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Two who rise above in helping less fortunate

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Steve Gutierrez huddles in a blanket in Armijo Plaza on Isleta SW. Gutierrez, 66, camps out, usually for 12 days and nights before Christmas, as a way to raise awareness of poverty and to collect nonperishable food, blankets and coats for the needy. This is his 15th and last year doing so. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Steve Gutierrez huddles in a blanket in Armijo Plaza on Isleta SW. Gutierrez, 66, camps out, usually for 12 days and nights before Christmas, as a way to raise awareness of poverty and to collect nonperishable food, blankets and coats for the needy. This is his 15th and last year doing so. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

I have a reader who faithfully sends me pointed emails dismissive of my columns that, to his mind, wallow in the sorrow of someone’s sad tale.

He is not one for sympathy, not one to pity those whose lives, for whatever reason, have hit hard times.

A teenager paralyzed by a drunken driver? A mother fighting to get her kidnapped children back from Mexico? A woman left homeless after the economy takes a dive? Get over it, he growls.

He’s a tough one, that guy.

But the truth of the matter is, it is not always easy to “get over” life’s gut punches, not alone anyway. Sometimes, we need to accept help from others, from those angels among us who, unlike my critic, believe that doing good for others is good for the soul.

That’s what our annual Angels Among Us celebrates: the people who make this world a better place with little – or sometimes big – acts of kindness. This year, we had an amazing group of nominees, selected by you readers.

It’s always impossible to pick just two, so don’t be surprised if you see a few more of these worthy folks grace my columns in the coming weeks.

Thanks to you who nominated. Thanks to you who help those in need in our community. And thanks to you, my critic, for keeping me grounded.

Steve Gutierrez: Camping for a cause

We meet one morning just as he is emerging from his tent set up in Armijo Plaza as the cars on Isleta and Lopez SW roar by and the chill in the early air stiffens his bones.

It’s an odd camping spot, the tent positioned on concrete and anchored down to nearby park benches, exposed to the elements at a busy intersection in Bernalillo County’s South Valley.

Inside the tent is nothing but an air mattress and about six blankets, none of which looks particularly warming.

“It gets pretty cold,” Steve Gutierrez says. “The breeze hits you hard here.”

Gutierrez has camped out like this for 15 years, usually for the 12 days and nights before Christmas, as a way to solicit donations of nonperishable food for local food banks and blankets and coats for the homeless.

He wears only a thin red windbreaker and black sweatpants against the cold. He brings with him no creature comforts, no books, no cellphone, little food.

His efforts, he says, are a reminder to the public of how the poor in the community live – cold, uncomfortable and with next to nothing. So he must live that way, too.

He is 66 now, and this fundraiser is getting harder to do, harder on his body. Donations are down. Need is up. His goal this year is to collect 500 items of food and 150 blankets. On the day we visit, he had already met his food goal but had only 14 blankets donated so far.

“I’ll be honest. Sometimes I have wanted to give up,” he says. “I see these cars, these people go by and I think, why don’t they stop? Why don’t they give? You start to feel like it’s personal, like it’s you they are shunning.”

But it is important to keep trying, he says. And so he does.

Doing charitable work for the South Valley has been Gutierrez’s passion nearly all his life. He grew up here. He was one of the founders of Youth Development Inc., a nonprofit that provides assistance to children, youths and families. That was in 1971, when he was in his early 20s.

Since then, he’s held many positions at YDI, from heading the food commodity program to leading a drill team called Las Señoritas.

It was the latter that led to the idea of sleeping outside as a way to seek donations.

“One year the Señoritas took on a blanket drive as a community project,” he says. “That year, the blanket drive was, uh, not very good. The next year, one of the girls’ parents says, ‘What if Steve sleeps outside to show the need for blankets in the cold?’”

Gutierrez didn’t mind being recruited for such a chilly charitable act. That year, he says, the blanket drive was a success.

The Señoritas disbanded in 2004, but Gutierrez carried on with the camping for a cause at Christmas. Those who know Gutierrez, who is now YDI’s liaison for family and youth services, say he does much more than that for the community.

“He’s everywhere,” says friend George Montoya. “He goes around the South Valley with little bags packed with crackers and pudding and stuff to give out to the homeless. He teaches kids about not being bullies, teaches them about self-esteem. He takes kids to the clothing bank. He cares so much for people, even at his own expense.”

Montoya drops by this morning to check on his friend. Sleeping outside is not only cold but dangerous.

“We tried to give him a cellphone so he could call us if he needed help,” says Adriana Perez, another friend who stops by this morning and who, like Montoya, checks up on Gutierrez at night. “But he wouldn’t let us. He says, if the homeless don’t have one, why should he?”

As we stand out in the cold morning, I ask Gutierrez why he still does what he does.

His eyes fill with tears.

“There is such a need,” he says. “That’s why.”

And maybe he is crying because he knows this camp-out, which he planned to end tonight, is his last. After 43 years with YDI, 15 years of outdoor fundraising, thousands of cans of food and thousands of blankets collected, he is retiring next summer.

He is leaving Albuquerque and heading to Vermont, a spot he chose at random.

“I tell myself, I’ve done enough, but it’s hard letting go,” he says. “I hope someone carries on the tradition. I really hope so.”

ABASSARY: Counsels needy kids and their families

ABASSARY: Counsels needy kids and their families

Christine Abassary: Finding a better way

Sometimes, where you come from determines where you go and how you get there.

Christine Abassary knows this.

Her parents’ divorce when she was 4 catapulted her from a relatively comfortable life in the Massachusetts suburbs to the low-income projects near Washington, D.C.

“We left with the clothes on our backs and moved into the ghetto,” said Abassary’s mother, Catherine Gleason, a former teacher. “We saw how the other half lived because we were the other half. We lived poor; we struggled.”

For a young Abassary, struggling became strength. It became something she understood, something she realized much later that not everybody experiences or understands.

“It was my reality,” said Abassary, 43. “I lived it.”

Her background helps her relate as a counselor for the children of low-income and often broken families through the Southwest Family Guidance Center and Institute in Albuquerque. It helps her break through the armor of those youths who do not believe talking can help, who do not believe they can be saved from the edge of despair, who do not see anything better ahead.

“The majority of the families I see are struggling, trying to have a better life for their children,” she said. “But their opportunities are more limited. People become overwhelmed and give up. I try to encourage them not to. I try to think of ways to work around things, to find a way to something better.”

Sometimes, that means providing that way herself – holding a private fundraiser among friends and colleagues to help pay for a struggling mother’s rent, helping a woman get into nursing school by connecting her with the appropriate resources.

“If I can help somebody get a leg up, in whatever way that means, then I try to do that,” she said.

Something better for Abassary came through education. She worked her way through college, obtaining two master’s degrees – one in community counseling and the other in community health. She is now working on her doctorate in counseling at the University of New Mexico.

In 1998, she joined the Peace Corps and worked in Malawi, an impoverished country in Africa hit hard by HIV-AIDS. There, she served as an HIV-AIDS adviser, formed a mother-child health program and a community bakery and helped run a women’s peanut farming co-op. She also worked with malnourished children and managed a water and sanitation program, which included the installation of 200 shallow wells to serve about 60,000 residents.

Christine Abassary, center, with Tara McCune, left, and Catherine Leon during a Curious Counselors lunch meeting. The recent topic was vicarious trauma, something Abassary knows a lot about. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Christine Abassary, center, with Tara McCune, left, and Catherine Leon during a Curious Counselors lunch meeting. The recent topic was vicarious trauma, something Abassary knows a lot about. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“Christine is one of those people who sees a problem or a need and then figures out a way to improve things,” her mother said. “She has such a big heart.”

Abassary said her heart is filled with the kindness of the people she met in Malawi and elsewhere. It is that spirit of warmth and welcome that she still carries with her.

After returning to the United States, Abassary joined up with her mother, then a teacher on the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico and Abassary’s biggest inspiration. In 2003, Abassary was named health education coordinator for the tribe.

In 2006, she became senior program manager of adult basic education and GED training. She also counseled students on education goals through the Gallup branch of UNM. In her three years there, she doubled the GED graduation rate in the community and increased the number of GED students who entered college.

In 2009, she moved to Albuquerque to work on her doctorate. In between studies, she teaches health care management at Brown Mackie College and counsels families and children through the Southwest Family Guidance Center and Institute.

Abassary said she finds it hard to think of herself as an angel. Rather, she said, she has been fortunate to have been aided by so many angels.

“Basically, my message is that I enjoy returning the great treasure I have been given by my mother, travels, education and through work,” she said.

She must have picked up a few ideas from them.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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