Whether it was teaching Sunday school, helping build a church in the mountains or visiting a retirement home in South Korea, Holly Noelle Chavez — and her siblings — was always taking part in some kind of volunteer effort as a child.

With her father, John Chavez, in the military, the family was frequently on the move, and he and her mother, also Holly, wanted them to be a part of each community they lived in and to give back.

“My parents wanted us to be well-rounded. We always volunteered, even as small children,” Noelle said. “My parents were always volunteering. I would say it’s a family culture of civic engagement.”

In 2012, Noelle moved to Rio Communities, a community she has deep ties to going back five generations on her father’s side, and where her parents also live now.

“I came back from Michigan, where we were homeless. I was pregnant with my son and I already had my two girls. Sorry, I get a little emotional,” she says, pausing to take a deep breath. “I needed a fresh start.”

Having been offered a position with a construction company, Noelle was coming to the Land of Enchantment with a job — a job that taught her a great deal about contracting and the business side of an endeavor. Eventually, it became clear she needed to be her own boss.

“How many employers are going to be like, ‘Yes, your three small children can be at work with you all day,’” she said with a laugh.

She approached her mother about starting a business, telling her she could pick the type of business while Noelle agreed to handle all the documentation and paperwork. The result was H2 Academic Solutions, a tutoring center in Belen.

“She picked a tutoring center. That’s the H2 — Holly squared. The teaching was not my favorite part, I’ll be honest,” Noelle said. “My passion is criminal justice and psychology. I have my master’s degree in psychology, which is why a few years ago we brought in all the alternative programming. That’s my thing.”

In addition to tutoring, the center also houses a restorative justice program, reception assessment and life-skills programs to qualifying youth, ages 10 to 17.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Holly Noelle Chavez, the 2022 Valencia County News-Bulletin’s Citizen of the Year, is involved in numerous boards and organizations in Valencia County.

The longer Noelle has been in the community, the more connections she’s made and the more programs, boards and groups she has became involved in, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by her family and other community leaders.

Her willingness to advocate for youth and families throughout Valencia County, helping them connect to resources that will lead them to healthier, safer lives is what makes Noelle this year’s Valencia County News-Bulletin Citizen of the Year.

In the nomination of her daughter, Holly wrote that every day, in each interaction she has, Noelle goes above and beyond to connect community resources to those in the county that need help.

“She is tireless in her efforts to make this a great place for kids, kittens and the community. She pays to have neighborhood feral cats fixed and returned to the community, she connects clients with furniture, clothing and food,” Holly wrote. “ When it is not something covered by our grants or other funding, she turns to our generous community and finds a way, every time.

“If there are opportunities to help, she is there.”

One of the first organizations Noelle became involved with is the Community Wellness Council, a local nonprofit dedicated to community wellness, health and safety, as its paid coordinator. She now sits on one of the council’s subcommittees as a volunteer and is a core team member for Valencia County’s 100 Percent Community initiative representing the Belen and Rio Communities areas.

The 100 Percent Initiative is a statewide and countywide strategy to ensure 100 percent of residents are protected by creating trauma-free childhoods that lead to school achievement, community engagement, job readiness and a self-sufficient and healthy life in New Mexico.

Submitted photo

Holly Noelle Chavez, in the red plaid shirt, is often at events hosted by the Community Wellness Council in order to make and maintain connections with youth in the community.

Ginny Adame, CWC chairwoman, called Noelle an “inspiration for anyone working in the community for a long time.”

Adame said as the coordinator, Noelle took the council to the next level in many ways.

“There was a lot of new and additional funding with her work, a lot of community organizing,” Adame said. “Many of the board members are volunteers or work a full-time job. Having her come on with a new outlook really helped breath new life and ideas into our work, and brought different ways of looking at things.”

She described Noelle as “really bold about gaining forward momentum and reaching out to the community. The community is lucky to have her. She’s very fearless in regard to not taking ‘No, you can’t do that; it’s not going to happen’ as an answer. None of that fazes her.

“She’s selfless … through blood, sweat and tears, and focus on what is best for the most vulnerable in the community, she does a thankless job, but she wakes up every day and does it.”

Never one to only do one thing at a time, Noelle has served on the county’s Juvenile Justice Board, the H2 Academics Solutions Scholarship Fund board, is chairwoman for the Community Investment Council for United Way, sits on the board of La Vida Felicidad and is serving as the board secretary for the Community Advocacy Team, a new organization working with children in Valencia County.

Much of her work with these organizations overlaps and intermingles, allowing her to build connections and a network of resources throughout the county.

“I can’t just work one job,” she said with a laugh. “I just can’t.”

Noelle said her own experiences have made her more passionate about serving vulnerable populations, especially those experiencing homelessness. With the recent establishment of the Rocket Teen Center, a whole range of services and resources will be made available to Valencia County youth and families.

One of the primary goals of the center, which is a subsidiary 501c3 non-profit of the H2 Academic Solutions Scholarship Fund, is to prevent and reduce youth homelessness.

“I have an understanding about where they are. I’ve see how stuff happens. We have families where people just lost their jobs too close together, and from there it’s a series of really bad events,” Noelle said. “They don’t know how to connect into the correct resources that would help fix those issues and, all of a sudden, they’re sleeping in their car.

“The center will be a place people can go to make those connections to resources.”

As her mother mentioned, Noelle has a soft spot for kittens, fostering litters and successfully adopting them out to happy  homes.

“I’m a good adopter. It’s the key to happiness ­— foster,” she said.

Everyone’s got their own little passion, but it can sometimes find a way to express that passion through giving to the community, Noelle said.

“Sometimes you don’t know where to look for those opportunities, and I actually personally find Facebook to be semi-useful for that sort of stuff, to put it out there,” she said. “If you’re interested in a project, you can ask if anyone is already doing that or see if anyone wants to start something.

“The easiest thing to do is probably start somewhere and then figure out what you like. Not everyone wants to be a voting board member. Some people want to be on the ground, some people have initiatives that they find out that they’re interested in. Maybe they didn’t know that food scarcity was a problem and then they find out about it and that’s their thing.”

Finding her “thing” is something ingrained in Noelle, and she’s passing that on to her children.

“My 12-year-old actually wrote her first grant this summer, a mini-grant for Whitfield (Wildlife Conservation Area). It was for planting trees post (Big Hole) fire,” she said. “Now she’s got some confidence, and she loves fundraising.”

Calling her one of the most strong voices in the community, Andrew Hautzinger, district director for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, which owns and operates Whitfield, said Noelle is assertive but diplomatic in her efforts to improve her community.

“She is always looking to benefit members of the community who don’t get help but deserve it,” Hautzingr said. “I really appreciate her being an advocate of natural resource protection and connecting kids to that in really creative ways. She’s got a wonderful vision of improving urban culture, and connecting rural and urban populations.”

Unsung Hero: Jessica Chavez

Chavez has been teaching at La Promesa, part of Belen Consolidated Schools, since it opened 22 years ago. She has taught kindergarten through fourth grade.

Unsung Heroes: Jocelyn and Chris Padilla Hunter

For the past 10 years, Jocelyn “Joshie” and Chris Padilla Hunter have been active in the 4-H community throughout Valencia County, not only going above and beyond for her own children, but also other youth involved in their club.

Unsung Hero: Gary Jacobson

A lot of local businesses will generously help support youth organizations and athletic teams, but not many will invite hundreds of teenagers to an after-hour event.

Gary Jacobson, the manager at Mitchell Starlight Cinema in Los Lunas, does just that every prom season for all students in Valencia County.

Unsung Heroes: The Keller Family

Since 1999, the Keller family — Mary Ann, Ron, Richard and Eddie — have hosted the Bosque Farms Car Show during the village’s annual community fair. Originally billed as the “Just For Fun” Car Show, the event started when Mary Ann was on the fair board.

Unsung Hero: Gwen Mosimann

Leading the effort to help find solutions for Belen Consolidated Schools is Gwen Mosimann, the first-year McKinney-Vento liaison for the district. Her directive is clear but daunting — find housing for homeless students and their families.

Unsung Hero: Clair Toledo

Toledo became principal of Los Lunas Opportunity Schools in December 2021 to lead the merger between Century High School and the Los Lunas Digital Academy. She said while the merge is an ongoing process, this will be the first year they graduate in a single ceremony, albeit with different gowns.

History of Valencia County News-Bulletin Citizens of the Year and Unsung Heroes

Since 1995, the Valencia County News-Bulletin has been recognizing a Citizen of the Year and Unsung Heroes each year.

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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.