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Red Cross honors local community heroes
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Heroes Among Us
• Animal Rescue Hero: Raquelle Van Vleck and Tony Dye
• Good Samaritan Adult Hero: Julie Messner
• Good Samaritan Youth: Grace Kiesel
• Law Enforcement Heroes: Sheriff's Deputy Clarence "Barney" Barnes; Amber Brown, Crimes Analyst Technician; and Ronda Nunes, Public Safety Dispatcher
• Medical Professional Heroes: Doreen Flanagan, RN and Susan Garcia, RN
• Mental Health Professional Hero: Ron Gilbert, LMFT
• Military Active Duty Hero: Donna Huggins, MSgt, California Air National Guard
• Military Veteran Hero: Colonel Jack Lewis (Retired)
• Professional Rescuer: Chief Michael Wilkinson
• Workplace Hero: Mike Medina
• Bette Belle Smith Spirit of the Red Cross Hero: Bradley Volkmann, RN
• Heroes of the Year: Beth Kanaly, Ian McBay and Thomas Nelson


From individuals who stepped forward in a moment of crisis to those who have committed themselves to public service, the Red Cross deems them all heroes and paid tribute to them during the organization’s annual awards ceremony.

The local Red Cross chapter’s sixth annual celebration of “Heroes Among Us — Ordinary People, Extraordinary Compassion,” held Wednesday morning in Modesto, honored the 17 individuals who over the course of the last year, or in some cases a lifetime, demonstrated courage at a critical moment and gave of themselves for the greater good.

“We are here to celebrate the spirit of service and those who rise to the challenge,” said Rev. Michael Douglass, who delivered the invocation at Wednesday’s event.

The Red Cross’ tradition of honoring community heroes began in 1994 with the American Red Cross Mount Rainer Chapter. The event has grown to become an annual celebration with more chapters joining each year.

This year’s local Red Cross heroes are:

Animal Rescue Hero:  Raquelle Van Vleck and Tony Dye

The ReHorse Rescue Ranch in Jamestown was founded in 2009 by Raquelle Van Vleck and Tony Dye, with a mission to provide a safe, loving and healthy environment for abandoned, neglected and abused equines. On average, the ReHorse Rescue Ranch is caring for 35 horses, but they’ve also rescued donkeys, dogs, cats and currently a pot-bellied pig.  ReHorse works with animal services, veterinarians, law enforcement and community referrals that come from all over Central and Northern California and Nevada. All have suffered from inadequate care, abuse or neglect. Many are on the brink of death and it can take thousands of dollars in medicine, specialized feed and veterinary care to survive.  Sadly, not all do. The lucky ones are available for adoption, while others will live out their lives cared for by staff and volunteers.  In the past three years, over 125 horses have been rehabilitated. 

Van Vleck and Dye’s ambition to help went beyond horses. They felt called to work with children in foster care who have suffered from abuse and neglect. They believed that these children could benefit by working with animals that suffered a similar fate. In August 2011, they developed a partnership with Tuolumne County Child Welfare Services to start Raquelle’s dream program, “Hands and Hoofs.” The eight-week program for youth, ages 8 years to 17 years, provides an opportunity to learn and care for horses through the building of trust. Weekly sessions include presentations, grooming, raking stalls and cleaning troughs and quiet time with “their” horse. 

“We thought we were just rescuing horses and that it couldn’t get any more amazing than that, but we were wrong, because it did,” Van Vleck said.


Good Samaritan Adult Hero: Julie Messner

On April 28, 2011, Julie Messner was returning home from her medical assistant classes at Heald College when she came upon an accident at Carver and Briggsmore avenues. At first, it wasn’t clear what had happened, until a young neighbor of Messner’s rode by on his bike screaming hysterically that his sister was dead. Messner parked her car and ran around the corner to the intersection where she found a young girl, age 12, lying in the street and no one else providing help.  It had been 17 years since Messner had administered CPR on someone during nursing assistant training, but she knew she had to step forward.

Messner approached and found the girl was breathing and had a pulse, so she monitored her condition. Another woman called 911 and handed the phone to Messner who relayed what was happening.  As firefighters arrived, the young girl’s pulse stopped and she began to choke up blood. The firefighters asked if Messner knew CPR and she confirmed she did. They instructed her to start compressions while emergency responders arrived to take over with a breathing tube and defibrillator. Happily, the young girl survived the accident.

“I just happened to be there at the right time and had the right training,” Messner said.


Good Samaritan Youth: Grace Kiesel

When Grace Kiesel was 9 years old and heard about Children’s Crisis Center’s program at Cricket’s House, she knew she wanted to help.  Most of the children at Cricket’s House have missed out on the love, affection, comfort, and security, necessary for healthy development. The Children’s Crisis Center relies on generous hearts to help meet the Center’s mission to protect and serve children; many at risk of abuse and neglect.

In a response to their needs, Grace came up with an innovative way to raise money. Her idea engaged her friends and family in fun time pursuits to benefit a worthy cause. Grace founded a three-day summer camp originally intended for children, ages 5 years to 8 years, but because of its success has grown to include adults and seniors. For the past three summers, Grace has designed, facilitated and operated “Kiesel Camp for Kids.”  Kiesel Camp offers food, fun, and entertainment for all attendees. Grace charges a registration fee of $5 per child, $10 for adults, and seniors are free. All of the funds raised are than delivered to Cricket’s House to benefit child abuse prevention and intervention activities.

Grace, now 12 years old, has held Kiesel Camp for Kids’ for three years and used proceeds to buy toys for the children at Cricket’s House.  To date, Grace, along with help from her brothers, has raised $800 for Cricket’s House.



Law Enforcement Heroes: Sheriff’s Deputy Clarence “Barney” Barnes; Amber Brown, Crimes Analyst Technician; and Ronda Nunes, Public Safety Dispatcher

In the early morning hours of April 2, 2011, Sheriff’s Department Deputy Clarence Barnes and Crimes Analyst Technician Amber Brown were finishing an investigation when Deputy Barnes heard a CHP dispatch to an injury accident on West Main and Jennings Avenue near Patterson.

Barnes decided to go toward the accident and Brown was headed back toward town on the same route. CHP had not yet contacted dispatch, but because Barnes and Brown were in route, Public Safety 911 Dispatcher Ronda Nunes was aware of the situation.  It was Nunes and her co-workers decision to alert Patterson Fire, a decision that proved significant in saving lives. 

Barnes arrived followed by Brown to find a tragic scene that included a van with a family of four that had been hit head-on by a small passenger car. The passenger car had caught fire and the driver was still inside. 

“The entire car was involved,” Barnes said. “It went up like a bomb exploded.”

Without regard to his safety, Barnes worked to free the passenger, intermittently using a fire extinguisher to beat down the flames, eventually dragging him to safety. 

Brown, meanwhile, went to check on the family.  She helped the driver and two children to safety, caring for their injuries. Very sadly, she was unable to help the children’s pregnant mother who died in the accident.

Nunes and her co-workers effectively continued to work cohesively to dispatch both personnel and support resources.  Throughout the incident, she maintained a calm and professional demeanor to help ensure that victims were cared for and responders remained safe.


Medical Professional Heroes: Doreen Flanagan, RN and Susan Garcia, RN

When an individual suffers cardiac arrest, has a heart-related incident or lives with chronic heart disease, the road to recovery or learning to live with the condition can be frightening and depressing for both patient and caregiver. Cardiac rehabilitation and education is a critical component of renewed health. 

For over five years, two highly experienced cardiac rehabilitation nurses in their respective hospitals have given of their own time and resources to help not only their patients, but anyone in the community seeking support. Nurses Doreen Flanagan of Doctors Medical Center and Susan Garcia of Memorial Medical Center have each provided hundreds of hours to the local affiliation of the National Mended Heart Cardiac Support Group. They’ve arranged for a monthly meeting space at Memorial/Sutter Gould Education and Training Center, coordinated speakers and education tracks, provided healthy snacks and worked to help patients and their caregivers with appropriate referrals, helping to alleviate fear of dying and steps to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They remain accessible because they are committed to helping heart patients achieve and maintain the best quality of life possible.


Mental Health Professional Hero: Ron Gilbert, LMFT

Ron Gilbert is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Turning Point Community Programs and provides psychiatric and supportive services to those in the mental health community.  He routinely demonstrates the ability to diffuse situations that have the potential to escalate into dangerous incidents. Through these ordeals, he remains compassionate and empathetic to the needs of the individuals.

On this particular day at the Integrated Services Agency office in downtown Modesto, Gilbert and a client were talking and Gilbert worked to acknowledge this individual’s frustrations at not being able to pick up his monthly paycheck. The man had been in the office and was threatening staff, which resulted in a lockdown. With a glance, Gilbert signaled approaching staff and non-verbally conveyed the gravity of his conversation, which diverted their approach to the office.  Continuing to help the individual to work through the problem, Gilbert was able to dissolve the situation and ensure the safety of both clients and staff.

He continues his commitment by being available to debrief with staff after hours, as well as supporting clients and the need to create a healthy environment to maintain overall well-being.  His actions speak volumes as to the preventative services that are much needed, especially with the continuous cuts to mental health services.


Military Active Duty Hero: Donna Huggins, MSgt, California Air National Guard

Master Sgt. Donna M. Huggins is currently assigned as the Maintenance Management Production Supervisor for the 129th Maintenance Squadron, 129th Rescue Wing, California Air National Guard, Moffett Federal Airfield.  She has 23 years in the military, serving 15 years active duty in the United States Air Force.  She’s a trained Aircraft Pneudraulics Mechanic and a paralegal, having served as a Federal Magistrate Court Clerk before transferring to the Air National Guard at Moffett Airfield in 2002.

As part of numerous assignments throughout her career, MSgt Huggins was the point contact for deployed spouses during Desert Storm and deployed to Incirlik Airbase in Turkey following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But her service doesn’t stop there.  Huggins is a wife and mother who cares deeply for her family and is committed to serving veterans.  She works tirelessly to provide for their needs.  Huggins commutes daily to Moffett leaving very early and returning home late and yet still finds time at night and on the weekends to serve.  Huggins sewed 70 wheelchair bags to deliver to Livermore Veterans Hospital and recruited women at the fabric store who made 38 more.  She delivers food to the homebound and will randomly pay bills for veterans in financial crisis.  Annually she helps place and remove flags at Acacia Cemetery on Memorial Day. On a recent family bowling outing, she struck up a conversation with a woman and her children who needed help.  Huggins took it upon herself to find and deliver the items the family needed, including a bed.

In 2005, MSgt Huggins became an active member of the Veteran’s of Foreign War at Modesto Post 3199.  She served as past commander of Modesto Post 3199 from 2007-2008, when the Post was burned to the ground by two teenage boys. All of the historic displays were lost. For the next few years Huggins dedicated her time to rebuilding the Post for current and future veterans. She also serves as the VFW 13th District Women’s Chairman and has recently became the assistant to the Department of California VFW Women’s Chairman.   


Military Veteran Hero: Colonel Jack Lewis (Retired)

Colonel Jack Lewis has served his country with honor and distinction and has received numerous accommodations for his service.  He joined the Marine Corps as a Private on March 22, 1943, at age 14, just shy of his 15th birthday.  On July 4, 1944, Lewis suffered gunshot wounds and was hospitalized in Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands, U. S.).  He returned to the United States and received additional training at Paris Island, South Carolina.  He returned to combat and was wounded again on February 19, 1945, in Japan at the historic landing and Battle for Iwo Jima. 

In 1950, Lewis received a Battlefield Direct Lieutenant Commission in Seoul, Korea before returning to the U.S. to report for duty in Fresno.  He later transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve and became Battalion Command of the 361st Battalion 91st Division 1st Brigade in Modesto, CA.  Col. Lewis retired from military service in 1988 and joined the California State Department of Justice as a parole officer and retired from the state as the Chief Parole Administrator.


Professional Rescuer: Chief Michael Wilkinson

Chief Michael Wilkinson is a 35-year veteran of the California Fire Service, beginning as a fire explorer in 1972 with Burbank Paradise Fire Protection District. In 1973, he became a volunteer fire fighter and in 1976 became a paid member of the Stanislaus County Fire Wardens Office. Wilkinson held numerous leadership positions during his career and was a committee member for the formation of what is now the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.  In the new organization, he was promoted to Fire Marshal/Division Chief and the Interim Fire Chief before leaving in 1999 to join the California Office of Emergency Services.

Wilkinson returned in 2000 to become Oakdale’s Fire Chief. In 2007, he returned to Stanislaus County as the Deputy Fire Warden and retired in 2009.  During his tenure, he led the special operations section and led the CA Incident Command Certification system committee and the team that developed the decision process for emergency management.  Chief Wilkinson continues to teach the Incident Command System at the local, state and national levels.

Wilkinson had many experiences of rescue and lifesaving intervention during his career, but in his retirement he’s chosen to continue to build a safe and responsive community and is being recognized as a hero for his commitment to building Stanislaus County’s disaster response capacity.  Through his work with Stanislaus  2-1-1 Information and Referral, he’s developed and implemented training and response systems to effectively disseminate information to the public during a disaster, thus removing the burden from emergency service lines. In conjunction with the Volunteer Center of United Way, he’s worked with staff to develop systems to handle the anticipated influx of episodic volunteers. Wilkinson has aggressively sought grants and funding to help both 2-1-1 and the Volunteer Center programs increase response levels through technology, equipment and training. He insured that all United Way staff and numerous Red Cross staff and volunteers were certified in varying levels of the Incident Command System.


Workplace Hero: Mike Medina

On July 15, 2010, Mike Medina was moving at his usual quick pace during “crush” season at Ceres-based Bronco Winery. As a peer wine cellar employee, he had responsibilities to oversee and was thinking about his schedule when he passed by a fellow employee. At first Medina was going to continue on, but being inquisitive and conscientious by nature, he was drawn to the slumped posture of his co-worker. It was a hot day and the employee was working in the cellar tanks during one of the most rigorous and demanding times in the wine industry. He was wearing heavy protective clothing and began to experience heat illness-related symptoms. 

Moving quickly to his side, Medina noticed that he was showing signs of heat exhaustion, including profuse sweating, red swollen skin and bloodshot eyes. The employee kept asking for water. Medina encouraged his co-worker to stay alert and helped to loosen clothing.  He checked that he was safely seated and alerted co-workers for additional help from the winery safety team. Because of his safety and first aid training at the winery, he recognized a life-threatening situation and alleviated his fellow employee from additional injuries.

“You never think that it’s going to be you, but when it is, you have to step up to the plate,” Medina said.


Bette Belle Smith Spirit of the Red Cross Hero: Bradley Volkmann, RN

It is rare to find a quiet death in an operating room.  Yet, when operating room staff were called to participate in their first organ donation after cardiac death, it was imperative that the family had the time to gather around their loved for a natural death. 

On this particular night, Bradley Volkmann, RN was on staff and helping to insure that his team had the transplant equipment shielded from family view, that windows were blocked for privacy and the procurement team secluded.  Volkmann engaged the patient’s husband in conversation, relating that his sister had been an organ donor.  He relayed that even in the sadness of her loss there was great pride because of her commitment to help others.  He went on to share his story of how grateful his family was when their father became a heart transplant recipient.

Volkmann also knew to encourage the husband to focus on the good times he had with his wife and the things she did that brought him joy.  He asked if there was anything special that the two of them enjoyed and the patient’s husband talked about their favorite band, Hootie and the Blowfish, and a concert they’d attended. Ironically, Volkmann had also attended a Hootie concert.

With the transplant team prepared and the room ready, it was time for the husband to rejoin his wife for their last moments together.  Knowing that sense of hearing is the last to leave and that this time would have long-lasting impact on the husband, Volkmann attempted to upload Hootie music on a computer.  When this failed, he recalled having a CD in his car and quickly retrieved it, while other staff found a CD player. The woman passed with her husband holding her and listening to their favorite music. As the husband was leaving, Volkmann followed him and encourage the man to please take the CD, hoping it would give him some measure of comfort in the future.     


Heroes of the Year: Beth Kanaly, Ian McBay and Thomas Nelson

It was very hot the afternoon of Aug. 24, 2011.  La Loma Junior High School students were finishing laps in their seventh period P.E. class.

School coaches regularly train in CPR and first aid, but Beth Kanaly never expected a young eighth-grade student to fall ill.  What wasn’t known to staff or the student’s family was that he had an undiagnosed heart condition. It was totally unexpected when he fell to the ground and became unresponsive. Coach Kanaly, who recently renewed her CPR, immediately ran to his side and checked for a pulse, then began CPR. Coach Thomas Nelson radioed the office for an ambulance and he and Coach Ian McBay organized three classes of P.E. students who were visibly upset. Some of the kids assisted to keep students from crowding around or directed them toward the classrooms.

It was so hot that the asphalt caused severe burns to the student’s arm and he was bleeding from his fall.  One student took off his shirt and gave it to Kanaly to wipe away blood and look for other injuries.  It was extremely intense and each coach helped to administer compressions and life-saving rescue breathes. Modesto Fire Station 3 arrived within minutes and while the coaches continued with CPR, fire paramedics prepared to take over with an Automatic External Defibrillator.

The student was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, than to Fresno before transferring to Stanford University Medical Center.  He returned to school in September, but faces surgeries and regular test and follow-ups at Stanford. They wish nothing but the best for their student, knowing it will be difficult for the teen to adjust his active lifestyle. The most important thing to the coaches is that he is alive and they are delighted that he is graduating with his class on May 24.