By Elisa Plata, American Red Cross volunteer
On a beautiful, sunny morning at the San Diego harbor, the American Red Cross of San Diego and Imperial Counties celebrated its 21st Annual Real Heroes Awards aboard the USS Midway Museum, honoring individuals and organizations who have gone above and beyond to make a difference in their communities.
The event, held on September 29, 2023, presented a record of the extraordinary acts of compassion and bravery from local heroes who embody the mission of the American Red Cross. The Real Heroes Awards, a time-honored tradition, recognizes those who have displayed exceptional courage, generosity, and selflessness. These honorees are true exemplars of humanitarianism, and their stories inspire us all.
The ceremony was emceed by Monica Dean, a National Edward R. Murrow Award-winning anchor and reporter for NBC 7 San Diego, who regularly hosts events for nonprofit organizations including several that support children, women, sex trafficking survivors, and emergency preparedness and response. Monica emphasized the importance of these heroes in creating resilient and connected communities and presented the awards to each honoree and their corresponding sponsor.
Here are some of the award recipients and their remarkable stories:
1. Gift of Life Hero: Dangkhoa Nguyen, a Chula Vista fire captain, has donated platelets for more than 20 years to help hospital patients in need. After one of Dangkhoa’s donations, he was notified by the Red Cross that his white blood cell count was alarmingly low. Shortly after this notification, Dangkhoa was diagnosed with leukemia and is now on the receiving end of platelet donations. His work has provided a lifeline for countless community members and their families and his donations have helped save so many lives, including his own. We had the opportunity of speaking with him and all he ever wanted was to help others. (Presented by Quanta West, LLC.)
2. Animal Welfare Heroes: San Diego Humane Society’s Dr. Brieana Sarvis and Humane Officer Beverly Fitzgerald worked together to rescue an 8-week-old kitten who was stuck in the frame of a truck. Thanks to their efforts, the kitten survived and has now found a loving forever home. (Presented by Mission Fed Credit Union.)
3. Good Samaritan Hero: When accepting the Good Samaritan Award, honoree Crystal Bettenhausen-Bubulka took every opportunity to use her voice as an invitation to everyone: always commit acts of kindness. She said, “If all of us only would do one act of kindness, there would be less suffering in the world.” Her message was emotive and exceedingly clear. Her family was incredibly proud of her for one particular act of kindness for which she received the Good Samaritan Award—she saved someone in a suicidal crisis situation, something that forever marked her soul. (Presented by Kaiser Permanente.)
4. Service to the Armed Forces Hero: Mark George, H3 Heroes Helping Heroes 4Life. The Red Cross recognized Mark, a former USS Midway sailor and a retired San Diego city firefighter and deputy fire marshal, for his tireless efforts to provide food security to families in need, helping veterans and first responders, and supporting outreach programs for the homeless through the efforts of his organization, H3 Heroes Helping Heroes 4Life. Margie Jones, executive director of H3 Heroes Helping Heroes 4Life, accepted the award on behalf of Mark George. (Presented by Sycuan Casino and Resort.)
5. First Responder Heroes: Officer Joseph Jirjees and Officer Justin Malicdem at the Sycuan Tribal Police Department responded to a call about a fire and saved the lives of two children and three dogs who were trapped in the house. Without hesitation, they both risked their lives and ran to save the children along with their pets. (Presented by San Diego Gas & Electric.)
6. Disaster Services Hero: Paula Llanas works for the Imperial County Department of Social Services and is a true hero in her community. She works selflessly to provide services for immigrants and homeless people going through transitional living after crisis situations. She spoke about how important it is to her to help others in the community. She is a shining example for younger generations to follow. (Presented by Wells Fargo.)
7. Corporate Hero: Jack in the Boxhas been a great supporter of the local Red Cross and recently donated $25,000 to support disaster relief efforts.. They are also proud to support a number of other nonprofit organizations and philanthropic causes, and were honored for these contributions to our community. (Presented by San Diego City Firefighters Local 145.)
8. Youth Hero: Amelia Umstadter saved her father's life. When her father started choking in front of her and fell down, injuring himself, she jumped into action. Without hesitation, Amelia performed CPR on her father and immediately had her family call 911. She loves helping others and is part of the Girl Scouts of San Diego, which honored her by awarding her with their prestigious medal of honor at her seventh-grade graduation for her heroism. (Presented by U.S. Bank.)
The morning ceremony featured inspiring stories about each honoree, highlighting their journey and the impact of their actions. The stories were a testament to the power of community, resilience, and the ability of individuals to make a lasting difference. As the awards were presented, there was no shortage of standing ovations and teary-eyed moments. The audience, a diverse group of community members, sponsors, and volunteers, couldn’t help but be deeply moved by the stories of these extraordinary individuals and organizations.
The 21st Annual Real Heroes Awards demonstrated the significance of recognizing and celebrating local heroes. The honorees personify the mission of the American Red Cross, creating a safer, more compassionate, and more resilient community for all. In a world so often overshadowed by challenges, the American Red Cross reminds us that heroes can be found among us, people who make a difference, one act of kindness at a time. These heroes, from all walks of life, are the true pillars of strength in our society, and they serve as an inspiration for all of us to be better and do better. Who knows? Maybe someday you will be somebody’s hero.