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Red Cross honors ‘Real Heroes’ from across the North Coast

Akash Kalia was 21 and a business student at the University of Oregon when he got a call from his parents telling him they were filing for bankruptcy.

The Days Inn motel they’d been running on Santa Rosa Avenue wasn’t doing well.

It was 2012, in the middle of the Great Recession, and the Kalias, like many other Americans, were struggling to make ends meet.

Immediately, Kalia packed up his apartment, dropped out of his classes and headed home to help save the family business. He ditched the franchise, renamed it the Palms Inn and in 2015 converted the 104-room building into single-occupancy housing for homeless people and military veterans.

Kalia was one of more than a dozen people honored by the California Northwest chapter of the American Red Cross at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek in Santa Rosa on Thursday as “Real Heroes.”

“Really what we wanted to do here was highlight heroes of the local communities,” said Jeff Baumgartner, executive director of the California Northwest chapter. “In Sonoma County, there are so many nonprofits to choose from and so many ways to get involved and volunteer, it’s a way for us to inspire our community and get them involved.”

The awards have been given out since 2003, Baumgartner said, and serve to recognize community members who represent the core values of the Red Cross: care, compassion and commitment.

Among the 15 people honored, nine were from Sonoma County.

They included:

Alden Olmsted: The Santa Rosa man was nominated for his efforts to complete the Across California hiking trail, which will stretch more than 300 miles from Mendocino to Lake Tahoe when completed.

Jeff Gilman: The longtime executive director of the Redwood Gospel Mission, Jeff Gilman was honored for his work producing the mission’s annual Thanksgiving banquet, which served more than 5,000 people in 2016.

Aaron Pendergraft: He was honored for his dramatic rescue of a Lake County family at Goat Rock Beach in February 2016 after they were swept into the sea by a wave. Pendergraft was on duty at the beach as a State Parks lifeguard and was able to reach the family and hold onto them in the surf while they waited to be pulled from the water by a paramedic aboard the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office helicopter.

“This was a sweet one, and it worked out because everyone survived,” Pendergraft said.

“Doing this job, so many times you’re not there when it happens, and it can be so heartbreaking.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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