ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been a rough few weeks, hasn’t it?
This holiday season has taken some dark, sorrowful and anxious turns with senseless shooting of innocents, sky diving off fiscal cliffs, pondering whether ancients foretold the end of the world or whether the world was worth saving anyway.
Maybe more than most years, we have needed a little Christmas, right this very minute.
We have needed a reminder that life is still wonderful.
So I offer you, dear readers, some proof. Because there are indeed angels among us.
This year, I received dozens of worthy nominations for our annual nod to those in our communities who step up to help others because it simply feels good to do good: The man who watches over his neighborhood to keep it safe. The woman who orchestrates the collection of gifts from co-workers for needy children. The cancer survivor who shares her story and her shoulder to cry on. And on and on.
Faith in humanity? Restored.
It was my honor to select two of these angels for your Christmas Eve reading pleasure. May they restore your faith as well. Right this very minute.
Richard Chong, 65, likes keeping busy. It keeps him young, he says.
“When I retired at 62, for months I sat in my apartment,” he said. “And sat. And did nothing. Watched TV, ate, slept, sat some more. I guess I wasn’t ready to be retired.”
But what, then? This, after all, is a man who says he has traveled to all 50 states and five countries, including his homeland of China. For years, he was a commercial fisherman from Maine to Louisiana. He was an educator, a tutor, a movie extra (he’s that guy on the world security council you see for half a second in “The Avengers”), a father of three.
But then, nothing.
And then, everything.
At a senior center in Albuquerque two years ago, he found two volunteer opportunities through the city’s Department of Senior Affairs — one working with young people, the other with folks his age, but less mobile, more housebound.
He signed up for the Foster Grandparent Program, which places folks 55 and older with at-risk or special needs children in schools, hospitals, correctional institutions, Head Start and day-care centers.
He became Gung Gung — Chinese for “grandfather” — to 21 fourth-graders at Whittier Elementary, a school in the Southeast Heights that has probably never seen the likes of someone as ebullient as Chong.
Every school day, he eats breakfast and lunch with the children, imparts his knowledge to them in their social studies class and brings them items from his culture, such as chop sticks and jellied sweets.
“I just like talking to the kids, you know?” he said, his mouth always engaged in a wide smile. “Working with kids is like looking at my past, who I was when I was young.”
After lunch, he looks at his future, spending the afternoons as a Senior Companion volunteer, driving housebound seniors to doctor’s appointments, stores and other errands.
More than that, Chong is someone to talk to.
And when you spend a few minutes with Chong, whose often-repeated line is, “I will say one thing more before I go,” you learn quickly that he’s pretty good at talking.
“I have many stories to tell, but I also enjoy hearing their stories,” he said. “I truly believe that everybody on this earth has a story good enough for a movie. This is my movie.”
Chong splits his afternoons between four housebound seniors — two older than he, two younger — giving an extra day to senior Patricia Demchuck.
It was Demchuck who nominated Chong as an Angel Among Us.
“He is so patient and so gentlemanly and so dependable,” she said. “And so kind.”
Demchuck’s voice cracks as she recalls Chong’s gracious gift to her a few weeks ago — a car ride to the base of the Sandia Mountains, a place she frequented in younger, healthier, happier days.
“It was a beautiful day,” she said.
Chong, who lives modestly and alone on Social Security and a small stipend he receives through the full-time “job” of volunteering, said the gift he gets is far greater than what he gives.
“This is good for me, good for my spirit,” he said. “And I will say one thing more before I go: If you see me and something I said or did made you feel better, that’s what I want to hear.”
■ Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs: www.cabq.gov/seniors/volunteer-opportunities
■ Toys for Dogs: www.facebook.com/TeeCeeBoosWysh
We meet in the chilly patio of a West Side restaurant, failing to take into consideration just how cold it can be on a December afternoon on the shady side of the building.
But Tryslyn Campos, 17, is a trouper. She is also a foster mom for a very sick pit bull puppy swaddled in a fuzzy neon pink blanket and cradled in her arms, fresh from a visit to the veterinarian.
Dogs can’t go in the restaurant, so the interview proceeds outside.
At least, the puppy is warm.
Puppies, dogs and, I suspect, anything with fur, four legs and a need to be loved are Campos’ passion. This year, she instituted a project she calls TeeCeeBoo’s Wysh, named after her two dogs and aimed at collecting chew toys, tug ropes, Frisbees, tennis balls and bones for dogs in the city’s animal shelters.
Call it Toys for Dogs.
You may have seen the large, colorfully wrapped collection boxes she has stationed at eight pet stores across the Albuquerque area. But maybe you didn’t know that the effort was being run by one tiny, teen girl.
She has collected three large trash bags full of toys — and that’s without checking her collection boxes one last time. She expected to distribute the toys to both city shelters this past weekend.
“She’s just an amazing, selfless girl,” said her mother, Trisha Mather, who nominated Campos for Angels Among Us. “She spends nearly all her free time trying to help others.”
Campos rescues stray dogs, nurses them back to health, seeks out their owners or finds them new ones. The puppy in the pink blanket — named Apple because of its green eyes — is just the latest dog she has rescued, this one from Watermelon Mountain Ranch, a no-kill shelter on Albuquerque’s West Side, though Campos finds most of her four-legged beneficiaries abandoned on roadways and neighborhoods.
She also volunteers at spay and neuter clinics held by New Mexico Dogs Deserve Better in Rio Rancho, and this holiday season she dressed as a Christmas elf for photography fundraisers at PetSmart for Watermelon Mountain Ranch and Bella Pet Wash and Boutique.
Campos also volunteers with the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s summer camp, Joy Junction and Bernalillo County Council’s PTA Clothing Bank.
All while maintaining a 3.0 grade-point average as a senior at Volcano Vista High School.
All while battling paramyotonia congenita, a rare neuromuscular disorder that causes stiffness and weakness in the muscles, particularly in the face, neck, arms, hands and occasionally the tongue and throat when exposed to the cold.
Like we are outside the restaurant.
“I’m OK,” she assures me toward the end of our interview, though I am not at all convinced. “Apple is keeping me toasty warm.”
Having the disease has frustrated her some. She tires easily, cannot run much, especially in the cold. But to see her and the busy schedule she keeps, it’s hard to notice how much she is affected by it, until she shows me how she is unable to make a fist.
“You learn to live with it,” she said.
Campos admits that her volunteerism makes her a bit of an oddball among her peers at high school.
“At first, they weren’t interested,” she said. “No friends were liking my TeeCeeBoo’s Wysh Facebook page. But now that they know about it, they think it’s cool. But they still don’t volunteer much. They’re too interested in relationships, rumors going around, parties, high school kid life.”
Someday, she hopes, that will change.
“Doing good things for others is such a good feeling,” she said. “Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.”
That’s heartwarming indeed.
Some of the other folks you nominated for Angels Among Us:
The Rev. Trey Hammond and the members of
Mary Ann Copas
Pegasus Legal Services
Pamela Jantzen and Yolanda Ankeny
of Women in Need
Dr. Richard Heise
and Albert Anaya
To commemorate the 20 years since the Christmas Eve 1992 crash that killed an Albuquerque woman and her three young daughters, severely wounded her husband, made Gordon House a household name and turned Nadine Milford, the woman’s mother, into a formidable crusader against DWI, Milford and her family have created a video remembering the ones they lost, the family that remains and the forgiveness they have. Watch the video at ABQjournal.com/video.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.