For the past 21 years, we have honored individuals and groups for acts of immense bravery, dedication and service to the community. Join us in celebrating the 2023 Class of Heroes.
For the past 21 years, at our annual Heroes Breakfast, the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago has honored individuals and groups for acts of immense bravery, dedication and service to the community. Incredible heroes walk among us delivering kindness and making a difference every day. We invite you to join us in celebrating the 2023 outstanding Class of Heroes!
Blood Services Hero | Community Impact Hero | Disaster Relief Hero
Education Hero | Firefighter Hero
Global Citizenship Hero | Healthcare Hero | Law Enforcement Hero
Lifesaving Rescue Hero | Military Hero | Social Justice Impact Hero | Youth Hero
Blood Services Hero
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
Disaster Relief Hero
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
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
Global Citizenship Hero
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.
Community Impact Hero
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
Law Enforcement Heroes
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.
Lifesaving Rescue Hero
Nicole Collins of Sugar Grove is the Lifesaving Rescue 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.
Social Justice Hero
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
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.
In addition to recognizing the exemplary 2023 Class of Heroes, the Red Cross of Illinois presents the prestigious Heritage Award, annually as part of its Heroes Breakfast event.
The Heritage Award recognizes the consummate spirit of heroism and humanitarianism at a distinguished level. It acknowledges the demonstration of long-term commitment to improvement of the lives of others through actions, deeds, and philanthropic works in the corporate and civic communities.
Tom Wilson has been CEO of Allstate since 2007 and Chair of the Board of Directors since 2008. He is a public advocate for business playing a broad role in society through initiatives such as providing living wages and improving diversity and equity.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce enhanced sustainability under Wilson’s leadership by clarifying its purpose and embracing bipartisanship. He currently chairs the Board of Trustees of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and holds leadership positions in the financial services industry and the community.
Wilson has led Allstate through the global financial crisis and increased severe weather due to climate change. He is now leading an innovative multi-year Transformative Growth strategy at the company.
Ed Wehmer, Wintrust’s CEO and Founder, is responsible for overseeing the execution of the day-to-day operations and strategic initiatives of the organization. He is the only member of the Board who is also a manager of the Company. As such, he provides views of Company management and substantial insight into Company operations, as well as historical context for the Board’s discussions.
Ed serves on several boards in the area, including Northwestern Memorial Foundation and the Archdiocese of Chicago. He and his wife, Dorothy, are involved in many charitable organizations in the Chicagoland area.
The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago would like to invite you to nominate someone you know who has acted with bravery, dedication and service for the benefit of their community.
Selected Heroes will be honored at our Heroes Breakfast in 2024.
Candidates are honored in 12 categories. See descriptions here.
Candidates must live or work in the following Illinois counties:
Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, LaSalle, Lake, McHenry, or Will.
Heroic act must have occurred within the 2023 calendar year or be ongoing.