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Awards Recognize Inspiring Spirit of New Mexicans

Alondra Montes kicks into a target held by Alexis Chavez at Project Dojo. With the aid of grants and donations, the martial arts school that began in a garage now has a large studio. (Richard pipes/journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — From the benefits of baseball to the benefits of ballet. From providing a safe place for children to a safe place for horses. This year’s winners of the Spirit of New Mexico Award found a variety of ways to improve the lives of New Mexicans.

The Spirit of New Mexico Awards were created by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Albuquerque Journal in 2009. The recipients are groups or individuals who have made their way onto Journal pages by doing remarkable work.

Also to be presented this year will be a recipient of the Harry E. Kinney Good Neighbor Award, and unique to this year a group honor, the New Mexico Spirit Award for Outstanding Achievement.

If you go
WHAT: Spirit of New Mexico Awards luncheon
WHEN: Noon to 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 4
WHERE: Embassy Suites Hotel, 1000 Woodward Place NE
HOW MUCH: $40 for Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce members, $50 for nonmembers. Reservations at or 764-3731.

The awards will be presented during a Dec. 4 lunch program at the Embassy Suites Hotel with keynote speaker Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

“The Spirit of New Mexico Award is vitally important because it shows us the power of one – how one person can make an enormous difference by following his or her heart and doing great things in their community,” Berry said.

As a side benefit, he notes, “good works are often contagious and lead to other people following their hearts” as they, too, pursue projects “that really make a difference.”

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

♦ Charles Graham and Walkin’ N Circles Equine Rescue & Rehabilitation Ranch

If not for the efforts of this ranch northeast of Edgewood, dozens of abandoned or unwanted horses would have been shipped to a Mexican slaughterhouse.

Since its founding, the ranch has rescued more than 320 horses, of which 250 have been adopted.

Journal reporter Charles D. Brunt, who featured Graham, the ranch and its volunteers in a story in February, will present the award to Graham.

♦ Blanca Hernandez

Just because the sprawling apartment complex that Blanca Hernandez manages is federally subsidized for low-income renters does not mean the 1,700 residents who live in Franklin Vista Apartments in Anthony, N.M., should tolerate crime, graffiti and trash.

That’s why the 28-year-old native of Anthony and single mother of two took a no-nonsense, get-tough approach to turning around what had become a ghetto where residents lived in fear of gang members.

Journal Southern Bureau reporter Rene Romo, who wrote in June about how the complex has transformed into a neighborhood of residents who take pride in their homes, will present the award to Hernandez.

♦ Travis and Michelle Hodnett

Dedicated martial artists Travis and Michelle Hodnett had less opportunity to go to the gym as their family grew, so they turned their garage into a dojo. They often worked out with the door open, increasingly attracting ever more kids who asked if they could join in.

With grants from the county and private donations, the Hodnetts were able to open their private nonprofit “Project Dojo” for kids ages 4-17, where up to 125 kids can learn martial arts skills, as well as discipline and self-confidence. The dojo is at 2106 Coors SW, Suite D.

Journal West Side reporter Elaine D. Briseño wrote the story in June and will present the Spirit of New Mexico Award to the Hodnetts.

♦ Ruben Rascon

After he and his three sisters bounced among foster homes, Ruben Rascon and his siblings landed in the Velarde home of adoptive parents Rudy and Gayle Rascon, who already had six other adopted children. As a way to positively channel their children’s energy, the girls were put in ballet classes and the boys in karate classes. Ruben was too busy jumping around to focus on self-defense, so he was put in ballet classes where he thrived.

He was awarded a one-year residency with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.

Rascon’s personal journey was chronicled in a story in September written by Journal Northern Bureau reporter Kathaleen Roberts, who will present Rascon with his Spirit of New Mexico Award.

♦ Harold Speake

Disabled Gulf War veteran Harold Speake loves Christmas. For the past five years he and his family have assembled an outdoor Christmas display with trees, snowmen, reindeer and Santas, many of them featuring motion, and nearly all wrapped with some of the 160,000 strands of lights used in the computer-controlled extravaganza.

Activated from 5:45 to 9:45 p.m., Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, the home attracts throngs of people, who are handed candy canes and asked to donate to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Over the past five years, Speake has collected nearly $10,000 for the charity.

This year, however, the holiday display will not take place, a result of a Christmas Grinch vandal who cut essential cords and plugs and carted them away.

Journal reporter Leslie Linthicum, who has written a couple of columns about the couple, will present the award.

♦ Steve Paternoster, Harry E. Kinney Good Neighbor Award

A local restaurateur, Steve Paternoster has become an important supporter of the hip-hop music group Sound-Oven and their anti-drug initiative. Paternoster, who lost his teenage daughter to drug use, says he would like to get a copy of the group’s CD/DVD to the governor, every legislator, guidance counselor and student at middle and high schools to promote the message of prevention.

The award will be presented by Journal reporter Joline Gutierrez Krueger.

♦ Eastdale Little League All-Star Softball Team, New Mexico Spirit Award for Outstanding Achievement

The Eastdale Little League All-Star Softball Team, guided by team manager Reno Sanchez, won the Little League Softball World Series Champion title this year, putting Albuquerque on the map once again and giving our community another reason to smile and feel proud. The softball achievement was New Mexico’s first since 1984. “Hopefully, there’s a lot of life lessons here,” Sanchez says. “Never sell yourself short, and set goals high. Anything’s obtainable if you put enough work into it.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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