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Wednesday, Jan 08 2014 06:00 AM

Tammy Wallace is 2014 'Citizen of the Year'

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Tammy Wallace has been selected as Tehachapi's 2013 Citizen of the Year. Terri Asher / Tehachapi News

Tammy Wallace, 2013 Citizen of the Year, with her husband, Jim. Terri Asher / Tehachapi News

Tammy Wallace has been paying it forward for a very long time.

Her selection as Citizen of the Year for 2014 recognizes her many contributions to the community she has called home for the past 17 years.

She admits she's had a problem saying "no" when there have been needs to fill.

The Tehachapi Area Association of Realtors, the Greater Tehachapi Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Tehachapi are among the local organizations made stronger by her leadership and volunteerism.

Over the past decade she headed up efforts by local Realtors to raise more than $100,000 for the American Cancer Society through Tehachapi's Relay for Life.

Just before Christmas she bought lottery tickets to pass out as gifts to strangers. She and her husband, Jim, have long enjoyed doing random acts of kindness, working to make other people's lives just a little better by a thoughtful gesture.

But Tammy's greatest gift to Tehachapi may be the positive outlook she has displayed since learning of her diagnosis with colorectal cancer in October 2012.

"Tammy's Cancer Speech" during Relay for Life last July summed up her message: "How you live with cancer is up to you," she said. "You can let it get ahold of you and bring you down or you can choose to face it head on, kick its butt and laugh in its face."

Describing the months of treatment she'd been through at the time, and the side effects, she said "it's OK because I'm alive and I'm blessed."

Ron and Doris Depew, founders of Tehachapi's Relay for Life, were on the stage at Coy Burnett Field last summer when Tammy said those words.

"There wasn't a dry eye there," Ron said of the emotional speech that she shared with Relay participants.

Tammy was a volunteer for Relay for Life long before she got sick, inspired by her former employer at Highland Construction, whose mother had cancer.

"Every year there are more people to walk for," she said. Tammy helped raise funds for Rosie Chavez, who lost her battle with leukemia, and during last year's Relay made a connection with a 15-year-old with colon cancer.

"I met with her recently," Tammy said. "Her cancer's gone but she's been through so much. Her mother, others, can tell her they understand how she feels, but I really do understand. I know."

KEEPING BUSY

In her speech, Tammy described how she gets up every morning, takes a shower and puts on her make-up, even when she doesn't feel like it.

It's important to keep busy, her husband Jim said, to have goals.

Recently, Tammy elected to become a referral agent. When clients call with real estate needs, she refers them to another Realtor for assistance and they share the commission.

Doctors have told her she has less than a year to live and if that's the case, she said, she doesn't want to spend it in an office.

She and Jim have a "bucket list" and enjoyed a trip with their camping trailer to the Pacific Northwest region in October. After making final arrangements at Wood Family Funeral Service, Tammy booked a cruise from which they returned just before Christmas. And a trip to the Midwest is planned this year.

A life insurance policy that allows collection of a percentage of the benefit for someone with a terminal diagnosis has helped fund their travel.

Still, Tammy is a volunteer.

In January 2012 she was named Realtor of the Year by TAAR and wore stunning red high heels to the awards dinner. A year later, the effects of treatment have left her with nerve damage and the need for more sensible shoes, but don't expect them to be boring.

On Jan. 25, Tammy will be honored as Tehachapi's Citizen of the Year at the annual awards dinner and she's set to be installed as Chairman of the chamber's Board of Directors, too.

SHOCKING DIAGNOSIS

With a diagnosis of Stage 4 colorectal cancer just 18 months after she had a colonoscopy with no problems detected, Tammy has learned that you never know what life will serve you up.

She and Jim have also been astounded at the support they have received from the Tehachapi community.

Within hours of news of her diagnosis, friends started a fundraising campaign. Proceeds from a dinner held at Jake's Steakhouse raised money to help offset medical expenses and both Tammy and Jim expressed appreciation to owner Barbara Ferrante for that event.

Initially, her treatment was stalled because she couldn't afford medical tests. Fundraising helped get the testing she needed, as did the kindness of her radiologist who accepted $3,000 as payment for a bill of $37,000 and the makers of the drug Zelota, which costs $10,000 a month but was provided to her by the pharmaceutical firm for free -- and a company representative even called regularly to check on her.

Eventually, the Wallaces discovered that they could get help from Kaiser Permanente, which accepts pre-existing conditions, and have been very happy with the treatment she has had there.

One disappointment, she wanted to get another tattoo, but has to be off chemo or at least eight weeks to do so; doctors have said she must remain on chemo, so no new ink is in the cards.

Friends still bring meals and help in other ways, for which Tammy and Jim express appreciation and amazement at the level of support that has been offered to them.

And her positive outlook and determination have inspired the community, as well.

"We just love her," Ron Depew said, speaking for many.

"I have cancer," says Tammy. "Cancer does not have me."

AWARDS DINNER

Tehachapi's 'Citizen of the Year,' 'Small Business of the Year' and 'Large Business of the Year' will be honored by the Greater Tehachapi Chamber of Commerce and the Tehachapi News during the chamber's annual awards banquet and installation set for Saturday, Jan. 25. Contact the chamber, 822-4180, for ticket information.

Selected as 'Small Business of the Year' is the Sail Thru Car Wash; RST Cranes is 'Large Business of the Year.' Stories about both businesses will be included in upcoming editions.

View 'Tammy's Cancer Speech' on youtube: youtube.com/watch?v=zyeO8HSIiqQ

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