One weekend a year, in late April, driving down Duggins Lane can be a hazardous experience. Cars line the side of the rural road; people stop to greet others along their way. Destination? The annual Animal Protective Association of Socorro (APAS) yard sale. Volunteers have spent the previous week sorting, hauling and labeling the goods. The ever-present Dorothy Brook is sure to be there, greeting shoppers and making sure everything runs smoothly.
Volunteer of the Year award is a traditional nod by the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce as part of its annual community awards. You won't find Dorothy Brook’s name among those honored, for she has refused to even be acknowledged. Ask anyone in the community, and whether they've been honored publicly or not, certain names are repeated: Gerry and Dan Klinglesmith, Valerie Moore, Peter Romero, Kay Krehbiel, Eileen Comstock, Matt and Stephanie Mitchell, Toby Jaramillo…the list goes on.
"You got to do something," agrees Mary Nutt, who now leads the Tax Help New Mexico program at the Socorro Public Library. It's a continuum along her line of volunteer and innovative programs she has lead through the years: From the first two years as director of the Festival of the Cranes, to taking a team of students to the national competition of Science Olympiad, now a mainstay program in Socorro.
Among those helping Mary Nutt process almost 300 tax returns this year was Janine Morgan-Aragon, who even while she complains she has too much to do, makes it clear she feels blessed to be able to contribute what she does. Among her projects: The Socorro General Hospital Board and the fundraising/community relations and development committee chair. The fall fundraiser and the Spring Tea have raised funds for scholarships, the healing garden, improvements for employees, "whatever the hospital needs," she said. She volunteers at the San Miguel Gift Shop and Museum and was active in the Socorro County Educational Retirees. She leads water aerobics, helps her husband ranch and when she has time, she enjoys bridge, she adds.
For Kay and Paul Krehbiel, moving from a large city to a small town made a big difference. "You see the problems," Kay says, "but there is more room to try to do something. You find similar people; it's not so impersonal."
Kay was quite involved in volunteer activities begun through AAUW. "Before the schools had aides in the classroom, we volunteered at recess, just to give the teachers a break." Later, she helped with the Just Say No program. But it's the literacy programs that Kay continues still. "I really enjoy the International Students." She has taught English as a Second Language (ESL) for over 20 years. "The students and wives were all very committed." Kay and Paul still host a Christmas potluck party for all the students and graduates. "One Chinese student stayed and got his master's degree and then brought his wife and daughter over and they've been here since," Kay says.
Literacy Volunteers of America offers five courses, says Maggie Olguin, who heads the non-profit group in Socorro. English as a second language to speak, read and write; basic computer literacy; citizenship studies and high school equivalency. Of those, the Socorro group can offer the first four, but GED studies are not easy and neither is finding tutors able to help with high school math and science, Olguin notes. At any given time, she says, there are about 30 tutors available and probably half of those active. They concentrate on individual studies. Currently there are at least 50 students, Olguin said.
Another active group in Socorro dedicated to literacy is of course Friends of Socorro Public Library. Their volunteer-staffed fundraisers, including used book sales, help fund new books, special programs and other projects for the library. Current president Pat Mills says she has gotten involved in groups at the request of friends and people she admires.
Mary Ruff also got involved in her current volunteer capacity at the request of a friend. Currently president of the Friends of the Bosque del Apache, she has had an interest in the group since it began in the 1990s under refuge manager Phil Norton. Fast-forward and after several years as caregiver for family members and others, "I was looking for something to do that wasn't caregiving," she said. A friend called and asked her to help at the festival. "I found you don't have to be a birder to be an effective board member."
The Friends group boasts some 1,100 members from nearly every state in the union and internationally as well. The store at the Bosque visitor center is the face of the Friends, says Ruff, but there's much more to the organization than that. The organization is in charge of the Festival of the Cranes, the largest county event. Friends also are responsible for writing grants and otherwise finding funds to pay for special projects not in the refuge budget. This year, it was a collapsed well, Ruff said.
The bosque refuge adds $2 million-plus yearly to the local economy, making it a major economic player. Socorro's wide range of ecosystems and habitat make it a tourist draw to other areas, as well: Wilderness areas in the San Mateo Mountains; the stark Quebradas Back Road Country Byway (the nation's first), and all along the Rio Grande. The Save Our Bosque Task Force was begun about the same time as the Friends of the Bosque. The group began as an outreach program of several agencies involved with river management. It became a 501 (c)(3) non-profit as more landowners joined, says Gina Dello Russo, riparian ecologist, and longtime supporter and board member. "We're focused on recreation, education and habitat renewal, she said, in other words, "all the community issues along the river."
Ruff, Dello Russo and Cecilia Rosacker, executive director and founding member of the Middle Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust, have joined together to promote interest in and protests against a planned transmission line running across the river and west through M Mountain. The proposal would negatively impact migratory birds, conservation efforts and tourism in the county, they say. It's a small group, but dedicated. They have managed to delay the project by presenting testimony to the Public Regulation Commission. And they continue, knowing the odds are against them. The experience, says Dello Russo "is showing us the real underbelly of politics." But rather than give up, they are looking at options and "thinking big."
Thinking big seems to come naturally to Kirstin Keller, executive director of the Middle Rio Grande Economic Development Association (MRGEDA). "Volunteering makes people more connected," she says, "and thus, more aware of their community. It creates its own passion."
Keller joins other volunteers in saying her parents introduced her to the value of volunteering. "They have always been involved. So it was natural to get involved," she says.
Keller is passionate about Socorro and she's excited about her new position with MRGEDA. "It's my passion, with other rural communities working together to make us stronger."
Non-profit and service groups are faith-based, community outreach or youth-based. Socorro has plenty of groups, but "they are in silos," she says. Lack of communication means efforts are scattered. That is why she has formed HUB with office space at the corner of California Street and Plaza.
The concept is to provide a "hub" for community groups. Space for small meetings and shared use of office equipment and technology will help build a more cohesive, inclusive environment in the community.
Savannah Morris, Socorro Farmers Market manager, has jumped aboard with Keller and is working on a comprehensive resource guide covering all aspects of the community. Other members are the Socorro Coalition Options: Prevention and Education (SCOPE), Socorro Health Council, and Socorro County Prevention Council (SCPC).
"It's disheartening when groups don't want to work with each other," Morris says.
HUB, Keller says, not only offers space and shared office resources, groups can cooperate to increase the value of grant funds. Often, Keller notes, a specific grant is for use for a salary or supplies, but not both. Sharing resources and working together will enhance the programs.
Nationwide about 25 percent of Americans volunteers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics. Translating that locally would mean some 400 Socorroans volunteer at least once a year.
Oh, yes, says Ronna Kalish. "There are definitely 400 volunteers. Of that number, she says, there might be 100 "movers and shakers, or corallers."
"I love living here in spite of Socorro's shortcomings,” adds Kalish, perhaps echoing many people's emotions. "I love it here. Sincerely. There are a lot of people here with great enthusiasm and big hearts."