From one side of the Weekly Alibi’s edge-of-Downtown offices, the freeways and Sandia Mountains loom. If the windows on the other side of the building—sort of southwest in their directionality—
Of course just about anyone can see the vast, verdant and virtually rural expanse by simply looking out any clear window, by standing in the middle of the city and pointing oneself south-ish or better yet, by driving on over to one of the most culturally rich parts of the Albuquerque metropolitan area.
On Friday, Nov. 22, Weekly Alibi did just that, sending a reporter and photographer to the South Valley Multi-Purpose Senior Center on Larrazolo Road SW, to take part in the Health Care and Open Enrollment Resource Fair hosted by Bernallillo County, US Representative Deb Haaland and US Senator Martin Heinrich.
At the same time as the fair, city and state officials, including Mayor Tim Keller, Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, Albuquerque City Council President Klarissa Peña and New Mexico State Representative Miguel Garcia held a press conference to celebrate the long-awaited groundbreaking of South Valley Adult Daycare & Respite Center to support South Valley neighborhoods with elderly citizens.
While we were there, we had the opportunity to chat with the Senator, listen to the Representative, talk to various local and state health care teams and, most importantly, to interact with and learn about the people that are served by this vital community outpost.
The South Valley is filled with trees and agriculture; life abounds. On the drive out, a flock of geese flying parallel to Atrisco Drive astonished. A small red woodpecker tapped on a cottonwood tree and the soft cooing of Inca doves came and went with the warm sunshine on a partly cloudy day.
Outside the Senior Center, a modern construction both inviting and full of growth, city and county officials broke ground and dedicated the new respite center that was years in the making.
With a final funding push led by the Keller administration, the center is ready to be constructed. Originally scheduled for groundbreaking and construction in 2010 when then-Governor Bill Richardson and the New Mexico Legislature appropriated funds for the center. Four years passed before Councilor Peña was able to move the project forward.
State Representative Garcia told those gathered that despite delays, the Respite Center was still a priority for South Valley citizens, saying “You know it’s a glorious day when we break ground to bring comfort to residents of our community that care for their loved ones, mainly elderly and disabled. This is for them, this is a respite center for their dedication and commitment to caring for those loved ones.”
Garcia also told folks at the groundbreaking ceremony that they were standing on a historical site in the South Valley, adding that the land the activity center was built on and the adjoining property where the respite center will be built “used to be the farm of our fourth governor of the State of New Mexico, Octaviano Larrazolo. He was governor from 1919 to 1921.”
Governor Larrazolo was famous for his prize-winning lettuce patch, Garcia related. Ultimately the State Representative wants to erect a statue at the site featuring the governor, his lettuces and young playful workers taking them from the garden.
It turns out that one of Larrazolo’s young workers was Bobby Griego. One of the original “Atrisco Elders,” Griego was one of the first to promote the concept of a respite center for older South Valley citizens in 1996, Garcia reminded the audience. Garcia went on to recognize community members who dreamt of and planned for the center a decade ago but have now passed away.
Garcia ended his remarks by saying that City Councilor Klarissa Peña and Mayor Tim Keller had stepped up to ensure there was follow through on the original neighborhood plan to provide an adult day care for area families.
Just as the state representative concluded, Alibi Staff Photographer Eric Williams approached to tell of big goings-on inside the existing community center. He told this reporter that there were heaps of tables, all sorts of health care workers and a US Representative and a US Senator on hand to boot.
We headed inside. Trio Allegre, a neighborhood band, played in the middle of it all while citizens of all ages danced to rancheras and rock music. In all of the adjacent hallways, tables from healthcare groups as diverse as Humana, The University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy and Presbyterian were filled with bright-eyed young people answering questions and giving salient health advice to an audience that was mostly older but still very engaged with their own communities—and through this fair, with the world as well.
Besides the outpouring of support from the surrounding community, there was a wide selection of local and national politicos, directing and encouraging these efforts.
During all this positive, progressive commotion, Weekly Alibi had a brief opportunity to chat with US Senator Martin Heinrich, who reminds readers that they have until Dec. 15 to engage the Affordable Care Act for the coming year.
Heinrich said, “For the whole state, this is the open enrollment period, where citizens can get on the healthcare exchanges and get good quality healthcare. We really want to encourage people to do that, to use the portal at Be Well New Mexico. You know that when you get on that exchange, you’re getting real healthcare coverage. Because of changes the Trump administration has made, there are a lot of junk plans now. They’re being marketed, there are phone marketing scams for coverage that doesn’t really give you real coverage. So when you go through that portal at bewellnm.com, you know that all of the providers are legitimate and meeting the basic standards that we expect for healthcare.”
Asked why events like this are important to the community, the Senator from New Mexico added that it was a great opportunity to get free health screenings and to provide citizens with information that will assist them with their long-term health goals. Heinrich said his office will be hosting similar neighborhood health events in the future.
While Deb Haaland posed with a fellow in a blue bear costume from Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New Mexico—who knew they had bears?!—I noticed that there was also a little dog at the representative’s official information booth. It was Rusty and the pet therapy team from Southwest Canine Corps of Volunteers, a neighborhood outfit that provides comfort, compassion and educational opportunities via visits to hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
Gloria, one of the volunteers, told Weekly Alibi that they were there to provide support and to “bring joy” to the people of the South Valley. As I began to pet Rusty the dog, an older woman named Mary Ann shyly approached. She was about 80 and had a huge, loving smile. She asked if she could hold Rusty and when the little dog leapt into her arms, she proudly stated, all sense of shyness vanquished by Rusty, that she truly loved doggies.
At that moment, Representative Haaland began speaking in the next room. The band was taking a break, eating sugar cookies and buttered toast that the center had laid out along with juice in the main room.
Haaland reminded citizens that she had been elected to protect and ensure their health care rights. Like Heinrich she encouraged citizens to interface with Be Well New Mexico and added that her staff was just a phone call away, willing to provide support and solutions as needed.
Before our investigative reporting team departed for downtown Albuquerque, the writer of this missive to this town and its southern inhabitants decided to sit back and get a flu shot. With winter approaching, he thought it an important preventive measure.
Luckily, a team from the UNM College of Pharmacy was on hand to help him and all those gathered. Our reporter sat down and chatted with a second-year pharmacy student and co-chair of Operation Heart who told August March that she “really loves to come out to the community to spread awareness about the heart, diabetes and blood-sugar screenings.” For a lot of patients at this health fair, interactions with health care providers may be first-time encounters with substantive care, she reminded the aging journalist as the needle went in.
After that, Eric the photographer went on to another assignment while August March returned to home base, slowly driving through the heart of the South Valley to get one final, fleeting impression of the place and its people.
It was bright and sunny. The cottonwoods, losing leaves, rustled in the cool breeze. Another gaggle of geese swooped and swirled overhead. They were headed south, too.