<![CDATA[NBC Bay Area - Bay Area Proud]]>Copyright 2017http://www.nbcbayarea.com/feature/bay-area-proud http://media.nbcnewyork.com/designimages/nbc_bayarea_blue.png NBC Bay Area http://www.nbcbayarea.comen-usWed, 28 Jun 2017 10:40:05 -0700Wed, 28 Jun 2017 10:40:05 -0700NBC Owned Television Stations <![CDATA[Pleasanton 12-Year-Old Uses Heimlich To Save Little Brother's Life, Inspires Others To Learn Life-Saving Techniques]]> Sat, 24 Jun 2017 05:27:31 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/heimlich+save+1.jpg

((Editor's note: After this story aired, we heard from Peter Heimlich, son of Dr. Henry Heimlich (after whom the "Heimlich maneuver" is named). Peter Heimlich says, based on the position of Rylie Palfalvi's hands, she technically performed "chest thrusts" on Max and not the "Heimlich maneuver" which are abdominal thrusts.))

Of all the things a young person can learn in an advanced life-saving class, there is one part of the process they can never truly comprehend: just how scary it is if you have to do any of it for real.

At a recent class in San Ramon, however, there was at least one person in attendance who knows exactly how scary it can be.

"Very," said 12-year-old Rylie Palfalvi. "Scariest thing I have witnessed in my life."

One day in May, Rylie was in charge of watching her younger brother, Max, for a few minutes until her mother, Kristy, returned from work. Max was eating popcorn at the time and began choking.

"She starts hitting him on the back and it's still not helping," Kristy Palfalvi said. "I think it dawned on her, 'I am the help. There is nobody else who can help him but me.'"

Rylie put her arms around Max and performed the Heimlich Maneuver. It worked.

"She saved our whole family that day," Kristy said.

How did Rylie know what to do? He mother, a registered nurse taught her.

"We talk about that here. We talked about things like that, what could happen?" Kristy said.

Kristy said the training sessions were never formal, just a few minutes of showing Rylie and her older brother what to do in case they encountered someone needing help.

If it worked so well with Rylie, Kristy thought, then why not with others?

She contacted Heart Start CPR in San Ramon and the company offered to do a training for free. More than a dozen of Rylie's peers signed up to take part.

Kristy hopes this class is just the first of many. She believes no one is too young to begin to learn how to save a life and has a daughter, and a son, to prove it.

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<![CDATA[After Trying Winter, Highway 17 Commuters Throw "Thank You" Party for Road Crews]]> Wed, 14 Jun 2017 11:52:50 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/gratitude+picnic+41.jpg

Erin Buchla is one of those people who's beeing doing the same commute for so long, her daily routine is one she measures not in miles, but years.

"18," Buchla said. "Long time."

That's 18 years commuting from Santa Cruz to the South Bay and back again. Each trip, braving the twists and turns of perhaps the Bay Area's most notorious highway: 17. It's a route up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains that, this past winter, managed to exceed even its outsized reputaion.

"This year has been the worst, by far," Buchla said.

Mudslides. Fallen trees. Hundreds of accidents. Some incidents forced the closure of portions of the highway for days, many others back up traffic for hours.

"I think I was pretty much stuck every time it was a long, long time," Buchla said. "A few hours just sitting in the car."

It would have been enough to frustrate even the most patient of drivers. But not Buchla. For, if there is such a thing as the opposite of road rage, that is what was growing in her.

Buchla said it began while sitting in traffic, watching emergency and road crews fighting against nature to keep the road open and safe.

"It's pouring rain and they are all there all night," Buchla said. "I thought, wow, I wish I could say thank you to those guys but it's certainly not safe to get out of your car and actually do that."

So, Buchla wondered, what could she do?

Throw them a party is the answer she came up with.

This past Sunday at Sky Park in Scotts Valley, Buchla and a team of fellow commuters welcomed anyone who had a role in keeping traffic moving on Highway 17 to take off their reflective vests and pick up a plate. Or a beer. Or get a massage. All for free.

Dozens took her up on her gracious offer.

"It's magnificent," Gordon Saunders of Granite Construction said. He and his wife drove an hour and a half from Hollister to take part in the event. "If they are going to go to all the effort to put this on, I wanted to be a part of it."

"I want them to feel this community appreciates what they do," Buchla said.

If that was ultimately the message Buchla wanted to send, it, like so many of her fellow drivers this past winter, safely reached its destination.

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<![CDATA[From Client To Coworker: CEO Hires Young Man With Autism He Treated 15 Years Ago]]> Thu, 08 Jun 2017 13:22:13 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/pete+and+jack+11.jpg

These are busy times at the Center for Social Dynamics.

Trainings for new staff, held in new offices, are signs of an ever-growing demand for the 5-year-old company's therapy and support services for children with autism and their families.

For CEO Pete Pallares, it means a lot of time talking about and planning for his company's future. Not all that long ago, however, Pallares was reminded of his past.

"I recently moved and an old box came out of the basement," Pallares said.

Inside the box were pictures from 15 years ago, when Pallares was a therapist just beginning his career working with children with autism. Among the photos were a few of Pallares with one of his very first clients, a 3-year-old non-verbal boy named Jack Clark.

"Jack wasn't talking," Pallares said. "He had a lot of trouble interacting with other kids, adults."

Pallares and Clark worked together successfully for a few years. Pallares even said that Clark spoke his first words when they were working together. Eventually, though, the pair parted ways. Pallares said as fond as he was of Clark, the ethics of his profession required him to make a clean break from the child and his family.

"It's one of the hardest parts of the job," Pallares said. "You work with someone two or three years then move on. It's a thick skin you have to build up."

As his career progressed, from therapist to supervisor to entrepreneur (and also head of the Pedro Pallares Autism Foundation), Pallares often thought about Clark and what had become of him. He wondered if the boy even remembered him and their time together.

To his great surprise, and delight, Pallares recently got the chance to ask Clark.

His response?

"I thought about Pete in 2001 and 2002 and 2003," Clark said, proceeding to list every year up until the present one.

The reason for the reunion was that Clark's family had tracked down Pallares in order to reconnect and to thank him for the work he had done with Clark. They felt Pallares' therapy, along with work done by others in the following years, was the reason Clark had matured into a talkative, social, hard-working 18-year-old young man.

"15 years later he is a nice young adult with tremendous skills," Pallares said. "A charming guy."

Pallares was so impressed with Clark that he offered him a job as his assistant at CSD. Clark now spends two days a week organizing, filing, and helping Pallares keep his personal calendar.

Pallares said it is wonderful to have his old friend around but it is also so much more. It's validation for his chosen line of work and evidence, not always seen by therapists, of the long-term benefits of their efforts.

"I did the best I could," Pallares said. "As a therapist, you always leave with that doubt, did I give everything? Could I have done something else?"

At least in Clark's case, Pallares no longer has to wonder. A journey from client to coworker seems proof enough.

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<![CDATA[75 Years After His Death, a Fallen Officer is Honored]]> Fri, 02 Jun 2017 15:32:04 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/fallen+officer+honored+6.jpg

Most of the things 83-year-old June Amrhein of Half Moon Bay still has of her late father, Louis Phipps, fit neatly into a single bag.

His draft card. His police badge. A few old photographs.

Most, but not all.

There is one thing she wears proudly each and every day for all to see. "I inherited his smile," Amrhein said. "That's what everyone tells me that remembered him."

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Remembering her father, it turns out, has been something of an obsession for Amrhein for the past 30 years. Or, better said, making sure her father's memory is honored is what she has longed for decades.

Amrhein is the oldest of Phipps' five children. She was 9-years-old in 1942 when he died.

A year earlier, the start of the United States' involvement in World War II, many young men in Amrhein's hometown of Ashland, Massachusetts went off to fight. That left many vacancies in the town's police and fire departments. Phipps left his job at a local clockmaker to join the police force.

In June of 1942, he was assaulted by a drunk patron at a bar in town. He died a few days later of his injuries.

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"I just couldn't believe it," Amrhein said. "This was my hero. How could he be dead?"

For a number of reasons, not all of which Amrhein understands to this day, Phipps was never honored as a police officer who had died in the line of duty.

It was something that always bugged her, but didn't come completely to the surface until the 1980s when another fallen officer's picture when up on the wall at Ashland's police headquarters. "I said, 'Why isn't my father up there?' That's when the wheels started to work for me."

For years, Amrhein would talk to whomever she could contact in town government and the police department but was never able to convince anyone to take her cause seriously.

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"I didn't have any records. I didn't have any evidence," Amrhein said.

But then, while cleaning out her mother's belongings after her death, Amrhein uncovered an old document that, in great detail, described the circumstances of her father's death.

Not long after, she also found a sympathetic ear on the department: Sgt. Greg Fawkes.

Once Fawkes, a police union representative, heard Amrhein's story, he got to work. "He told me this shouldn't be a problem," Amrhein said. Turns out, he was right.

Within just a few months, Amrhein got the world that her father's name was being added to the Fallen Officers National Memorial in Washington, DC. "I just sat down and cried. I couldn't believe it," Amrhein said.

All she had to do then, was find a way to get to the airport, to fly to the dedication last month. That proved to be no problem as well.

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"It was a no-brainer," said Sgt. Leo Capovilla of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department. Knowing that Amrhein was having difficulty finding a ride to the airport, Fawkes had called his counterparts in the Bay Area. Capovilla quickly arranged rides to and from the airport as well as personal escorts through security, all the way to the gate.

"This was a fellow officer who gave his life," Capovilla said. "I didn't have to think twice."

Amrhein says the ceremony in Washington was everything she knew it would be. Though she never knew just how this honor would happen, and couldn't have guessed the unexpected turns her journey would take, she always knew it would happen. There just wasn't another option.

"I was never going to give up. No. It had to happen."

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<![CDATA[Antioch Officer Does More Than Return Disabled Girl's Stolen Tricycle, He Restores Her Faith In Police]]> Fri, 26 May 2017 12:31:05 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/stolen+trike+11.jpg

Riding along the sidewalk outside her Antioch home, 12-year-old Charlotte Luther wears a smile familiar to anyone who has ever watched a kid enjoy the freedom that comes from riding on two wheels.

The only thing different about Luther's smile, though, is that she requires three wheels to make it happen.

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Earlier this year, Luther's family raised $4,000 to buy her a specially equipped, adult-sized tricycle for her to ride. Luther has dealt with many physical and emotional challenges in her short life: she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, determined to be on the autism spectrum, and even had to battle a brain tumor just last year.

It has all left Charlotte with issues and balance and strength that make riding a traditional, two-wheeled bicycle difficult. So, getting the tricycle was a huge treat for her.

"This is great because now she can be independent," her father, Adam Luther, said. "She can ride with her neighborhood friends and go on bike rides with them."

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It was all great, until it was gone.

One morning early in May, the Luther family was alerted to trouble by the barking of their dog. Adam Luther got to the window in time to see his wife's bicycle being wheeled away from their enclosed front patio. Charlotte's tricycle was also gone.

"I was heartbroken," Charlotte said, "because that bike meant so much to me."

Fortunately for the Luther's, Antioch Police Officer Dan Fachner was determined to get the tricycle back to Charlotte. Upon responding to the Luthers' report of a burglary, Fachner understood, not just how much the tricycle meant to Charlotte, but that finding the money to replace it would difficult for the family.

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"It kind of tears at your heart, a case like this," Fachner said.

Fachner began his very next shift cruising the streets of Antioch, focused on finding the tricycle. He began asking around at nearby strip malls and a woman told him she had seen a tricycle fitting the description roughly a mile from the Luthers' home.

Fachner drove to the spot, spotted a man on the tricycle, and ordered him to stop. The man was taken into custody, and the tricycle was returned to Charlotte, less than 24 hours after it had been stolen.

"I figured if we didn't find it in a day or so and somebody found out what it was worth, it was probably going to be gone," Fachner said.

"Pretty amazing," said Charlotte's mother, Cate Luther. "He really cared."

Returning the bike was a good deed, but what Fachner didn't know at the time is that it wasn't the only one he had done. Perhaps not even the most important.

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Before getting aspects of her bipolar disorder under control, Charlotte had experienced episodes that had required police officers to come to the Luther home. "When she was about 8 or 9," Cate Luther said, "she had several encounters that weren't favorable and so she has this dislike of police officers and sees them in a negative light."

That, however, has now changed Charlotte said. Thanks to Fachner.

"It's pretty special to hear someone say that," Fachner said.

Earlier this week, Charlotte and Cate went to the Antioch Police headquarters to present a box of donuts as a gift to Fachner and say thanks to him in person.

Charlotte even felt comfortable enough to put her arm around him for a picture. "She's now seeing police officers can be good people as well," Cate Luther said.

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<![CDATA[Apple Engineer Converts Used Van Into Mobile Laundromat, Offers Free Loads to Homeless]]> Sat, 18 Mar 2017 18:47:25 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/loads+of+love+4.jpg

Ron Powers spends a few days and nights every week doing strangers’ laundry.

For free.

And he couldn’t be happier about it.

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Driving the streets of Santa Cruz in a van he outfitted with two washers and dryers, the Scotts Valley, California resident visits homeless shelters and encampments, offering to help keep what few clothes they have clean. The service he offers, Powers said, is not only a chance to do some good but make a connection.

“It's one thing to wash someone's clothes, even to feed them and help them, but it's another to feed the soul,” he said.

Powers started the program, which he dubbed Loads of Love, last year after seeing a YouTube video about Orange Sky Laundry. According to its website, the Australian nonprofit was founded in 2014 as “the world's first free mobile laundry service for the homeless.”

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Inspired by the video, Powers saw a way to address a need in his community and share his faith in the process. A devout Christian, he wanted to shift from discussing the teachings of the church to living them out by helping others.

“Basically I was just in prayer going Lord, you know, I want to do more,” he said.

Powers found a previously owned van, washer and dryer on Craigslist and put his background as a mechanical engineer — he works at Apple — to good use. Initially, he said he was more worried about getting all of the hardware to work than he was about reaching the people he sought to serve.

Powers recalled walking around downtown Santa Cruz after his bible study, where he took the opportunity to talk and connect with the homeless. From these experiences, he realized that the service he now offers could decrease the number of clothing donations needed.

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Powers said that many homeless individuals will throw away socks and other clothing when they get dirty because they simply cannot afford to wash them. That, he said, presents an impossible choice: do laundry, or go hungry.

“What I wanted to do is I wanted to restore dignity to people,” he said.

In the process of restoring dignity and helping people avoid the health issues associated with wearing soiled clothing, Powers takes every opportunity to connect personally with whichever person whose clothes he's washing clothes on a given night. Unlike volunteering in a soup kitchen, he said, he gets much more than the standard 10 seconds with the individual he is helping.

“If there's only one person there and I spend all afternoon with that one person, that's okay,” he said. “There's no shortage of people that are hurting and really open.”

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Powers said another important aspect of Loads of Love is providing opportunities for volunteers to get involved. He has brought along junior high and high school students, as well as various church groups looking to do outreach ministry.

“Half of the ministry is getting people out of the pews and onto the streets,” he said. “It's not a church ministry, it's a ministry for any church that wants to use it.”

Reflecting on the early days of the program, Powers said that though the service surprised many, it was widely well-received. It took a while to get everything up and running, but taking the risk of trying out a slightly unorthodox idea was well worth the wait.

“Whenever … something new and creative comes up … it is a way that I think God can use it,” he said. “Like hey, I'm gonna (start) something fresh and new and it might turn a couple heads this time.”

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Photo Credit: NBC Bay Area
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<![CDATA[San Jose Earthquakes Player Gives Las Vegas Taxi Driver Life-Changing Tip]]> Fri, 03 Feb 2017 17:24:04 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/earthquake+and+cabbie+5.jpg

Soccer is only one of many universal languages. For a San Jose Earthquakes player and a Las Vegas taxi driver, it was kindness rather than the international sport that united them.

After cabbie Pedro Hahamian told Quakes player Quincy Amarikwa that he was two months behind on his mortgage, the MLS forward wrote him a check for $2,200 right on the spot.

“If there's a way that you can help someone, you need to find a way to to do that,” Amarikwa said.

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Two weeks ago, Amarikwa landed in Hahamian’s cab after attending a marketing conference and needing a ride to the Las Vegas airport. After the two got to talking en route, Amarikwa quickly spotted an opportunity to help someone in need. He handed over a signed check as he exited the taxi.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Hahamian said. “I thought it was a joke.”

Hahamian struck up a conversation with Amarikwa during the ride, sharing the changes he’s seen in the taxicab industry over the 18 years he’s been in the profession. Originally from Argentina, the lifelong soccer fan didn’t even know Amarikwa was a professional athlete.

With the introduction and proliferation of ridesharing services in recent years, Hahamian has personally felt the strain on the industry that once helped him raise a family.

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“It’s tough. It’s tough,” Hahamian said. “Too many taxis now. It’s hard to make a living.”

But in taking the time to listen, Amarikwa realized that he was in a position to offer some help.

“He really started opening up with us,” Amarikwa said. “I could just tell he was a genuinely nice person ... he was kind hearted and he was a hard worker.”

Though the decision to help Hahamian was made on a whim, it is consistent with Amarikwa’s personal philosophy. He said he makes a conscious effort to put positivity out into the world and tries to be someone who’s of action, rather than just words.

“I'm a firm believer of what you project out in the world is what you'll receive back 10-fold,” he said. “Don’t just say it, do it.”

Amarikwa was in Las Vegas that week to attend a marketing convention. While soccer pays the bills for now, he has bigger plans that go beyond his athletic career. With entrepreneurial and marketing aspirations, he hopes to find success in the business world while also helping others make their dreams come true.

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“There's so many people with great ideas and such passion for what what they love,” he said. “I want to be able to have the resources to help facilitate that.”

The only evidence of their exchange was a photo posted to Amarikwa’s Snapchat, as he decided not to publicize the act by posting it on other social media channels. He later decided to share the details of the story with NBC Bay Area, hoping that in doing so, he could show others that they can help others too.

Hahamian said that thanks to Amarikwa, he was able to stay in his house.

“I appreciate his generosity,” he said.

Before disembarking the cab at the airport, Amarikwa had just a few parting words for Hahamian.

“I just said, ‘Pedro it was nice to meet you, I would love for you to pay it forward the next time you can help someone.’”

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<![CDATA['This Is It. I'm Going to Die Today': Young Samaritans Rescue Swimmer Carried Off By Current In San Francisco's Aquatic Park]]> Thu, 23 Mar 2017 22:59:50 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/aquatic+park+water+rescue+4.jpg

Kevin Shanahan took all the necessary precautions.

Or, at least, he thought he did.

The San Francisco man has been a member of the city's legendary Dolphin Club for seven years. Hundreds of times he has headed out into the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay (without a wetsuit, as is Dolphin tradition) to swim laps in Aquatic Park.

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On February 21st, Shanahan checked the tide charts and asked fellow swimmers about the currents. Convinced conditions were ok, Shanahan dove into the water.

He was surprised to find out they were not.

The heavy rains and wild weather this winter have played havoc with the tides and currents in San Francisco Bay. Swimmers say they are unpredictable and unlike they have seen in quite some time.

When Shanahan swam west, away from the club and toward the municipal pier, he noticed he was going faster than he normally would.

When he turned around to swim back, he went nowhere.

"And that's when I realized, boy, something's going on here," Shanahan said.

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As the current pulled him toward the pier. Shanahan feared he would be pinned to a sea wall on the other side or, worse yet, dragged under it.

"My choices were limited and I knew I was in trouble," Shanahan said. "My only recourse was, I need to catch. I need to grab a piling because I'm going under the pier."

Shanahan did just that. He saw a few people fishing further down the pier and began yelling for help. He didn't know if anyone could hear him above the sound of the wind and the waves.

Aaron Olvera did.

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The 9-year-old from Sonoma had the day off from school so he and his 20-year-old brother, Fermin, and Fermin's 19-year-old girlfriend, Jennifer Cervantes were fishing for crabs that day. The weather was poor, so the three were just about to give up even though they hadn't caught anything.

That's when the younger Olvera heard Shanahan yelling. He couldn't make out what he was saying, but Cervantes could.

"He's asking for a rope," Cervantes said.

The three young people sprang into action, lowering a rope down to Shanahan, calling 911, and getting in position to direct the rescuers.

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From where they stood, directly above Shanahan, they couldn't see him clinging to the piling below. The also didn't know that hypothermia was setting in.

"This is it. This is it," Shanahan recalled thinking. "I'm kind of accepting the fact I'm going to die today."

A San Francisco Police rescue boat reached Shanahan in time, though, and hauled him out of the water.

The two things he wanted more than anything after that was to get warm and to thank the brave kids who saved him.

At a San Francisco Fire Council meeting in City Hall on Wednesday, that's just what he got to do.

"Are you Aaron?" Shanahan asked upon seeing Olvera. "You saved my life."

At the ceremony, all three young people were given commendations by Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White.

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<![CDATA[6-Year-Old 'Dog Whisperer' in Morgan Hill]]> Mon, 09 Jan 2017 10:14:57 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/meghan+saves+daisy+1.jpg

After two months on the run and countless attempts by adults to capture her, it took the charms of a 6-year-old dog whisperer named Meghan Topping to finally bring Daisy in from the cold.

"I used all my experience with dogs" said the Morgan Hill girl.

The tale of Daisy began in late October when the shepherd-mix, rescued from a Northern California animal shelter, was adopted by a "forever" family in Hollister.

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She escaped their back yard just two days later.

For close to two months, members of the Hollister Animal Lost and Found Facebook group chronicled Daisy sightings all over town. Repeated attempts to capture her, though, failed.

"She was in fight or flight mode," said Deanna Barth, and expert in animal rescue with decades of experience. Barth likened Daisy's skill at eluding capture with that of a coyote. But even coyotes can be captured eventually.

"All the typical things, like cage traps and baiting with smelly foods, was not working," Barth said. "Our only way to earn her trust was to get someone she might remember."

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Barth had heard that before being adopted, Daisy has spent time with a foster family and had become attached to a little girl there. They set out to find her.

That girl turned out to be Meghan.

Meghan and her mother, Karen Topping, are prolific at fostering and training rescued and even feral dogs. Seventy-five dogs have passed through their home in the past year along. Daisy, though, was special.

"Her bond with Meghan was uncanny," Karen Topping said.

This all explains why, in late December, Meghan and her mom drove from Morgan Hill to Hollister to see if they would have any luck at capturing the dog.

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They found her in one of her usual haunts, an empty field.

Karen Topping began taking pictures and video to document the sighting, but it was Meghan who decided on her own to take action. Well, not completely on her own. Meghan says Daisy told her what to do.

"She told me. Because you can talk to dogs in your brain," Meghan said. "She told me if Mom stayed in the truck she would come to me and I believed it."

So Meghan got out of the truck, walked to the middle of the field, sat down, and waited.

Daisy was cautious at first eventually crept closer and closer to the little girl, seeming to recognize her as an old friend.

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The last few moments were captured on video by Karen Topping.

Tail wagging, Daisy comes up to Meghan and allows the girl to pet her. Meghan eventually walks back to the truck, gets a leash, returns to the dog and puts it on her.

"I was just amazed," Karen Topping said.

"It's hard to watch that video and not cry," Barth said.

"I was just thinking whatever was meant to be was meant to be," Meghan said. "And that was meant to be."

Daisy and Meghan have spent plenty of time together since the rescue, but the dog won't be coming to live with the Toppings. They say there are focused on the thousands of other dogs out there in need of fostering and training. They have already found a great family to be her new "forever" one.

Though, if she ever goes on the lam again, they'll know just who to call.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Karen Topping
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<![CDATA[Long-Time Member Of Giants' Broadcast Crew Turns Life-Threatening Diagnosis Into Help For Thousands Of Cancer Patients]]> Thu, 18 May 2017 23:08:11 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/strike+out+fear+5.jpg

How good has David Benzer's view of the past 39 years of San Francisco Giants baseball been?

So good, the folks with front row seats sit one row behind Benzer.

Benzer is a long-time member of the crew that broadcasts Giants games on TV. You will regularly find him operating the large, field-level television camera just to the home plate side of the visitors' dugout.

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"One step over that white line and I'd be in the game," Benzer said.

Such close proximity not only allowed Benzer an unobstructed view of baseball history but afforded him the chance to get to know the ballplayers personally. Member of the Giants, as well as a rotating cast of visiting players, became his friends.

The combination proved intoxicating, Benzer admitted, and his identity became so wrapped up in what he did for a living the two became inexorably intertwined.

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"It was my art and my passion," Benzer said.

The pinnacle of all of it had to be the fall of 2010: the Giant's first World Series championship in more than 40 years.

Which was quickly followed by the nadir.

Just 24 hours after the Giants victory parade that year, Benzer feeling ill, visited his doctor. With just a single look down Benzer's throat, a diagnosis was made.

"You got State IV cancer: throat, tongue, and lymph nodes," Benzer recalled the doctor telling him. Benzer asked if any tests were needed. The doctor said no. "I see it everywhere," Benzer said the doctor told him.

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What followed were months of chemotherapy and radiation. It was absolutely brutal, Benzer said. "Because they take you right down to death and bring you back."

Benzer said, at his lowest point, he made a promise to God: "If you gave me a second chance I'd make a difference."

He did and Benzer lived up to his end of the bargain.

In 2011, Benzer started the Strike Out Fear Foundation. The main thrust of the non-profit is to remodel hospital waiting areas, adding large screen tv's, DVD players, and music systems. Benzer's goal is to create comfortable spaces where patients can relax and let go of some of the fear they carry with them.

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Benzer says his experience taught him that the fear that came with a cancer diagnosis was almost as bad as the disease itself. "The fear really effects the cancer. She works together with that. She's almost fuel to it," Benzer said.

The foundation's work has since touched the lives of close to 50,000 cancer patients and more than 400,000 patient visits.

Benzer is happy to be visiting those places now, not as someone looking for help, but someone giving it.

"I'm really good at this. This is my mission in life," Benzer said.

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<![CDATA[North Bay Reporter Dedicated To Solving 22-Year-Old Case Of Missing News Anchor]]> Fri, 12 May 2017 12:34:43 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/find+jodi+4.jpg

There are many ways to measure time. For short periods, clocks work just fine. For longer stretches, there are calendars.

When it comes to measuring how long Jodi Huisentruit has been missing, Caroline Lowe uses thumb tack holes. There are dozens of them in the picture of Huisentruit that Lowe keeps on her desk.

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"Each hole represents a different time, different place, I have posted this," Lowe says. 

The picture was with her for much of her 34-year career as a television news reporter in Minnesota. It also accompanied her for the past six years working as a news manager at a station on California's Central Coast. Most recently, it sits beside her computer in her home office in Petaluma.

"Too many holes, too many," Lowe said.

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Jodi Huisentruit was the early morning news anchor at KIMT in Mason City, Iowa. On June 27, 1995, she left her apartment for work but never arrived and has never been seen since.

At the time of Huisentruit's disappearance, Lowe was working the police and crime beat for WCCO-TV, the CBS television station in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Lowe didn't start covering Huistentruit's story until two years after her disappearance when a serial rapist Lowe had been investigating turned out to have lived just a couple of blocks from Huisentruit.

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That lead did not prove to be a break in the case, but Lowe has not stopped investigating Huisentruit's disappearance in the more than two decades since. Lowe says after getting to know Huisentruit's relatives, it was something she felt she needed to do.

"Once I met her sister and met her family you feel a connection that you can't walk away from," Lowe said. "I just stayed with it over the years did follow up stories."

Even now, that Lowe is no longer working full-time as a reporter, she continues to investigate the case. Working with a team of other investigators, Lowe continues to make calls, follow leads, and revisit timelines of Huisentruit's activities before her disappearance.

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FindJodi.com is the website the group maintains to publicize their work and keep Huisentruit's name, face, and story in the news.

Asked why she still pursues this case with such passion, Lowe says it is something that stems from her years covering crime in the Twin Cities. Long after a story no longer made headlines, Lowe knew the victims and their families still dealt with the trauma. If she could do something that could ease their suffering, it needed to be done.

"You get attached to them and you identify with them and you hope somebody would do it for your family," Lowe said.

There is also another aspect of this story that speaks to Lowe: the possibility, had things turned out differently, she and Huisentruit might one day have crossed paths.

"Jodi was a Minnesota gal who had a dream of going to the Twin Cities someday where I worked. We very possibly would have worked together if things had taken a different turn."

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<![CDATA[San Mateo Author On 6 Year Journey Sharing Untold Story Of Heroism During The Holocaust]]> Thu, 04 May 2017 23:21:30 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/two+among+the+righteous+few+2.jpg

When you take a look at Marty Brounstein's body of work as an author, something immediately stands out: one of his books is not like the others.

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The long-time San Mateo management consultant has authored many books in that field, most notably a number in the "For Dummies" series.

Brounstein's latest book, however, is a world away from that, and very close to his heart.

"It's the most difficult thing I have ever done," Brounstein said "It's also the most important."

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"Two Among The Righteous Few, A Story Of Courage In The Holocaust," tells the tale of Frans and Mien Wijnakker, a Dutch couple who saved the lives of more than two dozen Jews during the Second World War by sheltering them and hiding them from the Nazis.

One of those who was saved as a baby was Leah Baars, Brounstein's wife.

Brounstein says the idea to write the book began with a trip in 2009 to the Netherlands with Baars.

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"This is a story I stumbled into by accident, not by design," Brounstein said.

Brounstein and Baars visit the Wijnakkers home and met their children still living in the area. It was then that one of them showed Brounstein a picture of a plaque honoring the Wijnakkers at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Israel.

"I knew what that meant," Brounstein said. "You don't get that for just showing up. Something heroic happened here."

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Using an account written years before and doing more research, Brounstein spent the next two years researching and writing the book.

Since then, Brounstein and Baars have held more than 500 events at schools, houses of worship, civic organizations, and even private companies sharing the story.

Brounstein says the overwhelming and emotional response they get from audiences is what keeps them going.

"My journey in sharing this story is six years complete. The seventh year already booked. Who'd expect that?"

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<![CDATA[Berkeley Architect Fights Religious Oppression]]> Thu, 27 Apr 2017 23:00:27 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/bahai+institute+4.jpg

It is late on a Wednesday evening and in Niknaz Aftahi's second-floor Richmond apartment an underground class is just about to start.

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"Has anyone new joined?" asked Aftahi, looking at the video conferencing site where her students are gathering.

Aftahi is preparing to teach English for Architecture to a handful of students logged in from her native Iran. It is, for Aftahi, a chance to give something back to people who had given her so much.

"I want to give back to this Institute that gave me the privilege of becoming educated," Aftahi said.

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Aftahi is referring to the Baha'i Institute For Higher Education or BIHE. Formed 30 years ago, the BIHE is an underground university in Iran educating members of the Baha'i faith. The Baha'i, Aftahi says, are being systematically oppressed by the religious government of Iran. One way in which that happens is making it difficult, if not impossible, for young Baha'i to pursue higher education.

Which is where BIHE comes in.

The BIHE has no campus or buildings. Professors meet their students in the kitchens, living rooms, and basements of sympathetic homeowners. It is not without risk, though. The government has, at times, raided homes and jailed professors.

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Aftahi graduated from BIHE in 2010.

"Teaching at BIHE in Iran means any day you can go to prison, so they put their lives (one the) line," Aftahi said. "I always see that as a big sacrifice and the did that for me."

After graduating BIHE, Aftahi moved to the United States and was accepted to study for a Master's Degree in Architecture from U.C. Berkeley.

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Now established as a working architect for a firm in Berkeley, Aftahi dedicates her early mornings and late evenings to her students in Iran. It is risky for them even to take her class.

Aftahzi also realizes that, until government attitude toward the Baha'i changes, she will not feel safe traveling back to Iran to see her family. A nephew of hers died last year but she didn't return for the funeral.

"That was hard," Aftahi said. "Very difficult but it was my choice. And I made that choice."

Aftahi hopes that by shedding light on a school that operates in the shadows pressure will build on the government of Iran to change its position.

Until then, she will keep teaching long distance, hoping for big change.

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<![CDATA[San Jose Elementary School Students Raise Thousands To Support Classmates, Community Hit By Flooding]]> Tue, 04 Apr 2017 23:13:32 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/hacienda+flood+fundraiser+2.jpg

Estimating. It's one of the math skills Jessica Friedman expects her fourth-grade students at San Jose's Hacienda Elementary to master by the time they leave her classroom.

This past month, however, it's seems Friedman is the one who needed brushing up on the topic because she clearly under-estimated her students.

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"The surprised me," Friedman said, "in the best possible way."

The whole episode began with two students in particular: Roma Smith and Jenna Kang. Both girls live near Coyote Creek and both their homes were damaged by the flooding that occurred there in February.

"Right now, I'm living at my Grandma and Grandpa's house," Smith explained.

At Frieman's suggestion, both of the girls made a presentation about the flood to the school's student council. They share stories and pictures of their experience and suggested a flood fundraiser to help their community.

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"We did it for our neighbors," Kang said, "because they needed a lot of help."

The council agreed and a school-wide goal was set: $5,000.

"I remember when they said 5,000, I wanted them to pick something much more achievable," Friedman said.

Still, when spread out among all the school's grades and classes, Friedman's students would only have to raise a little more than $200 to do their part.

"We thought, oh my God, if we raise that much we're going to be awesome," Smith recalled. "Now, I don't know what happened."

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What happened is Smith and Kang's classmates continued to raise more and more money. The single sheet of paper on which they had drawn a thermometer to measure their success has been added on to six more times.

Some students raided their savings accounts, others gave their Tooth Fairy money, and many gave more than one time, By the end of March, Friedman's class had raised more than $2,000, close to half of the entire schools' goal.

Smith and Kang's classmates admit, they started the fundraiser looking to help their friends but the more and more they learned about the scope of the disaster, the more they wanted to help everyone affected.

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"They see neighbors in need, they see classmates in need, they just want to be a part of the solution," Friedman said.

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<![CDATA[East Bay Man Shows Dedication To Rescue Non Profit By Walking Around Lake Merritt For 24 Hours Straight. In A Catsuit.]]> Tue, 30 May 2017 22:37:58 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/cat+town+lake+merritt+walk+2.jpg

No matter how you may have spent your Memorial Day weekend, it's a sure bet it was nothing like what Jay Ruiz did to support Cat Town, the Oakland-based cat rescue organization. https://www.crowdrise.com/cat-town-savingpets

<![CDATA[ US, Chinese Olympic Hopefuls Train At Squaw, Eyes On 2018 Games]]> Tue, 27 Jun 2017 10:56:46 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/usa+oly+training+31.jpg

If you ever find yourself sharing a chairlift with K.C. Oakley and you happen to ask her where she's from, she will likely give you the following answer: "Piedmont. I grew up in Piedmont.

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If you ask, however, where home is, you might get a different answer: the slopes of Squaw Valley. "I grew up skiing here with my dad, so all my memories are here," Oakley said.

It is why, Oakley said, these two weeks in May are so special to her. She has been invited, along with the other best American mogul skiers, to train alongside the Chinese national team on three specially designed runs at the top of Squaw.

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"It's so fun to be here because I'm running into all these people who've been a part of my ski career, this long path, it's like they are all family at this point," Oakley said.

Oakley, like many of the other top skiers here, has her sights set on competing for the US Olympic team for the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Oakley came close to making the squad in 2014 but, at 29-years-old, said this will be her last attempt.

That is why the next few months will be so critical for Oakley.

Jonny Moseley agrees.

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Moseley, an Olympic gold medalist, television commentator, and Squaw Valley ambassador helped organize the joint training session with the Chinese. He said he has been happy to share his number one piece of advice with the Olympic hopefuls skiing the mountain this month. 

"When you look back you want to know that you left it all on the table, you know that you spent every hour you could training to try to win so that was my main piece of advice to them," Moseley said.

While China has not been considered a traditional winter sports juggernaut, that image may soon change. The country won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Games and wants to make sure it has a good showing on its home snow.

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<![CDATA[ Fashion Students Work With Disabled To Create Garments Designed To Better Their Lives]]> Wed, 17 May 2017 12:38:43 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/designs+for+disabled+1.jpg

Connie Ulasewicz's life has been fashioned around fashion for quite some time.

There was a first a career in garment manufacturing followed by more than 20 years teaching at San Francisco State University. Ulasewicz is currently the Chair of the Consumer & Family Studies/Dietetics Department which includes Apparel Design and Merchandising students.

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What it all means is that Ulasewicz has been a part of many, many runway shows. Still, Ulaseqicz says, she had never been a part of one like the show she hosted this past weekend.

"I'm surprised it hasn't happened before," Ulasewicz said, "but we're going to do it!"

For the past few months, fashion design students at SFSU have been creating specialized garments, not just with form in mind, but with a function: help make one disabled person's life a little bit better.

"It has reinforced what garments and fashion are to me because to me the purpose of clothing is to enhance our well being on the earth," Ulasewicz said.

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Ulasewicz said the idea for the project originally came from Phyllis Wong, wife of SFSU President Leslie Wong. The department reached out for volunteers from among SFSU's students and staff with disabilities, then paired the willing models with two design students. The students' task was to work with their model to create a garment that, in some way, improved their life.

School administrator Gene Chelberg was paired with students Erin Fuller and Kinsey Thomas.

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Chelberg is known around SFSU, not just for his seeing-eye dog who helps him navigate around campus, but for his sense of style. He is rarely seeing without a suit, tie, and suspenders. The appropriate outerwear for such an outfit would be an overcoat, but therein lies his problem.

Overcoats don't normally come with hoods and, as a blind man with a service dog, Chelberg is unable to use an umbrella when it rains. "When you work with a seeing eye dog, they are trained to avoid overhangs and overhead obstacles," Chelberg said. "So, if you walk around with an umbrella you are going to defeat that training."

So Fuller and Thomas designed a practical, waterproof, stylish hood to match Chelberg's favorite overcoat.

"They did an amazing job," Chelberg said.

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Chelberg then showed off the finished product at the universities annual fashion show.

His was just one of ten collaborations that were featured on the runway that evening.

There was a skirt created from a material designed not to ride up for a woman in a wheelchair, a pair of shots tailored specifically for a young man with one leg, and a snug-fitting, stretchable jacket for a veteran with PTSD. Being able to put his hands into the pockets and rub and press his hands again the material, he said, helps him relax during times of stress.

Ulasewicz says the collaboration has been a wonderful experience for not just the models with disabilities, but her students as well. The future fashion designers agree. They say the project has infused in them a desire to always weave a little good in all the work they do.

"We're trying to make sure that people with disabilities know that fashion hasn't forgotten about them they are a part of our community," said design student Stephanie Schmidt.

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<![CDATA[San Jose Jazz Legend Donates Dozens Of New Trumpets To Get Next Generation Playing]]> Wed, 10 May 2017 10:34:27 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/jazz+trumpet+2.jpg

An older musician once gave a much younger Eddie Gale a piece of advice, something the legendary jazz trumpet player still follows to this very day

"He said, 'Man, just trust me, any time you ever see your name in print ... hold onto it,'" Gale said.

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That was more than 50 years and five volumes of clippings ago. Such things happen when you've been as good as long as Gale has been.

Still, he doesn't need to read a story to remember how it all started: as a young boy in Brooklyn with his very first horn.

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"When I got a trumpet I worked in the day and played and learned music at night. I would go to the jam sessions and ask, 'Can I sit in?'" Gale said.

Gale has traveled the world since then playing his distinctive style of trumpet. He has recorded albums on the Blue Note label, headlined shows, and backed up some of the biggest names in jazz.

In the process, Gale has owned many trumpets, but never forgets the thrill of the first one.

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Which is why, with the help of United Peace Relief, Gale recently gave away 100 brand new trumpets at San Jose's First A.M.E. Zion Church recently. "They don't have to pay a dime," Gale said.

The giveaway is just the latest example of Gale working with young people throughout his career. It's the reason in 1974 then San Jose mayor Norm Mineta gave Gale the title of "Ambassador Of Jazz."

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Music, Gale said, has been very good to him in his life. He can't wait to get others started on the same path.

"I think music is a wonderful gift from the heavens from God almighty," Gale said.

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<![CDATA[East Palo Alto Youth Notices Hometown Lacking One Very Important Resource, Returns From College To Help Fix It]]> Wed, 03 May 2017 13:46:20 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/branching+out+31.jpg

The problem, as Uriel Hernandez saw it, wasn't quite as clear as night and day.

It was more like sun and shade.

East Palo Alto, where Hernandez grew up, had a lot of the former. Atherton, where he went to high school, had plenty of the latter. On his way to and from school each day the transition was dramatic.

"(In Atherton) you have these big trees and these big houses," Hernandez said. "Then you'd take the pedestrian overcrossing, no trees, rundown apartment buildings. The sun beating down on you the asphalt all around."

It was a difference, Hernandez said, one could "feel." But he didn't fully understand what was happening until traveling 3,000 miles and spending four years at college in leafy Vermont.

"Growing up, the family didn't often go out into nature and I didn't have that deeper appreciation for nature until I was really living in it, seeing it up close all the time," Hernandez said.

Feeling so at home surrounded by nature, one would understand Hernandez wishing to stay in the area after graduation. Instead, though, Hernandez returned to his hometown, determined to bring that nature back with him, one tree at a time.

Hernandez began by volunteering for Canopy, a non-profit focused on creating a healthy, urban forest in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. His enthusiasm soon landed him a staff position and then in charge of an ambitious goal: working with young people to plant 500 trees in his hometown by 2020. It's called Branching Out and so far more than 220 trees have been planted, including 7 planted this past weekend.

Study after study has shown that communities with healthy urban forests score well in quality of life measurements such safety, health, and property values.

Hernandez understands this project is not a quick fix for East Palo Alto, but that's part of the beauty.

The trees will take years, and lots of care from the community, to reach shade-producing maturity. All that work, Hernandez says, will give people in East Palo Alto a pride of ownership in the trees and their surroundings.

When the trees are eventually big enough for someone to rest under, they will have earned their moment in the shade.

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<![CDATA[South Bay Non Profit, Volunteers Help 79-Year-Old, Blind, Deaf Man Stay In His Home]]> Tue, 25 Apr 2017 17:55:39 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/gerrys+home+makeover+3.jpg

It has been 43 years, but Gerry Tipton can still remember the very day he moved into his home in the Willow Glen Mobile Estates. The very day.

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"Friday. April 14. 1974," Tipton said recently, sitting in a chair held together by rope, in a living room crisscrossed by electrical wires and extension cords.

There is now, though, another day in April that Tipton will hopefully remember a long time as well: this past Saturday. That was when a team from Rebuilding Together Silicon Valley descended on the legally blind and deaf 79-year's old trailer home to make it a nicer and more importantly safer place to live.

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"He was definitely one of those cases that needed help immediately, a critical case we wanted to take care of right away," said Terry Gallo, Development and Outreach Manager for Rebuilding Together Silicon Valley. As part of celebrating its 25th anniversary, the non-profit chose to provide needed repairs to more than thirty homes and other non-profits in the South Bay including Tipton's.

Case Design and Remodeling sponsored Tipton's job and their entire staff turned out to volunteer on Saturday. Eric Copus, Director of Production for Case, says the company normally deals with much higher-end homes but this job feels like it has a higher purpose.

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"You deal with a lot of people's wants. We're dealing with a need and to be able to fill a need and know that it makes a difference in his day-to-day basis is a big difference," Copus said.

Debbie and Jim Kabel co-own the design firm. They says this kind of project does as much for their employees morale and it will for Tipton's quality of life.

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That's saying quite a bit when you consider all the improvements to Tipton's home: new wiring, new flooring, a new refridgerator, new skirting around the bottom of his home, and a new paint job just to name a few.

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<![CDATA[South Bay High School Students Surprise Custodian With Gifts To Show How Much He Means To Them]]> Fri, 23 Dec 2016 10:47:19 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/del+mar+custodian+wish+3.jpg

Traveling the halls of San Jose's Del Mar High School with custodian Jesse Ramirez feels less like hanging out with a member of the maintenance staff and more like riding shotgun with the most popular kid on campus.

Ramirez cannot make it from one end of campus to the other without multiple students shouting greetings to him, and he in return. "Everyone knows his name," said sophomore Jessica Duggano.

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It is, interestingly, about as far from Ramirez's actual high school experience as possible. The total opposite, in fact.

"Tough times," Ramirez said. "Growing up, it was difficult to learn. Eventually, I would just shy away from everyone because it was embarrassing."

His high school experience was so tough, Ramirez said, he worried about taking the custodian job at Del Mar 5 years ago. He thought the students would look down on him because had not achieved more in his life.

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But Ramirez needed the work so he took the position.

It has turned out to be, Ramirez now admits, the best decision he ever made.

"Working here has changed my life. Changed my life."

The change happened, Ramirez recalled, when he saw students by themselves on campus. He decided to be the type of adult to these kids he could have used when he was young.

"It reminds me of what I went through, so I just lent my ears and my voice to that person and it just grew," Ramirez said.


Students now regularly seek out Ramirez for impromptu counseling sessions on campus, some even lasting more than an hour.

"He does that for kids," said teacher Courtney Van Benthuysen. "It's insane."

Even with how much he has grown, though, Ramirez says he is still pretty shy. Which is why he was more than a little nervous when he was surprised in front the entire school at their recent Winter Wishes rally.

The rally is the culmination of a yearly program in which all students and staff write out wishes on paper stars, then the Leadership Class looks to fulfill as many of them as possible.

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This year, both students and staff singled out Ramirez for recognition.

The gift they settled on was four tickets to a recent San Francisco 49ers game. Ramirez, in addition to being a custodian, is coach of the school's JV football team.

Ramirez said he was moved by the gesture. "It made me feel cared about. Loved."

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<![CDATA["This Is What I Need To Do The Rest Of My LIfe": San Francisco Science Educator Celebrates 25 Years Of Hands-On Instruction]]> Fri, 21 Apr 2017 10:59:58 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/mission+science+workshop+5.jpg

There is treasure hidden under San Francisco's Mission High School.

Not the traditional type of gold and silver but a treasure trove of bones, crystals, and hands-on science experiments. It's the home of Mission Science Workshop, celebrating its 25th year of teaching the city's school children about science.

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It all began with a revelation in Dan Sudran's garage in the early 1990's.

"There was just no question this is what I need to do the rest of my life," Sudran said.

Sudran, who never formally studied science, was tinkering on electronic equipment in his garage and leaving the door open at the time. Neighborhood kids began stopping by.

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"I started finding out how much fun it was explaining this stuff I was excited about to them," Sudran said. "They were like, this was the hottest place on the block."

Sudran realized there was a need for hands-on science instruction that they young people clearly weren't getting in traditional schools. He decided to formalize what he was doing, moved into a bigger space and started the Mission Science Workshop.

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Now housed underneath Mission High School, the Workshop is the rare place where students are encouraged to touch the artifacts and experiments; to both build things, and break them. The Workshop works with more than 30 San Francisco schools, hosting science classes. It is also regularly open for the public to explore for free.

"It was something completely different," Marisol Roman said. She first visited the Workshop as an elementary school student and now still comes back to volunteer as a 24-year-old.

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Roman says the experience influenced her ultimate course of study (osteology) and got her classmates excited about science like never before.

Sudran's latest project is assembling a portable horse skeleton, one that can be taken apart and put together just like a puzzle. He has already done the same thing with a whale.

Sudran says that, while the Workshop's focus is young people who don't have much, this is the kind of education every child could benefit from no matter where they come from.

"All kids are underserved in science," Sudran said.

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<![CDATA[Peace, Joy, Soccer: Burlingame Woman Delivers Hundreds Of Soccer Balls To Refugees In Greece]]> Wed, 19 Apr 2017 10:23:18 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/peace+joy+soccer+3.jpg

For pretty much her entire life, Alexandra Christ has been serious about playing soccer. Still, she's never kicked a soccer ball with as much purpose as she does these days.

"I want something that is tough and durable," Christ said, squeezing one of the dozens of balls that are strewn about her Burlingame apartment.

Christ is testing the soccer balls to see which one is the best fit for her ultimate goal: donating them to refugees, mainly from Syria, living in camps in Greece.

"I'm one person with an idea and I took action and the action has snowballed into a beautiful project," Christ said.

Christ's project began, of all places, at the Thanksgiving dinner table with her family a few years ago. The plight of Syrian refugees, risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in often overcrowded boats, had been in the news a lot at the time.

What seemed like a crisis half-a-world away, though, was quickly put into perspective by Christ's mother. She reminded Christ that her grandfather had emigrated to the United States from a portion of the Middle East that then belonged to Syria.

"Mom said, 'If your grandfather didn't come to this country as a small child we could all be Syrian refugees,'" Christ said.

Suddenly, those refugees on tv weren't from a distant land. And they needed help. Christ was determined to do something but struggled to decide just what was the best fit for her talents and passions.

"What is the thing I could do? Then soccer hit my consciousness. I'm going to bring soccer balls!" Christ said.

Christ has been playing soccer ever since she was a little girl, growing up in San Franciso. When she traveled around the world a few years ago, she always tried to have a soccer ball with her. Christ found it a great way to break down barriers with strangers and spark joy in those around her.

Christ started her own non-profit, Peace Joy Soccer, and began collecting donations. She eventually raised enough to have 750 soccer balls manufactured in Pakistan, then shipped to Greece. She then traveled there, collected the balls, and headed out to the camps.

When Christ handed out the first balls, she knew she had done the right thing.

"We just started playing together for the next hour, playing and laughing and it was great," Christ said.

Christ doesn't kid herself that soccer balls are necessary for a refugees survival but feels strongly that they are essential to a better life. "It's important you have fun," Christ said. "It feeds the soul."

Christ is already planning her next visit and her next donation. Just as soon as the finds the perfect balls to do the greatest good.

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<![CDATA[Life-Changing Experience Nudges Peninsula Flutist to Action]]> Fri, 14 Apr 2017 09:52:36 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/thumbnail_flutist.jpg

From the Juilliard School to Carnegie Hall, Grammy-nominated musician Viviana Guzman was no stranger to a large audience - but this was different.

"Everyone thought I would be scared, but no," Guzman said. "They are such gentle creatures."

Last summer, Guzman had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter while paddle boarding off the coast of Half Moon Bay: a juvenile humpback whale bumped her board while shooting out of the water.

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The encounter, captured on GoPro cameras, was watched - and rewatched - more than one million times and nudged Guzman onto an unexpected path.

Guzman, who has traveled the world playing the flute, started doing research on whales and other cetaceans. It was then she learned about the plight of Vaquita porpoises, the world's most endangered marine mammal.

"Last month, I heard (the population) was down to 30," Guzman said.

Guzman decided she needed to do something to help. She is dedicating all the proceeds from her next album to saving the Vaquita.

"This is hugely important to me," Guzman said.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Greenway]]>
<![CDATA[Teacher, Inspired By Man's Repeated Attempts To Grow Huge Flower Display, Creates "Never Give Up" Lesson Plan For Students]]> Tue, 11 Apr 2017 23:47:29 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/bulb+guy+update+32.jpg

For the past 4 years, on a Milpitas hillside, nature has been teaching Rich Santoro a familiar lesson: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

What Santoro didn't realize until recently, though, is that the lesson wasn't ultimately meant for him at all.

"This didn't turn out at all how I expected," Santoro said.

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We first introduced you to Santoro 5 years ago sharing the story of how, for the past three decades, he had been planting upwards of 10,000 tulip bulbs in his San Jose backyard then inviting the public in for a free peek at the spectacular results the following spring.

It's how Santoro earned the nickname, "The Bulb Guy."

We then followed Santoro's story as he tried to bring the same gardening magic to a bigger audience: planting thousands of bulbs on the Milpitas hillside which, when in bloom, would spell out a secret message to passers-by. But they never did.

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One year it was too hot. Too wet, another.

This year looked promising, though.

The shoots of 6,700 flowers began to appear from the ground in early spring. Which is when the ground squirrels noticed them.

"They ate the bulbs right off the bottom," Santoro lamented. "Breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the Bulb Guy."

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From where Santoro stood it was yet another disaster.

But from someone else's vantage point, it was something else altogether.

From a home across the street from the hillside, Tapasi Roychoudhury had been watching Santoro's effort since the beginning.

"He was out there by himself," Roychoudhury said, "watering the flowers, pulling weeds." She would also see how, year after year of failure, Santoro would return.

"I thought he would change his mind and he'll leave this hill and he'll go away, Roychoudhury said, "but he did not."

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Roychoudhury says Santoro's determination inspired her to keep going when she suffered some setbacks in her life. She also thought there were others who could learn from his example: her students.

Roychoudhury is a teacher at Stratford School Santa Clara Pomeroy .

She designed a lesson plan based on the Bulb Guy's never-give-up story for her students. So now, in between learning about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, there is a little Rich Santoro thrown in.

"When she told me what she was doing it hit me on the way the home. The emotion welled up and I realized I was having an effect," Santor said.

Santoro says it will be a while before he wraps his mind around this latest twist in his story. What he's learned already, though, is the difference between success and failure is sometimes all about from which angle you look at it.

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<![CDATA[Bay Area Proud Updates: April 2017]]> Fri, 07 Apr 2017 12:47:45 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/240*120/april+2016+updates+collage.jpg

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<![CDATA[Fast-Growing Non Profit Making Strides Diversifying Tech Workforce]]> Fri, 31 Mar 2017 11:35:16 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/code+2040+5.jpg ]]> <![CDATA[Wheels For Chad: San Jose Community Delivers On Promise Of New Van So Formerly Homeless Man Can Continue To Help Get Others Off Street]]> Wed, 29 Mar 2017 09:08:07 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/wheels+for+chad+21.jpg

For the first time in his life, 37-year-old Chad Bojorquez is licensed to drive a car on his own. And not just any car—the San Jose man was the recipient of a specialized van complete with a wheelchair lift and hand controls.

A group of San Jose civic leaders started a fundraising effort last year that raised $78,000 to make the dream a reality.

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“It’s very freeing to be able to drive,” he said. “Just the freedom go wherever.”

When the appropriately-named fundraising campaign, “Wheels for Chad,” was started a little over a year ago, Bojorquez was a project director at Downtown Streets Team. In his management role at the nonprofit, which works to secure jobs and housing for the homeless, Bojorquez spent hours daily on public transportation to fulfill his various responsibilities in the South Bay.

The result was a lot of valuable time lost.

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"The morning could be in Palo Alto, the middle of the day could be in San Jose and the end of the day could be in Sunnyvale," Bojorquez said in an interview with NBC Bay Area last June.

For the father of three young kids, with another on the way, the van will do much more than alleviate his daily commute time. Bojorquez now works for Destination: Home, a program of the Health Trust, 

Bojorquez also now thoroughly enjoys what many might call a mundane task: morning drop-off.

Earlier this month, he drove his son to school by himself for the first time ever.

“That’s a huge deal, a short little drive,” he said. “It’s the normal things.”

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The “Wheels for Chad” campaign was started by San Jose resident Julie Matsushima, a longtime advocate for the disabled. In May 2015, Matsushima’s efforts culminated in the grand opening of the Rotary Playgarden, an accessible playground inspired by her granddaughter Aimee.

After hearing about Bojorquez’s dilemma, she and a team of women started the “Wheels for Chad” campaign through her nonprofit, That’s Amore. The group held fundraisers and solicited donations online, ultimately raising the money and presenting Bojorquez with a check last June. 

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<![CDATA[Oakland's Cat Cafe Is Cute, Sure. It's Also Saving Hundreds Of Cats' Lives.]]> Wed, 22 Mar 2017 12:45:16 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/cat+town+7.jpg

Ann Dunn will be the first to tell you she's the last one you'd expect to run a cat rescue organization.

Particularly, if you knew her in college.

"I went to school in San Diego and all my friends were going cat rescue and I couldn't have cared less. Couldn't have cared less," Dunn said laughing.

It's funny now because Dunn is the founder of Cat Town, a wildly successful cat rescue non-profit in Oakland.

So, what changed between then and now? Dunn crossed paths with a single, stray kitten, that's what.

"It was this little orange tabby and I say my heart grew three sizes that day," Dunn said. "I was like, 'I'll keep him.'"

That one rescue lead to another and Dunn eventually began to volunteer at Oakland Animal Services. It was there, Dunn saw first hand, that the cats who could handle the caged and noisy shelter environment were easily adopted. But those who couldn't, those who withdrew or became aggressive because of it were considered "unadoptable."

Dunn and a group of fellow volunteers were determined to help those cats.

"Let's focus on the cats that aren't going to make it," Dunn said.

"We see that these cats are adoptable. They just need to be in the right environment, get them out of small cages surrounded by barking dogs."

At first, Cat Town focused on fostering cats in homes but Dunn knew that exposure was a barrier to adoption as well. Getting prospective adopters to visit homes (or the shelter) was often enough of an inconvenience that they would never take that step.

So, 2 years ago, Dunn opened the country's first cat cafe at the corner of 29th Street and Broadway in Oakland. It is a store-front, no-cage, adoption showcase. And Coffee.

The success has been staggering.

Thanks in great part to Cat Town and Dunn's more than two hundred volunteers, Oakland Animal Services' euthanasia rate has dropped from 42 percent in 2011 to 14 percent today.

"I feel so fortunate to have a partner like Ann Dunn and Cat Town," said Rebecca Katz, Director at OAS. "It's really resulted in plenty of lifesaving. It's a collaboration, not a conflict."

Since it's founding, Cat Town has helped close to 1,500 cats.

And they are growing.

Construction is being done at the property next to the cafe, expanding the space available for cats and the people who might want to adopt them.

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<![CDATA["It's Like Stand-Up With Us": Stanford Professor, Oakland Teacher Bond While Teaching Cutting-Edge Curriculum To Middle Schoolers]]> Fri, 17 Mar 2017 20:50:42 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/sam+and+kennan+6.jpg

Dr. Sam Savage is an expert in the field of uncertainty and risk. He is a Stanford Adjunct Professor who corporate managers and utility executives seek out to learn ways to make their operations smarter and safer.

It is a complex field, Dr. Savage says, but one he has discovered a new, remarkably simple, and revolutionary way to teach.

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"It's like the switch from Roman to Arabic numerals," Savage said.

He says his new system of thinking about and computing probability and averages is so simple, and eight-grader could learn it.

How does he know?

He's done it.

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Last fall, Savage made his first of many trips across the Bay to West Oakland Middle School and the classroom of Kennan Scott.

His goal was to prove his point. He ended up finding a partner-in-crime.

"The first time I walked into his classroom it was like we've been teaching together for years," Savage said.

Scott and Savage had an instant chemistry that made their collaboration not only successful but fun for them and Scott's students.

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"It's like stand-up with us," Scott said. "It's unwritten. It's unscripted. It's amazing to watch (Savage) capture the room with his energy."

Scott knew his students would benefit from a visit by such an academic heavyweight. What he didn't know, in addition to how well the two of them would hit it off, was the confidence his students they would gain in the process.

"They are walking out of class saying, 'I can go to Stanford. I know a guy," Scott said.

As for Savage, he not only proved his point about the simplicity of teaching uncertainty and risk, he is enjoying teaching perhaps more than he ever has in his 40-year career.

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"I don't ever want to stop doing this with Kennan," Savage said.

As for transferring what he has learned from teaching the eighth-graders, Savage is confident it will translate when talking to his professional peers.

"Corporate managers have an attention span on par with that of middle school students."

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<![CDATA[ A Dollar At A Time (And Sometimes Less) San Leandro Thrift Shop Helps Sick, Dying Children And Their Families]]> Fri, 10 Mar 2017 14:42:14 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/treasures+hospice+51.jpg

Dee Gonzales has been running the Treasures Hospice Thrift Shop in downtown San Leandro since it opened 12 years ago.

From clothing to knick-knacks to old record albums, Gonzales sells just about anything.

With prices rarely reaching much than one dollar, she charges practically nothing.

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It is a formula that has proven quite successful over the years, not just for Gonzales, but for hundreds of sick children and their families. Since it's founding in 2004, Treasures has donated close to $250,000 to the George Mark Children's House in San Leandro.

"In these little tiny increments what a difference they have made up here," Dr. Kathy Hull, George Mark's founder, said. "That's a lot of care for our families and children."

"They do amazing work there," Gonzales said.

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George Mark opened its doors in 2004 to give care to sick, and often dying, children and their families in a comfortable, residential setting.

When Gonzales heard about the facility years ago, she thought it was a place she would like to volunteer so she and a friend drove out to the property and took a tour.

"Coming home from George Mark Home I had to pull over to the side of the road because both of us were weeping, 'This is not for us,'" Gonzales said. It turns out seeing parents lose a child was more than Gonzales could handle. She had lost her own son to heart disease many years ago but the pain still remains close to the surface.

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That setback didn't derail Gonzales' plans to help George Mark. It just altered them. "I will help, but only in the capacity that I can," Gonzales said.

Having experience working in retail, the thrift shop idea appealed to Gonzales and a group of other women. They located a space, sought donations, and once even cornered the mayor in a city hall bathroom to make her pitch.

"When you find something you love to do, it no longer becomes a challenge," Gonzales said.

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Gonzales gives a lot of credit to a dedicated group of volunteers who make it possible for the thrift shop to stay in business, pay its bills, and have enough left over each month to donate to George Mark.

Quite a bit of money, in fact.

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<![CDATA[Los Gatos Caterer Sees Business Boom With Hiring Of Developmentally Disabled]]> Thu, 09 Mar 2017 13:42:26 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/culinary+courier2.jpg

Terri Piazza Shong had a big day recently.

Her 13-year-old catering company, Culinary Courier, opened its first-ever retail space in downtown Los Gatos.

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Shong spent the days leading up to the opening pouring over schedules, fine-tuning recipes, and placing food orders. All the paperwork covered an entire table in her commercial kitchen.

"Doesn't it seem in Silicon Valley we should have something more fancy to plan out our new market than this big piece of taped-together paper," Shong said.

It is not, she says, something other entrepreneurs should copy from her.

What they should hope to emulate, however, is her success. From the time she started a catering business out of her San Jose kitchen, to the opening of her first storefront last month, Culinary Courier has been growing.

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Other businesses, Shong believes, would also do well to take not of who has helped her get to this point: the developmentally disabled.

"This population, it just isn't given the chance often," Shong said. "They were exactly what I needed and they were incredible."

Shong says she hired her first non-traditional worker when her catering workload exceeded what she, her family, and friends could handle. It's not that Shong was trying to do a good deed, she says, it's just that she knew good workers when she saw them. Shong had previously worked with adults with disabilities years ago in San Luis Obispo.

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"Compared to the staff I was trying to hire before, people who didn't have disabilities, this is the most reliable, worth it, you train 'em, they stay, they're long term," Shong said.

Shong continued to hire people with disabilities and they now make up 40 percent of her workforce.

As happy as Shong is that her staff stick with her for a long time, she's even happier when they leave and go on to bigger things.

One of her first hires, Ben Butcher, gained enough work experience and skills that he has started his very own business: a dog walking service.

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"She was always encouraging me which is really nice because people often get on your case and aren't encouraging," Butcher said.

Shong, it seems, never lets herself dwell upon the good thing she is doing, the valuable service she is providing her employees. "I honestly never think about it, truly," Shong said.

When someone makes her think about it, though, all she can think about is what a valuable service they are providing her.

"I am the grateful one."

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<![CDATA[Milpitas Elementary School Students Construct Tiny Home]]> Fri, 24 Feb 2017 00:48:25 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/milpitas+school+tiny+home+4.jpg

When it comes to tiny people building tiny homes, John Sinnott Elementary School in Milpitas is leading the way.

As part of a “project-based learning” curriculum, six classrooms of third, fifth and sixth graders are building their very own miniature residence right on campus. Led by sixth grade teacher Rita Maultsby, they are the first elementary school in the nation to take on such an endeavour.

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“We’re waiting to see if we hear from HGTV,” Maultsby said. “I mean why not, right?”

The finished product will be a 200 square foot home with a wraparound deck and benches in front. It will be used as a project-based learning museum, open to students, teachers and visitors who want to learn more about the hands-on, task-oriented learning experiences.

Like many of the increasingly popular tiny homes, it will not be connected the main power grid. Instead, solar panels on the roof will provide the needed electricity. It is not designed to be fully functional, which would require water and sewage hookups, but rather will have a small loft and serve as an extension of the classroom.

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“(The students) are willing to believe that this is what we’re bringing to them,” Maultsby said. “These kids want to learn. They’ll do whatever it takes to learn.”

Wanting to catch the attention of Home and Garden Television isn’t much of a stretch for Maultsby, who came up with the idea while watching shows on the channel. She became interested in the tiny home trend and after seeing various programs document the building process, and the Milpitas teacher said she now wants to live in one after she retires.

But with more young minds to educate until then, she decided there was no time like the present to get started.

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“I thought, well why am I waiting until I retire?” Maultsby said. “Why can’t we build a tiny home here?”

So that’s exactly what she set out to do. After gaining district approval and enlisting the help of Joe Flately, Milpitas Unified’s director of facilities and modernization, she and her students hit the ground running. Blach Construction, a local commercial builder and construction manager, as well as San Jose construction firm Duran & Venables decided to pitch in too.

“Getting the kids to think outside themselves sometimes is difficult because they’re in their own little space,” Maultsby said. “I was ready to get the community and other people involved.”

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Last month, Duran & Venables helped by laying out the pad and walkway. Up next will be building the walls, a step that will include a student field trip to Blach Construction. Once the walls are constructed, the school will hold an old-fashioned barn raising after which the actual building will begin.

Maultsby said the students are learning how to collaborate, listen and understand one another throughout the process—all real life skills she thinks they will take with them long after the house is completed. She added that their willingness to believe in her and the other teachers involved is what makes the story, and the school, so great.

“I thought it was interesting and ambitious,” said sixth grader Sophie Tang. “I believed (Maultsby) would make it happen somehow.”

Reflecting on the early days of the project, Maultsby spoke of one student who raised his hand with a question she won’t soon forget.

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“‘Why is the sky the limit?’” she recalled him asking. “‘Why can’t we go higher than that?’”

That, Maultsby said, was how she knew she was chasing the right dream with this project.

“When a student says that, then you know that what you’re doing is really what’s best for your students,” she said. “And how does a teacher say no to that?”

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<![CDATA[52 Marathons In 52 Weeks? Ex-Smoker Sets Ambitious Running Goal]]> Fri, 17 Feb 2017 18:01:46 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/52+marathons+81.jpg

By the end of 2017, Greg McQuaid will have run a total of 1,362.4 miles.

That may sound like a lot, but McQuaid just thinks of it as running 26.2 miles every week for 52 weeks.

On second thought, that still sounds like a lot.

"Why don't I do a marathon every week?" McQuaid said. "Everybody thought I was crazy and Sam, my wife, thought I was crazy and perhaps I am crazy."

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It may be crazy, but it's crazy with a purpose.

Marking the 10th anniversary of when he quit smoking, the 47-year-old San Francisco man is running 52 marathons in 52 weeks to raise $100,000 for Breathe California Golden Gate.

“I always like to have a goal and a challenge,” McQuaid said. “I’m pretty confident that it can be done.”

Raised in Dublin, Ireland, McQuaid came to the U.S. in the 1990s to pursue a career as a drummer in a rock n’ roll band. Though that particular dream was short-lived, his love of music prevailed.

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McQuaid, better known to listeners as "Irish Greg," had been a fixture on Bay Area radio as a host and producer for the past three decades until his departure from KFOG in 2016.

It was while searching for a new way to fill his time, that he stumbled onto his 52 marathon idea.

McQuaid had recently been invited to join the board of directors of Breathe California Golden Gate, a nonprofit whose mission is focused on reducing lung disease.

McQuaid believed, as an ex-smoker and asthmatic, he was in a unique position to make a point about living a healthy post-smoking life.

McQuaid began smoking at the age of 15. For Irish teens in the 80s, he said this was not uncommon.

“It's almost like a rite of passage,” McQuaid said. “My lungs took a terrible beating in Ireland.”

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He smoked a pack-a-day for the next twenty years. But in 2007, after stewing on some advice his mom gave him a few years prior, he turned in his cigarettes and lighter for a pair of running shoes.

“I replaced smoking with another addiction, which was exercise,” McQuaid said. “I (needed) to make some changes. I (needed) to do positive things.”

Shortly before quitting, McQuaid had begun to incorporate walking and jogging into his regular routine. But after making the official decision to stop smoking, he really began to hit the ground running.

Just like the radio bug bit him all those years ago, now it was the exercise bug. He entered the Ride to End AIDS and shortly after, the San Francisco Half Marathon. After surprising himself by completing the 13.1 mile trek, he even took a trip back home to run the Dublin Marathon.

The hardest, though, were the treadmill marathons he ran while at KFOG to raise money for chairities.

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“Four hours on a treadmill in a hot radio studio,” McQuaid said. “I swear that that is more daunting to me than running 52 marathons in 52 weeks.”

In addition to hosting and producing a live audience music podcast, McQuaid is a music researcher at the music startup Louder. The typical 9-to-5 schedule is a change of pace for the former radio host who now has to carve out time to train during the week.

While the fundraising aspect of the endeavor is important to McQuaid, his overarching goal is to show other smokers that they too can put down the cigarettes for good.

“It's not as hard as they think,” McQuaid said. “You can lead a healthy lifestyle.”

This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[One Dollar To Cure Cancer? Son Inspires CEO Dad To Start Ambitious Fundraiser For Cutting-Edge Treatments]]> Tue, 14 Feb 2017 19:09:02 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/cancer+a+gogo+4.jpg

Cure cancer for a dollar?

Not likely.

Cure cancer one dollar at a time?

Now you're speaking Rider McDowell's language.

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"If you want to cure cancer, it can be done," McDowell said.

The CEO of cough drop maker Pine Brothers is hoping, through his Cancer A-Go-Go fundraiser, to raise $325 million, or one dollar from every man, woman, and child in the United States, to fund research into 26 cutting-edge cancer treatments.

"There is a screaming need for this," McDowell said.

McDowell's optimism and urgency are borne out of his own family's experience. His son, Errol, has twice been diagnosed with brain tumors. The second time McDowell and his wife, Victoria, traveled with their son to Florida so he could take advantage of a promising immunotherapy treatment.

It worked.

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McDowell, however, realized that few families were in a position to take advantage of such treatments. McDowell was also shocked at how little money, in his opinion, was being spent on cancer research in general and immunotherapy in particular.

"Immunotherapy is the game-changer we have been waiting for," McDowell said.

So McDowell decided to do something to help facilitate more research. Exactly how that would happen, was Errol's idea.

"We were talking about funding our own clinical trial and Errol said, 'Well, why don't we start a grassroots fundraiser?'" McDowell said. "And instead of asking for the world, why don't we just ask for a dollar?"

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With that idea, Cancer A-Go-Go was begun.

McDowell believes that asking for just a dollar makes the fundraiser much more approachable and inclusive.

"It's easy to ask for $1 and invariably people offer $2 or more you know and we're grateful for it," McDowell said.

The McDowells are picking up the overhead costs for their venture so that every penny raised makes it to researchers. They also are promising that all the data from the studies will be made available to anyone who would like to use it.

The goal is, ultimately, a giant leap in the treatment of cancer. One, small donation at a time.

This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[Silicon Valley Company Offering Free College Degree To Every Adult Living Or Working In Its City]]> Thu, 02 Feb 2017 14:00:52 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/working+scholars+1.jpg

Adrian Ridner says when he and Ben Wilson met in college in the early 2000's and decided to start a business together, they were extremely idealistic about the positive change they would make in the world.

Perhaps, Ridner now believes, they were selling themselves short.

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"If you would have told those two kids coming out of Cal Poly that someday they would be helping everyone in their city get a college degree they would have told you, as idealistic as we were, that you were nuts," Ridner said.

That's right.

Through their decade-old company, Mountain View-based Study.com, Ridner and Wilson are offering every adult in their city the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree at no cost to the student. It is called the Working Scholars program.

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"Anyone who lives or works in Mountain View that doesn't have a bachelor's degree is allowed to enroll," Ridner said.

Ridner and Wilson started Study.com to "disrupt" the expensive, exclusive world of higher education. They offer more than one thousand video-based courses, 80 of them eligible for transferable college credit.

The whole idea of the business was to make higher education more accessible to the average individual. But when Ridner and Wilson saw companies using their product to offer cost-free college degrees to their employees, they saw an opportunity

"That's when we had our 'Ah-ha' moment," Ridner said. "If this works for a company, why not our own city?"

Mountain View has been good to them, Ridner says, so they decided to give something back.

Renukah Hunter is certainly happy they did.

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Hunter moved to Mountain View a year ago and was finding her career prospects stalled due to lack of a degree. She was not able to afford the thousands of dollars it would take to pay for courses herself, so she jumped at the chance when she learned about the Working Scholars program.

Once, that is, she made sure was no catch.

"I called them and they went into more detail and kept reassuring me because I kept asking, 'Really?'," Hunter said.

So far 80 students have signed up to take part in Working Scholars and a recent information session at Mountain View City Hall was standing room only. Those in attendance learned that through the program, courses at Study.com are free and any remaining credits towards a degree from Thomas Edison State University, would be covered by donations through the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce.

Ridner thinks the program could one day enroll as many as 10,000 students. They would be people, he believes, getting something more valuable than just the cost of tuition: they would be getting a brighter future.

"I'm the first one in my family to have a Bachelor's degree and I know what it's been able to do for me."

To learn more or apply for the program go to www.study.com/mv

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<![CDATA[Cop Breaks Into Song, Hoping to Break Barriers]]> Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:40:42 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/singing+san+mateo+cop+1.jpg

Walking the best in downtown San Mateo is unlike any other assignment in that city's police department. There are days when it is every bit as much public relations as police work.

It is why the job seems to suit 8-year-veteran Colby Darrah just fine. It's the type of police officer he's always wanted to be.

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"I want people to feel completely comfortable to ask me questions, spout off their problems and try to work with them to find a long-term solution to the problems they are having," Darrah said.

In his effort to be all those things to his community, Darrah isn't afraid to try out new techniques when he learns them. A couple of months ago, though, Darrah discovered that something old was just what he was looking for.

His love of music.

"It’s always been a part of my life," Darrah said. Growing up in Redding, his parents ran their own business and on weekends Darrah would accompany his father on work calls. "Sometimes we'd have a long drive, windows down, singing country music."

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Darrah continued singing as a teenager as a member of groups, even winning a few competitions. When his focus turned to a career in law enforcement and raising a family, however, music faded somewhat into the background. But not completely.

"Walking the beat I hum or whistle or sometimes I sing," Darrah said. "I can't help it."

What Darrah did one night in November, however, brought music back in a whole new way. He spotted a street musician, a regular in downtown San Mateo, and walked up to him.

"I asked if I could play his guitar. He said 'sure.' The rest is history," Darrah said.

That's because Darrah's partner snuck a video of the performance and placed it on social media. "It was posted. And shared. And shared. And shared," Darrah said. By now, he says, it seems as if everyone in town has seen it.

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It's become just the ice breaker Darrah says he been looking for. People smile when they see him play and Darrah feels it makes him much more approachable and less threatening.

He now plans to regularly break out into song and, perhaps, break down some barriers in the process.

"I never thought doing it that one time would have such an impact."

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<![CDATA[Vet Flies Shelter Dogs to New Homes]]> Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:27:17 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/compassion+without+borders+1.jpg

"Location, location, location."

It's an age-old maxim in the world of real estate: where a property is can mean everything in terms of value.

That turns out to be the case in the world of dog rescue, as well. At least, that's what Christi Camblor has discovered.

"Where a dog is can dictate it's fate," Camblor said.

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With that in mind, Camblor has become an expert in saving dogs simply by changing their zip codes. Over the past three years Camblor's non-profit, Compassion Without Borders, has rescued more than 1,500 chihuahuas from California's Central Valley by flying them half-way across the country.

"A tan Chihuahua in Fresno doesn't have much of a chance, but a tan Chihuahua in Minnesota gets adopted right away," Camblor, a Santa Rosa veterinarian said.

It's all about supply and demand, really.

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Chihuahuas are a very popular breed in the Central Valley and shelters there are filled to overflowing with the breed. "Way too many Chihuahuas," Camblor lamented. The chance of finding a new home for a Chihuahua or Chihuahua mix there is slim.

But through one of her board members, Camblor learned that there was a dearth of the breed in the upper Midwest. "She knew firsthand there was a shortage of small dogs," Camblor said. Animals that CWOB sends to a shelter in Minneapolis are usually adopted withing days of arrival.

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It's a model that Camblor developed years ago while volunteering at an animal shelter in Mexico City. Camblor said she was saddened by the thousands of dogs there with little chance of adoption locally.

"That's your choice to be overwhelmed or do the one thing you can do. At that place the one thing I could do was to rescue animals out of there," Camblor said.

She arranged for one of the dogs to be transported to northern California. "It all started with a single dog," Camblor said. It was the beginning of CWOB. Camblor has maintained her ties to shelters in Mexico and has since arranged for the adoption of close to 2,000 dogs from there.

The Chihuahua airlift has proven to be just as successful.

Every six weeks or so, Camblor travels with members of her team to shelters in Fresno to find dogs in need of a family. They regularly come up with between 40 and 50 dogs.

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The dogs are sent in crates in cargo holds of non-stop, commercial flights from the Bay Area or Sacramento to the Midwest. The costs are covered by donations made to CWOB.

Camblor hopes that in the future the can figure out a way to send more Chihuahua's from the Central Valley but perhaps find other destinations and other breeds that would mean more lives saved.

"I think a lot about the ones I left behind," Camblor said. "Instead of being paralyzed it makes me work harder so that I’m not having to leave animals behind."

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<![CDATA[High School Freshman With Terminal Disease Has One Wish]]> Wed, 14 Dec 2016 00:08:48 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/branham+youtube+wish+1.jpg

There have been two constants in Robyn Gutierrez's life.

One is her dream of becoming a famous actress and director.

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The other is the congenital muscular dystrophy that casts a huge cloud over that dream.

But thanks to her classmates at San Jose's Branham High School, Gutierrez might soon gain a measure of fame and validation before it's too late.

The 14-year-old has been too ill to attend school for the past two months. She spends much of every day hooked up to a breathing mask in the family's living room. Gutierrez's mother, Aarica, worries that if she doesn't see improvement soon, her daughter might not live to see the end of the school year.

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One of Gutierrez's few escapes from her struggles with muscular dystrophy is the videos she writes, directs, and acts in with her friends. She has already completed the first of eight episodes of a series she created called "Something's Fishy."

"I like being able to be someone else and it's just fun getting to be someone else for the day," Gutierrez said.

She just wishes more people could see what she has done.

"I want people to see that people who are disabled can do anything they put their mind to," Gutierrez said.

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Which is where Branham's annual Winter Wishes program comes in.

Each year for the past six years, every student at Branham gets a paper star on which they are asked to write a wish. The wish can be big or small, for themselves or someone else. The leadership fulfills many of the small wishes throughout the fall but holds on to the big ones for a rally in early December.

This year, they held on to Gutierrez's wish. She asked for more subscribers for her YouTube channel.

At the rally, held earlier this week, Gutierrez got up on stage in front of the entire school and told them about her life, the good and the bad. She shared her dream of acting and directing . They responded with a standing ovation.

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The leadership club has pledged to lead a social media campaign to gain subscribers for Gutierrez's channel.

"That's something money can't buy is making that particular wish come true," Erica Gutierrez said. "I'm really grateful that they're gonna try and make that happen for her."

Before her wish, Gutierrez had fewer than one hundred subscribers. How many would she like?

"A thousand would be great," Gutierrez said.

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<![CDATA[Dancing Middle School Principal Gets Students Day Started On Right Foot. Then Left. Then Right ...]]> Thu, 10 Nov 2016 23:44:46 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/dancing+principal+2.jpg

When Sue Goldman became principal at Gale Ranch Middle School in San Ramon four years ago, she felt like she had found her dream job.

"I landed in heaven," Goldman said. "Best school, best staff, best parents."

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Still, just because Goldman loves middle school doesn't mean everyone here does. "Let's face it, middle school is hard," Goldman said. "It can be an awful three years for kids."

And so, it was in her quest to make middle school a little less "awful" that last March Goldman decided to try something a little more creative. She connected her phone to a portable speaker, walked to the front of the school as students were being dropped off their parents began dancing.

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"They thought it was crazy. They thought I was crazy," Goldman said. "Then they started dancing with me."

They have been dancing every school day since.

It was a quirky idea, Goldman confesses, just a way to shake up the everyday routine. It has become much more, though. Ever since she started dancing, Goldman says she has noticed something happening that lasts even after the music stops and the school bell rings.

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"When kids get here in the morning and bad stuff has happened at home, in the media. And guess what? It's all OK, because we love you and we're waiting for you, and we're dancing. It's a party," Goldman said.

Goldman believes that positive start to the day carries over into the students behavior and academic performance. She is so convinced it is the best thing she has ever done as a principal, she has no plans to ever stop dancing.

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<![CDATA[Act of Kindness Puts Homeless Student's Life on Track]]> Fri, 21 Oct 2016 17:15:48 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/homeless+sjsu+student+6.jpg

Any first-year student at San Jose State University should expect to face some difficult classes along the way to a degree.

What Brandon Beebe didn't expect, though, was having to make such a difficult decision before the school year even started.

"I didn't have enough savings so it was 'Do I get a room or pay tuition?'" the 21-year-old Beebe said.

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It all goes back, Beebe said, to the death of his father earlier in the year. He had to shift his attention, and his finances, away from school and toward taking care of his family in Los Banos. Still, giving up on college was not an option.

He had made a vow to his father.

"In his last minutes, I promised him I am going to get my degree," Beebe said.

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Which explains why Beebe began the semester at San Jose State not sleeping in a dorm room, but rather in the front seat of his 1992 Honda Accord.

"It was over on San Fernando and 11th," Beebe said. "I pulled over to a curb, locked the doors, put the seat back, covered myself with a blanket and slept."

In spite of the difficulties caused by his living arrangements (trouble finding WiFi, a shower, and a parking spot where he wouldn't get ticketed) Beebe started off the school year strong.

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His journalism professor, Lisa Fernandez, remembers Beebe being a motivated student and turning in high-quality work. She noticed, however, as the term progressed Beebe was missing classes and failing to turn in assignments.

"I was wondering why someone like that hadn't turned in two or three assignments," Fernandez said.

She decided to pull Beebe aside the next time he was in class and ask him how he was doing. Beebe said the conversation didn't last long, and he didn't share his housing situation, but he was deeply touched that Fernandez cared enough to ask.

"At that point I realized I'm not invisible. Someone noticed my hard work and dedication," Beebe said.

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It's why when Beebe's Honda Accord broke down in early October and he had no choice but to drop out of school, he sent Fernandez a note filling her in on his situation and thanking her for her kindness.

Fernandez was saddened and bothered by the news. She wasn't sure what to do next, so she shared the letter with her Facebook friends to see if they had any ideas.

They sure did.

"In minutes my friends jumped in and asked what they could do to help," Fernandez said.

Many posted offers of financial help on Fernandez's page. Others offered to connect Beebe to sources of financial aid and housing assistance.

Altogether, it is enough to get Beebe back on track. He plans on re-enrolling next semester, but with enough money this time to afford a place to live.

Most importantly for Beebe, though, he'll be on track to keep his promise to his father.

"It means so much to me," Beebe said.

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: Beebe has a GoFundMe page to help pay for the materials to fix his car.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fernandez is a digital editor at NBC Bay Area.

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<![CDATA[Instead Of Writing Ticket, Code Enforcement Officer Chooses To Lend A Hand To World War II Vet, Whole Community Joins In To Help]]> Tue, 18 Oct 2016 22:58:38 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/alberts+home+makeover+7.jpg

As Petaluma's Code Enforcement Officer, Joe Garcia has the authority to write tickets when he sees a problem.

"Junk properties, trash and debris in the yard," Garcia said are examples of violations he commonly cites.

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But, it turns out, what Garcia also possesses is the compassion in certain cases not to write a ticket. It is the reason this story has such a happy ending.

"It's not in the job description, no," Garcia said, "but it's in the description of a human being."

It all started with a complaint two years ago about a yard overgrown with weeds. The home belonged to Albert Pericou, an 89-year-old World War II veteran. Garcia said Pericou was eager to correct the problem, but he found himself returning to the property because Pericou seemed unable to get a handle on the situation.

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What's more, the inside of Pericou's home was in just as much disrepair as the outside.

Instead of writing a ticket, though, Garcia decided to lend a hand. He had become fond of Pericou and wanted to help the Navy veteran.

"I'm supposed to be the bad guy. That's what everybody thinks," Garcia said. "But I don't go through life trying to make people upset."

Garcia then reached out to Jane Hamilton, Executive Director of Rebuilding Together, a non-profit helping low-income people with home repairs.

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"We work with Joe all the time and he has the biggest heart in the world," Hamilton said.

When Garcia told Hamilton about Pericou's story, she was in. There was one problem, though.

"As soon as we realized how serious the problem was (we wondered) how are we going to pay for this?" Hamilton said.

It took just one call to Home Depot, though, to get the ball rolling. The home improvement giant donated $10,000 and dispatched a team of volunteers to work on Pericou's home. They weren't alone. Dozens of other contractors, firefighters, police officers, and city employees responded to Rebuilding Together's plea for help.

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In a three-day period, they landscaped Pericou's backyard, repaired and improved both his bathrooms and fixed steps leading into his home.

As much as Pericou appreciated all the help on the house, though, he appeared to love the company even more. He once wanted to curse whichever neighbor complained about his home in the first place, but he now has a different message for that person.

"I'd go and shake his hand and congratulate him for having too many weeds because I wouldn't have had all this done."

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<![CDATA[Chevron, Richmond Neighborhood Work Together To Solve Mystery, Preserve Father's Memorial To His Son]]> Tue, 16 Aug 2016 23:36:51 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/rays+memorial+1.jpg

As president of his neighborhood council, Cesar Zepeda is something of a watchdog for Richmond's Hilltop District.

There is one spot in the neighborhood, however, that Zepeda has never had to watch. For the past 12 years, someone else had taken care of that.

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"Here are the stepping stones," Zepeda said, pointing to a photograph of a roadside memorial along San Pablo Avenue near the intersection of Richmond Avenue. Zepeda says for years someone has been maintaining the memorial, adding flowers, candles, and statues. None of his neighbors, though, ever remember seeing who that person was.

"Somebody kept coming back," Zepeda said. "It changed for the holidays. You know for Christmas, he would put a Christmas tree up. There would be lights at night. So it doesn't matter the time, day or night you drove, there was something, something different all the time."


The memorial might have remained just a neighborhood curiosity except Chevron, which had graciously allowed the memorial to exist on property it owned, announced plans to build on the site.

The memorial would have to go.

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After all those years, all that work, Zepeda couldn't bear to think of the memorial being destroyed.

"There was love that was oozing out of the decoration," Zepeda said. "You can tell this wasn't just any memorial."

But who did it belong to? Who had been sneaking in, in the middle of the night, night after night? Zepeda asked around, but no one knew. He went to Chevron who agreed to leave a note asking whoever the caretaker was, to come forward.

"I just ignored it," Raymond Olson said. It was he who had been keeping up the memorial for the past dozen years. "I knew what was coming. Or at least I think I did."

Olson's son, also named Raymond, was killed by a drunk driver on the spot in 2003 at the age of 22. "It's like a whole dimension of pain that you don't think can exist," Olson said.

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He poured his grief into the memorial. He would come in the middle of the night because he knew it was one someone else's property and he didn't want to draw attention to himself. Still, he knew that one day it would have to be taken down.

He was only partially right. When Olson's sister finally called Chevron she discovered that Zepeda had asked the company to build a permanent memorial in a nearby park to replace the makeshift one.

"It's more than I ever could have dreamed of," Olson said.

Olson said he had been carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders since his son died. He believed that one day, when both he and the memorial were gone, his son would be forgotten.

That burden had suddenly been lifted.

"I just don't have the words to thank you all," Olson said at a dedication ceremony last Saturday for the new memorial: an iron bench and plaque with the younger Raymond Olson's pictures.

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It just felt it was the right thing to do. I can't call it anything else. It was the right thing," Zepeda, who was also at the dedication said.

Olson says without the memorial to worry about, he feels he can start to live a life that was put on hold 12 years ago. He says he'll need a little time to think about what that life will be like.

He does know, however, where he will be sitting while figuring it out.

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<![CDATA[20 Years After Championship Ends In Tie, High School Quarterback Gets Teams Back Together To Seek Redemption, Settle Score]]> Tue, 02 Aug 2016 22:57:03 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/harbor+slv+rematch+6.jpg

Wali Razaqi is a movie producer and actor with dozens of films and documentary projects on his resume.

It means he knows a good story when he sees one.

He also knows a good story when he has lived one.

Razaqi is using his own experience as a quarterback for Santa Cruz's Harbor High School in 1996, and a championship game rematch he organized this year, as the basis for a pilot to a docu-series called "Almost Champions."

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The Harbor Pirates never had much of a tradition of football. "We had a reputation," Razaqi said. "I wouldn't say it was for good football."

It's why, Razaqi said, the city, the league, and the team's rivals were stunned in 1996 when the Pirates finished the season undefeated. In the championship game, they faced off against their bigger, stronger rival, the San Lorenzo Valley Cougars.

"David and Goliath," Razaqi said. "Physically it's David and Goliath, with the reputations David and Goliath."

The day of the championship game it rained, leaving the field a sloppy, muddy mess and making it difficult for either team to advance or hold on to the football.

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The clock ran out in the 4th quarter with the score tied 14-14.

There were, however, no provisions in the rules at the time in high school football for overtime. The game would go into the record books as a tie and the teams would be crowned co-champions. The referee's, though, offered to stay and officiate if the teams wanted to play until there was a winner. For bragging rights.

They turned to the Harbor coach to see if his team wanted to continue. He turned to Razaqi.

"I just looked at my coach and I, just really subtle, I said, coach, I'm done let's take the tie. I'm good, let's take it. You know we're champions and I just walked away," Razaqi said.

It was a decision Razaqi had 5 seconds to make and has had twenty years to live with.

San Lorenzo Valley players never miss a chance to call him out for quitting on his team. "We still razz him for it," said Johnny Agnone, who played in the championship game.

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Razaqi says it never really bugged him too much until a Facebook post two years ago brought up the game and it's controversial outcome once again. Razaqi looked back as a grown man and didn't really like what he saw his younger self do.

"It bothered me enough to where I wrote a letter to my teammates. I said that I'm not ashamed of quitting, I'm ashamed of not asking you guys or looking to you and saying I'm scared, I don't want to do this," Razaqi said.

So he decided to do something, if not to change history, but to have a second crack at it.

Razaqi began recruiting Harbor and SLV players to take part in a rematch. Bragging rights would be established and Razaqi could be relieved of his burden.

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"We certainly do things that aren't in our character sometimes," Razaqi said. "How often do we get to maybe correct it or maybe do it again?"

So, this past Saturday on the Cougars' home field in Scotts Valley 40 members of both teams gathered to play one, last game. It wasn't the prettiest of games, though not for lack of effort or intensity.

The outcome after four quarters? The same. A tie. 0-0.

This time, however, there was no doubt that overtime would be played.

San Lorenzo Valley scored a touchdown on their first set of downs and Harbor failed to match. The Cougars won the game 6-0.

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Even though the rematch ended in a loss, Razaqi had no regrets. Whatever demons there were are gone, replaced with warm memories of all the old friendships and rivalries that had been rekindled.

"I think we did something good out here."

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<![CDATA[San Mateo Woman Builds Tiny Home For Homeless Friend]]> Fri, 05 Aug 2016 17:04:44 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/a+home+for+steve+update+3.jpg

Lisa Kolvites was tired of crying during her drive home.

Ever since her friend, Steve Strackbein, became homeless a few years ago, Kolvites has been driving weekly from her home in San Mateo to San Francisco to check up on him and bring him some food.

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On the drive home, Kolvites cries.

"I go to visit him and all he has, everything he owns, is in a shopping cart and it's just a bunch of junk. I can't imagine living like that. I just can't," Kolvites said.

The 46-year-old Strackbein normally spends the night in a temporary shelter he constructs for himself out of cardboard, scraps of wood, and a tarp.

Kolvites says she wanted nothing more than to help Strackbein find a home.

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So she decided to give him one. Once she built it, that is.

In November, Kolvites began construction a tiny home on wheels in the driveway of her San Mateo home. Having very little experience in construction the work went slowly, Kolvites often learning how to do things through trial and error. As frustrated as she got, though, there was no thought of giving up. "I'm committed to seeing this through," said Kolvites.

This week, Kolvites did just that.

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After working on the home for ten months, Kolivtes wheeled the home onto a trailer and drove it to San Francisco to give to Strackbein.

The four walls and a locking door will, hopefully, give Strackbein a bit of security and privacy he has not had for years. The wheels mean he can move it, and all his belongings, from place to place if police or property owners say he has overstayed his welcome.

"I'm speechless," Strackbein said after sitting in his new home for the first time. "It's going to take a while to sink in."

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Kolvites says the home ended up meaning as much to her as she believes it will Strackbein.

"I just hope someone would do the same for me," Kolvites said.

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<![CDATA[San Francisco Attorney Spends Years Searching For Sea Captain Who Saved Her Family]]> Fri, 02 Sep 2016 17:47:56 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/saviors+at+sea+4.jpg

There have probably been guest lecturers in World History class at Pleasant Hill's Acalanes High School who have failed, in the past, to captivate their young audience.

But not this week.

Not with Lauren Vuong speaking.

"You can imagine, as a child, seeing someone bleed out to death is quite and impression," is how Vuong began her presentation in the school library on Wednesday. "It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me. Until I got on the boat to escape Vietnam."

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Vuong, a 43-year-old San Francisco attorney, was at the school to share the story of her family's experience following the Vietnam War.

Vuong's parents, wealthy landowners in the south, faced terrible persecution under communist rule. It was so bad they decided the best, though incredibly dangerous, choice for their family was to flee. It was a decision that, from the mid-1970's to the early 1980's, hundreds of thousands of others made as well. They were called "boat people." A large percentage of them died in the attempt.

Even knowing the odds, Vuong's family of five crowded onto a small boat with 57 other refugees and slipped out to sea. Vuong was seven-years-old.

"It was almost like a suicidal mission. We said we got to leave at a time when there's less coast guard. What time is that? That's the monsoon season," Vuong said.

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Ten days they were at sea, suffering storm after story, eventually finding themselves low on food, fuel, and water. Making landfall seemed unlikely. Although they were adrift in a major shipping lane, no ships stopped to help.

"It's recorded in news that 120 ships passed by that route that timeframe," Vuong said. "Let's say a third of them saw us. That would still be 40 ships and not one of them stopped.

But early one morning, one did. A liquefied natural gas tanker called Virgo did stop. The crew rescued Vuong and all 61 other refugees, eventually transferring them to a United States Naval vessel.

The captain of the Virgo, whose name Vuong's family never learned, had given her family the opportunity for a fresh start in America. Vuong's family eventually settled in San Jose. She graduated from UC Berkeley and got a law degree.

She never stopped thinking about what that captain had done for her.

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"I would not have this opportunity," Vuong said, "but for one man who said, 'Stop, save them.'"

"Vuong vowed to find that man. She spent more than a decade tracking down shipping reports, union rolls, and ships' logs. Eventually, she tracked down a name and a phone number of a man who had captained the Virgo around the time that Vuong's family was rescued.

She called him.

I just said the one thing that I had wanted to say all of those years: I think you were the man that saved my family and I don't want anything more than to say thank you," Vuong said.

She got to do more than that, though. That phone call lead to an emotional reunion at the captain's home in Florida. It also lead to Vuong's realization that his story, along with the other seamen who came to refugees aid during that time, needed to be shared.

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She has been recording her journey and is currently raising money so can complete a documentary. Vuong, however, doesn't want the film to be about her. She wants it to be about the ones she considers the real heroes.

"This little chapter, untold, is so beautiful and so healing in that it shows people coming together and helping each other with no political gains, no medal to be had, no treaty to sign. It's just the compassion of the human spirit."

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<![CDATA[Surprise! 80 South Bay Third-Graders Gifted with New Bikes]]> Tue, 20 Dec 2016 08:32:33 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/NewBikes1.JPG

Bill Pollakov says times were so tough growing up he didn't get his first bicycle until he was 16-years-old.

He says it changed his life.

Bill rode it to play tennis, which landed him a scholarship, which launched him into a successful business career.

He and his wife, Debbie, now spend all their time and energy giving that same gift of freedom and hope to thousands of children each year through their Southern California-based non-profit, Bikes For Kids Foundation. 

And they love doing it in dramatic fashion.

On Monday, they showed up at Washington Elementary School in San Jose telling the third graders they had three bicycles to award to the winners of an essay contest.

Once those bikes were given out, though, they surprised all 80 third-graders with bicycles of their own.

Bill and Debbie have been giving away bicycles for 14 years and this year gifted their 40,000th bike. All of the donations to their foundation are used to buy bikes and helmets. These bikes were paid for (and assembled) by employees of Pacific Advisors.

Photo Credit: NBC Bay Area/Garvin Thomas]]>
<![CDATA[Nonprofit Using Surplus Hair To Help Clean Up Oil Spills]]> Sun, 18 Dec 2016 18:24:59 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/matter+of+trust+1.jpg

Spend enough time in San Francisco and you begin to think there's nothing that could happen on the streets of this famously unconventional city that could surprise you.

Then a tractor-trailer pulls up on Howard Street and begins to unload box after box of, well, we will allow the woman who was waiting for the delivery to fill you in.

"It's hair," said Lisa Gautier, founder and president of the non-profit Matter of Trust. "And fur. And fleece."

20,000 pounds of hair, fur, and fleece, to be exact.

At this brand new facility, the hair will be felted into mats that are exceptionally good at soaking up oil, particularly when it has spilled into waterways. Gautier says it is a concept that, although new to most people, is one they quickly grasp.

"Every age gets it," Gautier said. "The fact your hair collects oil is a basic one everyone understands."

Matter Of Trust got into the hair mat game close to ten years ago, but the non-profit has been around twice as long as that.

They have long specialized in connecting people who have too much of one resource, with those who could make good use of it so it doesn't go to waste.

The ever-growing resource of hair was a perfect fit for the organization. The boxes of hair delivered on this day have been collected from salons, barber shops and pet groomers from all over the country.

The whole idea of hair mats began with a hairdresser in Alabama named Phil McCrory. He, however, was never able to bring the idea of using them for oil cleanup into the mainstream. This is where Gautier, and Matter Of Trust, came in.

"It was the first time I think I realized that not all good ideas are heard," Gautier said.

Matter of Trust began collecting the hair from salons across the country and assembling the mats in factories, most recently in New Mexico.

They have been able to deploy the mats to some of the worst oil spills in the country including the Cosco Busan spill in San Francisco Bay in 2007 and the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

With this new facility in San Francisco, however, Gautier is thinking small rather than big. She believes that turning hair into mats could be a great cottage industry with small, light-industrial facilities like this one will soon be in cities all over the country.

"We think this could be a model," Gautier said.

She envisions a modern day "paper route" where young people pick up hair from salons and groomers all over the city and bring it to a place to be felted. The city would then have a ready supply of mats to respond to spills of all kinds on short notice. The localities would not only benefit from cleaner water but from the good-paying, light-industrial jobs that would be provided.

<![CDATA[Out Of North Bay Parents' Grief, Help For Thousands Of "Socially Isolated" Teens]]> Wed, 30 Nov 2016 14:09:34 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/beyond+differences+4.jpg

It is out of the darkest day of Laura Talmus' life that a brighter future might be in store for tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands middle school students across the country.

That number is just how many have been touched through at least one of the programs organized by the North Bay-based non-profit, Beyond Differences.

"Each year we have grown and doubled and doubled and doubled in size," said Talmus, who founded the group six years ago with her husband, Ace Smith.

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The dark time for Talmus and Smith that was at the root of Beyond Differences was the sudden death at the age of 15 of their daughter, Lili.

Lili was born with a cranial facial disorder, Apert Syndrome, that left her looking different than her peers but otherwise was a completely typical young girl. Talmus believes, however, Lili's appearance may have played a role in her becoming socially isolated when she entered middle school.

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Talmus said she would regularly get calls from her daughter in the middle of the school day. "It used to break my heart," Talmus said. After finishing her lunch, Lili would call her mother from the girls' bathroom crying, wondering how she would spend the rest of the time without anyone to sit with.

Talmus and Smith eventually un-enrolled Lili from her school and began to home school her. Talmus said her daughter began to thrive and started to attend a private high school in the Midwest before her untimely death. At Lili's funeral, some of her writings from her difficult time in middle school were read. Upon hearing them, a group of Lili's peers from middle school approached Talmus.

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The told her had they known of Lili's struggles, they would have acted differently toward her. They told Talmus they wanted to do something to honor Lili's memory.

It was the beginning of Beyond Differences.

Talmus and the group of then-high school students began leading assemblies at middle schools spreading their message of kindness and inclusion. Another one of Beyond Differences' initiatives, "No One Eats Alone," has spread like wildfire across the country. Held every February, more than 1,000 schools participated across the country involving half a million students.

As the organization has grown, however, Talmus says the focus has shifted away from Lili. She's OK with that. Talmus says Beyond Differences was never intended to be solely a memorial to her daughter. It was meant to be a dynamic force for good in the world. Talmus thinks they are off to a good start.

"These children are going to grow up and be parents in the next fifteen years. My money is on them."

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<![CDATA[Couple Recounts Battling Valley Fire to Save Neighborhood]]> Thu, 15 Sep 2016 13:43:16 -0700 http://media.nbcbayarea.com/images/213*120/valley+fire+heroes+2.jpg

Rain -- just even a little of it.

What John and Teri Gormley wouldn't have given for a little rain on that day in September. A day they stood at Lake County's Cobb Mountain, convinced the Valley Fire was in the process of consuming their home not more than a mile away.

But the Gormleys were able to keep the fire at bay, saving their residence and 28 of their neighbors' homes in the process.

How the Gormleys were able to keep the fire from encroaching their neighborhood began earlier in the day when John, a current firefighter, and Teri, a retired firefighter, heard about (what was at the time) small blaze burning near a friend's ranch and headed over to help.

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"He said 'Do what you can to save my house. I've got a grass rig,'" John said.

The grass rig, a pickup truck with a water tank and pump, would eventually prove critical to the Gormleys.

What they were facing at their friend's house was no big deal for a couple with 44 years combined firefighting experience.


"Wasn't concerned about it at all," John said. "We were both in our T-shirts and shorts, and I wasn't worried."

That was until John looked back toward his house.

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"The whole hillside was on fire," John said.

John and Teri jumped in the grass rig and raced home. Once there, they scrambled to keep the fire from spreading to the trees behind their home.

But no matter how hard they worked, the Gormleys could not slow down the flames.

"At some point I am looking around and now I'm getting scared," John said. "If this fire comes around this house, there's no way out. You're going to burn to death."

Teri said John is rarely scared of anything.

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"Nothing scares him. I mean really, nothing scares him," Teri said. "He's really a very solid person -- very brave, very together. And to see him look scrambled and panicked just terrified me."

John eventually yelled to Teri that it was time to get out from fighting the massive blaze.

"Out of my 27 years as a firefighter and being on a lot of both wildland fires and structure fires, and lot of other calls where you get very nervous or fear for your life, or your crew's life," John said. "Hands down this was the scariest day, scariest time, scariest fire of my life."

They abandoned the fight and retreated to a safe space, a parking lot less than a mile from their home. After catching their breath, and shedding a few tears, John decided who couldn't give up on the home he built with his own hands twenty years earlier.

"He said I'm not a quitter," Teri said of John. "I'm going back. Are you with me?"

The couple returned to their home, finding the structure still there and just enough of their backyard burned to give them a safe space.

The Gormleys would spend the next 72 hours keeping the fire at bay.

Without any help, or any contact from the outside world, the Gormleys patrolled their neighborhood in the grass rig using water from their creek to put out spot fires where they found them.

If just one of their neighbors' house burned, they might lose all of them.

"It was very eerie, just dark. You felt like you were the last two people on Earth," John said. "You felt like the world ended and you were the last two people."

Today, their neighborhood still exists -- a stark contrast to so many around them.

"You know you work together. You work side-by-side and one's not going to give up just because you now the other one does," Teri said. "You just pull yourselves together and it was definitely teamwork. We could not have done this without each other. There was just no way."

Neighbors are back in their homes without a shred of doubt who is responsible.

"Unbelievable," neighbor Laura Patrick said of the Gormley's saving their neighborhood. "It's the most selfless thing ever. We can never thank them enough."

John and Teri said the whole experience has brought them closer together, each saying they could not have had a better partner during such a difficult time.

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