Melissa Leandra Guerra was named Volunteer of the Year and recipient of the 2018 Jefferson-Acorn Award by the Laredo Area Community Foundation (LACF) and The Laredo Morning Times.
Guerra was recognized at the Jefferson awards ceremony on March 29 for establishing and continuing the work of the local Alzheimer’s Support Group for the last 14 years, for raising awareness of the disease, and for staging the first-ever Laredo Walk to End Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016, and the subsequent walk in 2017.
Months before she lost her father, José María Guerra, to the ravages of the disease in 2004, she established the Alzheimer’s support group, when little was known about the disease or its devastating impact on patients, family members, and primary caregivers.
Month after month for nearly a decade and a half, the forum and the information Guerra has offered have been an invaluable resource to many Laredoans.
Guerra is modest about the bearing the support group has had on the lives of others. “When the progression of the disease became more and more evident in our father, I only had an 800-number to call, and I was talking to strangers about the disease. I’m happy to be someone here now, locally, who can meet people and reassure them about what they are experiencing. This gives me tremendous satisfaction,” she said.
Some who found comfort and respite in the support group have become the core of volunteers who have worked assiduously both as fierce advocates and as team leaders who have staged the local Walks to End Alzheimer’s.
Nydia Valdez, who co-chaired the 2017 walk with Guerra, summed up the meaningful friendship with her that took root in the first months of the support group.
“Melissa has become part of my heart. She was a lifesaver for me and my mother. My father had been diagnosed with the disease the year before the support group was established. I gained a lifelong friend,” Valdez said, adding that following Guerra’s lead was an easy step. “She has inspired us. We want to be a soldier in her army. She has opened so many doors for those who live with Alzheimer’s. We are excited that she has been recognized for all her good work,” Valdez concluded.
Joe Arciniega, whom Guerra credits with doing much of the heavy lifting for fundraising for the 2017 Walk and who is the Alzheimer’s Ambassador for Congressional District 28, recalled first meeting Guerra.
“I was doing research for a play I was producing about Alzheimer’s, and within the first second, I knew she was someone special, someone doing important work,” he said.
“Her natural shyness just melts away when she is on fire about what we must do to fight this plague, and that we must do it now. At that time, I had no idea that within a year, I would be facing my own personal experience with Alzheimer’s when my father was diagnosed. Then and for the four years after until my father died of complications from this disease, I got to know Melissa on a whole other level. She was my counselor, my consoler, and eventually, my mentor. Melissa embodies the great work of the Alzheimer’s Association here in Laredo. She was our pioneer, and those many of us, too many, that have faced this horror will always owe her a great debt,” Arciniega elaborated.
Guerra, an internal auditor at Killam Oil Company, was nominated by the San Antonio and South Texas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Guerra has served as the volunteer CFO of Habitat for Humanity of Laredo-Webb County since 2008. She received the organization’s Volunteer of the Decade Award in 2015.
Thanks to the generosity of The Laredo Morning Times, she will travel to Washington, D.C. in June to represent Laredo and Webb County at the National Jefferson Awards Ceremony. She will be honored along with hundreds of other Jefferson Award winners from across the country. Her itinerary in Washington will feature distinguished speakers, workshops, training sessions, tours, and other activities.
Seventeen other Laredo non-profits each nominated their 2018 Volunteer of the Year for the Jefferson-Acorn Award.
The other nominees and the organization that nominated them were Shashi and Priya Vaswani, About Soccer; María Laura Nañez, American Cancer Society; Bede L. Leyendecker, Ballet Folklorico; Anabelle Uribe Hall, Children’s Advocacy Center; Steven Gutierrez, Christ Church Episcopal; Glbert Almaraz, Imaginarium of South Texas; María Teresa Hein, Junior Achievement; Sandra E. Solis, Laredo Animal Protective Society; Tony Arce Jr., Laredo Economic Development Corporation; Linda López Howland, Laredo Theatre Guild International; Gerardo Sifuentes, Literacy Volunteers of Laredo; Lt. Adolph Aguirre, Salvation Army; Gizela Vazquez, Think Autism; Robert and Rebecca Sepulveda, United Way; Sheriff Martin Cuellar, Volunteers Serving the Need; Mildred Allen, Women’s Club of Cotulla; and Cookie Vela, Women’s City Club.
The LACF has made a $2,500 Acorn award to the Alzheimer’s Association.
For the past nine years, the LMT’s Jefferson Award for Public Service has honored Laredoans for selfless volunteerism. Among the recent recipients are Bill Hrncir, Laredo Stroke Support; Dr. Tom Vaughan of the Río Grande International Study Center; and Manuel Santos and Fanny Stavoroski of Bethany House.
IBC, a vital supporter of the LACF/LMT event, hosted the awards dinner at its Jacaman Road annex.
According to the LACF’s website, the Jefferson Award was established in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to serve as an equivalent to the Nobel Prize for public service in America.
Little sister, big heart
Melissa Guerra is my youngest sister, someone who has my admiration and love.
The five of us — Sandra, me, Eduardo Alberto (Joe), Amandita, and Melissa — are the progeny of Amanda and José Guerra, whose unwavering devotion to us and our education inspired us to work hard to become good at something we loved.
Melissa is a hard-wired multi-tasker who works fulltime at a day job she loves while volunteering for causes that help others and that fill her life with meaning.
Like our older sister Sandra, Melissa was a very good child, neither of them harbingers of times-they-are-a-changing grief to our dear parents. Those of us in the middle with our varying versions of full-throttle exuberance for life, were perhaps not as easy to manage as the oldest and the youngest.
Melissa was a beautiful, tender-hearted child upon whom we older siblings heaped love. Over our lifetimes she has returned the gesture a thousand-fold, and with grace.