ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If there was ever a time we needed angels, count this among those times.
This holiday season has veered far too often into the dark side, our only hope seemingly out of reach every time a bullet zings, a politician squawks, a war heats up, a pizza party whirls out of control.
But they say that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. So peal those chimes for two earthly angels, chosen from among the nominees you readers were kind enough to submit for our seventh annual Angels Among Us – the unsung heroes who make their communities better. They are our reminders that silver linings still sparkle, the force is still with us and life, in spite of it all, is still good.
Once again, an anonymous angel donated two Nambé angel statues to the recipients.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
It’s been a rough few days for Lily Azures. As she often is, she’s been out in the field trying to track and trap a lost dog.
She’s developed a knack for that, a dog whisperer of sorts, having trapped so many missing pets, strays and abandoned mutts in the past nine years that she’s lost count.
“I know it’s dozens and dozens,” she said. “I used to keep a list, but there were too many.”
On Sunday, she was out with volunteers in search of Cupcake, a pit bull missing from her Santa Fe home since late October. Possible sightings had brought new hope.
The hope was short-lived. Cupcake was found in a ravine, covered with snow.
“I’m still kind of upset about it,” Azures said, her voice breaking. “I was hoping we could get her home for Christmas. We did, just not in the way we had hoped.”
Azures gets her heart broken when things don’t go well. But that has never stopped her. When Azures gets a call, she grabs her trapping cage and binoculars and goes, day or night, from Pecos to Las Cruces, Grants to Moriarty and everywhere in between.
All she asks is gas money, and if that’s not available, she goes anyway.
“If I’m aware there’s a dog out there that might be in danger, I feel almost obligated to try,” she said. “There’s just something in my personality not to look the other way. I have a really soft spot for animals. I can’t sleep if there’s something I can do. If I can help, I do it.”
For the past three years, she has teamed up with Joyce Lewis, who since 2006 has run the nonprofit East Mountain Pet Alert, an online site that helps reunite pets with their owners. Azures also runs the Alert’s Facebook page.
“Lily’s love for abandoned and lost pets knows no bounds,” said Lewis, who nominated Azures as an Angel Among Us. “She has given of her time, talents and from her own pocketbook, in instance after instance, to help these critters that are in desperate need.”
Lewis remembers nearly every dog Azures has helped rescue. But the story she likes most is that of Pumpkin, a malnourished, matted mutt abandoned in Moriarty and at risk of being shot by neighbors who wanted her gone. On that drizzly August morning, Azures arrived and the frightened, frail pup came running.
“She must have known Lily was there to help her,” Lewis said.
Today, Pumpkin is a well-groomed, well-loved pet, living with a woman who adopted her.
“It was like a doggie Cinderella story,” she said.
Azures, who gives her age as “50ish,” calls herself a failed animal foster parent, taking in rescue animals and then never letting go. Among the three dogs and two cats who reside in the Santa Fe home she shares with her partner is Domino.
Several months ago, she answered a call about barking coming from a locked, abandoned mobile home. By the time she arrived, the barking had stopped.
Inside were a mother Chihuahua and two puppies she estimated to be about 2 weeks old. They were all deceased, except for one fierce puppy.
She named him Domino.
Late last month, the black-and-white pup started coughing and spitting up. His esophagus was collapsing.
Surgical intervention was costly. Azures was just getting by working as a waiter at a Santa Fe steakhouse and the profits from her online comic book store.
Then a little miracle happened. A grateful community of animal lovers stepped up and donated to a GoFundMe account Azures set up online to cover Domino’s medical costs. The Please Help Save Domino’s Life fund has raised $2,282.
Recently, though, Azures said, the vet told her that Domino is not yet a candidate for a shunt to help strengthen the esophagus. His condition has to deteriorate further – “on the verge of death,” she said – before the shunt is considered.
Azures is not sure what to do.
“It’s so hard just watching him get worse,” she said, the tears threatening again.
And more bad news: A week before Christmas, Azures lost her job, after three members of a large party walked out without paying.
But Azures tries to stay optimistic. The better angels, she hopes, will show her the way and rescue her.
They always have.
Besides, she said, she’s got animals to find.
“It’s just how it should be,” she said. “People should just do their part. If they did just a little bit, we could accomplish anything.”
Azures is that better angel for the animals she rescues, these four-legged creatures, lost in the world.
Story of the streets
Lorrisa Orosco knows where to find her friends.
“Through the years, we’ve learned where they hang out,” she said. “The park on Eighth and Central, the one on Sixth and I-40. The rescue mission down on First Street. We drive around. We cover a lot of ground.”
Every year around Thanksgiving, she hits the streets with her two children, her turquoise Saturn crammed with individual Styrofoam containers of food and donations of gently used coats and blankets for the homeless folks they find, these folks she calls friends.
Some years, she’s doled out turkey and the trimmings. This year, she served enchiladas with rice and sodas.
She makes all the food in her tiny apartment kitchen. All of it comes from the heart.
“She really does think of the homeless as her friends,” said Denise Ottaviano, who nominated Orosco as an Angel Among Us. “She makes sure her children learn the value of helping others, being happy with having family around you, a roof over your head, a car to drive, the basic necessities. They love going out there.”
Orosco, 39, started Our Friends outreach when her son, La Quade Wilkinson, was 3 and she found herself with Thanksgiving leftovers.
“So I packed up the food, loaded up my son and the food in the car, drove around and handed out the food until it was all gone,” she said. “Just the feeling of doing that was so great – the smiles and tears. At that moment, I knew it was something I wanted to continue.”
And so she has.
That first year, she distributed 14 plates. This year, she and her son, now 15, and daughter Nyima, 7, gave out 122 plates.
“We see a lot of smiles, get a lot of hugs. We give a lot of hugs,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s all worth it.”
It hasn’t always been easy to scrape together enough money to buy and package the food. Orosco accepts no monetary donations. She’s a single mom, a paid caretaker for an elderly patient and, until recently, a college student. The family lives in Section 8 housing, a place she feels is not safe for her children to be outside of unless under her watchful eye.
“Money is always tight,” she said. “But we get by.”
And, she said, it’s more than what some people have.
“I tell my kids it’s important for them to understand not to judge anybody, because we don’t know their story,” she said. “I taught myself that everybody has a story.”
Orosco has one.
Her childhood, she said, was scarred by sexual and emotional abuse so severe that all she wanted to do was disappear.
In her teen years, she was expelled from two schools before she dropped out. She spent time behind bars, time numbed by alcohol and drugs.
“I spent each day hoping it would be my last,” she said.
Then at age 24 she gave birth to her son, her golden boy, as she calls him, her joy and her strength. With his birth came her rebirth.
“I realized I had the fight still within me,” she said.
In 2001, she enrolled at the Albuquerque Job Corps and graduated with a high school diploma two years later.
In 2010 and now a mother of two children, she enrolled at Central New Mexico Community College and obtained her associate degree in 2013.
Her success story impressed the CNM Foundation, which provides private funding to worthy students in need like Orosco, and that same year she was asked to speak during the foundation’s annual banquet.
Orosco went on to study at the New Mexico Highlands University in Albuquerque and in May graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
She plans on going back to work on her master’s degree next semester with an eye toward working with the geriatric population and perhaps opening a soup kitchen.
Her struggle, her story is one of the reasons she looks beyond the tattered covers of others.
“My story was not in any way easy,” she said. “But I never gave up. I could have easily been in that same position of the people we see on the street. You don’t understand that until you’ve walked that path. But somehow I found the strength to pull myself in another direction.”
It’s Orosco’s hope that her children continue the tradition of helping their friends on the street. That, she said, will be their story to tell.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.