Local Heroes

Our fifth annual look at Tucsonans who make the world a better place

Dan Dorsey

For more than a decade and a half, he's been spreading the word about sustainability

Thirteen years ago, about a mile north of downtown Tucson, Dan Dorsey bought a one-fifth-acre bare lot.

Actually, it was worse than a bare lot. It was a water-ravaged, grass-deficient, topographical nightmare that some people used to dump their used engine oil. To most, the site was pretty much a wasteland.

But Dorsey saw potential. He knew the small miracles that could happen through permaculture, a way of building and living symbiotically with the earth using integrated systems and sustainable design. Water harvesting, desert gardening, straw-bale construction and passive-solar design: They can turn waste into productivity. And they make up a movement--which Dorsey is helping spearhead here in Tucson--that's gaining popularity and could change the world if everyone followed it.

Just look at Dorsey's once-ugly lot. It has become a lush landscape that provides food, medicine, mulch, shade and shelter for people and wildlife. It now boasts an energy-efficient straw-bale studio, a solar-powered slump-block residence, a solar oven and a graywater system to re-use shower and bathroom-sink water in the landscape. Finally, there's a food garden watered solely by rainwater. It also features a ramada classroom where Dorsey teaches others how to do integrated design and make all that stuff themselves.

Dorsey is one of a handful of teachers working for the local nonprofit Sonoran Permaculture Guild, which began about 14 years ago with the goal of spreading permaculture skills and ideals throughout Tucson. Dorsey uses his property, which he calls the Mesquite Tree Permaculture Site, as a demonstration site for sustainability workshops. In addition to one-day classes on permaculture design and related topics, he hosts a five-weekend course every spring that provides enough in-depth instruction for participants to design their own garden, harvest water for their own landscape and even build their own solar-powered, naturally insulated straw-bale home. Dorsey also teaches straw-bale construction classes for Pima Community College and Prescott College, where he gets a lot of young new recruits he can encourage to be lifetime permaculture devotees.

Dorsey began teaching permaculture in 1992 on the Black Mesa Navajo reservation, where he spent five summers helping residents come up with building designs combining indigenous culture and self-reliance. Through the Sonoran Permaculture Guild, he helped restore Tucson's Freedom Park, re-seeding and re-vegetating the park's formerly bare and compacted eastern edge to turn it into a thriving native-plant oasis. He also helped renovate the old Community Food Bank, strategically ripping through parking-lot asphalt to plant shade-giving trees.

In 1994 and 1995, the guild took their work to Mexico to consult with Fundecai, the Mexican office of children's-rights group Save the Children, subsequently constructing the first straw-bale house in a poor neighborhood outside Cuidad Obregón. In all, Dorsey and the Sonoran Permaculture Guild have designed and drawn blueprints for more than 45 permaculture-oriented houses and landscapes.

All those actions add up to a big gift for our planet. "But actually," insists Dorsey, "we're still building our momentum as a worldwide movement."

Why is permaculture so important? Look around, Dorsey says. "It's the way we're going to have to do things if we're going to preserve our culture. It's a positive way of dealing with all these problems in the world--water shortage and global warming and ecosystem degradation. ... We need to shift to a design system that's based on something real, like how nature works."

Dorsey doesn't see himself as a hero. "There are a lot of people out there doing stuff on sustainability," he says. "It's not just about one person; it's a movement taking place everywhere in which people are realizing how we're doing things is not sustainable. And that the situation needs to change."

Can it? Dorsey thinks for a while, then offers: "It's not too late."

For more information or to contact Dorsey, visit his Web site.

Anna Mirocha

Jean Gorman

Ever since a motorist killed her bicyclist son, she's fought to make the roads safer for all

When Jean Gorman thinks about bicycles--which is most of the time--she also thinks about cars. Specifically, she thinks about making it safer for both to share the road.

In fact, she's a bulldog on the topic. This fight turned personal for Gorman in 1999, when her 41-year-old cyclist son was hit by a teenage driver on Catalina Highway.

For Brad Gorman's death, the kid received a $66 fine.

Jean Gorman could have embraced bitterness. Instead she got busy, meeting with the Tucson-Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee, and helping organize a downtown memorial rally for her son. The gathering included an army of two-wheelers. It also drew Debora Norris, then an Arizona state representative.

With help from former state Sen. Elaine Richardson, Norris and Gorman fashioned legislation toughening safeguards for cyclists. The new law boosted fines to $500 for hitting a rider and $1,000 for a death. It also requires that cars give bicycles at least 3 feet of leeway.

Gorman is likewise the driving force behind those ubiquitous Share the Street bumper stickers. She bankrolled Share the Road pocket guides. And she was instrumental in helping Tucson garner almost a half-million dollars for adding miles of bike lanes--including the Brad. P. Gorman Memorial Bikeway leading toward Mount Lemmon.

If that weren't enough, she also directs the Perimeter Bicycling Association of America's Brad Gorman Fund, which provides education and safety programs throughout the city. Perimeter organizes El Tour de Tucson, the race her son was training for the day he died.

That's a lot of work. But Gorman insists she's just one of the folks behind this movement--albeit one hard-driven by wrenching loss. "I'm a good Indian, not a chief," she says. "I tell people I don't need pats on the back. I need their help--I need people to change their damn attitudes." That includes drivers who don't respect riders, "and bicyclists who break the laws and give all cyclists a bad rap."

In reaching that goal, she's absolutely relentless. "This is all I do anymore," Gorman says. "I try to promote safety awareness, a good attitude and respect for one another." That might seem like a no-brainer. "But we have to keep pounding it in," she says. "I don't care if I have to be rude or insulting to do that."

The reason? Just watch the nightly news--or read the stats. According to the Institute for Traffic Safety Analysis, less than 5 percent of drivers who kill bicyclists and pedestrians are charged with manslaughter or homicide. That percentage is about the same for Tucson.

If the police and prosecutors can't get their brains around making these crimes stick, then the only answer is increased safety.

And then there's the bottom line. Right after Brad was killed, Jean Gorman visited many families who'd similarly lost a loved one. She's cut back, but that doesn't change what always lurks around the next curve. "All I deal with in my life anymore is people dying or getting well from being injured," she says. "This is my life, and it's hard to have fun.

"Still, I do smile now when I see a vehicle in front of me giving a cyclist 5 feet. It lets me know that something is working."

She pauses. "You know," she says, "it is a beautiful world out there, although maybe I don't think so a lot of times, because I really, really miss my son. But I do what I do so other people are aware that this could happen to them. I don't want anybody to live the way we have to live. I do it, because life is precious."

Tim Vanderpool

Greg Hart

The adult-education dean is retiring after 30 years of service

In 1977, Greg Hart was working part-time at the UA, his alma mater. Having recently returned from traveling with his wife, Vicki (a former Weekly contributor) in South America, he was looking for extra work to help pay for expenses resulting from a car accident.

While job-searching, Hart came across an ad which requested part-time teachers for adult education.

"At the time, I, like so many people, didn't even know that adult education existed," Hart says. "But that's how I got to 1602 S. Third Ave."

Hart got the job, and by 1982, he was the director of what was then the Pima County Adult Education Program. After a merger with Pima Community College in 2000, its name changed to Pima College Adult Education (PCAE).

This fall, the dean retired after 30 years of dedication--including fights with the Legislature which threatened to shut down the program in 2003 and 2004--to adult education, and his colleagues say his impact has been immeasurable.

"Over the course of 30 years, he's helped shape and guide an organization that's had a positive impact on literally tens of thousands of people," says Jim Lipson, PCAE advanced program coordinator (and a Weekly contributor). "He has been a hero to many, many people in our community."

Tell Hart that he's a hero, though, and he gives all the credit to his co-workers and students.

"It feels awkward, because I don't feel like (a hero)," Hart says. "I don't consider myself to be one, because it was such a collaborative effort. The real hero is the concept of adult education, the sense that education should be available to everyone."

Pima College Adult Education is a grant-funded program, offering individuals opportunities to, for example, earn their GEDs, learn to speak English and study for citizenship tests.

"We pick up the pieces when the K-12 system doesn't work for people," Lipson says. He credits Hart with helping to make PCAE the success it is. "One of his greatest gifts was to draw people in who weren't going to be 'yes' people."

Hart's work "was more of a passion than a job," Hart says, as he recounts the story of Gerie Espinoza, who represents one of many stories of triumph he's been a part of through the years:

The high-school dropout and her then-3-year-old son, Miguel, entered the family literacy program, in which parents learn alongside their children. Today, she is completing her bachelor's degree at the University of Louisville, and recently, she was the keynote speaker at a National Center for Family Literacy conference in Kentucky.

"Greg took an interest in her, because he could see that she wanted to make her family better," says PCAE assistant dean Cindy Meier, who worked with Hart for 20 years. "Greg has been a tremendous force in the shaping of adult education in Tucson, in the state of Arizona and, to a certain extent, nationally."

The husband and father of two is now enjoying retirement, but Hart's worldliness and good will lives on: His youngest son, 25-year-old Nathaniel, is returning next week from a 27-month-long Peace Corps stint in Zimbabwe. Abraham (A.J.), 28, is taking a sabbatical from law school at the UA to travel in South America.

"I had the chance to meet people from all over the world, from many different walks of life--inspiring people, courageous people, fun people," Hart says. His work was meaningful, satisfying and exciting, but he's "moving on"--he doesn't know where he'll go, but regardless, he will not soon be forgotten at PCAE.

"We miss him very much, but he's really mentored a lot of colleagues," Meier says. "So many of his ideas and so much of his inspiration is in all of us. He's still around, even though he's not around."

Dana Pfeiffer

Barbara Kittle

She hasn't let blindness slow her down in any way

Though she lives in a world of shadows, Barbara Kittle has brought a tremendous amount of light to Tucson. Legally blind since childhood, the 68-year old has been an active, independent member of the community since coming here in 1958.

With a classical tune softly playing in the background, and surrounded by personal memories in the living room of the home she has occupied for almost 40 years, Kittle says, simply: "I've had a pretty good life."

That life began in the Midwest, and Barbara first came to Tucson in 1953 to visit her grandparents. Four years later, she graduated from the Texas School for the Blind. In 1958, her parents decided to move to Tucson, and she enrolled at the UA to pursue a music-education degree.

"My dad drove me to campus and walked me around," Kittle remembers, "so I knew where things were. The campus was pretty easy to get around, because there basically weren't any cars."

After graduating in 1961, Kittle began giving private piano lessons, teaching music she had read in Braille and committed to memory. "It takes me more than a month to memorize a piece," she says, "and I'm still doing it."

After taking cane training in 1962, Barbara was able to move along the streets of Tucson by herself. For years, she was a familiar sight on Sun Tran buses and walking swiftly on the sidewalks of downtown.

Despite many possible impediments to walking blind in Tucson--such as uneven sidewalks and over-hanging vegetation--Kittle doesn't complain. At the same time, she is complimentary of Sun Tran service: "It's pretty easy to navigate."

In 1965, Barbara met Bob Kittle, a native of West Virginia who had gradually lost his eyesight after serving in the Navy during World War II; the couple married two years later. Barbara recalls Bob ran a snack bar in City Hall at the time. With a laugh, she remembers, "He thought everybody at City Hall should get invited to our wedding. So there was quite a crowd that showed up."

With Bob's income, the couple was able to afford a $110-a-month mortgage and moved into a home just before their first daughter was born in 1969. Six years later, another infant girl joined the family.

One of their daughters worked for the post office before recently deciding to stay home with her three children. The other served in Iraq in 2003 and has just returned from another job there as an Army employee.

Shortly after moving to Tucson, Barbara became a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church and quickly joined its choir. She also took up bell ringing in the early 1990s and is still a fixture in the church's hand-bell choir.

"I make a tape of a bell piece played on the piano," organist Lynn Moser of Trinity says, "and call out when Barbara should ring her bell. She listens to the tape and memorizes the music, then we get together weekly to practice. She's been with the choir since day one."

Barbara has a circle of friends--including me--who now take her grocery shopping and to medical appointments. Acknowledging she is slowing down a little, she admits there are also some physical challenges she faces by staying in her house.

Despite that, she still manages her own finances while living a full life. Since Bob died in 2000, Barbara Kittle has continued playing music and plans on staying in her house "for as long as I can," she declares resolutely.

Dave Devine

Holly Rasmussen

She makes sure autistic children have the same opportunities other parents take for granted

When Holly Rasmussen thinks about mothers of special-needs children, the 1950s term "refrigerator mother" comes to mind. She jokes about getting T-Shirts with the phrase slapped across them--to make light of the bad rap mothers get when their children don't act like everyone expects.

The term "refrigerator mother" was a label given to mothers after doctors couldn't explain why children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) were rigid and anti-social. The mothers often got blamed for their children's problems, accused of being frigid. Luckily, many of those mothers became pioneers, demanding more services in schools and the community.

The spirit of those pioneering refrigerator mothers lives on in Rasmussen.

She has spent the past four years looking for a community to call her own while dealing with the challenges of raising three children--two with ASDs and one typical--all as a single mother. Rasmussen turned to local churches, but even there, people were not understanding. At one church, a minister handed her a parenting book. Rasmussen didn't go back.

"Our kids are always put in positions where they have to conform to everyone else, while we don't ask everyone to conform to them," she says.

She also turned to the Boy Scouts.

"I had five brothers. They were all involved in scouting. It was ... a big part of our lives. I wanted that for my kids, too," Rasmussen says.

Last year, she enrolled her sons in a local Cub Scouts pack--but that didn't go as well as she expected.

One symptom of children with Asperger's syndrome is an obsessive interest that becomes part of everything the child does. For her son Kevin, it is everything Star Wars. So, during pack meetings, Kevin often interrupted with comments about Star Wars.

"One bike-safety lesson was all about light sabers for Kevin," Rasmussen says.

The leaders in Kevin's pack were helpful and, to their credit, tried to work with Kevin's interruptions, but Rasmussen says she eventually decided the best thing to do was take Kevin out and enroll his brother in a new pack.

She didn't want to look at other programs set up for special-needs children, since most of the other children have profound developmental delays. It never seemed like a good fit, she says.

When Rasmussen searched for activities for children with autism, she found nothing. So, like other mothers before her, she decided to start something from scratch. The result is Cub Scouts Pack 272, believed to be the first Cub Scouts pack in the country for children with ASDs.

There are about 20 children in the pack (including my son). The group meets twice a month, once for the pack meeting that often focuses on science projects and badge requirements, and once for a field trip.

"Just because these kids have autism, it doesn't mean we don't work on badges," she says. "This isn't an autism play group."

But they do work the pack a little differently. On field trips, children take tours in smaller groups, and representatives at, say, the fire station or the zoo are always given a quick lesson on ASDs.

At a recent field trip to a fire station, the fire fighters got a glimpse of ASD life when one child asked, "If this place is on fire, who is going to put it out?"

"They said they'd never had that question before, but they never had a group of kids with autism visit before," Rasmussen says.

The other benefit of a children's group that allows its members to be themselves is that parents can be themselves, too. Rasmussen says she knew the group could become a resource for parents needing a shoulder or good advice.

"When we meet, no one judges anyone. If a kid has a meltdown, everyone keeps on talking," Rasmussen says.

Mari Herreras

Carmen Romero

A senior herself, she makes sure other seniors get companionship and assistance

On a rainy winter day, Carmen Romero hurries between the raindrops falling in the courtyard at the Lalo Guerrero Barrio Viejo Elderly Housing complex south of downtown.

The apartments are painted violet, ochre and green, but the sunny shades can't take the nasty chill out of the air. But Romero just clutches her windbreaker close. She has someplace she needs to be. She's on her way to visit 85-year-old Carmen Samaniego y Alvarez, in her little one-bedroom apartment.

Samaniego beams when her son Pedro opens the door to Romero. The older woman throws her arms around her.

"I love her very much," Samaniego declares in Spanish. "She's my friend."

Samaniego is just one of Romero's elderly friends--or clients--in the barrio. Romero works as a senior companion, in a Pima County elderly services program run by the nonprofit Our Family. She spends her days visiting the old, the lonely and the infirm, sitting to talk, peeking into the refrigerator to make sure they're eating adequately and driving them to the pharmacy. Some of them get few or no visitors other than Romero.

"I stay with them, sometimes for an hour," Romero says. "Some of them are desperate. They don't talk to people sometimes. It does them good. They really appreciate it."

Romero is almost more of a volunteer than an employee. She earns just $2.65 an hour--a rate well below minimum wage--but she doesn't have to pay taxes, and she can keep collecting her own Social Security checks.

After all, Romero herself is a senior citizen, and she's lived in the senior apartments herself for the last four years. She'll turn 71 two days after Christmas, but she has no plans to stop working. She's had jobs her whole life, and she likes this one.

"Oh yeah, I enjoy the work," she says. "It's a very interesting job. It's not the money. It gets you out. When I got the job, I had lost my husband. I was helping other people, and they help me, too."

The work has one major drawback.

"It's hard when they decease," she says, "but in this job, you've got to get used to it."

Romero works primarily in the Lalo Guerrero complex, a Catholic Community Services project for low-income elderly. Built on the site of the old Drachman School, the complex weathered vocal opposition from historic preservationists. Ultimately, The Architecture Company's design preserved one piece of the historic school: The offices occupy the old pillared portico building on Convent Avenue. The shady porch is a favored spot of one of her clients, Romero says; the woman likes to sit and watch the people and cars go by.

Romero grew up a few blocks to the south, in Barrio Libre. She was one of 21 children, she says, but just six grew up. She went out to work at an early age, after her father suffered an accident.

"I would pick cotton in Marana. They took us in a truck. Later, I got a job at a private school, helping with the breakfast and cleaning the dorms. Then I was offered a job cutting french fries in a factory close to home."

After she married and had three children of her own, Romero continued to work. For 19 years, she worked in restaurants at the UA Student Union, finishing up as a grill cook. She brings that same energy to her retirement job. When she finishes her paid hours, she volunteers.

"I help in the dining room," she says. "Sometimes, I help with the coffee. We decorated the dining room for Christmas. Last Thursday, we had a party celebrating Lalo Guerrero's anniversary." (The late musician is probably the barrio's most famous native son.)

Romero's labors not only bring joy to her clients, but peace of mind to their families.

Pedro Alvarez Samaniego and his brother switch off spending the night with their elderly mom. But it's a huge help to them to know that Romero will come by to see her, no matter what.

"It's helpful for Carmen to visit," he says. "If my mom didn't have anybody, it would be difficult."

Margaret Regan

Matt Skroch

After realizing that everything is connected, he decided to fight for people to take better care of our world

Matt Skroch, the 32-year-old executive director of the Sky Island Alliance--a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to preserving and restoring the rich diversity of life that the high mountains and low deserts of Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico support--has a kind of scrubbed professional handsomeness. He looks like a guy who should wear more suits.

He probably fits in just fine when he's dudded up to testify before Congress, which he did recently in support of the Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness bill, the long campaign for which has put Skroch and his group often in the public eye over the last few years. He has a deliberate, thoughtful way about him, and he can reel off talking-point-style facts and phrases in a laid-back, conversational style that belies the fact that he's probably said it all 1,000 times to 1,000 different faces.

The Sky Island Alliance formed in 1991 when they helped save us all from the Coronado National Forest's now-defunct plan to create a huge, region-wide national recreation area in the Sky Islands. The opposition countered with a plan for an interconnected national conservation area across the region. Neither plan was realized, but out of the ashes rose SIA. By 2000, the group had three full-time employees; today, they have 10, and have become the conservation and wilderness authority in Southern Arizona.

Skroch went through a kind of middle-class, American-boy hero's quest to get here. He grew up outdoors in Minnesota and South Dakota, canoeing in the Boundary Waters, trekking across the Black Hills. His earliest memories are of chasing grasshoppers and dreading being called in out of the wildlands. When he entered college at the University of Iowa, he thought he'd go into engineering--it was "a good career path."

"That was a dismal first year," he says.

Deciding to follow his interests instead of a career path, the lifelong outdoorsman started taking ecology classes. Then, in 1997, he spent four months studying in Costa Rica. It was there that he had his epiphany, his touch with the sharp edge of clarity: It's all connected.

"In college, you go to class; you write reports, and you study things in books," he explains. "In Costa Rica, I did all that, but it was completely paired with field studies. There was just this really clear connection to conservation at that point, and all of a sudden, not only was I concerned with the behavioral differences between two particular species of frog, but I started looking around and also thinking, 'Well, there's clear-cutting over there, and a banana plantation over there, and those things are going to have some relevance to the future of this frog ... .'"

Once you start piecing together the connections, you begin to realize that "the integrity of our natural world is really dependent on how we as humans take care of it," Skroch says. "That connection made a really strong impact on me, and that's when I came back to the states and said, 'That's what I want to do: I want to take science and translate it into something meaningful to the future.'"

And that's exactly what he's doing today.

Skroch moved to Tucson, following a girlfriend from Costa Rica, in 1998, and soon became a summer intern with SIA. He moved his way up to executive director, and now he's a recognized expert on the region. He's president of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition's board of directors and sits on environmental advisory panels for both Rep. Raúl Grijalva and Gov. Janet Napalitano.

It's Skroch's force of personality and conviction, one imagines, wedded to many hours of volunteer work and the unending labors of a dedicated staff paid with nonprofit collecting, that has made the Sky Island Alliance one of the most dynamic and successful regionally focused environmental groups in the Southwest. And, though it may sound a touch hokey, they are doing it for all of us.

"For me and a lot of people that I work with, there's a very strong sense of meaning behind what we do," Skroch says. "We feel like we are protecting our national heritage."

Tim Hull

Maryada Vallet

At Casa Maria and with No More Deaths, she works to comfort the afflicted

It hadn't occurred to Maryada Vallet to follow her mother and sister into nursing. She heard more distant drums.

Once her global studies and international relations degrees were in hand, things took an unexpected turn. She signed on with No More Deaths, searching for and providing humanitarian aid to lost and ailing migrants.

"These people are the heroes of the global populace, where everything has been pulled out from underneath their feet, their whole livelihood, and they're saying, 'I'm gonna use my feet, and I'm gonna do what I can to feed my family, to give my family a future,'" she says.

Vallet's best friend, Shanti Sellz, was indicted for her work with No More Deaths in 2005. Although the charges eventually were dropped, related discussions with the Border Patrol convinced Vallet that to continue caring for migrants, she would need a medical license. Therefore, she set about earning certification as an emergency medical technician.

She was following her mother and sister into medicine after all.

"My mom and sister rolled on the floor laughing when I said I was going to do something medical. But I really enjoyed it a lot. I'm going to start looking for work in the field a little bit so I can keep up my EMT, either in a hospital or an ambulance service."

In the meantime, she coordinates a project she launched for No More Deaths in the summer of 2006: an aid station at the Mariposa port of entry in Nogales that provides medical attention, food and social-service referrals to migrants returned to Mexico by the Border Patrol.

The first year, she did much of the work herself; it was a 24-7 enterprise, and it was exhausting. Over time, she earned the support of local and regional agencies of the Mexican government, as well as local volunteers. By the summer of 2007, she had recruited several co-coordinators from the ranks of border humanitarian organizations.

"I split up what I'd been doing into about five different job descriptions, and we have a coordination team now, because it's gotten bigger than we could ever have imagined. "

Vallet explains that the aid station is an extension of the mission of No More Deaths. "The death and suffering doesn't end when people come out of the desert," she says, "because when people are released from U.S. custody, they're all sick and hungry. The reality is, people are going to cross again, six times if they have to. We can prevent death with a clean pair of socks, some water, some food and a safe space to think about what they want to do next. When people are in emotional distress, they need support. Our Mexican partners deal with all those extenuating circumstances. They're an amazing crew down there."

Some of Vallet's own support comes from the Catholic Worker Community at Casa Maria, a local soup kitchen serving Tucson's homeless population. Although she's not a Catholic, she says her work is driven by her faith. "Definitely, my hope comes from my faith," she says. "My sense of justice comes from my faith. My desire to love my neighbor and take care of my neighbor comes from my faith."

In exchange for her work with the soup kitchen, Vallet gets room, board and the time to coordinate volunteers and supplies for the Mariposa aid station, where, she says, she frequently sees people she's met at Casa Maria, or vice versa.

She's also paid $10 a week, and--believe it or not--she spends it on a little fun. "It's either a couple of lattes," she says, "or a beer and a movie ticket at the Loft."

Linda Ray