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Spirit awards recognize good news

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While their disciplines are varied – an author, a lawyer, a judge, a chess enthusiast, a retired couple – all have made a positive impact on our community.

Famed author Rudolfo Anaya continues to provide a window into Chicano culture for the rest of the world; Ed Goodman helps sightless dogs find a forever home; Elizabeth Whitefield uses her humanity and experience to guide families through tough times; Victor Lopez teaches chess as a way to introduce young people to infinite possibilities; and Al and Linda Vigil tap into their own pain and self-taught knowledge to assist other families of suicide victims.

These are this year’s winners of the 2016 Spirit of New Mexico Awards.

Meanwhile, Kyla and Roger Thompson share a passion for helping veterans, spotting a need and finding a way to address it. They are the recipients of this year’s Harry Kinney Good Samaritan award.

Created by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Albuquerque Journal eight years ago, both awards programs are a way to recognize people in the community who, through their selfless actions, affect the community in an extraordinary way without expecting anything in return.

The programs also serve to celebrate good news stories; each winner has appeared in a Journal story in the past year.

The awards luncheon will be held Dec. 13, at the Crown Plaza Albuquerque, with keynote speaker Charles W. Daniels, Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court.

During the program, the reporter who wrote about each individual will present the award, sharing a bit of the winner’s story with the audience.

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

Family Court Judge Elizabeth Whitefield

Family Court Judge Elizabeth Whitefield

Elizabeth Whitefield recently retired as presiding judge of the Family Court, where she served for nearly a decade. She was appointed to the state District Court position in 2007 by former Gov. Bill Richardson, who noted her many years as a family law attorney.

Her commitment to her work and the families she helped was abundantly clear as she returned to the bench again and again after battling illness. Chief Judge Nan Nash called her a “bright spot,” and said her extensive legal experience and steady hand in Family Court will be missed.

Whitefield said she will miss the opportunity to help guide people through emotional and traumatic moments. “You get a chance to protect the children as much as you can, if the parents are truly dysfunctional,” she said. “If the parents are functional people but just going through a bad time, it’s an opportunity to educate them and kind of show them the right way to do things.”

Whitefield said she hopes to work as a pro tem judge, helping to ease the heavy workload of her colleagues, each of whom in the division has about 1,300 cases at a time and signs about 5,000 orders per year.

Journal reporter Katy Barnitz will present the award.


Harry Kinney Good Samaritan Award

Kyla and Roger Thompson, helping veterans

Kyla and Roger Thompson, helping veterans

Kyla and Roger Thompson have used their talents to help veterans and to advance other worthwhile causes.

Kyla, a public relations expert, and her husband of 36 years, Roger, an Army veteran who served 2½ years in Vietnam, helped raise funds for Veterans Heading Home, a component of the city’s Heading Home program. They also helped to secure funding for the extension of a dental program that provides pro-bono services to women veterans. They have also served on numerous community boards and have lent their expertise to raising funds for a number of other charitable projects.

The Thompsons became concerned by the experience of veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Initially they gave to national organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project and later they focused their attention on veterans in Albuquerque.

“I really feel that people can just individually do things and make a difference and that’s what my husband and I have proved,” Kyla Thompson said.

Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Terri Cole will present the award.


Chess instructor Victor Lopez

Chess instructor Victor Lopez

Victor Lopez found a novel way of teaching elementary school children mental discipline and strategic thinking.

In 2010 he founded the nonprofit Learners Chess Academy, which now has 44 chess clubs in public, charter and private elementary schools in Albuquerque, the East Mountains and Rio Rancho.

Students, many of whom never before played the game, are now engaged and challenged in new ways that go beyond just learning a game.

“We have produced state champions and some of our students play in national tournaments but our focus is about much more than teaching our students to win at chess,” Lopez said. “We want to see them win in the classroom and in life.”

Journal reporter Rosalie Rayburn will present the award.


Rudolfo Anaya, author

Rudolfo Anaya, author

Rudolfo Anaya is best known for his novel, “Bless Me, Ultima,” required reading in many schools and recently made into a movie. Anaya is now involved in a project to turn the novel into an opera.

Widely considered the dean of Chicano Literature, Anaya is a recent recipient of the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, who lauded the author for his “pioneering stories of the American Southwest.”

Said the president: “His works of fiction and poetry celebrate the Chicano experience and reveal universal truths about the human condition.” As an educator, Anaya has “spread a love of literature to new generations,” Obama said.

Journal arts editor Adrian Gomez will present his award.


Suicide support group founders Linda and Al Vigil

Suicide support group founders Linda and Al Vigil

Al and Linda Vigil suffered the unimaginable loss of their 18-year-old daughter to suicide in 1984. Since then, they have turned their pain into hope for others suffering similar losses and established the Survivors of Suicide Loss support groups and workshops.

Nationwide, a suicide occurs every 29 minutes. New Mexico has the fifth highest suicide rate in the nation and has a suicide rate among children that is twice the national average. The success of the organization is “bittersweet,” says Al Vigil, because “our group is unfortunately growing.”

The Vigils’ group helps participants learn how to work through their own anger.

“You think to yourself, ‘Why didn’t they tell me they were in such pain? I could have fixed things. How could they do this to me?'” said Al Vigil. “But that anger turns to guilt for being angry, guilt that you did not see the signs. Our group tries to help survivors work through their guilt, suffering and grief. The pain is unbelievable.”

Journal UpFront columnist Joline Gutierrez-Krueger will present the award.


Ed Goodman, animal activist

Ed Goodman, animal activist

Ed Goodman is a disability lawyer who started and runs Tootsie’s Vision, a nonprofit that helps find homes for sightless dogs and raises funds for their veterinary care, as well as awareness of what great pets they make.

The project is named after a beloved dog that lived with Goodman until her death last March. She had been abandoned years before on a Corrales Road, her sight already lost to retinal atrophy.

In her, Goodman found inspiration for facing his own physical challenges arising from a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis six years ago. The disease sapped him of energy and muscle strength, left him occasionally forgetful, tongue-tied, dizzy, weak and depressed.

“I was bitter, angry, obsessed about the things I could no longer do,” he says. “But these dogs showed me how to focus, like they do, not on what I can’t do but what I can do.”

Journal UpFront columnist Joline Gutierrez-Krueger will present the award.

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