Above: Cruz, a front-end lead clerk at La Montañita Co-op Food Market in Santa Fe, is one of the many team members working to keep the stores safe and clean. Photograph courtesy of La Montañita Co-op Food Market.

WHAT WE'VE BUILT MATTERS. The choices we’ve made lay a structure into place. This week, we talked to True Heroes who have built a practice of addressing inequities, supporting small businesses, and creatively solving problems. Now, they are extending those efforts to new people in need with an eye on how we learn from these tough moments and emerge from this pandemic leaning into equity, community, and empowerment.  

Frontline Community Store 

Grocery store workers throughout the state have faced ramped-up demand and risked exposure to COVID-19 while trying to keep store shelves stocked. But it’s the sense of teamwork at La Montañita Co-op Food Market in Santa Fe that has struck JR Riegel, the co-op’s membership engagement and marketing director.  

When masks were tough to come by, a cashier sewed some for the rest of the team. When the deli was shutdown, those employees shifted to the still-bustling produce department. When food samples ended, that staff member rotated to run the new curbside pickup program. 

“There were a lot of employees going out of their comfort zone, learning new things, and being upbeat and positive,” Riegel says. 

The co-op has also supported local farmers who lost some of their business when public schools closed and, this year, have spent 19.9 percent more on foods produced regionally. When March saw record-setting sales, the board of directors decided that instead of paying those dividends to the co-op’s member-owners, they’d give it back to the staff and added $3 to their hourly wage.  

“We wanted to get it to the staff who are really in the midst of it all,” Riegel says. 

Guaca Guaca Partners with Bernalillo County SheriffAbove: Guaca Guaca Tacos & Beer is just one of the local businesses partnering with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office to donate lunches to health-care workers. Photograph courtesy of Bernalillo County Sheriff.

Police Building Community 

During a morning staff meeting, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III tossed out an idea: What if the sheriff’s department staff gave boxes of food and paper goods to people in need?  

They rounded up donations from more than 30 national and local businesses, and deputies delivered 1,350 care boxes to families throughout Albuquerque. That’s a total of more than 35,000 meals distributed between March 19 and May 4, when they handed the effort over to the Rio Grande Food Project

“It’s been a long operation that’s been very good for the community,” says Deputy Connor Otero, the department’s communications officer.  

Then local restaurants wanted to get involved, and a lieutenant suggested they deliver those meals to health-care workers at a COVID-19 test site at Balloon Fiesta Park. Field service deputies loaded patrol vehicles with lunches: Bubba’s 33 has sent more than 500 meals over five days, Guaca Guaca Tacos & Beer sent 60 lunches, Two Boys Donuts supplied five dozen donuts, and Legacy Church Albuquerque contributed six deliveries for a total of 600 meals.  

Allan Affeldt stands on the newly built balcony of the Castañeda's library.Above: The Castañeda, which reopened last year after an extensive renovation, got a helping hand from Community 1st Bank during the economic shutdown caused by COVID-19. Photograph by Minesh Bacrania.

Making the Payroll  

When the U.S. Treasury launched Paycheck Protection Project loans to help small businesses cover expenses while closed, their online system quickly stalled out with requests, and funds were fully allocated within days.  

But at Community 1st Bank in Las Vegas, Mike Melton and his team of loan staff stayed on top of it, making sure their town’s small businesses accessed vital funding. Community 1st, one of the smallest banks in the state, came up with $11 million in loans. (The bank has to advance the money, then the federal government reimburses it.)  

When Melton saw an email from the Small Business Administration late on a Sunday, he went into the office and started submitting applications and seeing them approved. Over 11 days, the bank issued 64 loans, affecting 1,455 employees.  “Every dollar we did was all here in Las Vegas,” Melton says. 

As soon as business closures began, Melton worried about whether restaurants and hotels would survive. Tourism represents a key part of Las Vegas’s economy and recent revitalization, and if those businesses failed, the whole town would struggle. He knew the historic Plaza Hotel and the Castañeda, which just reopened last year after a major restoration effort, would need assistance. 

“That PPP money was the bridge between being closed and being able to reopen,” says Allan Affeldt, who owns the hotels. He has been paying employees to make take-out at the restaurant, tend gardens, and take care of security and maintenance. Community 1st, and Las Vegas’s other local bank, Southwest Capital Bank, made it happen.  

“It’s very much like It’s a Wonderful Life,” Affeldt says. “The difference between having that bank or not is the difference between having a community or not.”  

Container Conversion  

At 11 places throughout Albuquerque’s International District, newly made handwashing stations are offering the city’s unsheltered residents a chance to keep up with hygiene amid this pandemic.  

The brainchild of a staff member who works with the unhoused, the idea was for East Central Ministries to set up a 275-gallon tank outside one of the greenhouse properties at its urban farm. People started using it—and the concept blossomed.  

The ministry picks up the food-grade-quality tanks from General Mills, which receives them full of cereal-making supplies like oils and honey. At the urban farm, they were initially used for rainwater catchments. But retrofitted with a spigot, painted with a sign that reads “handwashing station,” and filled with water, they’ve been distributed throughout Albuquerque, near partner organizations that refill them with water and soap.  

“We’re finding people washing their hair, washing their bodies, washing their clothes, shaving, brushing their teeth,” Bulten says. 

A couple who recently came to buy plants from the farm asked about getting some of the stations out to the Navajo Nation, where Bulten says one-third of residents lack running water. They’re still working out details, he says, but his contact at General Mills told him a semitruck can fit 48 tanks, and they hope to send a full load to the Navajo Nation soon. 

“At East Central Ministry, we’ve been pretty good at recognizing the barriers and inequities and coming up with short-term solutions to some of that,” Bulten says. “I think COVID is exposing it more. … It’s things that have always been there, but this is exposing some of the inequities that need to be changed. So my hope is that a simple solution of tanks will be replaced by a longer version from government.” 

Sandia National Laboratories Pathogen Management Kit

Above: Sandia National Laboratories developed pathogen management kits that can be attached to respiratory machines. Photograph courtesy of Sandia National Laboratory.

Breathing Easier 

When New Mexico faced projections of a massive shortfall for machines to help people desperately sick with COVID-19 breathe, a team of 25 at Sandia National Laboratories came together to fill the gap. In 30 days, they identified a way to convert Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure machines—a less invasive device than a ventilator but one that also compels lungs to function—into something that could safely be used with coronavirus patients, and produced 100 of them.  

“It’s by far the fastest project I’ve ever worked on,” says Ryan Haggerty, manager of the Electrical, Optical and Nano Materials Department at Sandia, and the project’s leader. “Everybody was so into it—everyone wanted to jump in and help.”  

With BiPAP machines, a patient puts on a face mask, and the system pushes air into their lungs. The key problem was that BiPAP machines release what a patient exhales into the room—including the virus.  

“This is a very big concern for hospital workers,” Haggerty says.  

So Haggerty and his team built a tube with focused ultraviolet light for the exhaled air to pass through and kill the virus. The devices are still waiting for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but Presbyterian, University of New Mexico, and Lovelace hospitals have all expressed interest.