American Red Cross Celebrates 2022 Local Heroes

CHICAGO, IL (March 25, 2022) — The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago announces the 2022 class of heroes – individuals who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to build and maintain better communities, and who have made a lasting impact on others in the process.

This is the 20th year the Red Cross has honored a class of heroes at our Heroes Breakfast, typically attended by nearly 1,000 individuals. This year’s event is scheduled for Wednesday, May 11 from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Hilton Chicago.

“For twenty years, the Red Cross has honored the heroes among us. In 2022, it is a great privilege to celebrate these outstanding individuals who selflessly give of themselves with no expectation of gain, yet who have made a tremendous impact in their communities and beyond,” said Celena Roldán, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Illinois. “It is inspiring, seeing the good they have done and continue to do. We look forward to honoring them in person at this year’s Heroes Breakfast.”

Click here for your in-person or free virtual ticket to the breakfast!

The 2022 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. Get to know the 2022 heroes by reading more about them, below.

Michael A. McGee, M.D., M.P.H. of Crown Point, IN is the Blood Services Hero. As an emergency room physician and CEO of Chicago’s first Black-owned urgent care clinic, Dr. McGee sees the need for blood every day. Last fall, he partnered with the Red Cross and 100 Black Men of America, Inc. and coordinated a multiple city tour of sickle cell awareness blood drives beginning in Chicago and moving across the country. In the process, Dr. McGee and the 100 Black Men organization generated awareness across the country for the importance of blood donations and the need for African Americans to participate, specifically for fighting trauma and diseases including sickle cell. Dr. McGee is passionate about educating the community about the need for blood and continues to advocate for individuals, particularly young people, to give blood.

Ruthann Richardson, RN of Tinley Park, IL is the Disaster Relief Hero. Ruth has a servant’s heart and has volunteered for us since 2017, after a 40-year career as a nurse. Last year, as a nurse volunteer, she worked day and night and gave almost 2,000 hours of her time to the Red Cross. She has responded to numerous disasters, both here in Illinois and elsewhere in the U.S. Hurricane Florence in North Carolina was her first major deployment; more recently, she deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Ida. When you speak with Ruth, you can tell she truly cares about others, and it shows in her volunteer efforts. “My life is a gift and what I bring to others can be a gift, too. If I can provide a positive experience to someone’s life, particularly if they’ve been through one of the worst experiences, then I have done something right,” she said.

Dorothy L. Gaters of Maywood, IL is the Education Hero.  A teacher at Marshall High School, after Title IX was created in 1972, Dorothy agreed to be the first girls’ basketball coach. 45 years later, she is the winningest high school basketball coach in Illinois history, but beyond winning games, she built an empowering, education-focused culture during her tenure as the Marshall High School girls’ coach. Dorothy became the first-ever girls’ basketball coach at the school and led her team to more than 1,100 victories and 10 state championships. Behind the success on the court was a successful mentality off the court. Dorothy made sure education came first for her players and is proud to say most of her students went on to go to college. She is a firm believer in creating structure and goals, to help steer young people in the right direction and prepare them for life. Dorothy enjoys interacting with her former players and continues to encourage and mentor them and provide a positive example with the way she lives her life.

Stephanie Esterland BSN, RN, OCN of Sandwich, IL is the Healthcare Hero. Stephanie is an oncology nurse at Rush Cancer Center who was driving her son to work on a dark July 2021 morning. On the side of the road, she came upon what she thought might be a yard fire, but instead realized it was a blazing car fire that had just occurred as the driver slammed into a tree near IL 47 in the Sugar Grove area. Stephanie saw someone trying to get out of the vehicle, and then falling to the ground near the flaming car. She jumped out of her car to help. While assessing the individual’s injured condition, Stephanie heard what sounded like fireworks. Concerned the vehicle may be on the verge of exploding, Stephanie cautiously got the individual moved away from the fire to a safer location and continued rendering assistance until emergency response arrived. Stephanie then continued to drop off her son and head to work at the Rush Cancer Center. She has received a DAISY nursing award from the Rush community for this act of bravery and the individual in the crash credits her with helping save his life.

Fire Chief Tracey Steffes of Morris, IL is the Firefighter Hero. In June 2021, Chief Steffes faced his biggest challenge as the leader of the Morris Fire Department, when nearly 200,000 lithium batteries exploded, and a massive fire with toxic fumes erupted, posing a serious threat to the health of his community. Chief Steffes led the effort to evacuate thousands of people from the area; nearly one-third of the city’s residents. Managing this large battery fire presented complexities as traditional fire extinguishment methods would exacerbate rather than extinguish the large, growing fire. Chief Steffes consulted with agencies around the world to coordinate the unique response to the fire and to continue operations in the days and weeks to come. At one point, more than 40 firefighting companies were on hand helping to battle the blaze. Chief Steffes now receives calls from other agencies when they face similar situations and provides insights to help protect their citizens. Chief Steffes is credited with staying calm during a situation that could have escalated further, without proper leadership and swift action.

Lynn Cole of Chicago is the Global Citizenship Hero. During a 1998 trip to Angola with her husband, Andrew, the Coles witnessed the devastating effect of 27 years of civil war in the country and were moved to help. They learned that the after-effects of the civil war in Angola had prevented many children from access to basic education. Believing every child has a right to education, in 2003, the Coles built their first school in Angola, and committed to building five more. Together, the Coles, founded RISE International an organization dedicated to building primary schools in rural Angola to educate children, empower communities, and contribute to the rebuilding of the country. In 2004, Andrew died unexpectedly, and Lynn was left to carry out and expand their mission. Today, Lynn leads RISE International and the organization has built 192 schools and helped more than 138,000 children in Angola receive an education. In Angola, the organization works in partnership with local leaders and provides children with a safe place to learn. In the process of building schools, jobs are created, including construction workers, teachers, principals and more. Lynn is now leading a project along with a team in Angola to build a 10-classroom school in an area where 1,000 children have no access to education.

Evelyn Figueroa, M.D. and Alex Wu, M.D. of Chicago are the Community Impact Heroes. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu are a husband-and-wife team of family physicians with a passion for reaching patients where they are. In 2018, they founded Pilsen Food Pantry next to a health clinic to destigmatize food insecurity and distribute healthy, high-quality and culturally appropriate foods. It is their mission to provide critical social services to address food insecurity, homelessness and poverty while serving patients. Pilsen Food Pantry served 6,000 visitors in its first year and now services more than 22,000 clients and provides two million pounds of food annually. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu saw a need beyond food and are expanding their vision into the Pilsen Health Initiative. Their organization now distributes clothes, medical equipment, hygiene items, books and more to underrepresented individuals and families. Spanish and Cantonese interpreters are available as part of the services provided, and the organization hosts large community events on holidays. Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Wu have plans to further expand and to include mental health and housing assistance.

Officer Jennifer Maddox of Chicago is the Law Enforcement Hero. Officer Maddox is a 26-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. Working on the south side as a police officer, she developed a strong bond with the community and noticed that so many children were fearful to go outside and did not have a safe space where they could be kids. In 2011, Officer Maddox started Future Ties, to provide a welcoming place for children to gather and get off the streets. Future Ties is an eleven-month afterschool and summer camp program that has provided support for more than 1,000 of Chicago’s children. During the pandemic, when parents’ resources were extremely challenged, the Future Ties organization offered e-learning opportunities, meals and other services to young people. Officer Maddox’s organization soon will be moving into a former pharmacy building, providing more space to further support the community’s needs. Officer Maddox continues to work her police beat with a passion for making a difference and serving the people in the community.

Lewis Medina of Aurora, IL is the Lifesaving Rescue Hero. At about 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2021, Lewis was driving his daughter and grandson home just a short distance from his house. As he crossed railroad tracks, he noticed a vehicle stuck on the tracks, with its wheels spinning. Lewis safely parked his vehicle and then called 911. He then headed for the car on the tracks, to see if he could help the person inside. When he got there, he discovered a driver who was in distress from a medical emergency. Lewis could hear the horn and see the lights of the train coming and knew he had to act fast. Lewis pulled the driver from the vehicle, then got him safely down the ravine and out of the way of the railroad tracks. Seconds later, the train barreled into the vehicle, crushing it. Lewis saved the man’s life by removing him from the vehicle and getting him out of the way of danger, just in time.

Captain Scott Friedland of Chicago is the Military Hero. Captain Friedland is a member of the Indiana Army National Guard and has been in the military for 11 years. He is also the owner of Timeless Toys in Chicago. His military background taught him that life was about more than himself and his surroundings, and so he works to give back to the community in big ways, through his heart for helping others via toy drives and other programs in both the Chicagoland area and beyond. Last year, Captain Friedland organized a massive toy drive for Afghan evacuee children which provided $30,000 worth of toys in just the first couple of weeks. Understanding the impact receiving a new toy has on a child, he substituted new toys when used toys were brought into his store for the children, donating the used toys to a local organization. Captain Friedland continued the generosity, sending numerous toys to children impacted by the Kentucky tornadoes last December. Captain Friedland continues his service to our country in the National Guard and is scheduled to deploy overseas, this year.

Quilen Blackwell of Chicago is the Social Justice Hero. Quilen has a passion for empowering young people in the community to learn the skills they need to succeed in life. He is founder of Southside Blooms, an organization that creates sustainable, off-grid, urban flower farms, training local youth to cultivate them and deliver the flowers to Chicagoland. In the process, Quilen is providing job and life skills to young people in high-risk areas on the south and west sides of Chicago and showing them how to use their talents to have a positive impact on their communities. Quilen has also partnered with the Cook County juvenile probation services program and adult services to provide opportunities to high school-age individuals and young adults. He even has developed a sustainable urban farm on Cook County Jail property, providing inmates with the experience of working the farm. He believes his urban flower farm model is “…a viable solution that is scalable and replicable; it is solving problems with gangs, sustainability and blight and it represents a realistic end game to the ghetto as we know it.”

Benjamin Kagan of Chicago is the Youth Hero. Benjamin was in 8th grade when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Like many other students, he found it difficult to adapt to life without being around his classmates and friends. More than that, he felt a need to help other people who were struggling as the pandemic continued, specifically his grandparents. Due to technological challenges, they were unable to sign up for a vaccine, missing out on the online openings when they came up. Benjamin took action. He got his grandparents a vaccine appointment online. He then joined the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, and used his technology skills to get vaccine appointments for senior citizens who were in the same position his grandparents had been in. Ultimately, Benjamin started his own group, Chicago Vaccine Angels, and worked around the clock to secure appointments for senior citizens. Leading a team of 50 adult volunteers, his organization helped thousands of senior citizens, even arranging for people on his team to join medical teams for in-home vaccination visits to home-bound citizens. “I got the satisfaction that I helped people who would have had to wait months, living in fear, get back to their lives,” he said.

2022 Heritage Award

The Heritage Award 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.

We are honored to present the 2022 Heritage Award to Helene D. Gayle, M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Gayle is president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, a prominent, longstanding community foundation. The Chicago Community Trust is working to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicagoland area. Under Dr. Gayle’s leadership, The Chicago Community Trust helped raise more than $35 million for the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. These efforts provided resources to help communities impacted the most by the pandemic.

Dr. Gayle has been honored numerous times, including being named one of Non Profit Times’ “Power and Influence Top 50” and one of Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women”. She has advocated on behalf of alleviating poverty, gender equality, social justice and public health issues.

“Dr. Gayle is a visionary public servant who through her leadership of The Chicago Community Trust is compassionately making an impact by recognizing and assisting people who experience inequities in our community daily. Her significant work both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic is aimed at investing in population health and prevention,” said Roldán. “It is our privilege at the Red Cross to highlight her significant work and honor Dr. Gayle and The Chicago Community Trust with the 2022 Red Cross Heritage Award for her community dedication and service.”

Click here for your in-person or free virtual ticket to the breakfast!

Thank you to the generous sponsors of the 2022 Illinois Red Cross Heroes event, including Presenting Sponsors: Better, the Edwardson Family Foundation and Susan and Nick Noyes; Champion Sponsors: JLL, KPMG LLP and Packaging Corporation of America; and our media sponsors Better & Make It Better Media Group and CBS 2 Chicago and numerous other organizations who have made this program possible.

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.

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