The Gang Buster: Alex Bernal
Crusade: Gang prevention and intervention
Alex Bernal started acting up in middle school—hanging with the wrong crowd, doing drugs, fighting a lot. When he graduated to Rancho High School, things only got worse. “It was the lowest income, high gang population,” he says, “and I loved it.”
Still, Bernal knew gang banging wasn’t for him. “Even how bad of a kid I was—and I was making horrible decisions, and I had numerous stints in juvie—I always knew I was a good kid. There were times when I would hurt somebody and literally go home and I would cry.”
It took until Bernal was 20 for him to get straightened out, and when he did it was thanks to a man named Beetle, who worked for Clark County. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see. He told me, ‘You have talent; you have potential.’ That was the first time anyone ever told me that.”
Today, Bernal, now 43, says the same thing to kids who come to Clark County’s gang intervention/prevention program Back on Track. He works under Melvin “Beetle” Ennis, helping gang members (or potential gang members) graduate high school, find jobs or get off the street.
Some stay straight, others backslide. In 2011, Back on Track served 15,000 local kids, and Bernal knows he can’t reach them all. “When a kid leaves here—they can be safe here—but when a kid leaves here, they have to go back into the jungle. And unfortunately, sometimes they’re going to be eaten alive.”
Bernal’s job is to be part father, part teacher, part probation officer, part cheerleader—to show kids their potential and make them believe in a future beyond the street. “I think there are a lot of kids who really want to get out of gangs, but they’re scared. They’re afraid of this boogeyman, this myth that once you’re in you can never go out. But it’s not true.”
And Bernal knows. He’s living proof. –Sarah Feldberg
Photograph by Sam Morris
Artisanal Foodie: Brett Ottolenghi
Crusade: Raw milk legalization and industry creation
From Himalayan pink salt to Pahrump bee pollen, edible wonders are Brett Ottolenghi’s business. More than a purveyor, he’s an archaeologist of fine food from all over the world. Flavor rules in the collection he sells to top chefs, though authenticity, nutrition and humane, sustainable production inform the selection of every morsel—or gulp, as the case may be.
For more than three years, Ottolenghi has worked to reframe the “Got Milk?” question in Nevada. He’s a proponent of raw, as in, milk not put through commercial pasteurization. Contrary to popular belief, he says, the mainstream dairy industry isn’t opposed to raw milk; and the legality issue is about a lack of precedent rather than legitimate health concerns.
Produced by desert-bred, grass-fed cows in ultra-sanitary conditions, the milk Ottolenghi envisions would be packed with vitamins, enzymes and natural flavors he says are stripped by pasteurization. He adds that, compared to the 700 coliform bacteria per milliliter allowed in milk destined for pasteurization, milk from the planned raw dairy would have no more than 10.
“On a cost per calorie basis, raw milk has the greatest ability to nourish people sustainably,” he says.
That’s why Ottolenghi has spent so much time in nearby Amargosa, attending public meetings and going door-to-door to answer questions and garner support. Neighbors of a potential dairy location signed his petition. The town planning board approved the project. And Nye County commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with creation of a Raw Dairy Commission to write laws that would regulate production and retail permits.
“If a portion of America’s calories came from raw milk, we would all benefit,” Ottolenghi says. And we’re betting it makes a mean mustache, too. –Erin Ryan
Photograph by Beverly Poppe
La Protectora: Helena Garcia
Crusade: Defending the little guy
The word “scumbag” shoots out of Helena Garcia’s mouth with ease. It’s a two-syllable, staccato assault on her targets, just one of the nasty names she directs at the mortgage lenders, construction foremen, business owners and others she accuses of defrauding her clients.
Helena Garcia calls herself “La Protectora,” and her clients are Las Vegans who think they’ve been cheated. When she takes someone on, it’s free of charge.
“Metro and the FBI are overwhelmed with cases, and small claims court can take two or three months. Sometimes they can’t find the person and can’t serve them the papers. Meanwhile, they are still hurting the community,” Garcia says.
About 14 years ago, Garcia, a real estate agent with an associate’s degree in criminal justice, was working at a life skills training center. “A lot of my students were coming to me with problems; they were being ripped off. One guy was undocumented, and he got injured on the job. They wouldn’t let him collect worker’s compensation, and I got involved.”
Preferring the direct method, Garcia often goes straight to someone’s office with her client, lays down her accusations in public and demands restitution. She has assisted in gathering victims and evidence for cases that later went to trial, and Garcia says she has seven restraining orders against her from people she’s confronted. At one time, she even had a television show that captured the showdowns, but the station backed out after several of the targets threatened lawsuits.
And Garcia, a 52 year-old Las Vegas native whose parents emigrated from Mexico, is still at work. She says she gets about 30 calls per week and has likely helped thousands during the last decade. In 2005, she co-founded the community advocacy group Latinos in Action with Claudia Turcaz.
“In our economic times right now, instead of people looking at their own situation and how bad off they are, they should take the time to help other people,” Garcia says. “Then, they will see a lot of people who are a lot worse off than they are.” –Tovin Lapan
Photograph by Beverly Poppe
Sidewalk Warrior: Martin Dean Dupalo
Crusade: Fixing East Las Vegas’ dilapidated sidewalks
In 2009, Martin Dean Dupalo was in a horrific car accident and had to spend several months in a wheelchair. As someone with limited mobility, he quickly became aware of his East Las Vegas neighborhood’s makeshift sidewalks—gravel, patches of dirt, cracked concrete that morphs into the side of a hill, access-blocking poles and intersections where only one of the curbs has a handicap-accessible ramp.
“I had to go into the street,” he says, a dangerous route he sees nearly everyone in the area taking, handicapped or not. Dupalo spent three months doing a survey of Las Vegas wards 3 and 5, and identified 436 curbs encompassing a 12-mile area that are non-compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Despite letters to both the city and the Department of Justice, he’s gotten little response.
Last year, the city received $2.2 million in Community Development Block Grant funds to fix sidewalks in parts of wards 3 and 5, but Dupalo says it’s too little, too late: “This has been ongoing for more than two decades now,” he says, encouraging everyone in affected neighborhoods to make their voices heard. “The city is not in federal compliance.” –Ken Miller
Photograph by Bill Hughes
Mid-mod Advocate: Jack LeVine
Crusade: Promoting mid-century modern homes
Jack LeVine did a crazy thing when he started selling homes in the Las Vegas Valley, and it usually began with three words: “Have you considered ...”
Those words were followed by an explanation of older neighborhoods, interesting architecture, larger lots and a growing sense of community. At the time, home buyers were gulping up the brand new Mediterranean/Tuscan-style homes being built in Summerlin in the Northwest and Green Valley in the Southeast. But LeVine, living at the edge of Downtown’s John S. Park, was more attuned to the mid-century modern architecture in the Valley’s older neighborhoods. Not only was he hoping to see these classic neighborhoods revived and get people Downtown, he also had a passionate, life-long love affair with the mid-mod style that dated to his childhood home in Ohio and appreciation for other Atomic-Age structures. As a truck driver for the Smithsonian, LeVine moved a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home five times, learning more about mid-modern concepts.
By 2007, he turned his real estate focus solely to mid-mod architecture. He blogs news and information about the neighborhoods on his website, veryvintagevegas.com, and says the clients who contact him are those who already respect the style, whether architecturally driven baby boomers or culturally minded 20- and 30-somethings who want to be in a cool home and community-minded neighborhood near the Downtown action. LeVine, known affectionately as Uncle Jack, can’t blame them: “The people know each other and like each other. It’s a real community.” –Kristen Peterson
Photograph by Bill Hughes
Horse Haven: Paula Isenbarg and Karin Cartwood
Crusade: Equine rescue and adoption
Blossom isn’t sure she wants to be fly-sprayed. The brown and white horse watches the bottle in Paula Isenbarg’s hand cautiously, backing away, then inching closer in a timid dance punctuated by spritzes from the bottle. Through it all, the horsewoman is patient and calm, letting Blossom go when she needs to go, then urging her back gently.
If all goes according to plan, however, Blossom won’t be with Isenbarg forever. That’s the idea behind the Local Equine Adoption Network, a horse rescue organization founded by Isenbarg and Karin Cartwood earlier this year that fosters stray, unwanted or abused horses and finds them qualified adoptive homes. It’s harder work than placing your average puppy, and in its first few months LEAN took in five horses in March and another two in April. Some have become too expensive for their owners. Some arrive beaten, some starved, some, like Blossom, so psychologically scarred it takes months of intensive work to get them ready for adoption. “There’s a far greater need for our services than there is capacity,” Cartwood says, adding that LEAN is hoping to expand, take on more volunteers and, as such, more Blossoms.
When the fly-spray application is done, the 1,000-pound work-in-progress nuzzles up to Isenbarg like an old friend, sticking her chin out for a scratch. “No one could get their hands on her,” Isenbarg says of Blossom’s January arrival. Looking at her now, it’s not hard to imagine that she’ll be adopted out with a little more work. A beautiful LEAN story, with a thing for chin scratches. –Sarah Feldberg
LEAN is Accepting donations and volunteer applications at allvegashorses.com/lean/lean.
Photograph by Bill Hughes