ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Before I started writing this, I cracked open the requisite fortune cookie that came with my Chinese takeout.
The message inside read, “Lend a hand to one less fortunate than yourself.”
I took that as a sign.
Some folks don’t need a fortune cookie to tell them that lending a hand is a good and godly thing. They are the folks I asked you readers to nominate for our eighth annual Angels Among Us, which recognizes the top two among those unsung do-gooders. Thank you for such wonderful nominees.
Thanks also to my own altruistic angel, who once again donated Nambé angel statues to the two winners.
He also donated something extra this year – the gift of a song. During his stay at a hotel late one night, he heard an angelic voice coming from the hotel office. That voice was night auditor Sophia White.
“I already had fallen in love with Alabama’s song, ‘Angels Among Us,’ so I asked her if she could record and upload her version of the song,” he said.
You’ll find a link to the song below. Take it as a sign.
The right place
Kathy Trujillo finds herself in some frightful places and situations.
A motorcycle crashes. A sledding child slams into a tree. A man hangs himself. A homeless person emerges from an alley. Someone stops breathing. Someone is in need.
Trujillo is there. And she is grateful.
“It’s weird how God puts me in these places,” she says, her big, bright smile never fading. “The Lord puts me there where I am needed. I don’t know, but he must think I can take it and I can do some good.”
She is, for so many, an angel who makes those moments of trial and terror more bearable, less lonesome, even when those moments are the last ones.
She remembers the little boy who crashed his sled into a tree, his neck broken, his life ebbing away. Trujillo, 60, held his hand as they waited for him to be airlifted off the mountain.
“I’m scared,” she recalls him crying. “Don’t let go.”
She didn’t until other hands carried him away. Then he let go, she learned later.
She remembers the woman on the motorcycle, the crash so violent it tore off her helmet and took half her face with it. Trujillo saw it happen, jumped out of her car and ran to the woman.
“My face,” the woman moaned. “Is my face OK?”
“I told her she was beautiful,” Trujillo said. “Beautiful.”
Those incidents don’t happen every day, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t helping somebody somewhere.
“It’s what she does every day that makes her special,” said her older sister, Lydia Paiz, who nominated Trujillo as an Angel Among Us. “My sister is always ready to help anyone in need. She will drop what she is doing to take a meal to someone who is sick, stop at an accident and hold someone’s hand as they lay injured, donate blood – just help in any way.”
Trujillo is especially drawn to special-needs folks who come each day to Connections, a day habilitation center for adults with disabilities, where she is the program director.
“They’re just like us but special,” she said. “They have better outlooks on life than many of us. I hope to better their lives just a little bit, try to make their day, just as they make mine.”
Because the center runs on a shoestring budget, Trujillo often dips into her own wallet to buy necessities for the clients such as coats and clothes. She takes them to movies or gets them haircuts, all on her dime.
“They are her children,” her sister said. “Some of them are very poor or no one cares enough about them. These are adults who can sometimes hurt her physically because they don’t know what they are doing. But she loves them anyway.”
As she walks into a room at Connections where several are gathered, it’s obvious they love her back.
It’s Tuesday when we visit, the day she and her “children” help another disadvantaged group: homeless folks. Being disabled, she said, doesn’t mean unable to help others.
In a casual and sometimes chaotic assembly line, each client pitches in as they can, decorating paper lunch bags, sacking raisins and cookies, slapping lunch meat on bread, spreading mustard, folding napkins.
Some of the clients will come out with Trujillo to pass out the sack lunches to the homeless who show up.
“They always know how to find us,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo also knows where to find them. When she’s not with her Connections crew or rushing to scenes of tragedy, she’s out on the streets, alleys and in the parks with kettles of homemade posole, sandwiches, burritos, coats, blankets, bottles of water.
“We’re here to help each other any way we can,” she said. “And then let’s teach others to do the same. Wouldn’t it be nice if each of us helped somebody else?”
Tonight, she will be out in a big truck with a bow attached to the grill handing out Christmas gifts to those who live on the fringes. It’s the right place for her to be, she said.
She’ll be the one with the elf hat, the big heart and that big, bright smile.
A good ride
A freezing rain, the kind that glazes roads and chills the bones, falls on a group of bikers milling about outside a West Side church where shortly a passel of needy children and their families will arrive to be feted with food and toys, all donated to make their Christmas a little jollier.
The bikers don’t mind the cold.
“We all wear half a cow,” jokes Marty Gagne, whose leather jacket bears the patches of the Onagers, a veterans support motorcycle club, and his biker name, Moose. “We don’t get cold.”
The Christmas party is just one of many gatherings Gagne and his club have been a part of in the last weeks before the holidays. It’s been a busy time playing Santa Claus, and that is in large part due to Gagne, who his fellow bikers say has brought the local biker community together for good.
“If you speak to almost any member of any motorcycle club in Albuquerque and mention his name, that person will tell you how amazing and hard-working he is,” said Linda Ferguson, who nominated Gagne as an Angel Among Us.
So good is he at what he does that he and his fellow bikers have had to hustle to distribute all the donated largess by Christmas.
For example, the annual Duke City Toy Run, which Gagne originated and organizes through the Onagers, attracted thousands of bikers Nov. 20, each who donated either a toy or two cans of food as the entry fee.
“We literally brought in a ton of food and a ton of toys to distribute,” Gagne said. “It’s hard to get an official number of all that stuff, but I can say we had two enclosed trailers, one full of food and one full of toys.”
Other drives collect coats and blankets for the homeless. Biker clubs this year also raised funds for the families of Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Matthew Q. McClintock, of Albuquerque, who was killed last January in Afghanistan, and Army veteran Tyler Lackey of Albuquerque, who was killed February in a robbery at a Southeast Heights ATM.
Funds were also raised for the families of fallen bikers or those fighting serious illnesses; families of those killed by distracted drivers; Blue Star Mothers; the New Mexico Veterans’ Integration Center; and the Henderson House, a transitional housing program for homeless women veterans and their children.
Bikers also came together this year for vigils honoring children lost to violence and to install U.S. flags and poles for residents through its Operation Let It Wave.
Chances are Gagne organized each project.
“At any given time I’m at my desk in my garage after work and have five or six different tablets going, one for each project I’m working on,” Gagne, 42, said. “For instance, I’ll hear about a 9-year-old boy with terminal cancer or a member who is an amputee because of a crash, so I’ll sit at my desk and figure out what we can do to help. I’ll start scratching out the skeleton structure of something and then I’ll call other clubs to come in for meetings.”
Beneath all that bad-boy leather are some big hearts.
“In the past, people see someone on a motorcycle with a vest, they think gangs, they think ‘Sons of Anarchy,'” he said. “But now I hope the community is seeing what we do in the community.”
Gagne, father of three and husband to Amy Gagne, who also rides with the Onagers, said he loves that he gets to combine his passion for motorcycles with his desire to do some good. But he’s quick to give credit to others.
“There’s a lot of people in the motorcycle community who do just as much or more as I do,” he said. “We feed off each other. We keep each other going. We call ourselves a family because we are a family.”
He admits his charitable work takes a lot of his time after a full day remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. But, he said, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“What I always say is there’s always something to do,” he said. “Being one small entity, your reach is only so far. But when you take everybody else’s assets and resources and put them together, the sky’s the limit.”