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Red Cross honors Alameda County heroes for bravery, service

on September 8, 2014

The Bay Area branch of the American Red Cross honored community heroes from Alameda County on Friday morning. Each year, the organization recognizes county residents who have shown exceptional commitment and service to their fellow citizens.

This year, both Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent attended the breakfast at the Hilton hotel, but the spotlight was on the men and women who don’t normally attract attention. Two men were honored in the Act of Courage category, which recognizes citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery. Dan Gale is a gravelly-voiced construction worker who made headlines in 2013. When a teenager on an Oakland bus set Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire, Gale put out the flames with his bare hands.

Bus surveillance cameras recorded 16-year-old Richard Thomas setting fire to Fleischman’s skirt. (Fleischman was named Luke at birth, but is agender and prefers to be referred to with non-gendered pronouns.) Fleischman was hospitalized with burn injuries, and in the wake of the incident, hundreds turned out at an Oakland rally in the teen’s honor to support people of all gender and sexual identities. According to police, Thomas said the alleged attack was motivated by homophobia, although Thomas’ attorney said his client denies making such a statement. Prosecutors treated the incident as a hate crime, charging Thomas as an adult with assault and aggravated mayhem. Thomas pled not guilty in March.

Gale said coming to Fleischman’s aid was a completely natural reaction to seeing someone who needed help. Being called a hero doesn’t sit too comfortably with Gale. “It’s real tough to get all this recognition when someone got burned up for it,” he said. “Somebody got hurt.” Gale, whose family had travelled from Oregon and Reading to see him collect his award, remains in contact with Fleischman’s family.

The other Act of Courage Hero, Philip Scholz of Pleasanton, died on January 20 as he rescued a man from the train tracks at the Santa Clara Caltrain Station. His widow, Emily Scholz, has since set up Phil’s Foundation to help young people.

Officer Tim DeGrano of the San Leandro Police Department said he was “absolutely surprised” to receive the Community Service Hero award, which goes to a person who has performed exceptional service in their community. He volunteers and fundraises for his alma mater, St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in the city of Alameda, as well as for the Alameda Boys and Girls Club. “It’s no secret that my life could have gone in a different direction if it hadn’t been for the teachers at St. Joseph’s,” he said. “They shaped the way I was going.”

DeGrano and his wife, also an alumna, fundraise for the school’s athletics program as well as student grants, said Lisa Lomba, communications director for St. Joseph’s. Now, more than 40 percent of the student body at the school have some kind of scholarship, and the work of alumni like DeGrano is crucial to building community, she said. “We’re very proud that our former students do highly ethical, service-oriented work,” said Lomba, herself a graduate of the school.

Other awards went to Josie Mattos, a volunteer for the Fremont Police Department who organizes blood drives; Adam Cohen and Ed Coyne, who rescued a puppy from the bay and adopted it; Mary Silveria, who at 82 delivers non-perishable food and clothing to homeless people in her Hayward neighborhood; Jose Tamayo, who rescued and performed CPR on two young children who had fallen into the San Leandro Marina; and two organizations—the Glad Tidings Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that focuses on revitalizing South Hayward, and the Community Child Care Council, a body that helps community organizations and childcare providers to work together.

The purpose of Friday’s awards was to draw attention to how people can help one another in emergency situations, and how the Red Cross can assist, said spokesperson Pooja Trivedi. “Our mission is to help people prevent, prepare for, and recover from any sort of emergency,” she said. The organization has volunteers all across the Bay Area and Northern California—and 90 percent of the workforce is voluntary. Trivedi said these awards show that Alameda County citizens are dedicated to helping one another. “The message we’re trying to spread is that everyone is someone’s hero,” she said.

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