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Angels Among Us: A good neighbor, a cool grandma

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I sat with this year’s angels on a whirlwind of a day in which it seemed the world was swirling in chaos and teetering on calamity.

In other words, a typical weekday.

In these white-knuckled days when a morning tweet can unsettle the soul and a headline can bring on shivers and screams, it’s nice to walk away from the rancor and the woe and just sit awhile with good people who make their part of the world a nicer place. These good people are the angels among us.

And so, we honor two of them in our 10th annual Angels Among Us, selected from among the deserving nominations you readers submitted. One is a good neighbor; the other is a good mentor who encourages others to dream big. Both received a Nambé angel as a token of their angelic deeds.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Let these angels lighten your heart and brighten this weary world.

A good neighbor

She liked the neighborhood because of the trees, the cottonwoods and ash that had grown along Monroe NE for so long that they were large enough to make this little piece of the Northeast Heights feel lush, protected, stately.

DeEtte Chavez, holding her Nambé angel, says she was drawn to her neighborhood by the many trees, but now it’s the neighbors she loves most. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

DeEtte Chavez and her husband bought the house on Monroe in 1991, back when it was just the two of them, back when their own front yard was shaded by a tree that grew like an umbrella, back when it was easy to disconnect from the world around her by shutting her front door.

“I had no concept of what it meant to be a neighbor,” she said.

That didn’t last long.

Three years later, they welcomed a son. Two years after that, they welcomed a daughter.

By then, they were welcoming everybody on the block.

They still do.

Chavez has been such a good neighbor that fellow neighbors Helene Rood and Melissa Larragoite nominated her as an Angel Among Us.

“Our block, city and world are better because of DeEtte’s caring influence,” the neighbors wrote. “She is an example to all of us. Over the years, DeEtte has brought her caring and compassion as a nurse to almost everyone on our block. She is an angel to any of us who are sick or recovering from an illness. She makes chicken soup, runs to the grocery store and checks on us, making sure wounds and hearts are healing.”

Over the years, Chavez has watched her children grow with the other children on their block in a neighborhood where children still play together and older folks still wave and smile and know one another by name. It’s a neighborhood where cookies are baked and coffee is poured and invitations to impromptu get-togethers over tacos are posted on doors.

Come Fourth of July, Chavez coordinates a big neighborhood barbecue that spans several yards.

On Christmas Eve, the neighbor children who are adults now – including Chavez’s, who are 24 and 22 – return home to help fill hundreds of luminarias and set them up and down the block. Neighbors who have lived on the block the longest get extra luminarias lined along their driveways.

As the sun sets, neighbors join together to light the luminarias – 400 this year – and then stop by the Chavez house for a warm bite and a warm wish for a good holiday.

But Chavez doesn’t need a holiday to throw a block party. The passing of Charlotte the neighborhood cat merited a get-together, for example.

When there are leaves to rake, Chavez and her family are there. When a rare dusting of snow falls, Chavez and her family grab their shovels.

When there is heartache, she’s there, too. One neighbor in need of cheering found flowers planted by Chavez in two pots that had been empty on the porch for months.

Chavez has been known to give a neighbor dog insulin when the owner couldn’t make it home. She’s driven older neighbors to doctor appointments or the hospital when she’s grown concerned about their health. She’s coordinated a calendar of casseroles for neighbors dealing with illness.

As is typical of angels, Chavez scoffs at the idea that she is deserving of any accolade.

“It’s not really me,” she said. “It’s that I have great neighbors. I like to say we’re the best neighborhood in Albuquerque.”

When she’s not being an angel or working at University of New Mexico Hospital, she likes to sit on her front porch in an Adirondack chair made for her by one of her neighbors. It reminds her, she said, of the chorus of a country song by Tracy Lawrence:

“If the world had a front porch like we did back then, we’d still have our problems but we’d all be friends. Treating your neighbor like he’s your next of kin wouldn’t be gone with the wind.”

So here she stays, on the block where neighbors are treated like next of kin.

Some of the trees that first drew her to the neighborhood have died and been uprooted over time. The umbrella tree that once spread its leaves across her front yard is gnarled and leafless, a casualty of her husband’s lawn mower but a good spot for daughter Stephanie to hang Christmas lights.

It’s no longer the trees she likes so much in her neighborhood; it’s her neighbors. And she’s one of the best.

Supporter of dreams

Never in the history of Angels Among Us have so many letters been written about one nominee.

But after meeting her, it’s easy to see why Pam Hegarty has so many fans.

Here’s a woman who has served the community with her decades of work with the YMCA and her way of showering others with her optimism, sage advice and kindness.

Angels Among Us winner Pam Hegarty was selected largely for her years of YMCA service. She holds a Nambé angel as a token of her status as an angel. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Each letter received in her behalf detailed how Hegarty has selflessly, silently stood by young people who just needed someone to believe in them, someone to guide them in the ways of finance and civics and finding their voice. How through the years she has made people feel valued and loved.

She is, as one letter writer put it, a “supporter of dreams.”

But perhaps none of them explained why Hegarty deserves to be an Angel Among Us better than 16-year-old Trey Browne, whose unvarnished, unabashed prose gets right to the point.

“We do old people stuff together,” he wrote. “Pam is old, but she is the bomb.”

Not just any 74-year-old can win praise like that from a teenager.

Benjamin Blais, also a teenager when he met Hegarty, knows that, too.

“Pam has this brand of tough love that cuts deep into the soul of any kid she comes across,” he wrote. “She doesn’t put up with nonsense, and she tells you how things are going to be and how you’re going to live your life if you’ve messed up in her presence. For a dumb 16-year-old kid, that’s all I ever needed.”

Hegarty has a way, he said, of making people, no matter their age, feel valued.

Hegarty said she’s just investing in the future.

“Kids are our future, and if we want to make the world a better place, we need to support them,” she said, a knowing twinkle in her eye. “I just want them to have the chance to go after their passion.”

The YMCA is in her DNA. Her father was executive director of the YMCA in California and Montana, and she credits his influence for her openness and dedication to young people and community.

At 16, she was working as a lifeguard at the Y. After college, she continued her work with the Y, traveling to Ethiopia to help high school students develop leadership skills.

She served as executive director of the YMCA in New Mexico from 1985 to 2000. After that, she continued to work part time with the Y’s Youth in Government program, imbuing participants with such old-school values as how to speak effectively, balance budgets, advocate for what you believe in, be a positive role model.

“Pam always had a hug when I needed one, always a smile and solution session when I made a mistake, and always lifted me up to those who needed to see my gifts,” Danette Townsend wrote. “The thing about Pam is that she sits in the background making sure that those around her have what they need. Sometimes it’s money for desperately needed tires; sometimes it’s cooking dinner; sometimes it’s a hug, and sometimes it’s a cup of coffee and check-in chat.”

Since 2014, Hegarty said, she has been “totally retired,” but few who know her believe that. Last year, for example, she rappelled 16 stories down the New Mexico Bank and Trust building as part of a YMCA of Central New Mexico fundraiser.

“Pam is always asked to be a participant in service projects, and she always come through quietly and under the radar, making donations, working at memorial rose gardens, volunteering at Mile High baseball field snack bar, making baskets for cancer patient warriors,” wrote Stephanie Browne, Trey’s mom. “She is there doing her thing.”

Hegarty and her husband of 49 years raised a son and now dote on two teenage grandsons.

But many others who know Hegarty think of her as their cool and caring grandmother.

For that, she is the bomb – and an angel as well.

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

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