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Angels Among Us: Unsung heroes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As I was considering the nominees for this year’s Angels Among Us, an angel found me.

And he brought along a couple of friends.

This is the sixth year I have had the pleasure of featuring two individuals as Angels, those unsung heroes who make their communities better through their volunteerism and heart. This year’s nominees, submitted by you readers, were so superb it was hard to choose just two from among them.

In years past, winners were rewarded with their stories on the Journal’s front page. But for Donald Apodaca, a big fan of angels and a faithful reader, that wasn’t enough.

So he donated two beautiful Nambé angels purchased from the Nambé store off the Santa Fe Plaza.

“Am honored to be able to support Angels Among Us,” Apodaca told me in an email. “We live in an ‘I ME’ world – having more angels around us is vital to our survival.”

I’ve been aware of Apodaca’s altruism for the past 3½ years – some of the folks featured in this column have benefited from his kindness.

But his generosity is all the more stunning when you know the demons he’s had to fight to earn his halo.

For nearly a decade, this military veteran lived a life of despair, drinking, homelessness, untreated brain injuries and mental ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Without treatment, I was like a grenade,” he said.

It was Christmas 2010 when the angels from the Albuquerque Opportunity Center shelter and veterans program saved him from the streets and the better angels of his nature saved him from himself.

By that next Christmas, he was a homeowner and productive citizen, traveling the country helping others like him in need of a few angels.

“Success is not about what we have,” he likes to say. “It’s about what we give away.”

All angels know that.

The magical girl

She uses a pink plastic pen with star at the top, a magic wand of sorts, to help her keep her place as she reads a speech her parents helped her write.

“Hello, everyone,” she says to a roomful of two- and four-legged onlookers one recent Saturday in December. “My name is Arianna Balderas, and I am 15 years old.”

What came next was a brief explanation of what she does – flamenco, for one, and training service dogs at Dogwood Therapy Services, the site of the gathering.

And what came after that required no wand for the kind of magic she has created here.

Arianna, the middle child of Denise and Hector (yes, that Hector) Balderas, has been training dogs at Dogwood in Albuquerque’s North Valley for five years – a total of 25 dogs, each of which has been placed through a nonprofit agency called Assistance Dogs of the West with folks who have mobility impairments, autism, seizures, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or developmental disabilities.

Working with the dogs inspired Arianna to do something more.

“She decided she wanted to give back to a program that she loves, that has done so much good for so many, including her,” her mother said. “So Arianna organized a fundraiser.”

Arianna’s goal for the fundraiser, held in September, was $200. That, she figured, would be enough to purchase food and perhaps a bed or a jacket or two for the dogs.

She raised $2,850 – enough to cover the cost of sponsoring a student to train a dog.

On that Saturday in December, she handed a check for that amount to Dogwood Director Melissa Winkle.

“She did not realize so many would come and support her,” Denise Balderas said. “This was something she accomplished. She was so very, very proud.”

Training dogs is another one of what Denise Balderas likes to call “outside of the box” therapy, a way to help Arianna strengthen her body and her mind through alternative, more creative means.

In other words, the dogs were supposed to help Arianna, not the other way around.

Arianna, though, was born with a generous heart and a magical smile. She was also born with Down syndrome.

Her parents have approached the latter not as a disability but a difference and have sought to keep her as mainstreamed as possible. Flamenco dancing, ballet, swimming and working with dogs have helped develop better coordination and muscle tone, but they have also improved her cognitive abilities and her confidence in believing she can do anything she sets her mind to.

“She doesn’t believe in limits,” her mother said. “She changes the world by herself.”

That’s not magic; that’s Arianna.

The reluctant angel

Gerri Gurule spends the first minutes of our conversation trying to convince me that other volunteers at the Women’s Housing Coalition Thrift Shop are more deserving than her of being called an Angel Among Us.

I am not convinced.

Gurule, 86, works with a lot of great folks at the shop at 3005 San Pedro NE, certainly. But ask any of them and they will tell you that Gurule is the heart and the humor – and the angel – of the place.

“She tells people, ‘This is my store, my customers,'” jokes Lupe Martinez, who runs the shop. “She cares so much about this place. She’s made a lot of friends here. She thinks of us as her other family, and we feel the same about her. She is so positive and joyful and funny no matter what is going on with her.”

No one agrees on how long Gurule has worked for the shop. But what they do know is that under her care the shop has expanded both in size and in sales figures. Those proceeds benefit the Coalition, which in turn help low-income single mothers find low-income housing and become self-sufficient.

Gurule won’t take any credit.

“I’m just there having fun,” she said. “You can’t keep me away.”

Gurule knows something about the retail business. For 23 years, she worked at Montgomery Ward before it shut its doors in 2001 – back when salespeople knew what customer service was, she likes to say.

Two years later, she lost her husband, Tony. Despite the loss and loneliness, she knew she had much more to give.

“I worked all my life. I’m not going to sit around and do nothing,” she said. “Hey, I’m old, but that doesn’t mean my life has ended.”

A trip to the thrift shop with a granddaughter led Gurule to begin volunteering there.

“I wish more seniors would volunteer,” she groused. “But they say, gee whiz, what else is there to do but watch ‘The Young and the Restless’ all day? And I say, there are so many programs and opportunities out there if you look. This is fun. It helps people. It helps me, even during this little setback.”

That “little setback” came Nov. 20 when Gurule was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. Shortly afterward, she underwent surgery to remove the tumor and diseased portions of her colon. She is now undergoing radiation treatment in the mornings and chemotherapy in the afternoons.

“This is just something that happens,” she said with a shrug. “Doesn’t help to complain.”

Gurule said her family members ask her if she is scared of the cancer. She just laughs.

“I’m not scared of anything,” she said. “Why be afraid of anything you don’t know?”

What she does know is that volunteering has been good for the soul – hers and others.

“One little good thing you do makes someone’s day so much better,” she said. “There are so many wonderful people out there. You just have to meet them.”

I’m convinced I just did.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.