Seventeen extraordinary individuals to be honored at the 2023 Red Cross Heroes Breakfast
The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago announces the 2023 class of heroes to be honored at the annual Red Cross Heroes Breakfast. The class of Red Cross Heroes are an exemplary group of individuals who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to build better communities, and who have made a lasting impact on others in the process.
The Heroes Breakfast was established to raise public awareness of local heroes who exemplify the values of the lifesaving mission of the Red Cross. Since 2002, the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago has celebrated more than 200 extraordinary individuals who have made a personal commitment to creating safer and stronger communities and providing help when disaster strikes.
This is the 21st year the Red Cross is honoring a class of heroes at our Heroes Breakfast, attended by hundreds of individuals from across Chicagoland. This year’s event is scheduled for Thursday, May 11 from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m. at the Hilton Chicago. Over the past 21 years, through the generosity of the corporate and individual donor community, the annual Chicago Heroes Breakfast has raised millions of dollars for the humanitarian mission of the American Red Cross.
“Each year I am humbled to hear the stories of incredible people who selflessly and altruistically help others. This year we have assembled another incredible class of heroes who have made an extraordinary mark in their communities and beyond,” said Celena Roldán Sarillo, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Illinois.
The 2023 Class of Heroes
Heroes in 12 community service categories are being honored this year. Honorees were chosen by an independent committee of leaders in the business and civic community. The Red Cross pays tribute to the class of 2023 heroes through their stories of inspiration outlined below.
Yvonne Blake of Chicago is the Blood Services Hero.
This past November, Yvonne Blake’s 20-year-old son Jaden, a collegiate track and field athlete and student at Grand Valley State University, passed away after a terrible automobile accident. While fighting for his life in the hospital and in preparation for organ donation, Jaden required more than 60 units of blood. To keep her son’s legacy alive, she started a non-profit in his name, the Jaden Sebastian Blake Foundation, and a month after his death she led the Foundation to host a blood drive in his honor. Going forward, Blake and the Foundation have it as their mission to provide support and scholarships for African American youth who aspire to participate in non-traditional sports and to raise awareness of and participation in blood donation and organ donation for members of African American communities nationwide.
Father Hernan Cuevas Contreras of Highland Park is the Disaster Relief Hero.
During the 2022 Highland Park Independence Day Parade mass shooting, Father Hernan Cuevas Contreras, on his third day on the job as the pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, took immediate action and led his parishioners on their parade float and other parade onlookers in the area to run and take shelter in his church. He and the church sheltered more than 50 people for four hours while the shooter was at large. In the wake of the tragedy, Father Cuevas also dedicated himself to providing resources for the Spanish-speaking members of the community to support healing in Highland Park and Highwood.
Shawn Harrington of Oak Park is the Education Hero.
Shawn Harrington brings encouragement and inspiration every day to the students he teaches and coaches at Children of Peace Catholic School. A former Marshall High School stand-out basketball player and coach, Harrington was shot and paralyzed in 2014 in a mistaken identity shooting, while shielding his daughter from gunfire. Currently, Harrington is at Children of Peace Catholic School, where he prioritizes providing students a safe haven on the basketball court and serving as a mentor. He says, “The benefit of my experience is going to benefit these kids. Growing up in the inner city – about every adversity you can face, I’ve been through it.” Harrington works to help children face their own adversities and uses sports as a tool to broaden their horizons. He is known for teaching and coaching with genuine care and concern for the students’ overall well-being.
Nicole Jackson of Richton Park is the Healthcare Hero.
Nicole Jackson is an emergency room manager and nurse at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the south side of the city in Calumet Heights. On June 23, 2022, the emergency department was filled with patients and was experiencing limited nursing staff, when three gunshot victims needing care simultaneously arrived at the ER. Two of the victims required immediate transfer to a higher level of care for their injuries via critical care ambulance transport. Seeing the busy ER, the critical status of the gunshot victims, and the 90-minute wait before a critical care ambulance arrived, Jackson, already working beyond her shift to support her team, jumped into the ambulance to deliver lifesaving care in the fast-moving ambulance. Regularly going above and beyond as an ER nurse and patient advocate in a trauma setting is what Jackson is known for at Advocate Trinity Hospital.
Captain Paul Burns, Firefighter Paramedic Michael Modjeski, Firefighter EMT Jeffrey Rich, of Chicago are the Firefighter Heroes.
In April 2022, the three Chicago Fire Department firefighters responded to a major three-story apartment building fire in the Austin neighborhood. They arrived to find heavy fire emanating from the first-floor windows. Just inside the front door of an apartment on fire, they assisted a female victim who communicated that her ‘grand baby’ was inside. With zero visibility, heavy smoke conditions, and extreme heat, the interior search team entered the burning apartment. Within minutes, FF/PM Modjeski signaled to his partner, FF/EMT Rich, that he had discovered a female on the bed and needed assistance getting her out of the house. Subsequently, Capt. Burns entered the bedroom to complete the search. Under heavy debris from the closet, Capt. Burns discovered an unresponsive 3-year-old child and carried her out of the building. All three victims were quickly transported to the hospital. The search team of Capt. Burns, FF/PM Modjeski and FF/EMT Rich heroically ventured into a heavy fire situation to rescue individuals in a dire circumstance.
Pastor John Zayas of Chicago is the Global Citizenship Hero.
In early 2022, Pastor Zayas of the Grace and Peace Community Church in the north Austin and Belmont Cragin neighborhoods of Chicago participated in a City of Chicago taskforce to understand and support the Central and South American migrants anticipated to come to Chicago in fall of 2022. Pastor Zayas recognized the migrant need would be substantial and immediately mobilized his congregation to stand ready to provide humanitarian support. As a result, he provided thousands of migrants with resources and supplies collected from many partners and his church provided temporary shelter for families to keep them together. The Grace and Peace Community Church housed over 100 families for 3-4 months. While staying in their facility, his church also assisted by resourcing them with city programs, employment opportunities, and permanent housing.
Keith Wallace of Frankfort is the Community Impact Hero.
Keith Wallace is the Executive Director of the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association (LWSRA). LWSRA’s mission is to provide recreation and leisure services for individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities while also promoting greater disability awareness in the community. Wallace has led and coached adaptive sports for more than 20 years and works tirelessly to get individuals with disabilities into college and the workforce. Wallace has grown the Lincolnway wheelchair basketball program from one to five teams, all of which compete in the North American Wheelchair Basketball League he founded and the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. In 2022, LWRSA served 400 people. Wallace has also grown wheelchair softball opportunities, including bringing the Wheelchair Softball World Series to Chicagoland in 2022.
Officers Alexander Lopez & Andrew Soderlund of Aurora and Yorkville respectively are the Law Enforcement Heroes.
The day before Thanksgiving 2022, Officer Alexander Lopez and Field Training Officer Andrew Soderlund of the Aurora Police Department were working in different patrol cars when a call came in that woman and a nine-year-old child had fallen through the ice on a nearby retention pond. The child had been playing with a football that landed on the ice and when he tried to retrieve it, he fell through. The woman saw the incident and tried to save him. The officers raced to the scene with Officer Lopez arriving first. He waded into the retention pond and began to chip away at the ice to rescue the individuals. Eventually the water became too deep for him to touch the bottom, so he swam out in the frigid waters, and proceeded to take hold of both the boy and the woman and tried to swim with both clinging to his back. This proved extremely difficult so Officer Soderlund ran into the water with a rope tied to himself so that their colleagues on shore could help pull them in and get the woman and the boy out of the water. After they were out of the water, Officers Lopez, Soderlund and those rescued were treated for hypothermia, but all made a full recovery.
Nicole Collins of Sugar Grove is the Lifesaving Hero.
On September 17, 2022, athletic trainer Nicole Collins was chaperoning the homecoming dance at Geneva High School when a senior collapsed. Collins recalls hearing the music stop and running into the gymnasium to see what was going on. Student Bridget Archbold had collapsed suddenly on the crowded dance floor and began to seize. Collins stepped in, placing Archbold onto her side. Once the seizure subsided, Collins rolled Archbold on her back and started chest compressions. Collins did two rounds of CPR and in the second round, Archbold started coughing and came to. She was taken to the hospital in Geneva and returned to school in good health that Monday. Collins says she learned CPR at a babysitting class when she was 10 years old and has maintained her certification since, though this was the first time she used her training to save a life.
Melvin Bridgmon of Chicago is the Military Hero.
Melvin Bridgmon, a U.S. Navy Veteran, and his late sister Margaret, founded Outreach Chicago, a veteran-led, faith-based organization to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness including families and veterans in Chicago. A veteran who experienced homelessness himself, Bridgmon seeks to provide resources, information, guidance and hope to those experiencing homelessness, drawing from stories of his own life and his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Outreach Chicago’s programs include nutritional bag lunches, hygiene products for men, women, and babies, as well as winter clothing distribution. Outreach Chicago estimates it has helped 16,000 people since 2010. “I’ve had PTSD so I know what trauma is and what roads it will take you down, so that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing because people need to come home,” he says.
Berto Aguayo of Chicago is the Social Justice Hero.
Berto Aguayo is a law student at Northwestern and is the Executive Director of Increase the Peace, an organization that develops young leaders and promotes peace through leadership development, community organizing, and advocating for solutions that tackle the root causes of violence. Aguayo uses his experience as a former gang member to rally youth to stay off the streets by incentivizing them through community projects, employment access, and civic leader preparation. Additionally, Aguayo mentors Increase the Peace youth and regularly hosts them at
Northwestern Law School for leadership and legal aid training. Aguayo has also worked hard to bring Black and Latino communities together in the Black and Brown Unity Car Parade which advocates for peace and racial healing.
Nayomi Melton and Caleb Johnson of Chicago are the Youth Heroes.
Siblings Nayomi Melton and Caleb Johnson are just nine and six-years-old but are already seasoned volunteers. In the past two years, the siblings have prepared more than a thousand lunches that they have donated to shelters and handed out to people experiencing homelessness, often using their own allowance money to buy the supplies. They got the idea after they saw a man on the side of the road with a sign and a cup and asked their mom what he was doing. Once she explained he was experiencing homelessness, Melton and Johnson wanted to help because they recognize the importance of helping others in their community. Both children were recently honored with the President's Volunteer Service Award for their work.
2023 Heritage Award
In addition to recognizing the exemplary 2023 Class of Heroes, the Red Cross of Illinois will present the prestigious Heritage Award. The Heritage Award is presented annually to a civic leader who exemplifies the spirit of heroism and humanitarianism at a distinguished level and demonstrates a long-term commitment to improving the lives of others. The awardee's actions, deeds, and philanthropic works illustrate the spirit of humanitarianism and echo our mission: to help others prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies.
We are proud to honor Tom Wilson, Chair, President, and Chief Executive of The Allstate Corporation.
Tom Wilson has been CEO of Allstate since 2007 and Chair of their Board of Directors since 2008. He is a fierce public advocate for business with a proven track-record of voluntary action for the public good and improving the health and welfare of vulnerable populations. Allstate’s mission is tied to helping people and communities recover from disaster events and under Wilson many programs have been implemented that both prepare individuals and communities prior to a disaster and support those communities impacted by disaster. Over the past 20 years, under Wilson’s leadership, Allstate has also implemented many youth initiatives, building, and encouraging future leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow.
Thank you to the generous sponsors of the 2023 Illinois Red Cross Heroes Breakfast event, including:
Presenting Sponsor: Gallagher; Champion Sponsors: William Blair, ITW, Kirkland & Ellis, KPMG LLP, and Wintrust; Inspiring Action Sponsor: Make It Better Foundation; Hero Award Sponsors: Aon, BMO, Fresenius Kabi, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Motorola Solutions Foundation, Nicor Gas, United Airlines, Walgreens; Interactive Technology Sponsor: JLL; Media Sponsors: Better and CBS 2 Chicago and numerous other organizations who have made this program possible.
VISUALS: Heroes headshots may be accessed here.
About the American Red Cross of Illinois
The American Red Cross of Illinois serves 12.4 million people in 88 counties in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri including Adams, Bond, Boone, Brown, Bureau, Carroll, Cass, Champaign, Christian, Clark, Clay, Clinton, Cook, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, DeKalb, De Witt, Douglas, DuPage, Edgar, Effingham, Fayette, Ford, Franklin, Fulton, Green, Grundy, Hamilton, Hancock, Henderson, Henry, Iroquois, Jasper, Jefferson, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Knox, LaSalle, Lake, Lee, Livingston, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Marion, Marshall, Mason, McDonough, McHenry, McLean, Menard, Mercer, Montgomery, Morgan, Moultrie, Ogle, Peoria, Perry, Piatt, Pike, Putnam, Richland, Rock Island, Sangamon, Schuyler, Scott, Shelby, Stark, Stephenson, Tazewell, Vermillion, Warren, Washington, Whiteside, Will, Williamson Winnebago, Woodford. Iowa: Lee, Muscatine, Scott, and Van Buren. Missouri: Clark, Lewis, Marion, and Ralls. The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit us at Redcross.org/Illinois or visit us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @RedCrossIL.