05/28/2015 02:21 pm ET Updated May 28, 2016

What Makes a Community Strong?

I live in Maplewood, a community of 25,000 citizens, filled with artists, musicians, teachers, social workers, psychologists, finance people, not for profit leaders, business owners/developers, and every possible profession. Maplewood is diverse. When you walk down the main street, there are single parents, same-sex couples, and mixed race couples with their children who will hopefully change our culture for the better. There are people in Maplewood who advocate and fight for social justice. There is a high school that has faculty and administration who believe in change and innovation.

And there are heroes in Maplewood. Who are they? When one of them falls and dies, we all cry and pay our respects. Angelo Vayas, who passed away at his home in Maplewood this past weekend, is a hero. I attended his wake at Morrow Church yesterday. I knew he had a brain tumor and we spoke about his surgery, but I lost track of his struggle until yesterday when I ran into a friend in town and she was placing flowers in front of Trattoria. I was crushed by the news and so was my teenage son who adores Trattoria and the feeling we all have when we wait on line to get pizza or sit inside or outside. We enjoy the feeling of belonging while eating the many tasty dishes served up at the restaurant. We feel that Angelo has created a home away from home for us.

It seems that everyone in Maplewood was coming through those 'church' doors. We all loved this man. He mentored new business owners and gave to those in need. He named a pizza after Kohl Angelo, who died two years ago of brain cancer, which took his life as well. He smiled and catapulted me out of a bad mood on more than one occasion. While going through my divorce, I ate more at Trattoria than my own home. I sat alone and said hi to Angelo on many nights or took out dinner and felt safe because of Angelo. He smiled me out of my despair.

I met Angelo even before we moved in; I would come to my new home as it was being painted and readied for the move in day and I would get Ben, my baby son, that fabulous chicken noodle or rice soup. Ben loved that soup... he still does. Angelo was like many leaders in his community. He was a role model for how we connect and care about one another. He helped me fall in love with Maplewood and in the last 12 years that I have lived here, I have looked to this town for the strength and support that we all need to stay the course of life's challenges. My work abroad puts me in touch with communities and many that are strong and loving are just like Maplewood, a collection of people looking for the same thing...a feeling of belonging. There are Ethiopian Angelos or Haitian Angelos. We look to them for the strength of the community.

I loved Angelo Vayas. He will never know that many of us thrived through the most desperate times of our lives because of him and his devotion to connection, safety, and generosity in a world that is overwhelmingly too big and chaotic. Thanks to Angelo, and my condolences to his wife, Mary, his mother, and his three sons.