Lights Shining Bright
Five members of the university community who have worked hard to make the world a better place
To begin with, this is not a group defined by our fascination with fatuous personalities that blare at us through TV or radio.
This is not a group that will one day populate what essayist Calvin Trillin has dubbed the "hopelessly pompous Sabbath wind bag" talk show circuit, where the emphasis is on style and volume of voice rather than substance and depth of character.
Taken together, the group we have assembled for the following stories — university professors Johnson Makoba and Dorothy Hudig, community activists Teresa Benitez and Sheila Leslie and medical professional Lisa Lyons — are the very emblem of our university's value. For theirs is a value weighed not in dollars, but in good deeds.
Each individual we have chosen to profile is remarkable in vastly different ways. Yet there is also commonality to all of them: their selflessness and sacrifice for the good of others. Together, they have helped to forge a profound and compassionate difference in our world.
Nevada graduate readies for political life with social activism
With her passionate, lively voice, 24-year-old Nevada graduate Teresa Benitez delivers a message about ignorance and intolerance while adding some meaning and joy to the hearts of those who are demoralized.
As she travels through the Silver State, the reigning Miss Nevada works to enhance awareness of the plight of the state's poorer working families, its single and young mothers and its children living in poverty. She lifts her head sharply and her hazel eyes flicker, whether she is talking about her family's experiences, living wage ordinances or campaign finance reform.
Benitez was the third runner-up at the 2002 Miss America competition Sept. 21 in Atlantic City, N.J. She was the first contestant to ever win preliminary competitions three straight nights during the program, an accomplishment that netted her $44,000 in scholarship funds.
Benitez, a 1996 McQueen High School graduate, is one of three daughters of a single mother who worked long shifts as a waitress until Benitez was 19. Her grandparents played a pivotal role in her Reno upbringing, engendering her interest in politics.
"This is how the face of America is changing," says Emma Sepulveda, Nevada foreign languages and literatures professor, of Benitez, the co-founder in 1996 of the Reno-based Nevada Empowered Women's (NEW) Project. "I think it is a message for the country that we do have a place, even in the beauty pageants, for Latinas. But then what an incredible woman to represent Latinas. I would hate to have someone there who is gorgeous, but who doesn't have any brains."
Sepuleveda is an Argentine native who worked for the Chilean women's movement for two decades.
Benitez, a 2001 Nevada political science alumna, was happy to share the spotlight at the July 13 Miss Nevada competition with university students Marielle McCombs (Miss UNR and state second runner-up) and Sara Hulsey (state first runner-up).
"The three of us were top three at Miss Nevada this year, and all of us were from the University of Nevada, Reno," Benitez says. "I think that speaks amazingly about the university and the type of students that this university is starting to produce."
She is ardent about her work increasing the services of the NEW Project.
"Hopefully, we're going to grow and prosper the way that we have over the past six years," Benitez says. "We have been doing a lot of work at the regional and national level with TANF (the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program). Since January (of 2002), I've accepted three invitations to lobby on Capitol Hill to talk about what welfare reform ought to look like to really help low-income families."
This fall, Benitez will enroll in the University of Michigan's master of social work program.
"I cannot wait to be Teresa Benitez, senator from the great state of Nevada," says the 1995 Nevada high school debate champion. "I look forward to representing my community."
When science is at the stage of imagination, everything is equal
For someone with cancer today, there are basically three options for treatment: chemotherapy; radiation and surgery. However, the great dream of cancer researchers is to fight cancer within the body — the so-called "fourth modality."
"The idea is that there will be one element of a tumor that will be sufficiently mutated that the body will treat it as foreign," says Dorothy Hudig, immunologist at the University of Nevada School of Medicine. "If you can take the immune system and have it attack and kill the tumor cells, that would be a fourth mode of therapy."
If medical science achieves the goal of a fourth modality — something Hudig now believes is possible — it will likely be due, in part, to her research into the mechanism by which "good" cells kill tumor cells. More than two decades ago, Hudig helped create this entirely new area of research now pursued by hundreds of investigators around the world.
Hudig continues to study the "killer" cells, trying to discover their exact makeup and how they kill infected cells "because, then maybe you could make them kill better," she says. Although her laboratory facilities are modest compared to those at larger institutions, Hudig isn't intimidated by the competition.
"When science is at the stage of imagination, everything is equal," she says. "The little lab in an early project has an equal chance with the big lab because it's about imagination and ability. When it's one-on-one, you're fully competitive."
Hudig's innovative contribution to cancer research began on her first job, as a researcher in San Diego. Throughout her career, she's been an ardent supporter of women in science — especially helping women scientists in the early part of their careers. The 1998 Outstanding Researcher at Nevada was the recipient of more than $1.5 million in National Science Foundation grants during the 1990s to help women in science on campus. "I think it's very important to keep women going, to keep them from giving up," she says.
Hudig is equally passionate about preserving wilderness and is active in the Sierra Club and Friends of Nevada Wilderness. "Once you corrupt wilderness, it's gone forever," she says. She's not sure how much her efforts over the years have helped make a positive difference, "but if you hadn't done anything, it would have made a bad difference," she says pragmatically.
The voice of human services in the legislature
When Sheila Leslie announced her intention to run for the state assembly in 1998, it came as a surprise to many people — including herself.
"I never intended to run for the assembly or be a politician," the longtime human services professional and advocate says. "I was really dissatisfied with the people representing me and I complained about it a lot. My former mother-in-law finally said, 'Well, instead of complaining about this, why don't you do it?'"
So she did — but it wasn't easy.
"I'm really an introvert," says Leslie, a 1979 Nevada Spanish literature master's degree graduate. "Going to cocktail parties and all that stuff is not me. The motivating factor was I really felt my voice needed to be heard in the legislature for a group of people that there aren't a whole lot of elected officials to speak for."
For Leslie, politics is new territory, but it's consistent with just about everything else she's done in her life. From serving in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, to being the first administrator of the Food Bank of Northern Nevada and later as executive director of the Children's Cabinet, Leslie's primary motivation has always been service.
"Money has never really motivated me," she says. "What's motivated me is being able to make a difference. I know that sounds trite, but life is very short and you think of how many hours of your life you're going to spend at work. A lot of people have that desire to really want to make a difference. I've just been lucky enough to act on it."
Leslie's career is perhaps less about luck than about will. She's always been ready to take a risk and explore new opportunities to help others.
"You've got to push yourself out there to the uncomfortable zone," she says. "I've made more than my share of mistakes along the way and learned from them."
Leslie thinks her professional experience has given her an edge in the cut and thrust of Carson City politics.
"Because of my background as a nonprofit person, I'm used to working long hours for little pay and losing a lot," she says with a laugh.
Her humor understates the truth. Leslie has had success collaborating with legislators with very different backgrounds, such as Sen. Randolph Townsend, her ally in getting a mental health bill passed in the last session.
"Compromise is easy for me," Leslie says. "I don't feel like I always need to have my way and win. There's always middle ground to come to."
Compassionate care at the end of life
Death touches everybody," says Dr. Lisa Marie Lyons (Medical Laboratory Science '88; School of Medicine '97). "It doesn't leave anybody out, unfortunately."
Lyons is a medical director at Nathan Adelson Hospice in Las Vegas, the largest not-for-profit hospice in southern Nevada, with two facilities in Las Vegas and one in Pahrump.
Before being approached to fill the position, Lyons had been working at a "small, very busy clinic."
"At a clinic, you hear about a patient's problems and you try to treat those problems," she says. "Now, it's about making patients more comfortable. It's more reflective. You get to know all about the patients and their families because that helps you take better care of them. In a clinical setting, you simply don't have time to get to know patients that well — it's a different culture."
Having a meaningful, even if brief, relationship with patients, is important to Lyons.
"I always try to think that I have a very short, but very important relationship with people who I normally would not have had the chance to meet," she says.
Lyons meets personally with many patients during her daily rounds that often take her into their homes. Most hospice patients don't live at the hospice; they live at home, notes Lyons, who is quick to debunk one of many myths about hospice care. Proving her point, she's put 35,000 miles on her Saturn in the last year and a half visiting patients.
Nathan Adelson Hospice has approximately 260 patients, but only 33 inpatient beds total, Lyons notes. She is in charge of patients in a wide region including nursing homes, group homes and assisted living homes in south central, southeast, and southwest Las Vegas, as well as Boulder City. Hospice care has an interdisciplinary approach to care, involving physicians, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, social workers, clergy, counselors, and bereavement teams.
Another myth: Hospice patients are all elderly. "My youngest patient was days old. My oldest was 106," Lyons says. Many are her age — mid 30s.
"You see patients that are your same age and they've got little kids. Or, you have families whose child is dying — the child in whom resides their hopes and dreams. It's always hard. It's sad. We cry. We miss our patients. Oftentimes, we reflect on our patients, 'Remember Mrs. ..., '" and Lyons smiles.
"We have a saying that when medical therapy can no longer add days to their life, hospice care can add more life to their remaining days. I really feel that's true. Some of our patients go to work," she adds, debunking yet another myth about hospice patients.
"It's a very demanding, but very rewarding job."
Providing hope to Ugandan families
When Nevada sociology professor Johnson Makoba teaches his Sociology 404/604 students Third World development theories, they listen.
"There's an intensity," Makoba says. "I can feel it. They're paying a lot of attention because I'm not just throwing out ideas, I'm also telling them my story."
Makoba's "story" is indeed compelling. He grew up one of five brothers and two sisters in a Ugandan peasant family. Although Makoba's parents had no formal education and little money, they invested their meager resources in educating their children. Makoba did not disappoint them, going on to earn his master's degree and doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Education is the key," says Makoba, who has taught at Nevada since 1990, "to not only coming out of poverty, but more significantly also being able to help others."
Helping his family and other Ugandans, where the average income is less than $1 a day, was always in Makoba's plans as he pursued his education. In 1993, he created the Foundation for Credit and Community Assistance (FOCCAS), a nonprofit organization that provides cash loans and education to rural Ugandan women. They use the loans to invest in small businesses, such as raising pigs or selling fruits and vegetables. To date, more than 17,000 women have been helped.
"We started with two people," Makoba says. "Now we have 60 employees and have given out the equivalent of more than $5 million in loan funds since we started."
Makoba, who receives no salary for his position as president of FOCCAS, has spent virtually all his free time for the past seven years building FOCCAS into the internationally respected organization it is today.
"Initially, the most difficult problem was getting funding," he says. "The next major problem was managing from a distance. It was very difficult even to sleep."
The enormous commitment of Makoba and his wife, Karen, is a big reason for FOCCAS' success. From day one, the program set high ethical standards in its hiring practices, accountability and monetary control systems.
"We have now built a strong organization with competent Ugandan managers and staff," he says. "That's why we have been able to engage internationally renowned organizations as our partners."
For Makoba, the excitement he feels when one of his academic papers is published pales in comparison to the joy he gets from helping people help themselves.
"When I meet and talk to the women in the program, I'm overcome by emotion," he says. "It's the real human being you are touching through this kind of project."