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2021: A year to remember
Jeffrey R. Lewis

The year 2021 has been challenging for all of us. We witnessed the further devastation of COVID-19, the crisis of children left behind by the death of an unvaccinated adult, and the ongoing political performance of disingenuous elected officials unwilling to recognize the pandemic as a public health crisis.

We have seen the ongoing challenges of families entering a holiday break with little or no food in the house and not knowing how they will feed their children.

This year reminded us about the challenges of a growing housing insecure population. We have seen a rise in the number of women and children living on the edge of poverty. Many are just one paycheck away from living in their cars or on the streets.

International wars remind us of 9/11, a day when America lost its innocence, which it has never recovered.

We drive to the grocery store and the gas pump every week only to witness inflation eating away at our pocketbooks. As a result, an increasing number of Americans who live in food or fuel poverty are forced to choose between buying food, gas, paying a utility bill, or filling a prescription.

The pandemic wore away at our nation's gilded surface and exposed old problems politicians and society have long ignored: the nation's mental health needs. Rhetoric replaced action despite congressional, federal, and state reports. Today, we still struggle to address the behavioral health needs of students in public schools. Students' emotional distress is not new, but the pandemic has escalated it in ways we, and our children, were unprepared to deal with.

Kids in emotional distress are showing up in increasing numbers at hospital emergency departments. Their needs are growing exponentially. Yet, they find themselves lost in the wealthiest nation in a world that has forgotten how precious and vital our children are because these children represent our future.

Access to safe, effective, and free immunizations against severe illness is a gift. Yet, millions of Americans are dying because they refuse to get a COVID vaccination. Their refusal is a personal right, but the effects ripple across our lives. Children are left without a parent or grandparents; hospital workers desperate to save lives are endangered, and so are their families. The tally of lives lost every day grows.

Yet, despite the enormous challenges we face as a nation, a community, and individuals, we are surrounded by goodness. Some people offer hope when we think there is none. These are the people who work tirelessly to help through every crisis.

Terrie King is now with God, but she blessed every life she touched before leaving us. She was God's problem solver.  Terrie embodied goodness, grace, kindness, and caring.

Manuel Jimenez is the President of the First Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center. His bilingual team of mental health staff offers caring behavioral health services to children and adults regardless of their ability to pay. Their goal every day is to provide hope in a world of despair to everyone who walks through their door.

Lina Villegas is a school mental health specialist at the Denair public schools. She works with students and families to help them address the myriad of challenges life presents. Lina has the heart of a lion; she fiercely protects and cares for the entire Denair school community.

Three excellent teachers working in the Keyes Unified School District: Joseline Loza, Lisa Garcia and Leticia Rosales stand out for their unrelenting commitment to quality student education. Also, Ruth Alberto and Leticia Rouse need to be recognized for ensuring that parents get their children to school to get a quality education and so much more.

Christian Curby is the Director of the Turlock Gospel Mission. He serves the unsheltered with a smile and determination to help everyone find a place to live. They feed armies of the unsheltered daily. Christian knows he and his team offer the outstretched hand that helps many survive until the next day.

Robin Popolizio leads Prodigal Sons and Daughters, which counsels individuals to help them become free of drug and alcohol addiction. Providing hope and skills to battle addiction, Robin and her band of dreamers fight alongside these individuals every day.

Finally, Genevieve Valentine, the Director of the Merced County Department of Behavioral Health, and her magical team have helped countless people understand and aspire to a new level of hope. Through her leadership, access to mental health services continues to flourish. She stands as a beacon against despair.

Despite the many challenges of 2021, we remember the goodness shown by these hidden heroes. We are thankful for their courage, dedication, and commitment. These individuals live their lives doing a common thing uncommonly well. They raise the bar for all of us and have changed our sensibility of what we can all accomplish.

— Jeffrey Lewis is the President and CEO of Legacy Health Endowment and the EMC Health Foundation. The views expressed are his own.