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Longview Rotarians honor reluctant hero for humanitarian work

By Sherry Koonce skoonce@news-journal.com
June 19, 2012 at 10 p.m.


Some people talk. Others do.

Deborah Bell is one of those who does - so much so that her countless hours dedicated to helping others earned her Longview Rotary Club's 2012 Citizen of the Year award.

The founder of Refuge International was honored Tuesday by Rotarians during the club's luncheon at the Summit Club.

Bell, described as a reluctant hero, said she was honored and humbled to be recognized.

"In receiving this award, it comes to mind that not just my name should be on it. I feel as if this recognition should include the multitude of people who have contributed to the work Refuge International has done. Indeed there are hundreds of names that are being recognized today as parts of the body that is Refuge, not just me."

Tireless, love of people, passionate, relentless, hard worker, inspiring and compelling. Those are just some of the words that describe Bell, Carroll Greenwaldt, past president of Rotary District 5830, said when introducing the award recipient.

Between her four-day work week as a nurse practitioner for Dr. James Sawyer at the Diagnostic Clinic of Longview, Bell brings medical care to those in need, both in Longview and at far-flung corners of the world.

In 2003, her desire to help the poorest of the poor was realized with the creation of Refuge International. The Longview-based humanitarian group, through collaborations with others, has provided health care, nutrition aid, clean water and education to those lacking access to the basic services.

Longview Rotarians are among those working with Refuge International.

With the assistance of matching funds donated by Rotary International, the local Rotary club made available 4 million doses of albendazole, a drug used to rid Guatemalan children of intestinal parasites.

Since its creation, Refuge International has established three clinics in Guatemala, where hundreds are served daily.

At the same time, Bell's efforts have helped local people in need of medical care.

"Deborah, through her team and some partnerships, has helped put together $112,000 worth of medical care given free to the needy people in our community," said Eric Burger, executive director of Hiway 80 Rescue Mission. "You picked the right person to be an ambassador."

Others described their association with Bell, and the can-do spirit that allows her to get things done, while inspiring the best from volunteers.

"With a lot of prayer, a lot of collaboration from people like you, a lot of arm twisting of people like you, she has twisted arms to do unbelievable things," said Fran Grimes, a friend of Bell. "Since the night I met Deborah, she has challenged me physically for sure... she has taken me places where I had literally been scared to death, but more importantly than the physical challenge, she has challenged me spiritually by her faith."

Refuge International board member Michelle Solis described her first trip with Bell at a remote area of the Caribbean.

"This is not her element to receive such an award," Solis said. "What is her element is Deborah up on a mountainside that we climbed all day, then sitting there with a family and probably 13 children with swollen bellies, skinny legs, scabies and head lice. This barefooted family walked through the jungle to get to her."

Leah Erickson, Bell's youngest daughter, described her mother as someone living up to Gandhi's direction - that people be the change they envision.

"I am not sure he envisioned someone like my mom, yet here we are honoring someone who does live up to what Gandhi said. The biggest thing I think most people know about her is this reward is not about her, and she won't accept it for herself. The honor will go to those of you who helped her," Erickson said.

Her daughter's words rang true when Bell accepted the award.

"Again, I am humbled by this award and am grateful to Longview Rotary for their recognition of the Refuge work through me. I willingly accept it in my name, with the thought that there are so many others here with me in its acceptance," Bell said. "My prayer is that this award will make others aware of the work that Refuge has done and that they too will come and be part of the greatest group of volunteers on Earth who are changing the world a little at a time."

Each year, Longview Rotarians nominate a person who, though their selfless actions, is the top citizen of the year.

In Bell's case, the decision was unanimous. All of those making nominations submitted Bell's name.

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