Everyday Heroes


Monique Celedon, a Realtor and community volunteer, started a busy food pantry in Manor that operates out of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church. It gives out hot meals and distributes large boxes of food to those in need. (Ralph Barrera photo)

They are our neighbors, family, friends and co-workers. The most essential of workers across Central Texas includes the doctors, nurses and medical staffers; the food pantry workers and donors; and the emergency first responders.

But there are others: the teacher working from behind a computer instead of in front of a classroom to keep students learning, the dressmaker who started mass-producing masks for the community, and the small distillery that switched from making bourbon to pumping out hand sanitizer.

Their actions don’t make the evening news. They aren’t walking away wealthy from their efforts, and they aren’t seeking medals. They are just good people who want to help others.

The 10 people profiled here are a sample of the innumerable Bluebonnet-area residents choosing to help their communities. They may not consider themselves heroes, but together their efforts are heroic.

Read more about them below or download a PDF of the full story.

— Melissa Segrest

Click the white arrows below to scroll through images from the story.





The Caldwell County Christian Ministries food pantry in Lockhart served the most families in its history in March after the coronavirus hit, said Meredith Jakovich, executive director of the nonprofit.

In “normal” hard times, the pantry — affiliated with the Central Texas Food Bank — assists 750 families a month. As the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns took effect, new people pulled in to the pantry’s parking lot on the west side of town. Jakovich instituted a drive-through distribution system and put out a call for extra volunteers. By the end of March, the pantry was serving 1,100 families. She is also a Bluebonnet member.

“I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of this community,” Jakovich said. “It’s been phenomenal, with donations, with volunteering, with people bringing canned food — organizations that are saying, ‘What can we do to help?’ and businesses asking what they can do, folks writing checks. I'm not surprised by it, but I'm overwhelmed at the amount. The community has really shown up to help those who need it.”

— Clayton Stromberger



Dr. Karen Smith loves practicing family medicine with Baylor Scott & White Clinic in Manor, where she draws on her teaching skills, a desire to help the underserved and her Christian faith.

“My friends tell me I practice medicine like it’s education,” said Smith, a bilingual teacher for 12 years before medical school. “I like empowering patients with information.”

Not only does she treat COVID-19 patients and others at the Manor clinic — and virtually through telemedicine — she works with community groups that provide food for those in need and call to check on people who are older and homebound. She is also a Bluebonnet member.

Smith wears many hats. Teacher of Dell Medical School students. Co-founder of the Manor Health Alliance, which in October opened a free clinic that sees patients periodically. Adviser to Manor Mayor Larry Wallace Jr.’s task force on COVID-19. Ordained minister. International medical mission volunteer. “I want to build things that outlive me,” said Smith, who has five grown children.

— Mary Ann Roser



Bone Spirits Distillery in Smithville responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of essential supplies that followed by turning spirits into a potentially lifesaving liquid.

Instead of selling 2,500 gallons of bourbon aging in barrels to wholesalers, the 10-year-old company converted that alcohol into sought-after hand sanitizer.

“We initially gave away 1,000 gallons to city and county first responders, EMS and area hospitals,” said Anthony Chiappetta, vice president of engineering at Bone Spirits. The first batch was made on March 23.

Now the company sells sanitizer to the public.

Bourbon used for the sanitizer had been aging from three months to two years. It was expected to age four or more years at the distillery.

“First, we put our bourbon back in our pot stills to extract the tannins that come from the oak barrels. Then we used our column stills to bring the alcohol content up from 120 proof to 190 proof and blended it down with water,” said Chiappetta, shown at left.

They added hard-to-track-down hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and propylene glycol.

Bone Spirits joined more than 800 distilleries around the country that shifted gears to fight the virus.

— Ed Crowell



As the pandemic hit, longtime friends and foodies Alana Chandler and Alexandra Worthington, creators of the award-winning Culinary Cowgirls queso and owners of the cozy Culinary Room store on the square in Lockhart, realized they were in a unique position to help their community.

The store was deemed an essential business because of its small-batch, locally made grocery items. The two women also have a factory kitchen license for their queso, which gave them access to a supply chain of sanitizing wipes, disinfectant, medical-grade gloves and masks — items suddenly impossible to find anywhere else. Soon Lockhart residents were lining up outside the store each morning as Chandler and Worthington, along with their dedicated staff, worked tirelessly to sell these virus-stopping items at cost.

“We supplied to every doctor’s office in Lockhart, the clinics, the police, the bank, even the jail,” said Chandler, shown in image carousel above with her Pomeranian, Queso, unofficial store greeter. Customers began “paying it forward,” donating funds to ensure that neighbors in need could keep their families safe.

“We’ve seen the best in people through all this,” Chandler said. “And that's something unique to see when you feel like the world's falling apart because it gives you hope.”

 — Clayton Stromberger



In Giddings, the line of vehicles on East Industry Street started forming before 9 a.m. every Tuesday. Drivers outside Giddings Elementary School are handed tall, white plastic bags full of meals.

All students could get a five-day supply of breakfasts and lunches. The line had been growing since the free and open-to-all meal service began March 23 after Texas shut down schools because of COVID-19.

By May 5, 325 students had received food bags — a total of 3,125 meals. The food is prepared and distributed by 14 Giddings school district workers or a food service contractor, Chartwells K12.

It’s a challenge unlike anything Traci Campbell has faced. She is Chartwells K12’s director of dining for the school dis- trict and a Bluebonnet member. In March, she applied to the Texas Department of Agriculture for funds from the Seamless Summer feeding program that usually begins when school ends in late May and continues through the summer.

At the pickup site, bags of food were handed out at one stop and homework from teachers at another stop. Lunches were hamburgers or chicken sandwiches, fish sticks or hot dogs, vegetables and salads. Breakfasts were cereal or pancakes with fruit or juice and milk. Money for the program was scheduled to run out June 30, which would put an end to Tuesday meal pickups in Giddings. In May, Campbell was unsure if other funds could be found.

— Ed Crowell



One late February night, dressmaker-designer Daniela Vlad woke to repeated “dinging” notifications on her phone. Her life hasn’t been the same since.

Vlad opened her Design Studio dress shop in Bastrop on Feb. 1. She also sold masks online to allergy sufferers and cold-weather joggers. Suddenly, COVID-19 arrived, and everyone wanted a mask. Ding!

Immediately, Vlad, who is a Bluebonnet member, switched to sewing only masks. Thousands of them. She hired two employees — her mom is the fabric cutter — and she was logging 60 to 70 hours a week in May. In the midst of this, she got married.

Vlad estimates that as of mid-May, they had made 5,000 masks for workers in local government, public safety, utilities and more. She donated 1,000 to nursing homes, a clinic and other spots. “We can’t make them fast enough.” She’s also making protective medical gowns.

“I love to sew,” Vlad said, “but it’s been stressful. Sometimes, I go home and cry. I would like things to go back to the way they were, but I know the new normal is this.”

— Mary Ann Roser



After 26 years as an emergency room nurse, Robert Gillespie did not expect to be on the front lines of a pandemic. Now he sees suspected COVID-19 cases every day at the small hospital where he is an ER nurse and shift supervisor. The hospital opened in January 2020.

It was scary at first, said Gillespie. He works full time at the hospital and part time at a freestanding emer- gency department with his wife, who is also a nurse. They are vigilant about protecting their son, now home from college, to keep him safe from infection.

Support from the community and a staff that’s “like a family” keep Gillespie motivated. “We bounce stuff off of each other all day.”

Not all of it is heavy. Gillespie sometimes wears colorful scrub caps or masks to reflect his personality. His Spider-Man cap (see photo in image carousel above) shows his love of Marvel comics. He doesn’t see himself as a superhero. “I love taking care of people,” he said. “It’s my job.”

He’s exactly where he wants to be.

— Mary Ann Roser



After Texas closed public schools in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, a Brenham child with a visual impairment was desperate to “see” her teacher.

She put her face on an iPad at home. The teacher saw only an eye- ball. “Don’t get so close, honey,” the teacher said. “Just listen.”

As special education teachers say: Every student can learn, just not always on the same day or in the same way.

The shutdown tested that wisdom. Children in wheelchairs, with hearing and vision impairments and with intellectual and developmental disabilities all had to be taught remotely, just like all other students. But “we can’t do it virtually” for all students with disabilities, said Leslie Villere, special education director for the Brenham school district. Lessons were modified or shortened.

Villere had to creatively think of ways to teach more than 700 special education students in their homes at a time when teachers were home, too. Teachers stuffed crayons, craft projects and books into envelopes to mail to students.

Special education teachers and staff “call, video chat or text with parents and caregivers to help them through academic activities that we have provided for students,” she said. “Parents are very overwhelmed.”

“I work with personnel who go above and beyond to ensure that our kids are safe and happy and making as much academic progress as we can for them.”

Special education is evolving with the pandemic. But, Villere said, “we have no idea what August is going to bring.’’

— Denise Gamino



Just weeks after the coronavirus hit Texas, Washington County put into service a shiny orange-and-white medical helicopter to assist the county’s Emergency Medical Service. Kevin Deramus, director of EMS, had worked for two years to acquire the helicopter but never imagined it would arrive amid a pandemic.

The refurbished Airbus EC145 was used for 14 transports to hospitals in its first two weeks at Brenham Municipal Airport. Those trips weren’t for people known to have COVID-19, but Deramus anticipates that will happen. By mid-May, his department’s six ambulances, six squad SUVs and 50 paramedics had transported 140 COVID-19 patients, some requiring multiple hospital trips.

California-based REACH Air Medical Services owns, pilots and maintains the helicopter. “It doesn’t cost us anything,” Deramus said of the lease arrangement that Washington County Commissioners approved last fall. “But the company gets all the revenue from transport charges.” Deramus and the EMS facility both get electricity from Bluebonnet.

Before the helicopter arrived on May 1, Deramus had another quest. His staff needed personal protective equipment — the gloves, gowns, goggles and masks that keep first responders safe.

“What once lasted us a month was now being used up in a week,” he said. With an assist from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, Deramus and his staff got a sufficient supply of PPE.

At times, EMS crews must take patients to hospitals in College Station, Temple and Houston. The helicopter can reach College Station in 12 minutes. It takes 50 minutes to drive. Each of those precious minutes can save lives.

— Ed Crowell



Monique Celedon grew up watching her parents volunteer for so many time-consuming community causes “I swore I’d never do that.”

“But here I am,” she said. “Serving is definitely in my nature.”

The longtime Realtor from Manor — mother of five, grandmother of three and school board vice president — created a large food bank to prevent any of the 40,000 residents of the Manor area from going hungry during the pandemic.

She started with what she thought was a small project: asking volunteers to deliver groceries to older people. Word got out, and food poured in. “Within two days, we needed a building,” said Celedon, shown in the image carousel above with some of her team. Soon, Travis County and the Central Texas Food Bank asked if she could host a mobile food distribution center for larger amounts of food and meals.

The new Manor disaster relief food bank operates in the sanctuary of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Manor, with tables piled with food. Travis County brings lunches three days a week, and the Central Texas Food Bank brings 350 boxes of food twice a month for distribution.

Manor Mayor Larry Wallace Jr. said Celedon “continuously leads this effort like a full-time job, making her the epitome of a community volunteer, advocate and leader.” Celedon is a Bluebonnet member.

“People ask me, ‘How in the world did you do it?’ ” Celedon said. “I tell people all the time: build lifelong relationships so when something like this happens and others need you, you’re able to do something because people trust you.”

— Denise Gamino 

Download this story as it appeared in the Texas Co-op Power magazine »​

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