Jessy Cadenas - Los Angeles, Calif.
Environmental Justice Organizer
For Jessy Cadenas, childhood memories are of war - the revolution in Nicaragua in the '70s and '80s. On nights when it rained bullets, her parents hoisted a mattress against the wall and the family slept behind it. Soldiers in helmets once peeked into her bedroom window as they passed through her backyard in the dark of a summer night. Her oldest brother was killed in battle.
At age 10 she fled the country for Los Angeles with her sister and mother, a college professor who took work as a maid. Five years later they were joined by her father - an engineer - and three brothers. "School was tough for me," says Cadenas. "There is an assumption among Americans that if you don't speak the language, you are ignorant. Yet I have highly educated parents."
After high school, while working for the Red Cross, Cadenas organized a 60-day strike for the Service Employees International Union. Three years after going to work for the union, she saw a job posting for a Sierra Club environmental justice organizer. Hired in March 2000, she has helped stop an airport expansion into an African-American neighborhood, and is monitoring construction of a school for low-income children that may be built on a contaminated site.
"The challenge for me is learning about the environment," says Cadenas. "After what I've been through in my life, community organizing is a piece of cake."
Ellen Mayou - Grapevine, Texas
Chair, Volunteer Awards Committee
Ellen Mayou will tell you that she is deeply inspired by chairing the annual Sierra Club Volunteer Awards Committee. Along with Lettie French, Sherri Lipman and Sandy Miles, she reads scores of nominations in categories ranging from Web sites to international conservation efforts.
"I can honestly say I've been moved to tears reading some of these," says Mayou, who has chaired the committee for five years. "I know personally how busy my life is and how little time I have for volunteer work. I'm humbled by these nominees. Some have spent years working on an issue - and against all odds. But they succeed."
Mayou, a public relations specialist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is inspiring in her own way: On top of a full-time job, she recently completed a three-year program to earn a Masters in Business Administration. And she bicycles like a wild woman.
"I ride 10 to 14 miles a day after work and take longer rides on weekends," she says, like it's no big thing. Her graduation gift to herself will be pedaling across Iowa in the famous "Register's Annual Great Ride Across Iowa" - or RAGBRAI. For one week she'll ride at least 60 miles a day, covering a total of 471 miles.
Someone should give her an award for that.
Aloma Dew - Owensboro, Ky.
"I'm not sure my parents realized when I went off to college that I'd end up talking so much about chicken manure."
That's Aloma Dew, who earned a master's degree in history, taught high school, and then, as an adjunct faculty member at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, developed courses in women's history and Kentucky history.
Three years ago she took a job with the Sierra Club working full-time to fight massive chicken factories in her state. That involves leading reporters on "Tours de Stench" to see (and sniff) some of the worst operations, testifying at public hearings, getting signatures on petitions and meeting with decision-makers. And one time she even chased down a truck hauling chicken manure.
"The load was uncovered, which is illegal, and I wanted him to know that," she says. "My car smelled bad for days after that."
So what's a nice history teacher doing playing chicken with a truckload of manure and going to battle with animal factories?
"Someday my two grandchildren are going to ask, 'Nanna, what did you do to make the world a better place?' Then I can tell them about this."
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