community and to other local doctors.

"By getting the information out to people, the high-risk clinic will really help," Dimercurio says. Other women won't have to suffer the same fate she did, suffering an ovarian cancer that Dr. Brewer believes was preventable.

Meantime, Dimercurio tries to keep a sunny outlook. She keeps herself busy with sewing and works for an accountant during tax season.

"I do have my down days," she admits, "but what are you going to do? This is what you've been handed. A positive outlook is a choice you can make."

And, by the way, she and Joe finished that half-marathon early this month. It was the fourth half-marathon they've walked since Mary's diagnosis and surgery.

Margaret Regan

Lorraine Drachman

She's put in long hours to preserve San Xavier, Tucson's history

Traffic buzzes up and down Interstate 19, on Tucson's scruffy outskirts. But inside the San Xavier Mission, time has been reduced to an old man's resolute shuffle. Candlelight dances about his brown and weathered face as he approaches a reclining statue of Saint Francis Xavier. His audience includes more than 300 ancient statues, 35 lush murals and an army of cherubic angels. A hint of incense lingers in the air.

For centuries, this old church has been drawing such believers. Twelve years ago, it also lured Lorraine Drachman. Since signing on as fundraising director, she's helped bankroll a $1.5 million restoration of San Xavier's interior and the west tower's ongoing overhaul. She also transformed the mission's fundraising arm, Patronato San Xavier, into a rare model of nonprofit efficiency, where almost 90 percent of proceeds go directly to restoration and maintenance. In all, she's been a potent tour de force, says historian and fellow Patronato member Bernard Fontana. "Lorraine is really the mission's unsung hero."

It's a passion that seized Drachman by surprise. "I never wanted to be a fundraiser," she says. "But at San Xavier, fundraising takes on this whole new meaning."

The Patronato dates back to 1978, but early drum-beating for funds was "hit-and-miss," Drachman says. "You can't raise money like that." So she quickly did what the Patronato had not: She schmoozed. When donors wrote checks, she invited them for tours. When patrons called, she called them back. She publicized holiday concerts, spoke before local groups and chatted up anyone within earshot.

But she also discovered a few hurdles. For one: The world is chock-full of needy causes. "So much is given to children's funds and funds to fight disease," she says. "They are very appealing, emotionally, and they are appealing to me, too. But there are also people who care very much about historic preservation and about San Xavier."

Over time, Drachman likewise learned that San Xavier's true fan club was homegrown. "We're very grateful for our local foundation support," she says, "and all those donors who send between $5 and $50 every year. For instance, one woman who lives south of here gives us $25 a month, on the button. Isn't that beautiful? If we didn't have donors like her, this wouldn't be happening."

But progress out here is measured in inches, and the Patronato is always strapped for funds. Fully rehabilitating the mission "is going to take four or five more years," Drachman says, "because it goes so incredibly slow." Once that restoration is complete, all donations can go straight into an endowment fund for continuing upkeep. She says that endowment will need around $4 million. "And we're still way off. Right now, we have less than $1 million. But the endowment should grow rapidly once we have the restoration finished."

That's a good thing, too, because our old church deserves all the care it can get. It's perhaps the greatest legacy of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a determined Jesuit padre who transformed this portion of the Southwest three centuries ago, establishing a chain of 25 missions that stretched from Northern Mexico into Southern Arizona.

Kino founded a mission here in 1692, at the Tohono O'odham village of Bac. By 1700, he'd begun building a church. But he didn't live to see much completed beyond its foundation, and Kino's Franciscan successors began construction of the present building in 1783; in 1797, work was finished on what now ranks among the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States.

Today, after decades of decay, that remarkable outpost has come back to life. And after many years spent shepherding the mission's recovery, Drachman is stepping down. Although cash flow remains a challenge, she's not worried about San Xavier's continued community support. "Sure, there are always going to be people who don't care," she says. "But there are plenty of people who do care about our history. And that number will grow.

"How can you even think about our community without San Xavier Mission? That doesn't even make sense. To me, Tucson and the mission are synonymous."

Contact the Patronato San Xavier at P.O. Box 522, Tucson, AZ 85702.

Tim Vanderpool

Margy Eller

The Sunnyside school nurse has been a friend to a generation of kids

If there were such a thing as a Local Heroes Lifetime Achievement Award, Margy Eller would certainly be eligible.

Eller is the school nurse for the S.T.A.R. Academic Center (a Sunnyside Unified School District site that houses four alternative programs). However, those familiar with Eller know she is much more than just a school nurse. For the numerous students that attend S.T.A.R., Eller is a friend, ally and mentor.

For 13 years, Eller has worked for the school district, with the last three years at S.T.A.R. (her background is in mental health). Since working at S.T.A.R., Eller has made a difference in the lives of numerous students with programs like SAFE (an educational program for students diagnosed as having severe emotional disabilities) and alternative-to-suspension programs. "We've been very successful, and we are now in the process of working with juvenile court to develop the kind of (correction) program they have," Eller said. "It's basically teaching kids who have been offenders in the system how to correct the errors of their ways, (and) how to think how their behavior has impacted society, themselves and their families."

As a devoted caregiver for the students in S.T.A.R., Eller is not bound by the school's walls or hours. "I'm a case manager as well as a nurse," Eller explained. "I get to go out into the community and help my families get the appointments." Those appointments include setting up families with everything from health-insurance plans to psychiatric appointments.

"She's one of the best networkers I've ever encountered," said friend Patricia McKnight. "She knows who to turn to in getting help for the kids." For Eller, knowing the students' options means full immersion. "I took the Pima County prosecutor's exam so I could learn about the system," Eller said. "That way, I could help my kids to understand what would happen to them if they committed a crime."

Eller works closely with juvenile justice systems. "Prevention is truly the key," Eller said. "If we can work with our kids, we can teach them the skills and provide them with whatever support system they need to stay out of the juvenile justice system."

For Eller, perhaps what is most rewarding is seeing the success of her countless hours of work. "We're seeing a lot of success," Eller said. "It's really amazing, because some of the kids who we get here are the ones who people have given up on, and we're seeing a lot of success in these kids."

Working so intensely with the S.T.A.R. students, one imagines Eller has no time for anything resembling a personal life. Wrong. As a single parent--her husband passed away eight years ago--of three active children, Eller keeps busy. She has been involved in her children's sporting pursuits (helping with fundraisers and aiding their teams in other aspects), and even plays tennis herself--including competing in tournaments.

Eller also savors the finer things in life. "I'm from Ireland, and my family are all musicians," Eller said. "We travel to Ireland every summer, and I attend a music and dance camp." In fact, Eller worked as the entertainment chair for the St. Patrick's Day festival and parade, and once filled in and sang the Irish national anthem at the last minute.

Margy Eller exhibits a fiery, unwavering passion for their job, family and friends. Hearing her discuss her students, you would imagine they were her own children. Speaking of her programs' triumphs and future goals, you would think it was her first week on the job. Listening to her as she expounds on her children and their/her hobbies is pure entertainment.

Michael Petitti

Don Strauch

Tucson Metropolitan Ministry Family Services gives a helping hand to those in need

Along with a Chicago Bears poster, a poem in the thick letters of a child's handwriting adorns Don Strauch's cluttered office door at Tucson Metropolitan Ministry Family Services. It reads in part: "The Earth is our home, and we have to share ...".

Sharing has been a major part of Strauch's life since his childhood spent outside Chicago, continuing with his graduation from a United Methodist theological seminary in 1974. For the last 17 years, Strauch has served as the executive director of TMM, overseeing the organization's phenomenal growth.

Usually soft-spoken, Strauch emphatically discusses the people TMM helps, along with the projects and programs which the agency has implemented to assist Southern Arizona's disadvantaged residents.

One woman, who came from a home life of domestic violence before completing TMM's Family Journey Program, says of the agency: "They helped me get on my feet. I'd grade them an A+."

For his part, Hank Adair, chair of the TMM board of directors, says of Strauch: "He's great! He has a very good personality and is receptive and adaptive to suggestions from the board."

Leading a tour of the 3 1/2-acre TMM facility near Speedway Boulevard and Country Club Road, Strauch focuses on those the agency is serving. Almost 40 children who have been legally removed from their homes live on the campus under adult supervision in a highly disciplined setting.

In addition, there are 20 apartments where low-income, single women with children can reside for up to a year. They take classes in order to learn life skills while also concentrating on getting a job or going back to school.

Even though not overt, religion does play a role at TMM. As the 56-year old Strauch points out, "Our religious foundation defines who we are. What we do is intended to be an expression of God's concern for the world."

TMM began in 1974, and when Strauch became executive director 14 years later, the agency was operating a child-care center, as well as the Community Closet clothing bank. Both those functions still exist, but to address the area's enormous poverty problem, TMM has expanded rapidly in recent years.

Today, the organization operates three apartment complexes for lower-income residents, including one in Marana and another in Willcox, which houses poor farm workers. In addition, using a federal tax-credit program, TMM is building 80 more units in Safford.

Almost a decade ago, the agency started a single-family homebuyer-incentive program for central Tucson, an effort Strauch continues to believe is critical.

"Home ownership is a major social issue," he says. "When people can afford their own home, it stabilizes other issues like health care, domestic violence and illegal activities. There is just something about home ownership."

TMM also runs ReStore, an outlet for used construction material. Because of this and its other fundraising activities, TMM is keeping almost entirely out of debt, something that Strauch points out with pride.

Using a wide variety of monetary sources, including allocations from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, along with contributions from dozens of churches as well as private donations (including some from me), TMM today has a $2.5 million annual budget.

Working at TMM are a staff of 65 people along with 400 volunteers; Strauch praises them as being the foundation of the program.

But getting Strauch to talk about himself is difficult. When told this article would mostly be about TMM, and not about him, his instantaneous reply was: "That's fine! The less the better."

Dave Devine

Susan White

Despite her insistence that she's "crabby," she has a heart of gold-- as her stepchildren in Honduras show

Susan White is the director of undergraduate studies in the University of Arizona's English department. As if guiding flummoxed and dependent English majors through the system weren't heroic enough, White takes on personal little projects to help people and critters. Nothing big, nothing public. They're just things that almost anybody could do, if they cared.

For starters, she supports four stepchildren in Honduras. White married an undocumented Honduran a few years ago; they later split, but White had meanwhile befriended the man's ex-wife, Suyapa, in Honduras, as well as her four kids. Suyapa's second husband had taken off, making it even more difficult for her to raise children in an already impoverished society.

Now Suyapa and Susan White take joint responsibility for raising the kids. Suyapa does the day-to-day dirty work in Honduras; White sends money. "It's a big financial responsibility," she says, "but it's the only thing that helps me sleep some nights. I know they're in school; they have food; they have toys. I'm trying so hard to help them rise out of poverty."

Friends warn that her generosity might be taken advantage of, but White is careful to see that her contributions meet the family's specific needs. She bought Suyapa an old truck, for example, when she found out that one of the daughters had to accept rides from a man who was less than honorable. "Now," White says proudly, "Suyapa has learned to drive; she's learned how to put property in her own name, and she's gotten two violent men out of her life."

One of the daughters, 13-year-old Kimberly (all the kids sport Yankee names, while the mom is named for the patron saint of Honduras), has rheumatoid arthritis. White used her networking skills to find a pediatrician near where the family lives; she periodically goes to Mexico to buy medication and ship it to Kimberly.

White is well aware that her do-gooder efforts can have troublesome side effects. Suyapa's ex-husband is angry that she has her own car; when the kids play the stereo White bought them, jealous neighbors throw rocks at their door. "I'm worried about the ramifications of all this," she admits. "It makes them vulnerable to have more money than the people around them."

Still, her goal is to help them live decent lives in Honduras. "I don't want them to come up here as illegals, because it's dangerous," she says. "They're dependent on me right now, but this is the nest egg for the future. These children will go to college. We're growing something."

Here at home, she helped raise money for the Foundation for Animals in Risk (FAIR) to rescue and arrange adoptions for pets stranded by Hurricane Katrina. "The situation is still desperate," she says. White also helps find care and homes for cats with the feline equivalent of HIV. She's started an internship for UA students who want to work with FAIR. "Young people want to make a difference," she says, "but it's so much harder now, because corporate control of the world is so much more absolute."

White rejects the notion that her individual efforts are grandly heroic (she ducked out of her first two interview appointments for this article), and she insists that she's no saint. "I'm not good with money," she says. "I have road rage. I help animals, but I still eat meat. I persist in doing things that I think are wrong. I'm a very crabby, difficult person.

"But you have to embrace your responsibility to others. If you find a way to reach out somehow as one living being to another, there's always some small heroism in that."

James Reel

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