Local Heroes

Our fourth annual look at some folks who strive to make Tucson--and the world--a better place

Gene Jones: "Music has an incredible effect on the brain, on learning. We don't know much about how it works, but we know it does."

Alma Duran

Despite numerous challenges, this high school dropout hasn't stopped trying to improve herself

Alma Duran, 26, is a high school dropout. She has two small children and lost her waitress job when the restaurant she worked at closed. On top of that, she had medical problems which landed her in an emergency room--eight times.

But Duran didn't quit trying to improve herself. As a result, she now has a GED and is hoping to enroll at Pima Community College.

"I regret dropping out of Tucson High School," Duran says of her 10th-grade decision, "and then I lost touch with everything to do with school. But I knew I needed to get a GED, because time was going by."

Duran turned to Literacy Volunteers of Tucson (where I am a volunteer) for assistance. Its tutors offer free help to both basic literacy students as well as English-language acquisition learners (ELAL).

Last year, the organization provided at least 12 hours of tutoring to 67 basic literacy students in 1-on-1 settings. At the same time, 310 people involved with the ELAL program were assisted in either classes or individual instruction.

After enrolling as a basic literacy student and taking an assessment test, Duran was assigned a tutor. But even that initial step didn't go smoothly. Because of scheduling conflicts and health issues, Duran didn't connect with either of her first two instructors.

Despite that, Duran stuck with the program. In October 2005, she met Sue Henshaw, a first-time tutor, and they started getting together once a week at the Columbus Public Library, on 22nd Street.

"I felt really comfortable with Sue," Duran recalls. "I would tell her what I wanted to work on, and it helped a lot. She'd make me do homework, and I did it, then we'd correct it."

Henshaw is impressed with Duran. "Alma is really bright and motivated, and it was delightful working with her. She has ability, but didn't have encouragement.

"Her big problem was writing," Henshaw says, "so we did a lot of practicing. She'd write five-paragraph essays and was really intimidated by that, but (eventually) found it to be fun. Things really came together."

Duran remembers that Henshaw gave her options on what to write about. She usually chose topics involving family matters, what she would have done differently with her life and what she would do after earning her GED.

Crediting much of her success to her boyfriend, Francisco Jimenez, Duran says: "I'd get frustrated, but he would help take care of the kids, and we worked around each other."

Henshaw also assisted Duran with math, and by June of this year, she was ready to take the daunting GED exam.

"Sue told me I didn't need to be afraid," Duran says, "but I was so nervous, because I didn't think I'd pass. But I did!"

In recognition of her success, Duran was recently presented with Literacy Volunteers of Tucson's Dick and Jane award. This annual prize highlights the accomplishments of the organization's top students.

A few weeks ago, Duran checked with PCC about enrolling. There are some issues which have to be resolved first, but she insists: "I really want to go."

Henshaw is confident Duran will do just fine.

"She achieved her goals so quickly," Henshaw says. "Passing the GED on the first try is pretty phenomenal. ... Alma is really going to go places."

Dave Devine

David Greenwood

A theater veteran offers freedom to explore--for free

Every Saturday, David Greenwood enters an empty room, flips a plastic switch and adds creative light to the world. Each week, his Actor's Gymnasium workshops prod folks to stretch their dramatic muscles. And at day's end, Tucson is a brighter place because of it.

For this service, Greenwood charges nothing. An associate administrator at the Prescott College's Tucson Center, he's pure artist. And free time is freely donated to that cause.

"It's what I love to do," he says. "Some people like to play golf on weekends, or go skiing or whatever. I like to do theater, and to make this a creative environment."

We're talking creative in spades. And make no mistake: warmed-over community theater, this is not. Instead, these workshops unleash actors, providing them sanctuary to push the envelope through unorthodox drills and a sense of collective trust.

Drama fans know Greenwood from the influential Tucson Art Theatre he helped start in 1989. Throughout the '90s, that company raised the bar for local performance, presenting edgy works by masters such as Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams.

But Greenwood is one of those theater people who never pastures the muse. That's obvious with Actor's Gymnasium, where rote is left at the door. "I want an environment to let people work and explore," he says. "And I want it to be free, because I want it separate from any sense of business or any other type of obligation."

Freedom's other face involves deep respect for an ancient art. Before the others arrive, "we do little rituals like cleaning the floor, because we want the space to be sacred or prepared or proper for the actors," he says. "Then we try to allow everybody to be free to explore ideas. Even if I'm moderating, and somebody has an idea and says, 'Hey can we try this?' then we jump in and try it. It's done with the idea that you can fail here; you can do anything you need to do."

For example, circled actors might use movement, facial expression and sound to throw unspoken emotions from one to another. Or two actors may face one another, volleying verbal observation back and forth in rapid repetition and varying inflections. The point is training the actors to fine-tune their observation, concentration and collaboration.

"Another of the exercises is a simple improvisation," he says. "There is no established circumstance, and we don't use real language--we use gibberish language. So people have to really listen and try to respond to total behavior from the other person, rather than the logic of the words."

These exercises aim "to make the actor sensorially alive again, because when you walk on stage, you forget everything. Your senses become dull, and you're nervous." By focusing upon the senses, "You're really hearing; you're really listening; you're feeling things physically. It is meant to make somebody alive with a hyper-awareness, so that on stage, there's an extra type of energy."

A method actor by instinct, Greenwood studied theater at the UA. He then spent several years with Chicago's cutting-edge Cactus Theatre Ensemble, which took a refreshingly collective, organic approach to drama.

And that collective approach is at the core of today's workshops. "Right now, actors are kind of like weird stepchildren who just go to auditions," Greenwood says. "Theaters are really run by administrators or maybe an artistic director. Usually, there's already a set designer and a lighting designer. The director already has an idea of what the show will look like, and then they just need actors to represent the characters. So actors are always the last consideration."

By contrast, he wants actors involved in the creative process from day one. "It takes a while for them to get to know each other, to get used to working together," Greenwood says. "But a collective develops its own style. It takes on its own personality, and that becomes a dynamic in its own right. Actor's Gymnasium really gives theater back to the actor. It becomes the actor's home."

For anyone who loves theater, that's a dazzling prospect indeed.

For more information about Actor's Gymnasium, e-mail David Greenwood or call 591-2476.

Tim Vanderpool

Gene Jones

In retirement, this successful veteran and businessman has opened minds through the arts

Gene Jones turns 91 in April, but he's not slowing down. If anything, he's picking up speed.

He's always tended to be out in front. Jones wanted to be a pilot in World War II, and although it required that he have surgery on both eyes before he could get into flight school, he made it, graduating four days after Pearl Harbor. Two weeks later, as a green second lieutenant, he was selected for an experimental training program that had been set up to produce desperately needed four-engine pilots as quickly as possible. After a month, he was a B-24 bomber pilot, and in 1942, he piloted one of the first B-24s sent from Hawaii into the South Pacific.

He rose to squadron commander and beyond, dropped many bombs and once escorted Eleanor Roosevelt on a super-secret morale-raising visit to hospitalized soldiers on Guadalcanal. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel who couldn't wait to get out of the service, go into business and start doing things his own way.

Which he did, buying failing businesses, turning them around, disposing of them, then looking for the next opportunity. He didn't care what the business was: "It didn't matter. I'd majored in English at Dartmouth, so I wasn't actually qualified to do anything."

A serial success, Jones first owned a millwork factory, then a company that made printed circuits, one that made chainsaws, and another that made machinery for manufacturing plastics, plus two other businesses before he retired, a rich man, to Tucson in 1978.

Retirement lasted less than a year.

"I'd finished up all the projects I could find to do around the house. And Ruth, my wife, likes to say that she married me for life, but not for lunch. I had to find something to do with myself."

Soon, he was into real estate, offhandedly making another fortune with the Copper Crest development west of town. And he and Ruth also continued their longtime support of classical music by becoming involved with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Arizona Opera and the UA's School of Music.

Since 2000, Jones' tsunami-like energy and drive--not to mention roughly $1 million of his money--have mostly been devoted, yet again, to something entirely different. Working with longtime Tucson music educator Carroll Rinehart and key personnel at Tucson Unified School District--notably Joan Ashcraft, TUSD's director of fine and performing arts--Jones started and has largely financed an innovative arts-education program, Opening Minds Through the Arts, that currently reaches 17,000 Tucson children, makes life easier for 650 teachers and helps support 85 local artists.

"It's a way to give back," he says. "I'm not a musician, and I'm not a teacher. But the more I learned about research on learning and music, the more I needed to make this happen."

It started by chance.

"I just happened to have been elected president of the Tucson Symphony board, and happened to be at a conference for people who ran orchestras, and there, I happened to walk into a room where Peter Perret was giving a presentation about the effects of putting a symphony quintet in elementary classrooms in Winston-Salem, N.C. Completely by chance, I turned in at that door and not another. I came out on fire. I knew somehow, we had to do this in Tucson, but we had to do it better, for more weeks of the school year, in more grades, in every school.

"Music has an incredible effect on the brain, on learning. We don't know much about how it works, but we know it does. So many children come to school without any English at all, and you get those children in kindergarten or first grade, have them singing songs, playing instruments, seeing the words up on the board, and their little minds just open to the language, and they're ready to learn. So, of course, their test scores go up."

OMA has developed and expanded with astounding speed, given the usual pace of institutional change. Jones' major focus now is getting the program securely funded and widely implemented. There are signs that the time is close: Research--underwritten by Jones--has consistently shown that kids in the OMA program have better test scores than children in similar schools that don't have the program.

If a budget override comes up for a vote next spring and passes, part of the money will be used to support and expand OMA. Jones is also working to convince researchers at the UA's College of Medicine that program students are the perfect pool of research subjects for studying the physical effects of music on the developing brain--a very hot topic in neurology. And in a development that pleases Jones to no end, this summer, OMA was invited to participate in a study on excellence in arts education by Harvard's Project Zero, the country's pre-eminent center for research on arts education. The project sent a team to Tucson in September on a preliminary visit.

"The project's director, Steve Seidel, told me as he was leaving that OMA had better be ready to grow, because in a few years, this will be the standard by which all other programs will be judged, and it'll be the model for the entire country."

Not a bad outcome for a project started by a guy in his 80s.

For more about Jones' World War II experiences--and those of other Tucson veterans--go to ww2stories.org. For more about OMA, go to www.omaprogramAZ.org.

Renée Downing

The Loft Cinema

Peggy Johnson, Jeff Yanc and J.J. Giddings work to make Tucson a cinematic heaven

This weekend, in the spirit of Christmas, the Loft will be presenting Santa Gone Wild, a mini-film-fest featuring Bad Santa, Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Bloody Night, as well as live music from the Mission Creeps. Plus, you'll be able to get your picture taken with a real-live bad Santa, who may--if you're lucky--even be really drunk.

It ain't exactly It's a Wonderful Life, but it shows what the Loft is all about: celebrating cinema in all its celluloid glory, from high-brow art films to low-grade slasher flicks.

It all happens under the stewardship of Peggy Johnson, the executive director of the Tucson Film Society. P.J., as she's known around the theater, has two hard-working elves coming up with plenty of subversive ideas and keeping everything on track year-round: her son, J.J. Giddings, and Jeff Yanc, a former co-owner of the late, lamented Reader's Oasis bookstore and a longtime fan of underground cinema.

"We've got to be open to anything, because you never know what is going to hit," Yanc says.

In the four years since P.J. took over the Loft, she's launched a high-speed operation that has not only presented the most diverse selection of cinema in town, but also brought in a long line of filmmakers and speakers to talk about movies.

They've had Ismail Merchant come for a showing of Le Divorce. Bruce Campbell was here for a book signing and screening of Bubba Ho-Tep. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana turned up for a screening of Brokeback Mountain. Journalist Christopher Hitchens appeared for a screening of The Trials of Henry Kissinger. The Log Lady from Twin Peaks visited for a screening of David Lynch's groundbreaking TV series' pilot episode. And Crispin Glover--well, the less said about Crispin's breakdown in the lobby, the better.

"It's not to diminish the regular screenings, but when we have an event, that's what charges our batteries," P.J. says.

The Loft has hosted Sound of Music and Buffy the Vampire Slayer sing-alongs; a dusk-til-dawn slasher marathon where people brought their pajamas and got breakfast in the morning; and a Ciné Mexico film festival that featured everything from Duck Season to Santo vs. Frankenstein's Daughter.

On Independence Day, the Loft had an afternoon showing of The Patriot--complete with a visit from Republican Randy Graf and a replica of an automatic rifle on the front patio--followed by an evening screening of Team America: World Police.

"We had something for everyone that day," says Yanc, who recalls there was a slight snag when members of the Patriot audience realized they couldn't bring their guns into the theater, because it serves beer and wine. Now that's not a problem you run into at the Century Park.

Even local filmmakers can get in on the act: On the first Friday of every month, the Loft will screen any short film that anybody brings in.

"People love to see their work on the big screen, and we love to give filmmakers an opportunity to have that experience," P.J. says.

And, of course, the Loft is home to one of the longest-running streaks of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has been showing almost every weekend at the Loft since '77, when the theater was a tiny art house on the corner of Fremont Avenue and Sixth Street. Every Saturday, the local cast still gets dressed up in lingerie and makeup to act out the roles of Frank-N-Furter and Riff Raff.

For movie lovers, the Loft is cinema paradiso.

P.J. has long had a passion for film. Back when she was working as the political reporter for KUAT Channel 6, she was also attending the UA to earn a master's degree in media and spent her vacations at the Telluride and Sundance film fesivals.

When the Loft's previous owner, Joe Esposito, decided to put the mammoth movie house up for sale, P.J. stepped up, created the nonprofit Tucson Film Society and raised about $150,000 for a down payment to buy the building.

But that was just the start. P.J. has overseen the rehab of the aging palace, which has been scrubbed down and repainted. The old carpet has been replaced. Patrons can flop on comfy chairs and couches in the lobby or grab a table on the outside patio before and after the show. The snazzy snack bar now serves beer, wine and Fresco pizza in addition to popcorn and Red Vines.

It's been a lot of hard work, but P.J., J.J. and Yanc say they love it.

It wouldn't be possible without generous donations from the 800 to 1,000 members of the Tucson Film Society. If you're a movie lover, you should consider joining yourself. Find out how to sign up--and learn about the latest madness at the theater--at www.loftcinema.com. P.J. reminds us that members get free popcorn and discounted admission to events.

P.J. doesn't want to reveal too much about her plans for 2007--she doesn't want to jinx anything--but she promises even more guests and fun.

"I think it's going to be our best year yet," she says.

Jim Nintzel

Mary King

For greyhounds in need, this woman is a saint

It came to me in a flash: The Bible got something wrong. God did not create Man in His own image. He created Dog.

Logically, God's got to be a dog. The word "dog" is "god" spelled backwards, and what other creature is absolutely forgiving, accepting and capable of unconditional love? The Good Book tells us that the meek shall inherit the Earth. But humans aren't meek. They're the most obnoxious, noisy and aggressive ape ever to hit the ground running. Dogs want not wealth nor power, finery nor fuss. All they want is kibble, love and a clean patch to go to the bathroom.

To sin against Dog is to sin, indeed. Which doesn't stop a lot of people from doing it anyway: This is particularly true of the greyhound racing industry. And this is where Mary King comes in.

I first met Mary about 2 1/2 years ago. As a new volunteer at the Greyhound Adoption League kennel in Marana, I was introduced to a woman--well, the south end of one, anyway. She was down on all fours, wedged into the opening of a dog crate. She appeared to be scraping mouse turds from the back, although there were a few she couldn't reach.

She twisted her neck around and said, "Dogs 1 to 5 need walking." I walked.

I didn't get to know Mary well for a while, primarily because she doesn't talk about herself. She talks about dogs. She eats, sleeps and breathes greyhounds, spending anywhere from 25 to 40 unpaid hours a week at the kennel. Whether she's wrapping an injury, making an extra trip out to administer medication or taking dogs to and from the vet, she's one of the best friends greyhounds have in this town.

They all know and love her. Mary remembers every dog who's gone through the kennel by name, routinely talking about them like other people would their kids or friends. She's pragmatic and unsentimental, yet I've seen her go to unbelievable lengths, particularly for disabled dogs.

Spotted Lady comes to mind. I don't think anyone ever figured out exactly what was wrong with the former racer. She came in thin and weak, and no matter what we did, continued to go downhill. Toward the end, she couldn't get up anymore, and when I'd come in the mornings, there were detailed instructions as to exactly how to lift her and take her outside. We lost her in the end, but I know for certain that when it came, she knew she was loved.

I've got loads of factoids on this yellow pad in front of me, details about Mary King's 70 years on this planet. The regular junk: She was born at so and so, went over there, then over here and did this for awhile, etc., etc. But none of it seems terribly important. What is important is the reason she's been involved with greyhound rehabilitation and adoption for nearly 12 years.

According to her: "These dogs are kind, gentle, good with other dogs, kids, old people. They have hard lives, racing and living in crates, and so many are bred, there are just never enough homes." When she places a dog, she tells him, "Your life is finally starting."

To Mary, "A good day is a dog getting a good home. A bad day is a dog getting hurt or dying."

People do things for all kinds of reasons: power, money, social position. Some do things for love, but not many. The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz claimed that since God loves us, this must be the best of all possible worlds: A loving God wouldn't fob off an inferior world on His children.

I think Leibniz got it wrong. In the best of all possible worlds, people like Mary King would make about $50 million a year, but of course, she wouldn't care. Meanwhile, people who abuse or neglect dogs would be stricken with flesh-eating bacteria and dysentery. But what do I know about metaphysics?

Only one thing: In Dog I trust. Oh, and in Saint Mary of Marana. I'd write the pope and suggest future canonization, but I fear we may differ on one or more sticky theological points.

For more information on greyhound adoption, contact the Greyhound Adoption League at 578-2792 or Arizona Greyhound Rescue at 886-7411.

Catherine O'Sullivan

Rosalia Lopez

This nurse-practitioner puts in long hours helping the poorest of the poor

It's three weeks before Christmas, and carols are jangling on the radio in the busy Pima County family-planning clinic on Tucson's southside.

In the bare-bones waiting room, a sign is written in 31 languages--from Spanish to Swahili--announcing that clients have a right to an interpreter. In a lab, a nurse's aide is pricking a young woman's finger for a pregnancy test.

Rosalia Lopez bustles into her office, a windowless box made a little cheerier by the photo of her 90-something mother grinning on the bulletin board.

"I have four women waiting for me in clinic," she says cheerfully. It's nearly 3 p.m., and she's supposed to see her last patient at 3:15 p.m., but Lopez shows no signs of panicking. She sits calmly at her desk to write up the notes on the woman she's just examined.

"We do family planning here," she explains. She talks while she writes, practiced at the art of doing two things at once--fast. "No abortion services. It's just prevention."

The women who come into the clinic, next to the El Pueblo Neighborhood Center, mostly are drawn by word of mouth.

"We get a lot of people in between jobs, or who have fallen off their insurance, or who don't qualify for AHCCCS," the state health-care program for the poorest of the poor. Most of the clients are low-income and Spanish-speaking, but the clinic doesn't ask for proof of income or legal status.

"We charge a sliding fee, so it's very affordable," says Lopez, who's bilingual. "We never turn anyone away."

As a nurse practitioner with a master's degree, Lopez can write prescriptions for meds of all kinds. But more often than not, she also dispenses, pulling birth-control pills and contraceptive devices and antibiotics from a battered filing cabinet next to her desk.

"I personally see 80 to 100 patients a week" at the family planning clinic, where she works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.--and beyond--three days a week. The other two days, she sees patients with sexually transmitted diseases at the county STD clinic west of downtown. Twice a month, she goes out in a mobile clinic to remote communities.

But the grueling pace doesn't stop Lopez, 55, from bantering with her nurse's aide in Spanglish. "I need a vaso por favor," she calls out, "and a couple million bucks."

Lopez grew up in a tiny town in New Mexico, the youngest in a family of 13 children. Her grandmother, Dominga Tellez, and mother, Josefina Chavez, were curanderas, traditional healers who relied on herbs and massage to keep their broods healthy. "We never went to the doctor."

But when her own son was stricken with a brain tumor at the age of 13, Lopez came into regular contact with the conventional medical system.

"I spent a lot of time at the hospital with him," she says, "and the nurses made an impression on me. I'd ask questions, and they were always willing to give me answers."

Her son survived (he's now 37), but a second tragedy propelled her to nursing school. Her husband died at 38 after being struck in the back of the head with a baseball during a game with his buddies. Lopez moved her son and two daughters to Tucson, enrolled at the UA at the age of 36, and stayed on for a master's.

Before coming to the family-planning clinic six years ago, Lopez worked as a nurse practitioner in a private medical practice on the northwest side. "The medical director here gave me good advice: Go out and learn, and then come back."

That broad experience serves her well now, because so many of the women she sees don't have the money for regular medical care. "We often diagnose diabetes and high blood pressure. I'll see rashes and UTIs (urinary tract infections). I know how to treat those." For ills beyond her scope, Lopez refers women to other clinics serving the poor.

Suddenly, a beep sounds from the lab next door.

"We have a negative pregnancy test here," the aide announces.

Lopez jumps to her feet. Not only is it time to give the good news to the young woman whose finger was pricked; it's time to see the rest of her waiting patients and to answer the stack of telephone messages piled on her filing cabinet.

"There's a need here," she concludes as she races out the door. "This is where I belong. This empowers women. They benefit tremendously from the education we do."

Margaret Regan

Jeannette Maré-Packard

After her young son's death, she embarked on a project to promote acts of kindness

The day of March 29, 2002, started off normally for Jeannette Maré-Packard. Her 5-year-old son, Matthew, and 2-year-old son, Ben, were home playing with a friend. Ben had a cold, but it was nothing serious--or so Maré-Packard thought.

Suddenly, Ben stopped breathing and turned blue. Maré-Packard performed CPR but couldn't get air to his lungs. Ben died before the ambulance arrived.

Maré-Packard was overcome with tremendous grief.

"There are two people on this planet who couldn't die, and that was Matt and Ben. ... And then one of them did. ... I never could have conceived of the amount of pain that I was in. I really badly wanted to die."

During the summer of 2002, Maré-Packard visited her parents on the Oregon coast. While she was there, she walked along the beach and saw glass fishing floats along the coast. Local artists had made the objects and left them for people to find.

"There was a buzz around the community about finding these floats. I loved the random and unexpected feeling that people were having. It brought out joy in people. I wanted to do something like that in memory of Ben. But I wanted the process of making the art to be part of it ... where big groups of people could help make it."

After she returned to Tucson, Maré-Packard experienced something unexpected at the UA, where she teaches sign-language interpreting. "Anytime somebody would do any sort of kind act for me--the seemingly most simple, small act of kindness--it became enormous to me. It took on this whole power I would never have been able to appreciate when I was OK. ... So we decided ... in Ben's memory, we wanted to have a project where we could talk about the amazing power in those acts of kindness."

Maré-Packard founded Ben's Bells Project (www.bensbells.org), a nonprofit whose mission is to "inspire, educate and motivate each other to realize the impact of intentional kindness and to empower individuals to act according to that awareness, thereby changing our world."

Ben's bells are ceramic hanging works of art made by volunteers and distributed--not sold--twice a year, on March 29 and on an undisclosed date in September. The bells are hung in public places, such as on bus benches, in trees, on fences and on shopping carts. They each have a tag on them that says, "You have found a Ben's bell. Take it home and remember to spread kindness."

To date, 6,500 bells have been distributed. With each distribution, half are placed in Tucson, and half are placed elsewhere. In September, the second half was distributed statewide.

Volunteers gather at Ben's Bells Project studio at 816 E. University Blvd. to make the bells. Crafting a bell involves shaping clay, firing in a kiln, painting, firing again and assembling. Firing is done at Maré-Packard's home.

Many groups work on Ben's bells--from executives at IBM to jail inmates. Maré-Packard takes her clay on the road and presents the project to community groups, schools and businesses. She says group requests to participate have skyrocketed.

Maré-Packard also visits a "bellee" each week to present a bell. A bellee is an individual "who has been nominated by others in the community to receive a Ben's bell for their consistent displays of simple kindness." Recipients are named on KWMT FM 92.9 The Mountain and in the Arizona Daily Star.

Maré-Packard strives to pass along the message that we "can support each other significantly just by treating each other (in a kind) way--in every mundane interaction ... such as standing in line next to each other at the grocery store. Every one of these interactions is an opportunity for us to make a difference in a really powerful way. ... We need to talk about kindness more. We need to remind ourselves to be kind more. ... The bottom line is we have to get better at this."

While Maré-Packard has lived through a tremendously difficult experience, she has turned her pain into a project that has brightened many lives. Hundreds of stories are posted on the nonprofit's Web site. She says the project is very gratifying.

"I feel like Ben is touching so many people. I feel so proud that I get to be the mother who gets to do this work."

Irene Messina

Marge Pellegrino

This local writer believes in the power of words

Marge Pellegrino has always been passionate about words--reading them, writing them and thinking about them.

For a long time, she never felt that working with words could be her career. Then, one day, as she was holding her new baby son in her arms, she thought: "What I want more than anything is for him to follow his dreams." And she knew she had to provide a powerful example. So, just for him, she decided to follow her own dream and become a writer. After a lot of classes, a lot of practice and a lot of rejection slips from publishers, Pellegrino finally got some recognition. She's currently the author of numerous articles and three children's books (and an occasional Weekly contributor).

Since Pellegrino's other passion is helping people, especially kids, it only made sense that she use her dream of being a writer to help young people discover and follow their dreams. When her son was in first-grade, she started volunteering in his classroom, showing the children how to do reflective journals. She loved the way they became empowered when their words were validated. Seeing how their writing improved and their motivation increased reinforced her idea of the special, transformative and universal power of language.

"When you find gold, or something, you share it," she explains. "Writing is like that for me."

Today, Pellegrino is involved with so many projects around town that they're hard to count. One of them is ArtsReach, a program that sends Pellegrino and other published authors to schools with high native and Latino populations, where they lead poetry and narrative workshops. As the kids write their own creative pieces, they learn all about metaphor, simile, voice, plot and other writing techniques--developing skills that help with their grades, their test scores and even, potentially, their college applications.

Another of Pellegrino's involvements is the Owl and Panther Project, in which she writes with both children and adults from other countries who've experienced torture or have a family member who has. In these workshops, Pellegrino gives her students all kinds of things to write about by taking them on amazing field trips, showing them art or scheduling special guest visits. She also runs two programs through the KARE family group: one with kids who are either being raised in a kinship relationship or are adopted, and one with kids who have an incarcerated parent.

She facilitates a student mentoring program through the Tucson Writers Project, arranges meetings for the South of the Gila Gang children's writers group, maintains the Literary Arts Network--an electronic means of connecting book lovers to events--and is constantly doing teaching gigs at her local public library and various agencies.

Did I mention she's the block leader in her neighborhood watch?

"It's hard to think about 80 things at once," Pellegrino admits, "but you do it."

Even with so many projects on her plate, Pellegrino never fails to give each thing her all ... and that's a lot. She must be one of the most creative people in the world. She always has a highly imaginative activity up her sleeve--clowning, papermaking, beehive-oven-making or sand tray work, for example. In one of her coolest projects, she has kids write about the "trash" in their lives on different colored scraps of paper, which are then put in a blender and made into new, beautiful, rainbow-colored paper. This paper becomes the material for a book full of personal stories and strategies that the kids call "Turning Trash Into Treasure."

As for Pellegrino's own writing, well, it doesn't get as much time as it deserves, but what she does write tends to be socially conscious and empowering--take her book I Don't Have an Uncle Phil Anymore, which helps kids deal with loss, or My Grandma's the Mayor, which promotes acceptance and community pride. And there are two new young adult novels in the works that are bound to be moral gems.

Pellegrino only agreed to be interviewed in order to promote the programs she's involved with. For her, it's all about the kids. But she really does change lives, getting her students to open their minds, heal from past pain and express themselves in new ways.

As Pellegrino declares: "If a kid can learn to ask the right questions of themselves and the world, I mean, how cool is that?"

Anna Mirocha

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