Local Heroes

These 10 Tucsonans have made our community a better place

Eduardo Baca

This folklórico-group founder says he was inspired by his daughter

At Eduardo Baca's upholstery shop on South Fourth Avenue in South Tucson, the sounds of children's voices and the rhythms of Mexican folklórico music drift through the doorway.

You might think such sounds are what inspired Baca and his wife, Josefina, to start Ballet Tapatío Folklórico. Although the sounds coming from the dance studio next door to his shop are wonderful, the real inspiration came at home.

"Because of my daughter," Baca says, surrounded by car seats, chairs and other furniture that he will make look like new. When his daughter, Veronica, was a little girl, she was always running around, full of energy, he says. "I said to my wife, 'We have to put her in something.'"

But Veronica didn't like soccer. And she wasn't thrilled with gymnastics, either.

One day in 1997, they watched a folklórico performance together—and her face lit up, Baca recalls.

"I asked her, 'You think you'd like that?' She said, 'Yes.'"

That was the start of Ballet Folklórico Tapatío (www.purotapatio.org). With help from Lupe Klein Aviles, the Bacas brought in folklórico dance instructor Sergio Valle from Guadalajara, and Victoria was joined by her brothers, Jose Luis and Eduardo Jr.

Practices were held on the Bacas' front porch. As soon as more children joined in, Baca soon realized he needed to find a bigger practice space. There wasn't enough money to rent a studio, but Baca happened to own an empty lot next to his upholstery shop.

"I went to a contractor I knew, and asked him if he could level the lot for me, so we could build the studio, but I didn't have any way to pay him," Baca says.

The contractor agreed to do the work in exchange for Baca reupholstering some truck seats. When it came time to pour the foundation, Baca paid for the concrete, but got someone to agree to pour the foundation free. In all, he collected about $5,000 in donated work, while he put in the rest of the $15,000 needed to build the studio.

His daughter, now grown, is a physical therapist, and his oldest son is a dentist with a practice in Phoenix. The youngest son, Jose Luis, is now the instructor for Ballet Folklórico Tapatío.

Baca says he believes his children's success was based in part on their interest in folklórico.

"When you love something, you focus on that. I love upholstery. This is what I do, and I do it because I love it," Baca says. Giving children something that they love to do "helps them be successful."

Looking back on his own childhood, Baca says he never thought he'd be where he is today—supporting a folklórico group and making costumes for its shows. He recently took on the job of installing a new floor at the studio.

Baca moved to Tucson from Mexico in 1972 and got a job as a dishwasher. Then he worked in a furniture store, where he learned enough about the upholstery business to start his own shop.

In the dance studio, Baca walks in after the last class and opens a door to reveal a huge storage room filled with costumes, hats, shoes and props representing dances and costumes from almost every region of Mexico. He pulls out a black suede vest, part of a group of costumes he was able to make because of his upholstery skills. He also points out a group of white jackets with black embroidery that cost about $6,000, paid for by Baca.

Baca says the group charges about $25 for each child to join the group, with discounts for multiple children from the same family. The group now has more than 130 members.

"We have kids who come down from Oro Valley and even the eastside," Baca says.

Although the group is a nonprofit, it's been hard to obtain grants. Baca says he sometimes gets frustrated because there are numerous grants available to help support children's sports teams, but not as many to help dance programs.

"For these kids, this is a sport," he says.

The income pays for instruction, and anything left over goes to costumes and travel costs. According to the group's website, the kids involved have traveled to Walt Disney World, Guadalajara, Idaho and various Arizona locales during the past 15 years. They have won numerous honors over the years, most recently taking first place last year at the first International Mariachi and Folklórico Festival in Rosarito Beach, Baja California.

"When we first started, it was for our daughter," Baca says. "I didn't know what would happen. Here we are, and I am so happy."

—Mari Herreras


Cynthia Conroy

Her stair-climbing race in Bisbee raises thousands for charity

Cynthia Conroy is catching a break: Because 2012 is a leap year, she'll have an extra day to plan next October's Bisbee 1000, an event she founded a couple of decades ago.

She started the event on a lark, and now, it's an international happening. It's been lauded by everyone from the folks at Runner's World magazine to The Wall Street Journal.

Conroy (wearing the cowboy hat at the right in the photo above) got the idea for the event back in the late 1980s when she read an article in The New York Times about how exercise enthusiasts were flocking to gyms to use the newfangled stair-climber machines. She figured that hilly Bisbee was a town full of exercise opportunities, and it took off from there. The first Bisbee 1000 drew about 100 participants (mostly local) and raised about $1,000. The 21st Bisbee 1000, held a couple of months ago, had to be capped at 2,000 participants (more than 98 percent from out of town). It raised nearly $65,000.

The money helps support a wide range of charities in both Bisbee and Sierra Vista. This year's beneficiaries include local Boys and Girls Clubs, the Sierra Vista middle school band, the Copper Queen Hospital, the Bisbee Food Bank, the Bisbee homeless shelter and at least 18 other organizations. "We're thrilled to be able to help so many people, but we want to do more," Conroy says.

She took some heat from a few people for taking on the Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation as a partner this year, but she shrugs it off. "Hey, Bisbee wouldn't exist in the first place if it weren't for mining companies. And Freeport is a great partner. They matched contributions—dollar for dollar—and ended up contributing $20,000. I realize that there's an anticorporate vibe in Bisbee, but Freeport is a good neighbor and a good partner."

Her knowledge of Bisbee and its steps is encyclopedic. She rattles off facts and figures in dizzying fashion: Bisbee has 351 sets of stairs that, laid end to end, would stretch more than three miles. (The race itself uses only nine flights of stairs, but that's still enough to give the average participant a butt cramp that will last for weeks.) Many of the concrete steps were built by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression to replace dangerous wooden steps. Conroy says there are WPA stamps in steps all over Bisbee.

Conroy walks the course several times a year, often with people who come to town for a weekend to check it out without the race-day pressure. But she's so busy on that third Saturday in October that she can't participate in the event she created. Aided by an army of volunteers that includes the Arizona Rangers, a group that supports law-enforcement agencies, and even the Cochise College women's basketball team, she oversees every aspect of the event.

Just before the start of this year's race, she grabbed the microphone and chastised those who try to participate without paying the entry fee, despite knowing that all the proceeds go to charity.

"I can't stand it," she says, bristling. "People can walk these steps for free 364 1/2 days a year, but these bandits want to crash a party and take money away from causes that need it. It really makes me angry."

Conroy laughs when she ponders the growth of the Bisbee 1000. "I thought I had a pretty good idea, but I didn't know it would turn into this. People refer to me as the founder, but anymore, I'm just the baby sitter. This thing has taken on a life of its own."

—Tom Danehy


Josie Dominguez

This volunteer uses gardening to teach schoolchildren about commitments

Digging your hands into the rich soil laid down by Josie Dominguez, you won't find joysticks or keyboards or any other remnants of the digital age. What you will discover is the ancient pleasure of planting the earth, and soulful lessons destined to long outlive any computer screen.

That's the gift this 73-year-old mother, grandmother and legendary gardener shares every day with the students and staff at Holladay Magnet Elementary School. Actually, it's just one of the gifts. In those moments when she's not teaching kids how to raise lilies or lettuce or cilantro or tomatoes, she is shepherding them off buses, mopping floors or nurturing landscaping that not long ago was bare dirt.

Chat with Dominguez for more than a minute, and you know it's all about the kids. "I show them how to put the plants in the ground," she says. "Some of them are pretty good at it. They don't mind getting their hands dirty. It's really a lot of fun, helping them learn different things.

"This also helps them in the long run," she says. "Later on in life, if they want to plant a garden, they know exactly what to do—how to get it started, how to keep it going."

Her volunteerism is also about Holladay, a plucky little school that long ago became the heartbeat of the struggling South Park neighborhood. And Dominguez has plenty of reasons to care, because three of her granddaughters are students here.

She has roots in South Park, which emerged as a thriving African-American enclave in the 1940s, and has seen its fortunes rise and fall ever since. Today, the community of slump-block homes, makeshift churches and dirt yards has a shifting demographic that's now roughly 40 percent Hispanic.

A native of the tiny railroad town of Cochise, Dominguez moved to South Park in 1960. By her recollection, at least one family member seems to have attended Holladay ever since.

Betts Putnam-Hidalgo is another volunteer at the school. "I've worked with Josie on landscaping at two schools now, and her energy, commitment and dedication are just amazing," Putnam-Hidalgo writes in an email to the Weekly. "She is single-handedly responsible for keeping all gardens, greenery and potted plants alive here."

I get the same sense from Larry Haynes, a former Holladay teacher who returned much later as its principal. Over that long arc, his ties to Josie Dominguez and her family have endured. "It's great, at this stage in our careers, to see one another again," he says, "and to know that she's giving of herself as she did way back then."

Dominguez and I walk past several classrooms to a small garden planted just inside the steel fence near 34th Street. She crouches, plucking one brown stalk from a basil plant and pinching it between her fingers.

These labors bear great fruit, she tells me. "Betts and I get together and make a salad for the kids. We use stuff like radishes and tomatoes, and the kids get to taste what they grow."

But at Holladay, some things are planted even deeper than that. "It mostly has to do with showing my grandkids that I'm here to improve their school," she says. "It shows that I care enough about their education to be doing this, which is important."

Josie Dominguez pauses to check a tomato plant that's valiantly braving this crisp winter morning. "I'm here every day," she says with a slight grin. "When I put something in the ground, I want to see it come up."

(Disclosure: My wife is a fifth-grade teacher at Holladay.)

—Tim Vanderpool


Patricia Maisch

The Jan. 8 hero fights for tougher background checks on gun sales

Last spring, Patricia Maisch was approached by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 500 mayors to become a spokeswoman for a proposed law that would tighten the background checks required of people who want to buy a gun.

It was several months after she'd made a seemingly mundane decision that may have saved her life: While attending a Jan. 8 Congress on Your Corner event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a northwest-side Safeway, she decided to step to the back of the line.

"I came away from the shooting with a personal self-imposed responsibility to change some of the things that are happening," Maisch says, citing research supported by the coalition. "Thirty-four Americans die each day from violence from guns."

On Nov. 15, Maisch testified along with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on "The Fix Gun Checks Act: Better State and Federal Compliance, Smarter Enforcement." During her testimony, she held up pictures of each of the six people killed on Jan. 8 and said their names aloud.

"I want to be useful in the process," Maisch says. "After I came home from D.C., my husband read what some of the bloggers were saying—that the spokespersons for the coalition are being used for someone else's politics, that what we want will never happen. That blogger is wrong. I know I'm being used—and I'm in favor of being used in this effort."

Maisch, who was lauded for taking the magazine away from Jared Loughner as he attempted to reload, refuses to call herself a hero, reserving that title for Roger Salzgeber and Bill Badger, the two men who tackled him.

"I knew it was a gun. I didn't think I had time to run, so I got on the ground," she remembers. "At the same moment, Bill and Roger knocked him down, essentially on top of me. They yelled, 'Get the gun—get the magazine!' I knelt up but I couldn't reach his gun, which was in his right hand, outstretched. But I got the magazine from his left hand, which he was getting out from his pants.

"Once you go through something like that, the little things can be easily let go of. Every day is a good day if no one is shooting at me. I try to be thankful for that in discreet ways and not-discreet ways."

Maisch says that the first responders and employees from nearby restaurants who gave aid to the wounded were also heroes that day.

"The rest of us, I think, were people of action," she says. "It takes both that and heroes to change things. I hope there are more people of action out there to tell Congress that people who shouldn't have guns shouldn't have them."

Maisch recommends signing petitions and calling state legislators to help change gun laws.

"Remember Dorothy Morris, Judge (John) Roll, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman and Christina-Taylor Green," Maisch says, with tears welling up as she gets to the last name.

Maisch says she plans to talk to Tucson's new mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, about joining the coalition. She also wants to discuss the issue with Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain.

"I want people to understand that (gun violence is) not just the events that are massive and get national press, but that it's happening every day in inner cities. Thirty-four Americans are dying every day, and it can't continue."

To sign a petition to support tougher background checks for gun sales, visit www.closetheloophole.org.

Debbie Hadley


Luis Perales

He uses 'ethnic studies in action' to help neighborhoods help themselves

"You don't have to look very far to see if a community is respected," Luis Perales says, "You just have to see how clean it is. You just have to see how developed that community is. If you see that there's very little development and very little cleaning, and things are dilapidated ... you don't have to go any further than that."

But regardless of how things look, Perales says, when you speak to residents of such communities, you'll realize that everyone wants the same thing: a safe, healthy and sustainable place to live.

"Some people are just stuck in a cycle ... of violence or abuse or dependency," says Perales, who is working through the Tierra y Libertad Organization to help one neglected Tucson community take control of its future. Tactics range from obtaining government resources to grow food for neighborhood residents, to persuading artists to use their skills to beautify common spaces.

Perales, an alumnus of the joint public-health/Mexican-American studies program at the UA, has a day job showing high school teachers how to make coursework relevant to the backgrounds and needs of students.

But in his own time, Perales does what he calls "ethnic studies in action." He is helping residents of Barrio Wakefield, an area south of Interstate 10 between Sixth and 12th avenues, work together to foster community and learn sustainable development techniques, such as water-harvesting and urban farming.

"We specifically chose the Wakefield neighborhood because it hasn't had a neighborhood association for over 10 years," Perales says.

Although some neighborhood schools and churches have programs to help with community needs, Perales says that what's lacking in Wakefield is a sense of ownership that the neighborhood could mobilize to get alleys and abandoned properties cleaned up, traffic abated and weeds controlled.

But a quick fix won't get the job done, Perales says. He's working with the community's youth on a more-sustainable approach. For 10 years, he's run a summer program that educates neighborhood youth about public health assessment, permaculture development and food safety. "It's the role of these young people to become educated, to be eloquent speakers, to be presenters, to be able to do research," he says.

The program also encourages young people to cultivate resiliency in themselves and the community. Perales says "the program exposes them to what we consider the ills of society ... (such as) the bombardment of anti-Latino legislation in Arizona. We say, 'Well, what are you gonna do about that? How are you going to be able to be resilient in this context?'"

Pointing to the state of public education in Arizona, he says, "We're 49th. Well, how are you going to take it upon yourself to learn, to be knowledgeable?"

Perales sees the problems of a community as "an opportunity to engage folks ... so in good or bad times, we're taking care of one another, repairing things that need repair ... building upon the positive instead of always thinking about our communities (in the negative).

"So, for me, it's bringing these issues to light—not to complain, but to say, 'Well, what are we gonna do about it?' Because if we're waiting for the president or the City Council to come and solve these problems, it's not gonna happen."

—Linda Ray


Ignacio Rivera de Rosales

The founder of a youth-cycling team promotes integrity and physical fitness

Pam was worried about her sons. Luke and Liam were both in high school. They were good kids and had decent grades, but they had few interests and spent most of their spare time playing video games. Would they become just another two disaffected youths whose growth and maturation was stunted by apathy and lack of engagement with life?

Fast-forward a couple of years, and Pam is giddy with delight: Luke and Liam are members of an athletic team. They train; they support each other and their teammates; they are energetic and active—and they both scoff at the Xbox.

What facilitated such a transformation? In this case, the alchemist was Ignacio Rivera de Rosales, and his philosopher's stone was the sport of bicycling.

He had been a longtime cycling enthusiast, but his first weeklong bike tour moved him to the fanatic level. "I wanted to get totally involved in bicycles, and everything they could do socially and culturally," he says. "Wow! The bicycle. What an amazing tool for so much."

Shortly after that tour in 2003, de Rosales came to Tucson to study at the University of Arizona. It was not long before he discovered BICAS, a nonprofit that engages in bicycle recycling, advocacy and instruction. He described it as "a very rough diamond" and has since helped grow the organization.

In 2005, the principal of City High School, a local charter school, stopped by BICAS, looking for bicycle racks. De Rosales spoke to the principal, and this led to an offer for de Rosales to teach bicycling at the school as a physical-education class.

His first class was a motley crew of nonathletes. The first few rides were no more than 3 or 4 miles long. By the end of the year, however, the crew rode the 27-mile Tour of the Tucson Mountains. "That was the greatest physical achievement that any of those kids ever achieved in their lives," he says, adding, "I knew then that I wanted what I have now with El Grupo."

El Grupo is a youth-cycling team that endeavors to "instill traits such as courage, integrity and good sportsmanship through riding and racing bicycles," he says.

De Rosales met Luke at one of his BICAS build-a-bike classes. He invited Luke to ride bikes with him. A year later, Luke was riding the 111-mile El Tour de Tucson.

De Rosales described him as "a kid who never did a competitive sport in his life, and now he can look at himself and say, 'I'm an athlete. I'm a physical being. I can set physical goals. I can go out and achieve them. I enjoy activity.' And that's great!"

The evening before the 2011 El Tour de Tucson, the team got together for dinner. Liam was presented with a team jersey, a privilege he had earned.

Hundreds of mostly poor, at-risk boys and girls have passed through programs in which de Rosales is involved. Many are still friends with him, and come to visit and have dinner with him and his wife, Daniela Diamente.

To them, he is certainly a hero.

For more information, visit elgrupocycling.org.

—Jonathan Hoffman


Linda Rousos

Her program helps Tucson's refugee groups achieve common goals

As an English-as-a-second-language instructor at Pima Community College, Linda Rousos saw the need for a place where refugees could find support outside of her classroom. So in 1995, she founded the Tucson International Alliance of Refugee Communities, or TIARC, as a place where refugees could connect with and help each other.

When refugees come to the United States, they are given assistance for a period of time by a resettlement agency. The assistance typically includes English and citizenship classes, as well as an aide who helps refugees settle in this country—for example, by registering their children in school. In the past, the assistance period could last up to nine months, but today, the period can be as short as 30 to 60 days, says Rousos (pictured above wearing the pink sweater).

"After they finished with the resettlement, they would ask their teacher or me—sometimes I was their teacher—'What can I do?'" she says. "They still have a lot of need."

Refugees would need help dealing with government paperwork, or finding medical care, or dealing with the school system.

"The first year or two that they're here, the resettlement agencies can't work with them very much anymore, but TIARC can," Rousos says. "They have somewhere to go."

Before TIARC, refugees in Tucson tended to stick with other refugees of the same ethnicity, but TIARC has helped bring the various groups together.

"I came up with the idea to have this community-development group for refugee communities, plural, not just one ethnic group," Rousos says. "They needed a place so that refugees from different groups could get together and help each other. It was exciting. They had some of the same dreams."

Most refugees wanted a place where they could get information about job opportunities, news in their native language, and language classes for their children.

All that and more became possible through TIARC, which became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1997. The program has struggled at times, but today, it is thriving, thanks to a three-year grant approved earlier this year.

TIARC's services have expanded to include case-management help for elderly refugees, English and citizenship classes, computer classes, driver training, help with translation, and even a diaper bank.

Rousos smiles when she thinks of how far TIARC has come.

"I thought it was a project that I would get going maybe for a few years, but I never thought it would go on as long as this," she says.

Rousos says the refugees TIARC has helped over the years include some of the most amazing people she has ever met. Rousos chuckles as she recalls refugees from the former Soviet Union negotiating for the ability to watch Russian TV channels with the owner of their low-income senior-living facility.

"Sometimes, the refugees just need a person to tell their story to," Rousos says. "A lot of refugees, they're different in some ways, but they also have a lot in common. They're survivors. They're brilliant people, a lot of them, and they're very, very generous. It's really a wonderful thing when they can work together, and share, and help each other."

For more information about TIARC, or to volunteer, visit www.aztiarc.org.

—Kellie Mejdrich


Charlie Spillar

He has saved many key pieces of Tucson culture

Any guy in tights and a cape can save the day, but it seems like only Charlie Spillar is able to save precious pieces of Tucson.

Since he moved here nine years ago, this versatile fellow and free-spirited artist has aided arts organizations and helped preserve Tucson's culture—all at no charge.

"I must be insane," he says with a laugh when asked why he does it. Mix insanity with a passion for art, and therein lies Spillar's motivation.

His most notable claims to fame include helping to save the Valley of the Moon, finding new homes for the massive Magic Carpet Golf statues in 2008 and 2009, and continuing Tucson's drive-in theater tradition when the De Anza Drive-In was closed in 2009 and demolished in 2010.

Valley of the Moon became Spillar's mission after he became enchanted with the 1920s-era fantasyland at 2544 E. Allen Road.

Later, he knew he had to save the historic big screen from the De Anza Drive-In and continue the local drive-in tradition, not only because of community sentiment—but also because he loves drive-ins.

In between, Spillar felt a special bond with the Magic Carpet statues, because one of his own gigantic creations was once reduced to rubble without warning. The statues have since found new homes around town, thanks to Spillar's efforts, which included the fundraising "One Last Round" of miniature golf on the property at 6125 E. Speedway Blvd.

"Over 100 volunteers helped make it a major success enjoyed by participants from all over the country," Spillar says. "The Magic Carpet meant so much to so many Tucsonans ... and the wide media coverage helped me to find people to adopt and save the unique sculptures that were its feature for over 40 years.

"It was like I saved their lives," he says, which was no easy feat. The giant Tiki head alone weighs in at 55,000 pounds.

Saving the biggest movie screen at De Anza was no walk in the park, either. Spillar wasn't told the demolition crew was coming until the morning it arrived.

"I threw my body in front of the bulldozers," he jokes. Spillar arranged for the pieces of the dismantled screen to be kept in storage until a permanent location is found.

In the interim, Spillar set up the nonprofit Cactus Drive-In Theatre Foundation (www.cactusdriveintheater.com), which has already shown a handful of movies at a couple of temporary locations. More than 600 people came to the first showing.

"It brought families together, communicating and enjoying a family film," he notes.

Spillar's varied career has included stints as a writer, producer and star of TV commercials. He made the front page of Advertising Age as the first Chipwich street vendor in Los Angeles.

He's been a commodities broker, a public-relations guru and a fish processor in Alaska. He trained in self-healing to treat a stomach ailment and says he's hasn't had so much as indigestion since 1975. He has also hitchhiked across the Yukon.

"I have had so many interesting jobs," he says, that "I should be well over 100 by now."

Getting paid for promoting the arts would be nice, he says, as would helping to transform Tucson into a bustling bastion of the arts. He is excited about the planned renovation of the Steinfeld Warehouse into a community arts center. He would love to see major arts events come to town, and he wants to find more ways to showcase "what phenomenal talent is located here."

That talent also includes Spillar—for his ability to promote and preserve the things that keep Tucson unique.

—Ryn Gargulinski


Lucy Toal

At age 84, the quilter brings joy to mothers in need

Lucy Toal grabs her walker and makes her way slowly to the corner of her sewing room. Once she's stationed at her machine, she starts stitching strips of fabric to muslin with lightning speed.

At age 84, Toal is making baby quilts for infants born to poor mothers.

"I put in two or three hours a day, almost every day," she says cheerfully, looking up from a piece of cloth decorated with teddy bears. "When I get on a roll, I can do two or three or more a month. Once you get started, it goes fast."

Toal lost the vision in her right eye to disease 13 years ago, and now neuropathy makes it hard for her to walk.

"But my hands, fortunately, thank God, my hands are still good," she says.

And so she quilts. "I sit here pretty much housebound. When people ask me, 'What do you do?' I say, 'I put these little baby quilts together.'"

Her husband, Jack Toal, says proudly that Lucy produces up to 40 quilts a year. He helps out by making runs to the nearby fabric store. Two friends lend a hand, too. One speeds up the work by doing the ironing, and the other makes the quilt-backing. But Lucy, who once won prizes for her hand-stitched, hand-pieced wedding quilts—she has the ribbons hanging in the living room to prove it—stays in charge.

"I do the design," she says firmly.

Toal comes by her pluck honestly. She grew up on a farm in northeast Iowa, one of 12 kids born to immigrant parents from Luxembourg. After high school, she talked a younger sister into moving with her to Chicago, where the pair worked as clerks for the FBI.

"The FBI was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says with a chuckle. "It broadened my horizons."

The two sisters eventually moved to Arizona to escape Chicago's cold. She fell in love with the desert, Toal says, and with Jack, an air-traffic controller stationed at Luke Air Force Base. They married in 1953. Lucy gave birth to five children in eight years. She took care of the kids, managed the military household's many moves, and brought in extra cash by doing dressmaking and mending at home.

It wasn't until the 1970s, after the Toals were settled in Tucson and the children were bigger, that she turned to fancy quilting.

"The first quilt I made, I thought I was hot stuff," she remembers. Then she went to a meeting of the Tucson Quilters Guild and saw the intricate work the others were doing. "I said, 'Oh, my Lord.'"

But Toal learned fast. Before long, she was making exquisite full-size quilts. Everything was hand-stitched—she not only sewed the tiny pieces of fabric together with a needle and thread; she also hand-stitched the quilting that holds the top and bottom together. She copyrighted her design for a sturdy denim quilt made out of cast-off jeans and won a prize for a quilt in a hexagon pattern that she dreamed up herself.

Toal is grateful that during those years of good health, she found time to hand-sew a double quilt for each of her five children, and one for each of her four grandchildren. One granddaughter got hers when she married last month, and another one is stored in a box, awaiting the marriage of the last grandchild.

When she got sick, "I switched gears," Toal says simply. Hand-stitching was out, but she took stock of what she could do. And what she could do was make smaller, simpler quilts on her sewing machine.

"I do it all without my right eye," she boasts.

Sometimes, the moms who get the quilts let her know just how much they appreciate her work. Recently, she got a thank-you note from a woman known to Toal only as Rachel.

"I am so blessed to have received one of your quilts," Rachel wrote. "Receiving this masterpiece is like receiving a piece of you." When she and her baby sit wrapped in the quilt, Rachel wrote, "it's like I have an angel on my lap."

—Margaret Regan


Nate York

He heads up efforts to help Third World women become self-sufficient

Nate York has spent his adult life seeing the world—but not the picture-perfect one you see in vacation commercials, or in advertisements for high-end liquor.

Instead, 15 years of globetrotting has taken York to the kinds of places where commercials tell us that people are in need, and that help will be on the way if we make a small donation.

However, when York would go to places like Afghanistan, Bosnia or Kenya, he wouldn't see the needy getting that help. Instead, he saw the so-called helpers trying to make it look like a lot was getting done, when in truth, hardly anything was.

"I was just so disappointed with all of the waste I saw," says York, 41, a Georgia native who has called Tucson home since 2005. "You get all these big organizations that come in and would set up really nice offices, have large staffs and drive nice vehicles. They'd go around and do surveys, and they'd say they were helping. But they weren't doing a whole heck of a lot."

York, who had been working with relief organizations since 1995, finally got fed up during a trip to Afghanistan in 2002. It was at that point, he says, that he decided to commit himself not just to providing aid to those who need it, but to doing it in a way that emphasizes effort instead of appearances.

"I just made a personal commitment that I was going to build two girls' schools," York says. "It wasn't that hard, and didn't cost that much. To put heaters in classrooms cost, like, $10. There was so much you could do for very little, and it just irked me that the international community was saying they were doing so much, but they weren't doing much at all."

That project was the first one undertaken by Solace International, the nonprofit organization York founded in 2002 while living and going to school in Alaska. The name, York says, came from a random search of the dictionary one day.

"The word really seemed to resonate with me and what we were doing—to try to provide some solace," he says.

During the past nine years, Solace has branched out to run projects in 12 countries throughout Central and South America, Africa and Asia. Efforts continue in Colombia, Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi and Nepal.

Though Solace's projects run the gamut from housing and food production to infrastructure such as bathrooms and water-purification systems, most are focused on areas and communities where women find themselves facing uphill battles to become self-sufficient.

"Some of these villages are places where they'd never educated women for 2,000 years, and here we are, directly involved in providing literacy and education for women," York says. "That has a huge, long-term impact. Even if just one in 100 women go to college, those women become wives, and they have children and can teach their children to read."

One of Solace's most-noteworthy projects is its Cottage Industry program in Nepal. Established in 2010, its aim is to teach local artisans how to design jewelry and other products that can be sold in global markets, as well as locally to tourists, thanks to a partnership Solace has with online shopping giant Overstock.com.

"We work with a lot of single moms who just don't have a lot of opportunities," York says. "When women get educated, they start to earn, and they tend to spend more of the money they make on educating their families."

For more information, go to www.solaceinternational.org.

—Brian J. Pedersen


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