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Matthew Nalywaiko had what doctors told him was a "good case of dyslexia." Growing up, he struggled to read and write.

"It weighed me down," he said. "I thought, 'Am I going to be able to support a family? Am I ever going to do something in life that makes a difference?' "

Now 31 and a videographer, Nalywaiko is making a difference. The Santa Rosa resident launched a nonprofit agency that assists single moms and military wives with help around the house, an effort that has expanded into charity work in Haiti.

Nalywaiko was one of 10 people honored Thursday in Rohnert Park at the annual Real Heroes Breakfast put on by the American Red Cross of Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. The awards were given in categories ranging from law enforcement to the environment.

"Stories like Matthew's renew my hope in the human race," said Siri Nelson, a Sutter hospital administrator who presented Nalywaiko's award.

During a trip to India, Nalywaiko came upon a mural inscribed with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

"It started me on a journey to where I am today," he said.

His nonprofit, "Serve a Little," has given away several cars to single moms and currently is working on raising $80,000 for a village school in Haiti.

More than 400 people attended the event at the DoubleTree Hotel, a fundraiser.

"We wanted to do something that isn't just a fundraiser, but that celebrates the community we serve," said Tim Miller, the CEO of the chapter. Miller said last year's heroes breakfast raised more than $130,000.

Dr. Paula Dhanda of Kelseyville, who provides medical care to women in impoverished countries, was a special inspiration to one particular person in the audience -- her 12-year-old daughter. Jasmine Dhanda recently accompanied her mother on a medical mission to Nepal.

"There's so many deaths in the world, and she helps prevent them," said Jasmine. "Nobody told her she had to, but her dad helped people and now she helps people."

Army Spc. Stefan LeRoy received a standing ovation during the presentation of his award. LeRoy, a 21-year-old Maria Carrillo grad, stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) during his deployment in Afghanistan last year. He suffered multiple injuries, including the partial loss of both of his legs.

"Just because life's a little difficult, you can't stop," LeRoy said in a Red Cross video shown prior to his award. "You have to keep going."

Other recipients at Thursday's breakfast included:

Mark Anello, a Bodega Bay fisherman who encountered a 40-foot gray whale trapped in fishing nets. He and his two-man crew worked for 90 minutes to free the whale, which they later discovered had been the subject of multiple attempted rescues.

CHP Officer Adam Garcia, who responded to a call that a car had gone off the road between Lower Lake and Hidden Valley. He arrived to find two people trapped inside a burning vehicle. He pulled both to safety, saving their lives.

Dr. Elaine Leeder, Sonoma State University Dean of Social Sciences, who began offering sociology classes to prison inmates, helping them understand their circumstances and providing healing opportunities.

Trevor Kasimoff, 23, who was watching TV when he realized the neighboring apartment building was ablaze. He ran to the scene and caught two small children who were dropped into his arms from the second floor. Locating a ladder, he assisted more people to safety.

Austin Morris, a Ukiah High senior who was on a boat off Vancouver tracking debris from the Japanese tsunami when a crew member fell overboard. In danger of being swept overboard himself, Morris rescued the crew member.

Mary Munat of Windsor, who is known to many as "Green Mary." She began a business called Green Mary Zero Waste Events devoted to recycling, composting and reusing trash found at large events.

State Park Officer/Lifeguard Tim Murphy of Bodega Bay who rescued three people, including an 11-year-old boy, from a riptide at Wright's Beach in March 2012.

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or Melody.Karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.

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