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Awards honor those who did the right thing

I like feeling good about things. I like happy endings. I like it when people go out of their way to help others, or become more than they were because of crisis or circumstance.

Hence we annually present the mundanely named Esmonde Awards -- from me to them, from this column to truly fine citizens. There is no certificate, no cash value and no weekend for two in Bermuda. But there is the enormous satisfaction of doing the right thing for the right reasons.

*Debbie Bowers -- A chance meeting with an Iraqi refugee more than a decade ago opened the world of the Clarence minister's wife beyond charity work and running the church preschool. It led to work at a refugee resettlement center, it led her to visit Iraq, it prompted her two years ago to collect thousands of shoes for children in the war-torn country.

The Mimi Rogers look-alike took another step this year by helping to start Radio Almahabra, Iraq's first woman-oriented, democratic call-in radio station. It gave a voice to Iraqi women long gagged by Saddam and now fighting off the shackles of Islamic extremism. It's the sound of freedom, from Buffalo to Baghdad.

*Darlene Torbenson -- Adversaries nicknamed her the Ice Queen. It was in grudging respect for her calm but relentless push for justice for owners of cracking Amherst homes built on shifting soil. With her steady gaze, caramel-coated voice and indisputable research, she was the scourge and ultimate savior of the Amherst Town Board.

Crisis transformed the at-home mom to activist, turned her into someone her old self admittedly would not have recognized nor understood. But when the home you built a life on splits at the seams, when you learn that town officials were warned decades ago not to build on unstable soil, you either flee or fight.

Torbenson fought. She led hundreds of afflicted homeowners in a fracas for fairness. The road got smoother this year, when the engineering study she pushed confirmed the shifting-soil claims and opened the door to restitution. No caramel coating is sweeter than victory.

*Chris Koch -- Koch (pronounced Cook) heads the family-owned, Derby-grown New Era Cap Company. He rejected a better deal in Alabama to relocate an internationally expanding company to downtown Buffalo. He brings 240 new jobs, a brand-name company with youth appeal and the cap contract with Major League Baseball.

"This is our way," said Koch, "of doing something to help [Buffalo]."

When a CEO does it, it's not a little something. It's a big something.

*Donald Lockwood -- He went from anonymous pizza delivery guy to local hero, from working dad to symbol of a city's resilience. Lockwood was working a second job delivering pizzas to pay for his kids' Christmas gifts when he was attacked and robbed by at least two guys. They took $70 and beat him nearly to death with a baseball bat. Doctors feared permanent brain damage and a lengthy hospital stay. Lockwood, limping and with his skull stitched like a baseball, walked out of the hospital in barely a week.

A helping community offered a helping hand. Hundreds came to a fund-raiser or sent donations. The $20,000 raised touched the macho guy and -- although it's a long road to full recovery -- grafted a happy ending on a holiday horror story.

*Donna Fernandes -- Buffalo's gifted zoo director, frustrated by budget cuts and lured by a sweet offer, left for Fresno last summer. She was back three months later. Board disputes soured the Fresno deal, but the bigger picture was a transplant's longing for her Buffalo roots. She became a symbol of everyone who ever came for a stay and stayed for a lifetime, and for all of those who left in search of jobs but long to return. Welcome home.


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