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Honoring those who put others before themselves

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s a special kind of spirit embodied in a special kind of person.

It’s a spirt that has people donating organs to save others, or collecting food and blankets for the poor and homeless; it’s a spirit that motivates a police officer injured in the line of duty to struggle to recover so she can return to the streets; and it’s a spirit that moves a family to take in and care for another family that’s dealing with terminal illness.

That is the spirit of New Mexico, and the name of an award to honor these people who put others and community before self. This year’s award winners will be lauded at a Dec. 2 ceremony and lunch at the Hotel Albuquerque.

The annual event is sponsored by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Albuquerque Journal.

“The Spirit luncheon is an important and special event … a time to recognize people who give of themselves to people who are in need. There is nothing more inspirational than that,” said Terri Cole, Chamber president and CEO.

The Spirit of New Mexico Awards were created by the Chamber and the Journal in 2009 to celebrate some of the “good news” in the state. The winners have all been featured in previous Journal stories for the difference they make in others’ lives.

The keynote speaker for this year’s Spirit of New Mexico Award lunch will be state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Vigil.

A native New Mexican, Vigil saw first-hand families in need when she presided over Children’s Court for more than 10 years while serving as judge for the 1st Judicial District Court, comprising Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties. She was elected to the New Mexico Supreme Court in November 2012 and was elected chief justice earlier this year.

In addition to the Spirit awards, the Harry E. Kinney Good Neighbor Award is also presented during the lunch. It is given to someone for his or her personal character and individual work that resembles the late Mayor Kinney, known for his generosity toward others and his leadership as mayor of Albuquerque.

This year’s Spirit winners are:

  • Jennifer Adams, a CNM instructor, donated a kidney to her student, Melinda Urvanejo Hernandez, after reading Hernandez’ essay about her illness. “I kept having images of her daughter growing up without her,” Adams told Journal reporter Donna Olmstead. “It’s something I wanted to do.”
  • Steve Gutierrez has worked for YDI for 43 years – and for 15 of those years he has spent the 12 days and nights before Christmas camping out in a small tent in Armijo Plaza in the South Valley. The reason: to solicit nonperishable food for local food banks and blankets and coats for the homeless. He was featured in an UpFront column by Joline Gutierrez Krueger. When she asked why he does it, his eyes filled with tears. “There is such a need,” he said. “That’s why.”
  • Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy Robin Hopkins was critically wounded by a gunman who drove through Albuquerque and Bernalillo County’s North Valley last year, firing at law enforcement officers. Deputy Hopkins – despite the trauma and the long road ahead with full recovery not assured – remains upbeat and determined to be back at work. Leslie Linthicum detailed her battle and strong will last year in a story titled: “A bullet, a rescue and a long way home.”
  • John E. Stephenson, when asked how he made it to the age of 100, answered in part: “I’ve been outside a lot. I’ve never had a desk job,” he told Jackie Jadrnak. His careers have involved building roads and working for the National Forest Service. But he is best known for carving a thriving farm out of land in the Agua Fria Village, which has provided produce for local food charities for decades.
  • LaMonica Whittaker-Walker and Kevin Walker reconnected with Harrison family from Texas during last year’s Balloon Fiesta, which brought full circle an emotional journey for both families. In 2007, the Walkers gave birth to son Johnston, who died five days later. The couple donated Johnston’s organs. “If we can’t save our son, we can save someone else’s,” LaMonica told reporter Elaine Tassy. The recipient of the tiny heart was young Keegan Harrison, born with a congenital heart condition. For a few magical days last October, the two families spent time together amidst the balloons, sharing the wonder of that small beating heart in the chest of an excited little boy.
  • Samantha Ward and Stephanie Misangyi are examples of two young women who stepped up when needed. And so did their families. Stephanie was a two-sport athlete at Estancia High School when her father became terminally ill. Her mother had died years previously, so Stephanie took on caring for her father and two younger brothers. When her teammate, Samantha Ward, found out, she approached her parents – Aaron and Martha Ward – about helping. They did – by taking in the entire clan. Mountainview Telegraph’s Jim Goodman told their story, which then appeared in the Journal.
  • Naomi Salazar will receive the Harry Kinney Good Neighbor Award. She is a private attorney who donates much of her time to Albuquerque Metro Court’s special court for homeless people. “It’s a very different experience than regular court, and many times this is the first time a person in authority has been so encouraging to the defendant,” she told Gutierrez Krueger for another UpFront column. “It’s very humbling and very rewarding to be able to work on these cases.”

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