Downey’s Rick Rodriguez honored by Red Cross

DOWNEY – The American Red Cross honored Downey resident Rick Rodriguez on Wednesday in recognition of his extensive work with military veterans. Rodriguez was one of nine people honored at the 10th annual Hometown Heroes awards luncheon, the Red Cross chapter’s signature event fundraiser that recognizes “brave ordinary citizens that performed an extraordinary act of courage and saved a person’s life.”

Below are bios of honorees, as provided by the American Red Cross:

Rick Rodriguez

As the father of two combat veteran sons, the idea for the 1st Annual Veteran’s Bridge Building came naturally. But the roots for the bridge building event actually came more than two years ago when Rick Rodriguez, Sr. established the Living Tree Foundation (LTF).

As the name implies the LTF has many branches, working to collaborate with other non-profits and other organizations to support veterans and their families. Bridge Building day brings them all together to collaborate on how to meet the needs of veterans.

“When they came home,” says Rodriguez of his sons, “I knew we had to do something to embrace all this energy they were bringing with them from combat.” As the owner of a security firm, Rodriguez had hired almost 200 veterans and knew some of their particular needs (in fact, 67 percent of his employees are veterans. The company received the Army Partner of the Year Award). He even worked with the Long Beach VA to educate his staff – vets and non-vets alike – about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The genesis of the LTF was one of his son’s telling him, “Dad, I have 42 soldiers under my command. And they’re all getting out. Little by little and I have to get (them) jobs.” That energized Rodriguez. He began hiring more vets and to pay for training and licensing for the vets that couldn’t afford it. Slowly word spread about his efforts to get jobs for vets. The Long Beach office of the State Employment Development Department volunteered to help by sending him job-seeking vets. Rodriguez trains them, equips them, and has refined his system so that they are job ready within three weeks.

But Rodriguez’s largess knows no bounds when it comes to vets. He partnered with the Jonas Project to help a marine with terminal cancer by paying for his and his family’s stay at Disneyland – something on the marine’s ‘bucket list.’ His relationship with the Jonas Project actually came via another of Rodriguez’s public service activities – he volunteers as a chaplain with the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton.

Rodriguez is inspired by something General George Patton once said: There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer, a motto he puts into action every day.

Albert Del Real & Maria Isabel Haro

It was a quiet day at the Parnell Community Center in Whittier where Albert Del Real and Isabel Haro were working at the front desk. A meditation class was  taking place in a nearby room.

Suddenly, the day’s routine was interrupted as instructors and students of the class rushed out and said someone had collapsed and stopped breathing. Isabel rushed to the room while Albert called 9-1-1. Uncertain of the victim’s true condition, Albert relayed information fed to him by the students and instructors, careful to make sure the information was accurate and relevant.

With the paramedics on the way, Albert joined Isabel to help bring Mary, the victim, back to consciousness. They could see Mary’s skin was pale and she was not alert. They got Mary from her chair to the floor and Isabel started CPR. Isabel was worried – she’d never seen anyone as unresponsive as Mary. Finally – on the tenth compression – Mary exhaled and opened her eyes. “I can’t tell you the joy that just came into my heart,” says Isabel.

For Albert the incident taught him the value of “being prepared … because you never know when it is going to happen.” He also says, modestly, that it was a team effort and that knowing how to prioritize and ask critical questions is vital. He believes the biggest benefit to telling his story is to inspire others to be prepared.

“I think being courageous is when you are scared, and you know that you are in a dangerous situation, but you push through that fear to save that person.”

After the event, Isabel remembers telling her supervisor, Fran, “Every time I sat in those CPR training classes, I would think, ‘How could this class be important to me? I’ll never use this. And if someone does need help, I think I’d be too scared to offer them assistance.’ ”

Thanks to the CPR training, Isabel had the skills and the confidence to save a life.


Giovanni Galluzo

It was a festive birthday party for his mother when 8-year-old Giovanni decided it would be fun if he and his friend Jaden (three-years-old) could ride a raft in the backyard pool. It was a warm day and it would a great way to cool off. But shortly after they straddled the large raft, fun suddenly turned to terror when Giovanni realized Jaden was no longer behind him on the raft.

Calling his name several times, Giovanni quickly noticed bubbles coming from the pool’s depths. “It was really scary,” remembers Giovanni. “I just had to think so fast.” Without concern for anything other than his friend’s dilemma, Giovanni dove to the bottom of the 8-foot pool and looked for his friend. It wasn’t easy, he said, because he couldn’t see. He tried opening his eyes even though it hurt to do so. Finally, he saw Jaden sitting on the bottom and pushed himself downward. He grabbed Jaden’s wrist and began trying to pull him to the surface. Others in the pool hadn’t noticed what happened so Giovanni knew he was on his own.

In his panic, Jaden was kicking, making it more difficult for Giovanni to pull him upward. At times, Giovanni found it difficult to breathe but at last he pulled his friend to the surface where a cousin assisted in bringing Jaden out.

Giovanni remembers lessons his grandmother had taught him about what to do if someone falls into a pool – grabbing tools like the skimmer or a floatation device – and pulling them to safety. But, Giovanni knew there wasn’t enough time to get assistance. He had to act instinctively or his friend would suffer.

For Giovanni, who learned to swim at age five, water safety runs in his family. His cousin is a lifeguard, but Giovanni kids him about not having saved anyone yet, while Giovanni has. And he’s been well educated never to go into water unless someone is nearby.

For Giovanni he worries that he didn’t keep his eyes on his friend but of saving him he says, “It feels good!  I was happy that he is okay.”


Joshua Schoenberger

A post-July 4th outing turned into near tragedy for the Schoenberger family. Joshua’s mother was driving their car. His dad was in the front seat, and Joshua, his brother and a friend in the back.

Suddenly, his mother screamed. Joshua was seated directly behind his father and quickly realized something was wrong. Joshua found his father’s eyes had rolled back and he wasn’t breathing.

“Pull over, Mom,” Josh ordered. Once they came to a stop, Joshua told his friend to call 911, checked for a pulse and found none. Joshua’s father is a weight lifter, so his weight made it difficult for Joshua to pull him out of the car. Therefore, Joshua reclined the seat and started CPR. After a few moments his father began to breathe, albeit not smoothly.

Joshua’s training served him well. He’d taken a CPR and emergency health care course while at Cal State Long Beach. It also helped that his mother works in the medical field and Joshua ‘grew up’ in her office, something that has encouraged him to plan for a future in the medical field as well.

Finally, the group managed to get his father out of the car and propped him up against the car door. But, his father’s breathing was still labored. Joshua kept urging him to take deep breaths and asking him questions to test his mental acuity.

A police officer arrived and advised getting the father on the sidewalk and onto his back. Again, Joshua’s instincts kicked in. His father’s upper body weight made it difficult for him to lie on his back, so Joshua suggested getting his father on his side to allow him to breath comfortably.

When paramedics arrived they told Joshua, “You’re doing great, just keep doing what you are doing,” while they hooked up the EKG machine. Ultimately, they got his father into the ambulance and Joshua piled in to go with him.

During the entire episode Joshua recalled a lesson his father had taught him, “If something goes wrong, you can be upset and cry and do everything else later, but you have to deal with the situation in the moment.”


Lawrence J. Sanchez

As a driver for UPS for 30 years, Lawrence Sanchez knew the importance of keeping his eyes open for any emergency. One day, as he drove his usual route, he saw a truck ahead in the fast lane. It wasn’t going fast – in fact it was going exceedingly slow – and Lawrence instinctively prepared to take evasive action. But another car on the freeway wasn’t as prepared and it hit the slow-moving truck with tremendous force. The car bounced across the freeway lanes and Lawrence’s early braking prevented him from slamming into it.

For the truck in the fast lane, gasoline had begun leaking and flames quickly erupted. The driver was able to quickly exit, but Lawrence realized there was someone else in the truck and its driver was frantically trying to get the person out.

Another vehicle stopped and its driver, Raphael, started assisting the truck’s driver while freeway traffic continued to zoom by. But, Lawrence realized there was more that needed to be done. He grabbed his truck’s fire extinguisher and dodged across the debris-filled freeway. By the time he got across he found the passenger – a girl – had been pulled out of the truck but her hair was on fire. Lawrence doused the flames and then turned to the truck. The flames were consuming the vehicle and the heat was intense.

When the California Highway Patrol arrived, Lawrence went back to his truck and called his dispatcher relaying what had happened – “I did the best I could,” he said, the emotions taking hold as he thought of his own family, his own daughters. He flashed back to an event several years earlier when he witnessed a car flip over trapping a pregnant woman. He had jumped into action and was able to free the woman. Now events had called him to action yet again.

Later the CHP presented Lawrence and Raphael with the Commissioner’s Award for bravery. It was only at the ceremony that he learned the victim’s name, Denise, and met her. In addition, the Burn and Fire Foundation presented the two heroes with their Courage Award.


Maria Ayala

Maria Ayala has been an active member of the Bell Gardens Neighborhood Watch Program since 2006. Maria is recognized for her lasting commitment to improving the safety of her community, while being a tremendous role model to her nine children. As a single mother who came to the United States in 1970 from Michoacán, Mexico, Maria faced many challenges in providing a safe and comfortable home for her children. Maria’s life experience had taught her that education was important for a better quality of life. Therefore, she volunteered at her children’s schools and emphasized learning.

She began to worry that her children, especially her two youngest, might join a gang because of a belief that they were missing something at home. This concern motivated her to join the Neighborhood Watch Program to educate herself on how gangs operate, and what she could do to stem future gang violence in her community of Bell Gardens. Since joining the Neighborhood Watch Program, Maria volunteers time each day acting as a liaison between the residents and law enforcement as a Block Captain for one of four geographical areas in the city.

She walks door to door canvasing neighborhoods to recruit new members. She hosts meetings in her home to educate her neighbors on how to recognize and report suspicious activities, and encourages their attendance at other crime prevention meetings and City events. Maria assists the Neighborhood Watch Coordinator with a number of activities, including vacation home watch, the distribution of crime prevention materials and volunteering at Neighborhood Watch partner programs, such as Red Ribbon Week at local schools. She remains very active in other community programs such as National Night Out, Clergy Advisory Group meetings, and numerous City events promoting Neighborhood Watch.

Maria knows the importance of family values and therefore requires her children to participate in the program as well.   Her hard work and dedication has made a positive impact on the community, and even more importantly, her children. Her two youngest children are both attending college and doing well.  Maria is a true role model to her family and community.


Michael Vargas

For Michael Vargas the saying, ‘being at the right place at the right time,’ is amazingly applicable. A musician and bartender, he was at loose ends one day – several appointments having been delayed or canceled – when he stopped at a Whittier hotel to see a friend. He noticed two women yelling frantically in a foreign language. It took a few moments, and the women making hand gestures toward the hotel pool before Michael understood – someone was in need of help.

Following the hotel manager he saw a woman’s body in the pool’s deep end. Michael observed no air bubbles so he knew the woman was in dire condition and dove into the pool. Shaking the woman to see if there was a response, he quickly surfaced and ordered the bystanders to call 9-1-1 before diving again. He scooped the woman into his arms and brought her to the surface where the manager helped pull her out.

Others arrived poolside to help, with one man starting chest compressions. But, Michael – having taken several CPR courses – could see it was being done incorrectly. “Stop,” he yelled, thinking the woman would be injured. Pushing the Good Samaritan aside, Michael started chest compressions himself. After five compressions the woman spit up water. Michael continued, and then turned the woman on her side to force more water out.

When the police arrived and took over, Michael assisted by keeping the woman’s head sideways so she wouldn’t choke and her air passages clear would remain clear.

Upon returning home and explaining what had happened to his family, Michael felt ill at ease thinking that it was happenstance he arrived at the hotel when he did, and what might have happened had he not been there. It must have been ‘destiny,’ he says. Had his day gone as planned, he never would have been at the right place at the right time.


Niccolo Owens

It’s not often a 10-year-old is called on to save lives, but that’s what Niccolo Owens did and he believes he was well prepared.

In the very early morning hours of February 2014, Niccolo was awakened by the smell of smoke in his family’s Whittier home. His cries of “Mom,” awakened his mother, Alysha, who found his upstairs room filled with black smoke. Niccolo quickly awakened the other family members, including his 9-year-old sister and uncle who were also sleeping in his room. There were six family members in the house. Niccolo realized the smoke might have overcome his 21-year-old uncle, something later confirmed by firefighters.

But Niccolo managed to get his uncle and sister downstairs and yelled “fire,” “fire.” He and his father managed to get everyone, including the family dog, out of the house. “Call 9-1-1,” Niccolo remembers telling his mother.

So, where did Niccolo learn about what to do in an emergency? In school, he says. “I read a library book about fire. Also, on career day because my friend’s dad is a fireman. He told us, if there is a fire we should get on our hands and knees.” Niccolo remembers learning “not to run away standing up because you will inhale dangerous smoke.”

He says he was scared, but was more concerned about his family having lost their home and all the memories that it contained, especially since he kept telling his mother not to return to the flaming building to retrieve belongings. “Mom, you are wrong! Wait for the firemen!”

When firefighters arrived they confirmed Niccolo’s admonitions. They told him it was a matter of minutes before the home would have been consumed, and if Niccolo had not alerted his family the smoke and the carbon monoxide would have likely engulfed them as well.  Says Alysha, “Niccolo saved our lives! It could have been a very different story if he had not responded the way he did.”



Published: Sept. 25, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 24