Leona Herrell makes community service a way of life

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Helping people in the community is so much a part of Leona Herrell’s character that she considers doing it an honor.

Nothing gives her more personal satisfaction than to see the smiles of high school girls with dresses from her free Prom Dress Boutique, or the excitement of children at the annual Halloween Carnival.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Leona Herrell, a family nurse practitioner at the Valencia Family Health Care Clinic in Los Lunas, holds an annual Halloween Carnival, organizes the annual Prom Dress Boutique and provides low-cost sports physical exams.

“I love to do what I do,” Herrell said. “These little projects we do with the community, that’s the fun stuff. I mean, it is a privilege to be able to give.

“To be able to do something for somebody, especially somebody you know won’t be able to repay you.”

Many Valencia County residents know Herrell, a family nurse practitioner at the Valencia Family Health Care clinic, which she founded in 2008, and the special events, she and her staff operate.

There is the Christmas party for Head Start children, the Halloween Carnival, coats and health care products for the homeless, free prom dresses and other projects.

Herrell glows when she talks about the girls who visit her after prom night to show her their prom pictures. Some of the girls get teary eyed because they wouldn’t have been able to go to prom otherwise.

“There is no co-pay or whatever, that will give you that feeling,” Herrell said smiling.

People have called for dresses for other special events, such as the annual homecoming dance. Formal dresses are expensive, and many families can’t afford them.

Calls for tuxedos are also coming, so the clinic is working to expand the program, Herrell said.

“These are the people that make my (medical) practice a success,” Herrell said. “They’re loyal to me and they belong to our community.”

She is looking to get a small house-style shed to set up next to the clinic and have the boutique year round.

“There’s winter ball, there’s Valentine dances, there’s prom and all these different things,” she said. “This way, people can bring their donations all year, so when people call to see if we have a dress, ‘Sure, come on in.’ We’ll start collecting stuff for the boys, too, and we’ll have stuff all year around.”

The Halloween Carnival raises money and offers fun activities for kids such as a dime toss, basket throw, jumpers, a petting zoo and other games for 25 cents a ticket.

Participants who come in costume get four free tickets, and people who bring canned food donations also get free tickets. The food is donated to St. Vincent de Paul, and the money from ticket sales goes to community organizations and schools.

“Our first year, we gave half of it to Los Lunas High School Band and the other half to Valencia High School Band,” she said. “So, we always give it back to the community.”

At the clinic, Herrell gives sports physicals at a reduced rate because insurance doesn’t cover them, and she has given on-site physicals at Valencia High School for $10.

“She undersells herself a lot,” says her sister, Rebecca Granger. “She is very modest about what she does.”

There was the time a young boy didn’t have the money for a sports physical and Herrell gave him a free one, also offering him a job to give him some spending money.

“That allowed him to play in soccer,” Granger said. “That (kind of thing) happens often.”

In 2011, Herrell and her family went to Acuña, Mexico, on a medical mission with Grace Fellowship to Iglesia Emmanuel Mission church.

She heard about the mission from two of her clinic patients, and her family volunteered to go.

Herrell helped provide medical services for 150 people over three days.

“Their kids fit right in with the kids at the mission,” said Dan Gross, a member of Grace Fellowship. “Leona and Aurelia Padilla (another nurse) blessed the people — let God use them to bring relief in medical and health care ways.”

They had quite an impact on the people there, Gross said.

Her kids helped shovel dirt, make streets and bathrooms. The whole family actively participated in helping Pastor Hugo Garcia and the Acuña community.

“It was the time of my life,” Herrell said. “It was fun; it was better than any Disney trip.”

Somehow, she finds the time for all these service projects between working at her medical clinic and the emergency room in Albuquerque.

“I thank God for Leona Herrell,” Gross said. “She made a huge difference in my life as a health care provider. She diagnosed things that no one else could figure out. I can say she changed my life, she helped me so much.”

Herrell earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing, and a masters of science degree in nursing as a family practitioner.

She worked at Presbyterian for 16 years, and then for Lovelace Health System in the downtown Albuquerque emergency room.

She still works there once or twice a week, and sometimes she works at Lovelace Women’s Hospital as well.

In the emergency room, she saw a lot of people from Valencia County who didn’t have health insurance, or they couldn’t get in to see their primary care provider, Herrell said. That’s when she got the idea to start her clinic.

“I had my whole idea of what I wanted to do — my mission statement — I wrote it at my kitchen table with my husband, she said.

Her mission is to serve residents of Valencia County, regardless of how much money they have, what race they are, what religion, what beliefs they hold, what gender they are, or any other reason, she said.

She talked to other people she knew in health care to find people willing to help her. That’s another thing about Herrell, her dedication to helping her community attracts other like-minded people.

Most of her projects are put together and operated by the employees at the clinic.

“I learn so much about my patients … the stuff I hear behind closed doors — it changes you,” Herrell said. “It just changes you and what you do in your life.”

Over the years, Herrell also has participated in the foreign student exchange program. She has had three students from Brazil, and one from Hong Kong who have lived with her family.

“Leona and her husband, Shawn, are the real deal when it comes to helping people,” said Gross.

Both are New Mexico natives. Herrell grew up in Tomé and Adelino. She has two children, Casey and Alexis, and has been married for 20 years. She and Shawn started dating in high school.

“My family has always been from here, they’re the adobe-makers and hay-haulers from back in the day,” she said. “It’s been a generational thing. My grandpa, my dad, my uncles.”

Her maiden name is Otero, and the authentic adobe bricks her family is known for distinguishes them, she explains, from different Otero lineages in the county.

“The thing is, when you are that connected with your community, with those deep of roots — hence why you are committed to the community,” she said. “My dad’s family is huge — our heritage goes way, way back, and it’s all been here in Valencia County, so I have vested interest in my community. That’s why I do what I do.”


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.