Merced County Times Newspaper
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County leaders honor hard work of volunteers in local community

Also, top staffers earn well-deserved service pins


The CEO of Merced County government, Raul Lomeli Mendez, described Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors as a special one filled with a “spirit of appreciation.”

Normally these regular meetings of county leaders are ones marked by sobering discussion and decision-making, but this week much of the time was taken up to honor the hard work and efforts of some top volunteers in the region.

It was part of 48th annual National Volunteer Week that has highlighted the theme of “Celebrate Service.” Board members say it’s a good time to remind local residents about the importance of volunteering and making volunteer service a regular part of their lives.

Earlier this year, officials encouraged members of the community to nominate volunteers who are an inspiration to all. Later, an advisory committee helped select the ones to receive a county recognition.

Ten were chosen. Here they are:

• Jose Gonzalez — Superintendent of the Planada Elementary School District

Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza said there’s nobody in the community of Planada who doesn’t like Mr. Gonzalez. The educator was commended for going above and beyond the call of duty during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Among many things, Gonzalez helped to create gathering centers at the schools in this small community and led efforts to deliver food boxes and other supplies to families. He also collaborated with agencies to establish vaccine clinics at the school sites.

• Ye Thao — Merced Lao Family

Thao is described as an outstanding resident who has volunteered more than 1,000 unpaid hours over the past year to assist the community, especially vulnerable individuals. Thao works with the Merced Lao Family organization and provides social services for Hmong, Lao and Mien community members. He also works with Foster Farms, the Methodist Church and the USDA to distribute food boxes to food insecure individuals. Thao added to his volunteer efforts in 2021, putting time in at more than 20 covid vaccination clinics.

• Olivia Olson — Kohl’s Associates in Action.

Olson’s involvement with her work’s Associates in Action program includes working with local nonprofits who are in need of volunteers. She works with colleagues to bring these volunteers to onsite locations to immediately assist actions to benefit the overall community. These nonprofits include the D Street Homeless Shelter, the Boys & Girls Club, Merced County Food Bank, the city school district, churches and many more community groups. Kohl’s has asked Olson to meet with other organizers at 16 different stores in the Central Valley so that they can learn how to effectively give back to their communities.

• United Methodist Church Food Pantry — Food distribution

Over the past year, this church pantry has served more than 20,000 family meals and 1,200 homeless individuals. Food pantry volunteers have distributed 1.5 million pounds of food, all while sorting, stacking, preparing and purchasing more when needed.

“The Food Pantry is much more than food,” said one of the members, “it’s an extension of our love for the community.”

• Brad Kessler — Old Town Atwater

Supervisor Daron McDaniel describes Kessler as a “longstanding, initiative-taking volunteer with drive and ability to help and support other organizations and civic groups,” and an “excellent motivator to get everybody involved.”

Kessler created a scholarship fund for FFA students, and led the charge of the Old Town Atwater group to bring an ice skating rink to the downtown, along with many sponsors. He also helped ensure 8,000 middle school students received a free ticket to skate.

• Castle Veterans Organization — Veterans Memorial Building

This nonprofit group and its members stepped up to preserve the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Atwater and keep its doors open for veterans and other community groups during a difficult time. The facility is now available to all veterans organizations.

• Robert Ramirez — Winton Jr. Giants

Ramirez is described as a “man of the community” who has helped with Winton recreation programs for well over a decade, and coaches several youth sports teams every year. He also helps with the Winton Spring Festival. Ramirez was. instrumental in helping to start up a flag football league in town.

• Frank Marques — Hilmar High School / Valley Children’s Hospital.

Marques teaches an activities class at Hilmar High, and is the varsity football coach. He is described as someone who has spend “endless hours teaching students about the importance of volunteerism and giving back to the community.” Over the past six years, he has led an effort with all schools in Hilmar to raise more than $150,000 for Valley Children’s Hospital.

• Jeri Blevins — Merced County / United Way

Blevins went into action during the COVID-19 pandemic helping local vaccination efforts in the Los Banos area. She could be found literally in the middle of almond orchards helping farmworkers get their shots, or directing foot traffic outside the mass clinic at the fairgrounds — rain or shine.

• Bethel Community Church — Food distribution

This church is instrumental in helping homeless and other struggling residents in the Los Banos community. Early during the pandemic, the church secured federal funding for a delivery van to get food to homebound people in need. The church also held weekly drive-thru food events for residents, and handed out “to-go bags” for those living off the streets. The church also partnered with Walmart and Grocery Outlet to repurpose excess food.

Merced County leaders on Tuesday also honored county government staff members with service pins for exception service and time dedicated to the community.

Here are the names of those who were awarded.

• Robert Gamble Jr, Assessor — 15 Years of Service

• Sabrina Parker, Behavioral Health and Recovery Services — 20 Years of Service

•  Elwyn Gray, Planning — 30 Years of Service

• Monica Gallegos, Retirement — 15 Years of Service

• Martha Espinoza, Human Services Agency — 20 Years of Service

• Nora Kisling, Human Services Agency — 15 Years of Service

• Feliza Gray, Human Services Agency — 20 Years of Service

• Parmjit Sahota, Public Health — 20 Years of Service

•  Sheri Villagrana, Retirement — 15 Years of Service

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