Every year, when the Local Heroes issue of The Santa Barbara Independent comes out, I read with awe about ordinary people making extraordinary efforts on behalf of others. Okay, not every hero is Mother Teresa or Gandhi, and I would hate to think that altruism has to reach that high a degree to qualify for praise and admiration. Doing for others in a productive and committed fashion, especially at some sacrifice of personal time, energy, and resources, is a worthy act — and if more of us did it, maybe our society wouldn’t struggle with so many unresolved social ills.

Lee Heller

Now, this is not to say that I am in the George H.W. Bush “Thousand Points of Light” camp, in which private community service is meant to replace government programs. Bush Senior proposed the concept as an argument against government as the chief means for helping those in need. Although a screaming moderate by contemporary standards, he was proposing the privatization of a number of social services rather than leaving them to government to provide. A lot of us were unhappy with the gist of this — the consequence of which was that churches and nonprofits and willing donors would bear the burden so that the rest of the community wouldn’t have to pay taxes to fund government programs to assist the needy. What lay behind the Thousand Points of Light concept was this: If you care, donate time and money. If you don’t, you’re off the hook.

In my book, that’s just not okay. The essence of community ought to be that people with means help those without, and everyone looks out for each other as best we can. That’s what makes it a community, not just a bunch of people living in the same zip code. When your every effort goes into avoiding your responsibility to your neighbors and thinking only in terms of what you have and want to keep for yourself — well, that’s a pretty cold, selfish place to live.

What amazes me is that the majority of local heroes are not wealthy, with an amplitude of spare time and cash to lavish on their chosen causes. Studies show that, as a proportion of income, the poor give more than any other socio-economic class — maybe because they understand the need in a way that those cushioned by privilege don’t. If you look at the heroes that The Independent profiles, they are often people who are going way above and beyond, on top of regular jobs; somehow they find time to run a nonprofit or reach out to hundreds of people or invent a creative solution to a problem. Well, they say if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. Busy people keep the world afloat.

Two of my friends who are among this year’s local heroes (disclaimer: although I write this column for the Indy, I have no involvement in choosing the heroes) are a classic example of this. Carlos Abitia and Isabelle Gullo, of CARE4Paws, both work full time, are raising a young son, and work 40-plus hours a week on animal rescue-related activities on top of this. Not only that, but they are doing innovative work, creating new mechanisms for providing education to the pet owners we most need to reach regarding responsible ownership. Anyone who follows animal issues knows our shelters are packed with pit bulls, Chihuahuas, and stray cats. Carlos and Isabelle have found a way to reach the owners of these animals — traditionally the most averse to spaying and neutering, licensing, etc. — and bring them on board. They have managed to bring local veterinarians and animal professionals into the fold, to create unity among the generally fragmented animal rescue organizations, and to get services to pet owners where they are, at a cost they can afford (read: free, usually). And they remain nice and friendly and easy to work with despite such dauntingly busy lives.

Me — I take care of a couple dozen animals, do some volunteering at the shelter, write grant proposals, and show up at the Board of Supervisors now and again, and I’m exhausted and bitchy most of the time.

So, this is my thank-you to all the local heroes out there — especially the unsung ones who haven’t been selected for the annual issue — for what you do and for not trying to opt out because you are busy or tired or think you don’t have a responsibility to your neighbor. And for the rest of you — a little help, please?


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