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When Joe Heller, 71, moved to Vail 12 years ago, he brought with him a long history of volunteering--and lots of time to give. The retired psychology professor had spent 30 years teaching at California State University at Sacramento, and he credits his late parents with his eagerness to give of his time. On Sept. 4, Heller and other Tucson volunteers were recognized by the Volunteer Center of Southern Arizona at its Community of Hearts Awards. Heller, awarded Citizen of the Year for his work with the Primavera Foundation, says he accepted the award on behalf of all volunteers everywhere.

Where are you from?

I was born in Brooklyn but actually never lived in New York City. I still like to call it home, even though I grew up in Northern New Jersey. ... I retired 12 years ago, and then I moved to Vail.

Why Tucson?

California just got too crazy and too crowded. When I was in a traffic jam in my favorite rural area, I said, "Something is wrong here." And even though I've always thought of myself as a city-type, I live on 1 1/3 acres in Vail. I was surprised at how much I loved it. It's beautiful.

What's your background as a volunteer?

It goes back a long time. Some of it was really a natural spinoff from my academic life. I taught a course in death and dying, and found myself working as a volunteer with a hospice as result. I taught a class on human sexuality and also on HIV/AIDS and that got me involved in the Sacramento AIDS Foundation and into volunteer work at some local hospitals. Living in the state capital, I was also involved in political activism. That was a natural.

But now you're retired. Shouldn't you be focusing on being retired?

No. After being in Vail for six months, I felt like I needed to do something useful. I had the time, and I needed to get involved. I had some experience working in the homeless community. I saw a PSA on a local news channel one night about Primavera having a meeting for volunteers the next morning. I said, "OK, this sounds interesting." And I've been working there now for 11 1/2 years.

What other kind of volunteer work have you done in Tucson?

About five years ago, I decided to branch out a little bit and became a volunteer at Wingspan, doing clerical and database work maintaining donor lists, and occasionally I'll also do some editing and copywriting. ... I've been working with the Vail School District as well. ... The district was putting together a health and human sexuality curriculum, and I joined the planning committee for that. ... About three years ago, the district received a $4 million federal grant for promoting safe schools (and) healthy students. And in September 2006, I was selected to join the (new) community action board which was formed to further the purposes of the grant and carry on its mission after the funding period ended. It's been exciting work.

Why do you think volunteering has been important to you?

I've had the time to give, and I've had a reasonable income, which made it easy to volunteer. But I know that not everyone can volunteer. I don't criticize. Not everyone is cut out for it.

What's important to you when you choose an organization?

Their cause first, and then I look at their financial responsibility. I've seen major volunteer organizations in many places ... where there's just been too much overhead and fancy perks, and volunteer work gets lost.

What's it like being chosen Citizen of the Year?

I was totally and absolutely flabbergasted. When I found out, I was just sitting at this desk/service counter doing mail at Primavera, and then all of a sudden, this huge group of people, many I didn't even know, surrounded me to tell me the news. I did not know I was nominated, and they kept it a secret for 10 days before they told me I was selected. ... I got a plaque, and Primavera received $1,000.

What advice can you give to us regular Joes?

Well, look at your life, and see how you might be useful to others. You don't have to make a major commitment. An hour a week can make a big difference in someone's life. ... I remember a friend, living in a major apartment complex in Northern California, knew about a resident who was elderly and just needed occasional help. He went knocking door to door, and most of the people he talked with volunteered to help her. ... (When she died), people said, "How can we continue to do more?" They understood.

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