Mental health and coronavirus: Vallejo woman's tragic death is warning for others, friends say

VALLEJO, Calif. (KGO) -- During this Mental Health Awareness Month, ABC7 News is dedicating a week to sharing stories of how important mental health is, especially during these unprecedented times.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the life and work of a Vallejo woman who tragically left behind a legacy of caring and kindness for all.

ABC7 was first introduced to Maria Guevera in 2017 when she was featured as an ABC7 Star for her work as the founder of the community group Vallejo Together. We followed along and witnessed her selflessness firsthand as she delivered meals to dozens of homeless people each day with a smile, often greeting them by name.

RELATED: ABC7 Star: Vallejo woman helps homeless people

For over a decade, Maria was like an unofficial town leader who was even named Vallejo Woman of the Year in 2017. Because of her there were donation drives, youth parties and a warm hand for anyone in need.

"She was otherworldly. That's the only way to describe her," says friend and fellow Vallejo Together volunteer Lisa Guttierez Wilson.

In 2017, Maria described what she did as an "honor" and saw the homeless as her equal.

"For letting us be in your life. At this point I am so grateful," she beamed.

But little did anyone know, Maria was struggling on the inside and needed help herself.

"Hindsight is always better when you look back," says Lisa, wistfully. She goes on to say, "We did not recognize the signs. In the last two years there was a decline and people were noticing all kinds of changes."

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That decline was a series of setbacks. Friends believe stemming from problems with funding which triggered her depression and mental illness and caused her to behave erratically, even battering a senior citizen, which landed her 6 months in jail.

Maria eventually became homeless herself - part of the community she used to serve. In a final tragic twist, just days ago, Maria was hit and killed by a train.

"It just didn't seem real. I think we always end of held out hope she could return and that she would come back to us," sniffs Victoria, through a curtain of watery tears.

Victoria credits Maria for encouraging her to chase her dreams after college and is why she's a middle school counselor today.

"I wasn't really sure what direction I was going in. I graduated during a recession so I wasn't really working in my field which was education and psychology. Maria just brought this leadership quality - not just me - but out of everyone really. She just nudged me into the spotlight into just making sure that I have the connections that I needed to go closer to my dreams into find my passions," says Victoria.

The irony of what happened is frustrating and heartbreaking.

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"Maria knew all the resources! She knew how to help people in exactly the same situation!" exclaims Victoria as Lisa nods.

Together, she and Lisa have this message for anyone in the Bay Area.

"When someone is rude at the grocery store or they do something terrible, don't judge that reaction because you don't know what's going on with them. You don't know if they're sinking slowly into illness. We just need more kindness and understanding and not judging people."

Victoria's voice begins to crack as she echoes the sentiment.

"Check on your friends. Check on people especially in this time it's so important because people are dealing with things with the shelter-in-place and they're alone," she said.

The mission now is for Maria Guevera's legacy to live on. Through a community that vows to keep the now nonprofit, Vallejo, together.

ABC7 will be holding a virtual town hall this week to have a conversation about the importance of mental health, especially during these difficult times.

RELATED: 'Your Mental Health: A Bay Area Conversation,' virtual town hall addressing COVID-19 impact on mental health

Join us on Thursday at 4 p.m. on ABC7, on abc7news.com, our Facebook page, Youtube page, and on all our streaming apps.

If you or a loved one are dealing with emotional distress due to the pandemic, mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, here are some organizations that offer help and hope.

For more information and resources, visit ABC7's Take Action page here.

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