Standing in the gap

Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber and Border Health Rocks awardees inspire audience with leadership stories at Community Through Hope fundraising gala

Five public servants were honored recently during an inaugural event that raised money and awareness for a new collaborative effort that will help move the needle forward in addressing the unsheltered homeless crisis in the South Bay.
While the all-female award recipients range in age and ethnicity, they share the commonality of leadership in public service and perseverance in pursuit of the American Dream.

Against the backdrop of the Living Coast Discovery Center and among 150 peers, the “Border Health Heroes,” each volunteers and advocates in their respective fields and communities, were honored for the contributions they made throughout COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly $25,000 was raised during the Sept. 12 Border Health Rocks event from a combination of auction items, sponsorships and ticket sales to support Community Through Hope’s newest project: South Bay Street Medicine. The program is comprised of a 4-person team created to provide weekly mobile medical care to the unsheltered homeless community and help prevent illness and death to those without permanent housing.

“The event reflected what we had hoped to accomplish with partners, friends and speakers,” said Community Through Hope President and CEO Rosy Vasquez. “It was inspiring to see so many young leaders at this event because it shows they’re engaged in advocating for this type of mission.”

Of the five Border Health Heroes, the first to be recognized is a CNA with 15 years of experience, who spent the past year working 15-hour days in COVID-19 units for 12 days in a row. 

A citizen advocate and medical professional, Angela Williams also volunteered at Community Through Hope to organize nutrition for food insecure clients following her long hospital shifts.

“Angela is easily one of the hardest working people that I know,” said Community Through Hope Executive Director Sebastian Martinez. “She is who you go to when you’re down and who you want to be around when you’re up.”
Photography provided by Steve Woods

“Angela is easily one of the hardest working people that I know,” said Community Through Hope Executive Director Sebastian Martinez. “She is who you go to when you’re down and who you want to be around when you’re up.”

Awardee Birdie Gutierrez was introduced by Martinez as an “earth angel” for the work her organization Bridge of Love Across the Border has done in making more than 2,000 trips to serve migrants in need.

“Birdie has been about this work (serving thousands of asylum seekers) for a long time. Whether or not the issue of immigration is highlighted, Birdie is going to be there doing the work,” he said.

Gutierrez expressed gratitude for her ability to serve others in this way.

“During this journey I have met the strongest people in my entire life-mothers, fathers and members of the LGBTQ community looking for a better opportunity,” she said. “Our mission is a project of love. We want to show them that there is love to be found here in the United States.”

Next, Vasquez introduced Asian and Pacific Islander community advocate JoAnn Fields, who founded the Lumpia Club Luncheon, a Filipino-American professionals network that meets monthly to voice concerns with local decision makers and leaders. She’s also the head of the Filipino COVID-19 Task Force and director of the Filipino Resource Center.

After receiving her award, Fields discussed inequities regarding the Asian Pacific Islander community she serves. She shared that while the API community is the second largest ethnic group after Latinos countywide, when it comes to programs and services it still fights to be properly recognized.

“Sometimes we are not invited to the table. That’s okay. We will create our own table,” she said.

Fields credited her mother’s sacrifice in immigrating to the U.S. by herself with two pieces of luggage. “She was coming here for the American Dream and now I want to make sure we get our fair share of the American pie,” she said.

Another Border Health Hero was dubbed by Vazquez as a “quiet and calming force” who was necessary during COVID-19. “Her dedication to serving those in need has changed how this region addresses the crisis of being sheltered,” Vasquez said of Dijana Beck, Acting Deputy Director of Homeless Solutions for the Health & Human Services Agency.

“You have given nonprofits a voice and a seat at the table to small and mighty agencies like CTH that could very easily be left out,” she told Beck. 
Also honored was National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, introduced by Vazquez as “the embodiment of community.”

Elected as the first female and Latina mayor of National City, Mayor Sotelo-Solis said she was humbled to be recognized for the work she’s done for a community she knows and loves.

“As public servants, as people that give back to the community, we do it for the next generation,” Sotelo Solis said. “The times that we’re away at meetings or stuffing envelopes … we’re spending time away from our loved ones. But they know … we are trying to make it better for them.”

Making things better for others is a concept that the evening’s keynote speaker Dr. Shirley Weber is well-versed. As the first Black secretary of state and with her dedication to public service in a variety of roles, Vasquez referred to Weber as her personal servant hero.

“I’ve admired Dr. Weber’s work and her mission since I was a young single mother of two … and she continues to set an example for me on how to be a servant leader,” Vasquez said.

A native San Diegan, Weber is known to the community she serves as a voice to the voiceless.

“My entire career as a professor, community activist and change agent I’ve been able to stand tall and strong because I know that I have a foundation,” she said. “I’m the kid from Hope, Arkansas and I understand what it feels like when there is no hope.”

Weber shared her father’s story of being forced to leave his wife and six children in the middle of the night to avoid being lynched after defending his rights at the police station. He came to California to begin working and within four months was able to also bring his family out.

“He wanted his children to have hope,” Weber said. “He wanted them to have a future. And he wanted to give them what every other person wanted in the world, which is a chance to be successful.”

In leadership, Weber said that vision is crucial. “Vision is seeing what nobody else can see but knowing that it can happen. Vision is seeing a kid in the projects … and believing that young girl can go to UCLA and get three degrees by the time she’s 26 … and end up as the Secretary of State...”

Weber also said it’s the community’s vision that makes the difference in people’s lives.

In her closing remarks, Weber expressed gratitude to be in the presence of the award recipients and acknowledged their determination to get things done. “…If you want something to happen, you make it happen,” she said, adding then you drag your friends along too because that’s what community is about.

“When you stand in the gap you are the people making it happen and that is so essential,” Weber said. “We know who we are, what we stand for and what we will fight for and we will continue to bless each other and make those who gave us this opportunity proud of everything we do.”

Photography provided by Steve Woods