November 06, 2006 12:00 PM

THE TRUE BELIEVER: HELEN ‘SAM’ COY

On a warm October evening in Boston’s tough South End neighborhood, a shooting at a barbershop is all seven teenage boys want to talk about. But at Sargent House, a home for troubled kids, Helen Sandra “Sam” Coy has other ideas. Getting the group to settle down on some lived-in sofas, she soon has the room’s attention as she leads a trivia game, whipping through questions on the Civil War and NATO, then posing this puzzler: What animal did scientists claim to have cloned 50 times in 1998? “Mice!” says one boy. Coy throws up her hands with pride and smiles. “They’re so smart,” she says. “They don’t know what they can do.”

Coy, 27, does. The daughter of an undercover narcotics agent who helped take down a notorious drug ring and later committed suicide, she was on her way to becoming a prosecutor. Instead she decided to spend her days guiding the lives of a dozen boys—some with learning disabilities, some abused or neglected, some with criminal records—who have ended up in the temporary care of the state. “Sam’s inspirational,” says John Larivee, who runs the nonprofit agency that oversees Sargent House. “She has a belief in everyone’s potential.”

That is partly because she has come so far herself, from public housing in Worcester, Mass., where her mother and stepfather carefully sheltered Coy and four siblings from violence and drugs. Her safest haven was school, where she thrived on the support of teachers who recognized her intelligence and drive. “I went to school every day: sick, dying, crippled, crawling,” says Coy, smiling.

Bright as she was, she was in the dark about her father, Jeffrey, who separated from her mother when Coy was young and had a secret: He was an operative for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, posing as a dealer to infiltrate a multimillion-dollar drug empire. His success in bringing down kingpin Darryl Whiting—and his own later struggles with drug abuse—made him the subject of the 1999 movie In Too Deep. When her father finally told her the truth, when she was 13, “I was so proud,” she says. “He saved the city.”

But he couldn’t save himself. Sam was 14 when Jeffrey—depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—hanged himself. “I was sad, embarrassed, humiliated,” says Coy. Then a teacher convinced her to pour her grief into writing, entering her in an essay contest and describing her in a recommendation as a “Phoenix rising from the ashes.” Says Coy: “It was wonderful that somebody looked at me like that.”

Coy proved her teacher right. She won the contest, a scholarship to college and, eventually, a law degree. She was working for a county prosecutor when one day she watched a judge sentence a 19-year-old repeat offender charged with a violent knife attack. Struck by his sloppy attire, Coy thought “maybe it was too late for him … but if he had been supported back when he was 13, could that have changed the path of his life?”

That thought was the end of Coy’s prosecutorial plans and the beginning of her life as the guiding spirit of Sargent House. The boys—sent to the four-story brownstone for their own behavior or because their families can’t handle them—spend their nights there and go to school by day. (Coy lives alone in a Milton, Mass., studio apartment.) Their privileges and penalties depend on their behavior, and Coy takes a tough-love approach learned from her mother. When one boy kept bragging about his ties to the Bloods gang, Coy launched a “raid on red” (the gang’s color), confiscating all red clothes.

Her care is paying off. Dimitri Thistle-Noiles, 14, was in danger of failing eighth grade because of absenteeism and fighting. Coy spoke with him about it—repeatedly—urging him not to mess up his future. He started going to school, not missing a day for three months, and is now in high school. A plus: One afternoon this past spring, he burst into Sam’s office. He had won a math award. “It was one of my proudest moments,” says Coy, who has hung the certificate on her wall. She also takes pride in Hector Jiminian, 14, a once-truculent kid who, after a summer at Sargent House, is back home, cleaning his room and offering to do the dishes. “He’s totally changed,” says his mother, Diana Rodriguez, 36.

Coy has been calling to check in with Jiminian at least weekly, just to make sure he stays on track. “My dad risked his life to make sure kids could be safe,” she says. “I’m trying to save them too.”

THE PIED PIPER: ABEL DELGADO

PASSION: Providing free instruments and classical-music lessons for 250 underprivileged city kids through the nonprofit Harmony Project in Los Angeles. PEOPLE, Aug. 28

INSPIRATION: His Mexican-immigrant parents, Abel, a roofer, and Maria, a cleaning woman, never finished grade school but told Delgado and his brother “there’s nothing you can’t do.”

PERSONAL GOAL: Winner of several conducting and solo prizes, Delgado, 26, aspires to become a world-class conductor and flautist. “I’ve always been a performer.”

PHILOSOPHY: He believes kids respond to expectations set by adults; he refuses to dumb down his lessons. “We’re not just in this to create musicians. It’s about creating human beings.”

ULTIMATE COMPLIMENT: “He’s strict,” says trumpeter Tomas Hugo, 12, “but real cool.”

http://www.harmony-project.org

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL: TRACIE LEE DEAN

OCCUPATION: Audi dealer general manager

PREOCCUPATION: The well-being of children—in particular, a sad-eyed little girl who appeared to be about 4, whom she spotted in an Alabama convenience store last January. PEOPLE, Feb. 13

MAIN TRAIT: Tenacity. Believing the child was in danger, Dean, 35, of Decatur, Ga., hounded law-enforcement officials and did her own sleuthing. Five days later the girl was tracked to a trailer, where she was living with two adults and a 17-year-old boy. After doctors determined that the girl had been sexually abused, the children were sent to a foster home. The two adults are in jail awaiting trial.

SECRET WEAPON: Gut instinct. “I get bad vibes all the time, about a person or place. I don’t think I’m crazy for feeling them anymore.”

NOT-SO-SECRET ADMIRER: An 80-year-old man who, having seen Dean on TV, sent her a silver necklace with two hearts symbolizing the two children.

UNEXPECTED DIVIDEND: Dean—on the board of Our House child care and shelter charity—was once a Big Sister and plans to become one again. “This whole experience,” she says, “made me want to be a better person.”

THE BEST FRIEND: TAYLOR CRABTREE

MESSAGE OF LOVE: The Vista, Calif., 16-year-old has sent teddy bears (each one “pre-hugged”) to more than 20,000 kids hospitalized with cancer. PEOPLE, Jan. 16

PAINFUL MEMORY: At 7, she watched grandmother Louise Tharp, now 80, battle and beat colon cancer: “She was a high-energy person and chemo was so hard on her.”

RQ (RESOURCEFULNESS QUOTIENT): High. Started at age 7 by selling decorated hair clips to raise money, then assembled a network of 1,600 volunteers and negotiated a deal with Build-A-Bear Workshop founder Maxine Clark to buy bears for $5.

BEAR BENEFIT: One nurse told her that MRIs taken when children hold their bears come out sharper, since kids are less frightened. Says Crabtree: “That’s proof of the power of hugging a bear.”

WISH: A bear for every patient. “I want them to know people care, even strangers.”

http://www.taybearhugs.org

THE HOME MAKER: BOB DECKER

DAY JOB: Houston Cop (on leave)

TRUE CALLING: Building homes for Mexican families living in cardboard shacks in the colonias, settlements along the Texas border (also: buying them groceries, paying medical bills). PEOPLE, July 3

LABOR OF LOVE: Coming to the aid of 24 seniors in a dilapidated nursing home with plans for more than $50,000 in building improvements and hiring additional staff.

MIRACLE WORKER? After he raised $4,200 to help save a 10-year-old boy’s severely infected foot, a local woman brought him to tears by asking, “Are you the man who makes crippled children walk?” (His answer: “I don’t have that kind of power, but I know a doctor who does.”)

HIS NEEDS: Few. Decker, 54, has a one-bedroom apartment and no paid staff. Donates thousands of dollars of his own.

HEARTBREAK: When Oscar Vargas, 6, whose family Decker had been helping, died of cancer in July. “Oscar will always live in my heart,” he says.

MANTRA: “The question I love asking is, ‘What else do you need?'”

http://www.paperhouses.org

READERS’ CHOICE

You spoke, we listened: Selected from hundreds of nominations, these men and women have made their towns—and our world—a better place for everyone

GRIEF LED HER TO HELP DOMESTIC VIOLENCE VICTIMS

LISA SPICKNALL BALTIMORE

Nominated by Tonya G. Prince

Sometimes Lisa Spicknall’s husband, Richard, beat her so severely she couldn’t leave the house. Late in 1998, he finally went too far: As she held their baby son, Richie, in her arms, he shoved her down the stairs. Spicknall moved out and got custody of their two children, but her husband won visitation. On Sept. 8, 1999 he came by, supposedly to take Richie, then 2, and 3-year-old sister Destiny to the shore. Instead he drove to a deserted site and shot them as they slept in his Jeep. Richie died instantly; Destiny clung briefly to life. “The police said when they got there she was asking for Mommy,” Spicknall says, crying. “I wanted to kill myself. But I needed to stay strong to convict him.”

Richard, now 34, was sentenced to life in prison; Spicknall joined a victims’ support group and by 2002 had become a victim’s advocate for the organization. She now works for the Prince George’s County Sheriff and has helped 300 people obtain counsel, protection orders and safe houses. One, Tonya Adams, 45, sat trembling outside court last May, afraid to testify against her husband. “Lisa said, ‘I’m going to sit through this with you,'” she says. “She made all the difference.”

Spicknall, 32, is now in a healthy relationship with firefighter Elliot Horner, 25; they have sons Zachary, 4, and Liam, 18 months. “If I can keep one person from violence,” she says, “Destiny and Richie didn’t die for nothing.”

WAITING FOR A LIFESAVING TRANSPLANT, HE HELPS OTHERS

WAYNE MANGAN, TACOMA, WASH.

Nominated by Dean Forbes

“I am a better person because of my illness.” So says Wayne Mangan, 49, a gregarious father of two who was diagnosed with leukemia in May 2005. Visiting a cancer center, he teared up when he watched a father cry as he lifted his ill young son. That inspired him to reach out to others facing similar challenges. So far unable to find a suitable donor for the bone-marrow transplant he needs to survive, he is delighted that marrow-donor drives he and his friends have organized have added 2,000 names to the registry and resulted in matches for five others. Using his business contacts—he’s a manager of a building-supply company—he has raised $200,000 for local families of children with leukemia. Here’s what Misti Darden, mother of Abigail, 5—one of many grateful moms—has to say about him:

“He got us a queen-size bed and two nightstands. He gave us $1,500 to help pay the bills. He gave Abigail a doll and her sister Briana a toy computer. Abigail perks right up whenever she sees Wayne. He’ll come over, and she just beams. The cancer he’s fighting is very aggressive, but you’d never know he’s in pain. I think his big heart keeps him going.”

HIS CHARITY BEGAN AT HOME

DANIEL CAYCE, THORNTON, ARK.

Nominated by Barbara Ann Richman

Part of a family that has helped the needy for four generations, Daniel Cayce, 18, has launched and staffed dozens of charitable programs. One current effort: packing grocery bags with peanut butter, pasta and other staples for 60 schoolkids per week to take home on weekends so they and their families don’t go hungry. Over the past six years, Cayce’s various efforts have also delivered:

30,000 lbs. of donated baby food

80,000 tons of furniture, household goods, clothing and shoes

20,000 pairs of socks

20,000 blankets

1,000 child-safety seats

“The payment,” says Cayce, now a freshman at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, “is the way people say ‘thank you.'”

SHE LED A FIGHT FOR SAFE DRINKING WATER

ALEXANDRINA MERAZ, ALPAUGH, CALIF.

Nominated by Debbie Jackson

Five years ago, at a coffee shop in downtown Alpaugh, Calif., Alexandrina Meraz listened as 19 mothers described their kids’ diarrhea, sores and hair loss—symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Meraz felt certain she knew the source: the local drinking water, which smelled like rotten eggs and for years had been the talk of the community. “No one was listening,” says Meraz, 65. “So I took it upon myself.”

With that, a crusader was born. A married mother of four grown children and a former school aide, Meraz had been named to the county water board, which refers decisions about local water to the Alpaugh Irrigation District. Speaking at public meetings, she called for a water-safety study and, as a stopgap, persuaded the school board to let parents send bottled water to class. Then, one day, at the district office to pay her water bill, she glimpsed a report, not yet released, that Alpaugh’s water had unacceptably high levels of arsenic (which derives naturally from bedrock). Lobbying for clean-water funds, Meraz made dozens of trips to the capital in Sacramento, once cornering then-Gov. Gray Davis. “She was very persuasive,” he recalls.

And effective. At a Jan. 26, 2004 ceremony in Visalia, Calif., Meraz signed a check for a $1.5 million government grant to rehab the water system. To help residents until the work was done, she got Sequoia Spring Water to supply free water. Says Esther Martinez, who is raising grandchildren in Alpaugh: “Sandy deserves a gold medal.”

TUNE INTO CBS’S THE EARLY SHOW FROM OCT. 30 TO NOV. 3 TO LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR AMAZING HEROES. STARTING OCT. 31 YOU CAN VIEW VIDEO CLIPS FROM THOSE STORIES AT WWW.PEOPLE.COM/HEROES2006

Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM. Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address.

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