Giving and full of light. That's how family and friends described May Bunjes. The 71-year-old community advocate died of COVID-19 in November. Now her family is using her death as a rallying cry.
In Weld County, Colorado – where officials have dismissed state health orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 – she was a court-appointed special advocate for abused children for more than 20 years.
She gave her time to many causes.
Bunjes was a longtime volunteer with the American Cancer Society organizing local fundraisers and she built Habitat for Humanity homes, including a trip to Mexico to build homes with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.
"Even when she couldn't swing a hammer anymore, she continued to work with the Habitat for Humanity folks," said daughter Jeanette Bunjes-Strumpf.
That included throwing children's Christmas parties for Habitat residents where Bunjes dressed up as Mrs. Claus and enlisted her family members to help deliver holiday cheer. Her husband Fred was Mr. Claus and her grandchildren were little elves. She also continued to volunteer as a translator for Habitat clients.
Bunjes saw service as a way of life. She kept giving even after she was diagnosed in 2014 with pulmonary fibrosis, a degenerative lung disease.
"It wasn't just that she felt like she needed to sit on a board or something like that," Bunjes-Strumpf said.
When Bunjes was on oxygen and awaiting a dual lung transplant, the Meals on Wheels board member was still hitting the streets to deliver meals.
Bunjes was also asthmatic but had been managing that condition. Still, her lung problems made her more susceptible to developing complications from COVID-19.
Bunjes's family held out hope for her while she battled COVID in a Phoenix hospital but she would eventually succumb to the disease. Bunjes-Strumpf traveled there to be with her mother in her final days.
Protecting everyone from the virus, especially the vulnerable, takes massive cooperation. Still, officials in Weld County, where Bunjes dedicated much of her life to enriching the community, have emphasized individual responsibility in lieu of enforcing state health orders.
Recent KUNC reporting highlights some of the impacts this has had on the community, particularly its Latinx members.
Bunjes-Strumpf, for her part, says local government inaction is unacceptable.
"She cared so much for a community that just basically refuses to care for its citizens, from the government, right down to people who she cared so deeply about," she said.
Daughter Jamie Bunjes says that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, her mother's love for people is important to emphasize. America places a high value on individualism and during a global health emergency that has come at a steep price.
"Because right now I feel like we don't love each other as much as ourselves," she said. "That's the thing, we don't wear these masks for ourselves, right? We wear them for other people to keep them safe from getting the virus if we were to have it."
Bunjes's family has been vocal about this. They have contacted local officials, appeared in the media, and helped launch a campaign with Hispanic Women of Weld County – "Mask up for May." They want people in their mom's hometown to look after each other how their mom did.
Bunjes-Strumpf says it starts at the top.
"We would really love to see the government setting that example, asking its citizens to come together," she said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.