Brianna Kelly, Regional Communications Manager
SAN DIEGO – Oct. 5, 2023 – A Chula Vista Fire Captain and leukemia fighter. A lifesaving Girl Scout. Animal rescue heroes. A veteran and former first responder helping to improve the lives of veterans in San Diego. An Imperial County resident providing hope to those in need. Last week, the American Red Cross of San Diego and Imperial Counties honored these heroes and others at the 21st Annual Real Heroes Awards aboard the USS Midway Museum.
The Real Heroes Awards is the largest fundraising event for the American Red Cross of San Diego and Imperial Counties and this year’s event raised over $170,000 for the organization.
“We were honored to recognize outstanding hometown heroes who have acted with bravery and compassion,” said Sean Mahoney, Regional CEO of the American Red Cross Southern California Region. “Everyone left the event inspired by the stories of ordinary people with extraordinary courage right here in San Diego and Imperial Counties.”
To see videos highlighting each winner, click here. To view and download photos from the event, click here.
2023 Real Heroes Honorees:
***Click here to download hero and event photos***
- Gift of Life Hero: Dangkhoa Nguyen (Carlsbad, Calif.) – For more than 20 years, Chula Vista Fire Captain Dangkhoa Nguyen has donated platelets to help hospital patients in need. After one of Nguyen’s platelet donations in March 2023, he was notified by the American Red Cross that his white blood cell counts were alarmingly low. Shortly after receiving this notification, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Now, Nguyen is on the receiving end of platelet donations. After his diagnosis, Nguyen spent time in the hospital and was released just in time for a very important day – his May the Fourth Be with Us Blood Drive. Nguyen is a hero for helping countless patients through 20 years of donating platelets, and even when he became ineligible to donate due to his leukemia diagnosis, he continued to help patients through hosting a blood and platelet drive, inspiring many to roll up their sleeves and donate blood and platelets.
- Youth Hero: Amelia Umstadter (San Diego, Calif.) – In the fall of 2022, Amelia Umstadter’s father experienced a choking incident that caused him to lose consciousness. He fell backwards, hit his head on the counter, and landed on the floor. Umstadter witnessed the fall and saw that her father was not breathing. She called for her mother, who ran downstairs and immediately dialed 911. Umstadter performed CPR until her father resumed breathing and regained consciousness. She tended to him with others until emergency personnel arrived. Her quick actions saved her father’s life and allowed him to walk away from the incident with only minor injuries. This summer, Girl Scouts San Diego (GSSD) honored Umstadter, now in seventh grade, with the prestigious Medal of Honor for her heroism. The rare Girl Scouts of the USA Medal of Honor is one of the highest honors in Girl Scouting and Umstadter is only the fourth Girl Scout from San Diego and Imperial counties to earn this honor in the last decade.
- Animal Welfare Heroes: Dr. Brieana Sarvis and Beverly Fitzgerald (Escondido, Calif.) – When a man driving his truck heard meowing while at a stop sign, he pulled over to investigate and found a kitten stuck in his truck frame. San Diego Humane Society’s Dr. Brieana Sarvis and Humane Officer Beverly Fitzgerald responded immediately, and working together, helped to free the trapped kitten, who was only eight weeks old. Thanks to their efforts, the kitten was rescued, received care from the San Diego Humane Society team, and was later adopted – a happy ending to a scary situation, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Sarvis and Humane Officer Fitzgerald.
- Good Samaritan Hero: Crystal Bettenhausen-Bubulka (Coronado, Calif.) – While driving home one evening in April 2023, Crystal Bettenhausen-Bubulka saw a woman who was exhibiting signs of mental distress and intended to jump off the Coronado Bay Bridge. Bettenhausen-Bubulka pulled the car over and instructed her daughter to call 911. She then got out of the car, heroically placing herself between the woman and the edge of the bridge and talking to her until the police arrived. This simple act of caring helped save a life that night.
- Service to the Armed Forces Hero: Mark George, U.S. Navy (Ret.), (San Diego, Calif.) – Mark George is a retired USS Midway sailor and retired San Diego City Firefighter and Deputy Fire Marshal. As both a veteran and former first responder, George has experienced challenges that have allowed him to fully understand the needs of the veteran community. After experiencing tragedies and on-the-job injuries, George was forced to end his career in the fire service, but he has continued to serve his country and community. His nonprofit organization, H3 Heroes Helping Heroes 4Life, is dedicated to helping veterans and first responders and raises funds to support education and awareness, peer support training, homeless outreach programs, and behavioral health studies. George is also a long-time blood drive host, holding Red Cross blood drives each year, including a drive on Veterans Day, and helping the Red Cross collect hundreds of units of blood through various blood drives to give back to the community.
- First Responder Heroes: Officer Joseph Jirjees and Officer Justin Malicdem, Sycuan Tribal Police Department (El Cajon, Calif.) – In April 2023, Sycuan Tribal Police Department Officers Joseph Jirjees and Justin Malicdem responded to a radio call of a residential structure fire near the Sycuan reservation. Upon arrival, they assisted responding firefighters by conducting traffic and crowd control. As they watched the smoke and embers spread to nearby homes, a concerned neighbor approached and told them they believed two children and three dogs were trapped in one of the houses. Without hesitation, Officers Jirjees and Malicdem ran towards the neighboring house, entered the home and rescued two children and three dogs inside, who were escorted to a safe place away from the fire where they were reunited with their parents.
- Disaster Services Hero: Paula Llanas (El Centro, Calif.) – Paula Llanas, Director of Social Services for Imperial County, is a true hero to families who received care and comfort thanks to Llanas’ efforts throughout 2022 and 2023 during times of need. In December 2022, Llanas worked selflessly to provide services for migrants who were in the area. She coordinated with dozens of agencies to assist the City of Calexico in caring for these individuals, even coordinating Christmas presents for migrant children through the Department of Social Services. In 2023, Salton City was affected by a mass power outage affecting nearly 1,000 families. Again, Llanas jumped into action, relocating her team to the Salton Sea area and coordinating social services disaster efforts for this remote area. Her compassion and leadership make her a true hero to people in Imperial County, and beyond.
- Corporate Hero: Jack in the Box (San Diego, Calif.) – Jack in the Box has been a steadfast supporter of the Red Cross. During the past year, they donated $45,000 to support Red Cross Disaster Relief efforts. They also recently began a partnership with the Red Cross to start a new customer donation program, allowing Jack in the Box locations across the country to collect Disaster Relief donations at the register, in support of Red Cross disaster relief efforts near and far. Jack in the Box has also worked with the Red Cross of San Diego and Imperial Counties to donate food during times of disaster, providing meals for people in Red Cross shelters during wildfires and more.
Real Heroes Awards nominations are submitted by the public and are chosen by a selection committee based on the extent to which nominees embody the spirit and mission of the Red Cross. Real Heroes nominations are accepted year-round at redcross.org/sandiego/realheroes.
The event was made possible thanks to generous sponsors, including: Hometown Hero Sponsors San Diego Gas & Electric and Quanta West, LLC, Humanitarian Sponsor Sycuan Casino & Resort, Regional Sponsor U.S. Bank, Presenting Sponsors Kaiser Permanente, Mission Fed Credit Union, San Diego City Firefighters Local 145, the Sulpizio Family, Wells Fargo and others.
About the American Red Cross Southern California Region
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides comfort to victims of disasters; supplies about 40% of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; distributes international humanitarian aid; and supports veterans, military members and their families. The Red Cross is a nonprofit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to deliver its mission. The Red Cross Southern California Region proudly serves San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial Counties. In addition to carrying out disaster preparedness and response programs, blood collection, health and safety training, international services programs and supporting the military community, the Southern California Region provides nutritional counseling through its Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in San Diego and helps communities prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters through its Prepare SoCal and Prepare San Diego initiatives. For more information, please visit redcross.org/SoCal or cruzrojaamericana.org, or connect with the Southern California Region on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Facebook.