Making a difference every single day for the community

It’s one thing for siblings to bicker amongst themselves, torment each other, pull hair and shed tears. It’s an entirely other thing for an outsider to pick on a sibling.

That’s when family rules dictate brothers and sisters come together and tell the interloper to go kick rocks.

“We have these sibling communities, that when they want to bicker amongst themselves, it’s OK. But if an outsider comes in and wants to mess with Valencia County, then I think that’s when we come together to fend off that threat from an outside entity,” said Tia Montoya, nurse manager at the Los Lunas Public Health Office.

The “outsider” in this case is the pandemic and “sibling” agencies from across the county have pulled together to fight back against a virus that just doesn’t seem to know when to quit.

“Even if there is a rivalry (between communities) they still want people to be successful. They still want them to be healthy, they still want to protect them,” Montoya said. “And that’s where it all came together.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds through its second year, an array of local and state agencies continue to do the heavy lifting required to slow the spread of the virus. Within those agencies are dozens of individuals doing their best to make a difference.

This year, three of those individuals are the Valencia County News-Bulletin’s Citizens of the Year — Deborah Baca, health services coordinator for Belen Consolidated Schools; Jacqueline Kelly-Romero, Los Lunas Schools’ district charge nurse, and Tia Montoya, nurse manager for the Los Lunas Public Health Office.

When the three were told they were among the Unsung Heroes being honored this year, the response was an across the board, adamant declaration — anything they might have accomplished wasn’t done alone.

Success in the battle against COVID-19 was due to teamwork, cooperation, collaboration and most of all, love for the community — the whole community.

March 2020

On March 6, 2020, Baca told former BCS superintendent Diane Vallejos to expect things to be different when classes resumed after spring break.

“I am sure now she wishes she was wrong, but she was not,” Vallejos wrote in her nomination of Baca. “Instead of having a break from her work with the schools, Deborah sprang into action and began protecting students and our community. It seems like she has worked non-stop since then.”

Baca spent her break making phone calls, in constant conversation about what steps needed to be taken to protect the students. Careful plans were made for sanitizing, screening and the health care of students, but those went by the wayside when the state announced students wouldn’t return to in-person learning at that time.

“She pivoted to helping put plans in place to help get meals and (class) work to our students. This including her riding a school bus almost every morning from the middle of March until the end of May to help get meals and work to our students,” Vallejos said. “During the day, she was working on securing (personal protective equipment) for individuals who continued to prep and provide meals for our community. Her support for our community never wavered as she did everything within her power to help wherever she was needed.”

With the district for 13 years, Baca said having an established relationship with the Belen Public Health Office for student immunizations and flu shot clinics was the key to having the help needed when the pandemic hit.

“We have worked together since I’ve been with the district. When (COVID) testing started, we had the drive-thrus and partnered with them to get that done,” Baca said. “They helped in return when we had to start doing surveillance (testing for teachers). It was a partnership and we had the contacts so we could do it. The amazing thing is that we didn’t have to figure out who we had to call.”

The ongoing work

Having always considered Baca dedicated and hard-working, former BCS director of support services David Carter said the last nearly two years have proven her to be invaluable, not only to the school district but the community as well.

During mass test events at the district’s property — the old ALCO parking lot on River Road — Carter remembers Baca walking up and down the lines of cars all day, processing and clearing members of the community to get their tests and later their vaccinations.

Belen Consolidated Schools health services coordinator Deborah Baca, right, coordinates with other BCS employees as they set up for a COVID-19 testing event in 2020 at the old ALCO building on River Road, which is owned by the district.

“Although there was risk of transmission, masked, Deborah was going car window to car window gathering and inputting information into the (Department of Health) system,” Carter said.

If there were extra vaccine doses at the end of a clinic, Baca began calling people who were qualified to come get a shot so nothing was wasted, he said.

“Deborah continues her dedication to the community, by heading up the school district’s COVID response team,” Carter said.

“She has been taking and receiving phone calls from sunup to sundown from parents, teachers, principals, staff and community to insure the protocols issued by the N.M. Public Education Department are followed.”

As a nurse, Baca says her goal is to make a difference, and she can’t do that without the teamwork displayed by agencies across the county — the Belen fire and police departments, Valencia County Fire Department, Los Lunas Fire Department, both the Belen and Los Lunas Public Health offices, Valencia County Emergency Management, the school resource officers with both districts, even the N.M. National Guard.

“I remember the day the vaccine arrived. It was a testing day for us. It was there on Friday,” she said. “The National Guard arrived with armed guards. They called us over to the Belen Public Health Office to come get our vaccines. That’s where we learned how to mix the medication and draw up and reconstitute the doses.

“Through all this, it’s been a matter of, ‘Today this is the way it is; tomorrow, it might be something different,’ you know? We have all been working really hard to try to keep everybody safe.”

The cooperation on the scale seen here in Valencia County wasn’t the case across the state.

“It doesn’t happen often, so it really has been amazing. This has been like nothing I’ve every done,” she said. “It has affected so many people — our staff, our students, our community. This was that opportunity to really make a difference for the community.”

Epitome of an Unsung Hero

When she was told she was being named an unsung hero, Kelly-Romero rolled her eyes a bit at the word “hero,” saying every single team member was the hero. Just as she gave kudos to her team, a team of Los Lunas Schools administrators came together to nominate her for the honor.

LLS Superintendent Dr. Arsenio Romero, Deputy Superintendent Brian Baca, Chief Finance Officer Claire Cieremans, Student Services Officer Susan Chavez and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Deborah Elder all signed the letter of nomination calling Kelly-Romero the “epitome of an Unsung Hero.”

“Her passion, dedication and knowledge have been immeasurable during her tenure with the district, and even more apparent during the pandemic,” the letter read. “She works tirelessly to ensure the safety and health of everyone in our schools, and does so with a serving heart and the utmost humility.”

The administrators say Kelly-Romero has provided guidance and training in multiple areas on a day-to-day basis and throughout the year, noting her knowledge and calm demeanor as the charge nurse has been of immeasurable help, especially during the worst of the pandemic and now, as the district emerges from remote learning.

“She is our go-to person in terms of the latest guidance regarding all health matters. Ms. Kelly-Romero’s steadfast commitment to serving and protecting the students and staff of our district, has also expanded to not only our community, but throughout Valencia County,” they wrote.

A master’s degree prepared the registered nurse with a national certification in case management, Kelly-Romero just recently transitioned to only wearing one hat for the district. Last year she let go of her role as a nurse for one of the school sites to focus solely on being the charge nurse.

“Technically, I’m not an administrator but I do manage the 23 health staff here in the district. I basically  train all our new nurses, ensure they’re up to speed to properly and safely deliver health services for our students,” she said. “So really helping to support our nurses because ultimately, we’re all here for our students.”

The district had already established partnerships with the village emergency services, such as police and fire, for security needs, Kelly-Romero said, so when the public health crisis emerged in 2020, it was only natural to continue building on that foundation.

“You’ve got an amazing number of agencies that are all working together, and it isn’t just one single human being; it totally is the entirety,” she said. “Once all those entities got together, then planning became essential, in terms of how we were going to prepare and distribute vaccines. … it’s just been a thing of beauty to watch, you know, as far as everybody just really, really coming together to help our community out.”

Letting them do the work

The compassion and caring for the health and safety of people has shone through at every testing and vaccine event held in Valencia County, Kelly-Romero said, but buy-in from the higher-ups was also a big factor.

“The (village) council was behind Chief (John) Gabaldon. Everyone was very passionate about supporting and allowing the chief to offer resources and work with us,” she said. “That was one component but the most important piece is people’s level of caring about our residents and how we could best help them.”

As a public health nurse at the Belen Public Health Office then the nurse manager in Los Lunas, Tia Montoya made the same observation.

“We had the leadership of all of those agencies, and the mayors of all the towns, the county commissioners, all the people that could help fund these operations,” she said. “Allowing those entities to come together, to give us the time to plan, to give us the time and the resources necessary to do our plans, that was huge.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Tia Montoya, nurse manager at the Los Lunas Public Health Office, left, and Jacqueline Kelly-Romero, Los Lunas Schools’ district charge nurse, right, answer a community member’s question brought to them by a member of the Los Lunas Fire Department during a vaccine clinic at the Los Lunas Fire Department. LLFD Chief John Gabaldon has dubbed the two nurses COVID “mixoligists” as they are the ones who reconstitute the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to exacting standards before they are administered to community members.

As vaccine distribution began in late 2020, Kelly-Romero said they are seeing success in the number of vaccines distributed and in the level of efficacy.

“Just watching those people go through and how appreciative they are, that’s thanks to every single team member,” she said.

Like Baca, Kelly-Romero thanked the National Guard members for their help at events, keeping traffic moving and where ever else they were needed.

“The National Guard helped us out significantly. We even tapped our medical reserve corps. They are mostly retired, but the medical corps is made up of any health care provider nurses, doctors, EMT, who wants to volunteer,” she said. “So in times of need, or health-related initiative, the state can activate this medical reserve corps. They come with an immense wealth of knowledge and experience.

“That’s why I keep going back to the team because no one individual could have been successful. Every single person in every role contributed just as much as anybody else.”

The work continues

In December 2019, taking a job as a public health nurse with the office in Belen was a new way for Montoya to use her skills, to take everything she’d learned as an operating room nurse and apply it in a new way to help the community.

Within a few short months, she, and every other health care professional, was thrust into fighting an unknown virus as it exploded into a pandemic. As a part of the Belen Public Health Office team, Montoya was a fixture at COVID-19 testing sites in Belen and Los Lunas. When the nurse manager in the Los Lunas retired late last year, Montoya and Belen nurse supervisor Melinda Ivey had a conversation.

“This is a good thing. We have worked so well in both communities, this was a natural move,” Montoya said. “We’re not breaking up the team. We work together very well and I am maintaining an active role with our community partners and trying to continue the efforts to combat the pandemic, for sure.”

Now on the north end of the county, Montoya, and Kelly-Romero, are at the weekly vaccine events Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon holds on Tuesdays at the new fire station on Sand Sage Road.

“We’re all about keeping our initiatives moving and to continue because there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Even though the vaccine has been provided to us, the tunnel was still pretty long and it’s remains long. Now, as we get more vaccines out to more of the population, including the kids, I think that’s what it comes from the ability of everyone to cooperate. Valencia County as a whole is a very tight, cohesive group and it was not so difficult to pull them together.”

Across the county, agencies were proactive in making mitigation plans to cut down on the spread of COVID-19, Montoya said, and had a lot of buy-in from those in leadership positions,

“It wasn’t a lot of bumping of heads because everybody was given an equal space at the table and they all had input. We listened to everybody because everybody was full of good ideas,” Montoya said. “I think that’s why Valencia County rose to the occasion. It’s the community. It’s my community.”

While the pandemic isn’t over and done, it will definitely be in future history books, Baca said.

“At the end of the day, it’s all worth it. All the craziness and everything else, because we made a difference,” she aid. “I go home and I know that I’ve made a difference and you really can’t ask for anything else. I think that’s always what I wanted with nursing — to know that somewhere, I made a difference.”

What’s your Reaction?

Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.