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Spirit of New Mexico: Recognizing those making a difference in the community

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The needs of any community are infinitely varied, and the winners of the 2017 Spirit of New Mexico Awards showed compassion and initiative in many ways as they used their skills to have a positive impact.

Donovan Smith makes soap and donates it to the homeless. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Established in 2009 by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Albuquerque Journal, the annual awards recognize people in the community who have given of their own time and efforts to make a difference.

“We are pleased to be able to continue our tradition of recognizing people who embody the best in New Mexico spirit. These are people who help others without expectation of getting anything in return. We enjoy the time to be able to celebrate generosity, grace and grit,” said chamber Chairwoman Meg Meister.

Each award recipient has been featured in a Journal story within the past year – stories that serve to inspire and spread a little good cheer. Journal staff members who wrote about them will present the winners their awards.

The 2017 Spirit of New Mexico Awards ceremony will be held at a luncheon on Dec. 13 at the Albuquerque Convention Center. Albuquerque’s mayor-elect, Tim Keller, will give the keynote speech.

“We are looking forward to his vision and energy for the city,” Meister said.

This year’s Spirit of New Mexico Award recipients are:

Chaouki Abdallah: He took over the presidency in January, shortly after former University of New Mexico President Bob Frank stepped down. He accepted the responsibility at a time the school was facing a severe budget crunch.

Chaouki Abdallah steered university adeptly through budget crunch. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Before taking on the president’s role, Abdallah was UNM’s provost. During his time as provost and since he took over the reins at the university, the school has seen the four-year graduation rate nearly double.

Despite the challenges, he has earned the support of faculty, students, the business community and lawmakers. Abdallah will return as provost in March when the new president arrives.

Journal senior editor Kent Walz will present the award.

Donovan Smith: Though a young teenager, Smith understood just how much a bar of soap could mean to someone who is homeless.

At 14, he had already been through that experience himself. The teen began making bars of soap, which he donated to St. Martin’s Hospitality Center.

“Being able to be clean makes it possible for people to go out and make a difference in their lives,” he said.

This year, he donated 12,500 bars of soap. He also recently opened a shop Downtown employing homeless people to make the bars.

Journal arts editor Adrian Gomez will present the award.

Phil and Linda Oliveira: They want to save a child one guitar at a time. The couple founded the Freedom in Music Project, which brings music to at-risk youths incarcerated at juvenile detention centers around the state and in Amarillo, Texas.

Husband and wife Linda Oliveira and Phil Oliveira teach music to youths in detention centers. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The nonprofit brings guitars into these facilities and teaches the youths how to play as a way of giving them a positive alternative to whatever led them to the detention center.

“That’s what we’re all about, to get that message out of music and that it can change your life and get back out there,” Phil Oliveira said.

Journal reporter Rozanna Martinez will present the award.

Laura Onorato: She announced to her Twitter followers that she was a woman on a mission. That mission was to enable a young Albuquerque cancer patient, Kyle Osborne, to meet his idol, basketball legend LeBron James.

Laura Onorato enabled a young cancer patient to meet Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The mission was all the more urgent because no one knew how long Kyle had left. His doctors said his vicious variant of myxopapillary ependymoma is one of only four cases ever diagnosed.

Onorato’s persistence enabled Kyle to travel to Cleveland for a Cavaliers’ game, where James shook the teen’s hand.

Journal UpFront columnist Joline Gutierrez-Krueger will present the award.

Marc Anthony Romero: The multitalented Romero, aka King Montana, was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which affects the joints. He has used a wheelchair his whole life. Despite these challenges he has gained recognition as a musician, motivational speaker and author.

Despite severe physical challenges, Marc Anthony Romero has gained recognition as a rap singer, author and motivational speaker. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Just this fall, he published his book of memoirs, “In My Shoes: My Magical Moments,” and released a new album, “Tecoloso.” Romero has donated some of the proceeds to Carrie Tingley Hospital, where he spent time as a child.

Journal reporter Rosalie Rayburn will present the award.

Harry Kinney Good Neighbor Award

Larry Chavez of DreamStyle Remodeling is a longtime supporter of the University of New Mexico and its athletics programs. His $10 million donation this year to UNM and its athletics program changed the name and the look of the Pit and the football stadium. He designated $1 million of the funds to the UNM Children’s Hospital, Popejoy Hall and the Anderson School of Management.

Larry Chavez of DreamStyle Remodeling Co. is a benefactor to the University of New Mexico and many other organizations. (Courtesy University of New Mexico)

Chavez also contributes to other local organizations, including Animal Humane New Mexico and the Jewish Community Center. He is donating a major remodel to Casa Esperanza, which provides housing and emotional support for patients and their families who reside temporarily in Albuquerque while the patient receives treatment.

His local business DreamStyle Remodeling Co. now employs 500 people and serves customers in several states.

Journal reporter Jessica Dyer will present the award.

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