Hometown Holiday Heroes
Armondo Apodaca — Visalia’s 2017 Hometown Holiday Hero
When asked why Armondo Apodaca is Visalia’s hero, Deanna Saldana of Habitat for Humanity says, “As someone who is in community outreach for my job, if I can achieve half of what he’s done as a person who’s given back to the community, I will feel very accomplished.”
Born in Bakersfield in 1947, Armondo laughingly shares that one teacher couldn’t say his last name and called him “Avocado” for a whole year. “Raised poor, I’ve worked all my life, starting at the age of 5,” Armondo says. “We’d work the crops and go to school. Then, in the third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Waller, showed me the library and said, ‘This is where you’ll learn.’ I spent most of my free time in the library after that. I was very literate and wanted to succeed.”
He soon found out that racism was going to be an issue in his early career. At 15, Armondo tried to get a job at a restaurant and was told they “don’t hire Mexicans.” Undaunted, he began working in eateries around town. It’s no coincidence that one day he would be the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I helped them pull out of a tough time,” he says. “We went from 10 to 371 members. But in ‘Little Oakie Bakersfield,’ I saw so much degradation and drugs. I didn’t want that for my life. I had no need of help—I picked myself up by my bootstraps. But I also saw there were those who could not.”
In 1971, he heard that a man was opening The Depot in Visalia. He applied, got the job and moved north. His years there as general manager taught him how to run a corporation. Ultimately, he worked in hospitality for 44 years.
His desire to help people with a “hand up, not out” led him to nonprofit organizations, using his marketing and people skills to raise money. The Visalia Emergency Aid Council, Visalia Rescue Mission, United Way, Arts Visalia, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, several Chambers, the Creative Center Foundation and the Workforce Investment Board of Tulare County are just some of the organizations that have benefited from Armondo’s abilities and generosity of time and energy. He has served on scores of boards and committees.
For his numerous contributions, he’s been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from Habitat for Humanity, Intercontinental Hotel Groups Award for Community Service, Visalia Chamber of Commerce Chairman’s Award by Nancy Lockwood, Certificate of Appreciation by Kiwanis International, President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2009, Ambassador of the Month many times for Visalia Chamber and the Hispanic Chamber, and he’s been nominated several times for Man of the Year by the Visalia Chamber.
Armondo continues to live in the house he’s had for 40 years. He retired this year, so now he volunteers, teaches etiquette classes through the school district and county, serves on several boards—whatever is needed. “I continue to try to help improve my community. And I still spend time at the library.”
Jim Morris – Exeter’s 2017 Hometown Holiday Hero
You’ll know that Jim Morris has had a huge impact on his hometown when you take a walk through Exeter and see his face on the mural entitled “Freedom Fighters.” Dedicated to all veterans, Jim crouches with several others in front of a huge B-17—he’s the tall guy on the right.
Jim was born James Junior Morris on February 18, 1923, on the family farm in Exeter. He’s lived all his life in Exeter except his time in the military, and both his parents and grandparents owned land and farmed there. Jim graduated from Exeter High School in 1941 and went to Cal Poly for one semester before enlisting in the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force.
Jim was at a livestock show in Los Angeles when he heard about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I drove back home that day,” Jim recalls. “It took me 10 hours.” He was called into duty and made a staff sergeant gunner on a B-17.
Jim recalls being debriefed after each mission, and he remembers one quite clearly. “When you were debriefed, you had to tell them everything you saw from the air. One plane was hit by a German fighter plane and we watched as it went down, to see if anyone got out. Some did get out, but not the tail gunner. Thought he was lost. But there were boxes of ammunition around him that protected him. The plane had hit the ground at an angle against a tree. He wasn’t hurt! The Yugoslav Partisans rescued him. It really was a miracle. That plane was cut in two.” Jim came back to his unit in Italy three days later and that tail gunner was there.
Ultimately, Jim served in 52 missions “and I lived through it.” Back in the states, Jim served the rest of his time in Army bases in Laredo, Texas, and March Field in Riverside, teaching aerial gunnery.
Jim left the military in 1945 and two years later married Margaret Zeser. Together they raised three children, Michael, Tim, and Michelle (LeClerc). His dad needed help, so Jim went back to ranching with him. He started the Broken Arrow saddle shop on Mooney in 1949, and he introduced the first Wrangler jeans to the Central Valley. He left the shop and was a buyer of peaches and grapes for a cannery. He was a member of the Farm Bureau and the American Quarterhorse Association, and he raised and sold horses. He also co-wrote a book on thoroughbreds called “The Driftwood Legacy.” The third edition is still in print.
Margaret passed away in 1994, after 47 years of marriage. An interesting tidbit: Jim's brother Chuck is married to Margaret’s youngest sister, Dolores.
“Jim Morris has been a fixture in Exeter as long as I can remember,” says Robyn Stearns, former mayor of Exeter and lifelong resident. “He’s what I consider the salt of the earth.”
Maureen "Mo” Ann Basham
2017 Three Rivers' Hometown Holiday Hero
Maureen, or “Mo,” graduated from Corcoran High in 1975, received a bachelor’s degree in history from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1980 and earned a master’s degree in business from National University in 1988, all with honors.
Joining the U.S. Marine Corps in February 1981, she was commissioned a second lieutenant in April. She served initial tours of duty as an Air Traffic Control Officer in North Carolina, Okinawa and California. After her promotion to captain in 1986, Mo decided to make the Corps her career. She served most of her remaining years on active duty as an adjutant/staff secretary—an executive assistant to the commanding officer. She finished her career as a Marine at 29 Palms as director of the manpower division, and retired on March 1, 2001 as a lieutenant colonel, having served 20 years and 22 days on active duty.
Mo’s husband Bob’s new job, information technology officer for Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, brought her back to the Central Valley. Mo loved Three Rivers and wanted to raise her boys, ages 10 and 12 at the time, in a small community with a small-town school. The Bashams have lived in Three Rivers ever since.
Mo is filled with a sense of duty, commitment, community and dedication. Having been a Marine, it just comes naturally for her. If there is a need and she can help, she does.
For the Three Rivers Women’s Club, Mo was part of the crew for “The Thingerie,” the club’s thrift shop that provides locals with affordable clothing, home décor, housewares and more to raise money to further help the community. She suggested that she take photos of items for sale and post them online in the local Facebook Trading Post, hoping to increase revenue. The venture, now in its fifth year, turned out to be quite successful.
Mo chairs the Three Rivers Senior League’s Annual Holiday Bazaar fundraiser. Proceeds help support club programs, services and activities, including “Comfort for Kids,” in which club volunteers make between 1,000 and 2,000 quilts for patients at Valley Children’s Hospital. Using social media, crafting websites, an aggressive ad campaign and finding donations outside of Three Rivers, Mo has increased the number of participating vendors, added a silent auction, and revamped the hourly raffle, resulting in a $2,000 increase in funds raised each year for the bazaar. Additionally, they support many local classes and gatherings.
Maureen’s service to her community doesn’t stop there. She has served for the last several years on the board of directors for the Three Rivers Veterans Memorial Building. And when there is a call to help a local family in need, Maureen can always be counted on to cook meals and deliver them to families.
“Mo’s a true patriot and lover of community,” says Michelle Lafferty of Lafferty Cleaning Services. “She simply loves to give back.”
Mo loves the small-town culture that is prevalent throughout Three Rivers. “So many of the residents are eager and willing to help when the call goes out,” she says. “I just hope that the true sense of community that exists here now will continue with future generations.”
Bryan Patterson– Dinuba’s 2017 Hometown Holiday Hero
Bryan Patterson would never consider himself a hero, but his active life and personal devotion to family, his job, friends and community reflect a man who is committed to making his hometown a welcoming, safe and friendly place to live. Father to six children—five girls and one boy, ranging from 6 to 19 years old —he and his wife, Crystal, have roots in this community dating back three generations.
More than 19 years ago, Bryan joined the team of Environment Control, a Visalia-based company, where he quickly demonstrated his take-control attitude, genuine customer service skills and business acumen matched by few in the industry. He immediately stepped into a leadership role and today is a seasoned and successful sales/operations manager. His loyalty to the company and its employees is evidenced by his patience in teaching each one and providing the tools for their success within the company structure—and in life.
“His dedication and commitment to our customers and employees has made him a vital part of the success of the business today,” says Tim Hofer, owner of Environment Control.
Random, selfless acts of kindness define his true nature and the heart he brings to his community. When Bryan was 23, he provided comfort and care for Alex, an elderly widower who lived next door to Bryan’s grandparents. He routinely checked in on him, tended his lawn, made home repairs and took him to scheduled cancer treatments.
After Alex’s passing, Bryan himself was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. After extensive treatment, he beat cancer and today is cancer free.
More recently, Bryan devoted his time and attention to an elderly widowed gentleman, Günter, who lived in his neighborhood. He provided a watchful eye, ensuring Günter maintained a healthy diet, personal hygiene and received the medical care he needed to live a comfortable, peaceful life. Like Alex, Bryan was there for companionship, lawn care, home repairs and friendship.
Additionally, Bryan and his family supported two low-income children for more than 10 years through Compassion International, a Christian-based organization. These are just a few examples of his contributions to humanity and those who were unable to adequately care for themselves.
After his bout with cancer and caring for Alex, Bryan felt that God had big plans for him and Crystal and blessed them with four more beautiful children. An avid sports fan, Bryan took to coaching girls’ softball with the Dinuba Recreation Department girls softball program, the Tribes girls traveling softball league and continues his coaching career as the coach for the Dinuba High School girls varsity softball team. His ability to balance his passion for sports and coaching, his dedication to his employer and employees, his love of family and friends, and his compassionate contributions to humanity define this man and warrant his recognition as one of many heroes in the community of Dinuba.
David Gong – Porterville’s 2017 Hometown Holiday Hero
David Gong has had a very challenging life. Born in Porterville 47 years ago, his life was busy and happy until age of 15, when the Monache High swimmer was diagnosed with bone cancer. He endured chemotherapy for nine months until he was given a titanium knee replacement at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, followed by six more months of chemo. And all was well – or so he thought.
“At 15, you feel invincible. It wasn’t a big deal to me. I wasn’t scared. My parents were, though. It was terrible for them. The worse part for me was the chemo. It did a number on me mentally.” The second cancer diagnosis was in his tibia. They removed the bone, and it turned out to be the one bone in your body you don’t need. But then nine more times, David was diagnosed with cancer. Between 1985 and 2000, he endured 11 cancer diagnoses.
David quit swimming for a time, but “to get people off my back,” he got back in the pool in his senior year. “But, in my high school years, I made bad choices. I was using drugs and eventually became an addict, and I was living in my car, showering at the gym.”
In 1990, the cancer came back and his left leg was amputated just above the knee. David decided it was time to go back to school, so went on to Grossmont College in San Diego, and maintained a 4.0 GPA while working part time and swimming competitively. He knew it would be hard to find work where he could be self-supportive with one leg, so he began taking criminal justice classes, planning to become an attorney like his mom.
An insidious disease, cancer was just relentless in its attacks on David’s body. In 1991, he was diagnosed with cancer in both lungs. Doctors believed the tumors were inoperable and David was informed that he might have three weeks or even just three days to live. But he had been reading about healing the body with the mind, and had been focusing his mind on healing his tumor. He told the doctors to check again, and the tumors had shrunk. He had two-fifths of his lungs removed and further chemo.
With only one leg and decreased lung capacity, he no longer had much stamina, so he swam in short distance sprints. But the lung cancer came back, three more times, and in 1993, he was told again that he was terminal. David said he was “not raised religious and didn’t go to church,” but this time he cried out, “God, just let me live, and I will become the best person I can be.” He felt he had made a bargain with God, and he lived.
Two years later, 1995, David was considered the fastest disabled swimmer on the planet. His fastest sprint was four-tenths of a second off the world record, and the next year was the Olympics. But that year, he was dealt another blow. At the nationals, he began having pain in his right shoulder. While swimming in the 50 meter freestyle, which everyone believed he would win, the pain was so great that he passed out. It turns out that he had bone cancer and had to have surgery to remove his scapula.
“Without the range of movement I needed to swim, my career was ended,” David says. “I was 25, and it was over, and I was angry. I yelled at God, ‘Why? I kept my side of the bargain!’ but God told me, ‘No, it’s not about you.’ I realized that it wasn’t about me winning or even swimming. I was to be a better person. It was about serving others. He gave me this verse, Matthew 25:35: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ All that I had been doing was self-serving—I would get the glory and not God.”
David’s next step was to kickboard from Alcatraz to the Aquatic Park, one and a half miles. With one leg. “I’m still very competitive. I have a motor that never stops running,” he says with a laugh.
In 1996, David left San Diego and moved back to Porterville. In 1998 he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and two years later he received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But now he was a man on a mission. He began to serve. And he’s never stopped. He got involved with a Christmas project for homeless children and was soon gathering and providing gifts for 400-500 children. He got involved in Helping Hands and ultimately served more than 1,300,000 meals there over 17 years.
David told his mom he wanted to go out and tell his story. “She said, ‘Nobody wants to pay to hear you,’ and we laughed, but I started speaking,” he says. “I spoke at over 40 high schools and other events and places.” All the money he earned, he donated to projects including the Cancer Center, sports equipment for kids, the P-Town Aquatics Academy and more. He taught swimming and diving to underprivileged kids—close to 300 of them. “This was getting kids off the streets,” he says.
David orchestrated an effort to save leftover food from three high schools to feed the homeless, and he put together a food pantry in his house. He’s the lone booster in the Booster Club at Alta Vista School. He donated all their sports equipment, and he’s fed students’ families. He donated 200 bicycles to disadvantaged children. Over the years, he’s donated most of what he’s earned to Sierra Valley Rehab Center, the PAAR Center (a recovery home for people with drug and alcohol addiction), the Helping One Woman dinners, and Big Hearts Little Hands childcare center, to name a few. He has provided haircuts, nail trimming and shaves for the homeless. He helps with blood drives, water drives and food drives. Everything he raises stays local. And he’s still a head coach with Tule Nation Tritons, coaching children from ages 6-18.
And he speaks life into people’s lives who really need a positive message. He’s especially gifted to encourage cancer patients. He makes motivational videos and sends them free of charge to people with cancer all over the country. “I have a unique obligation to help families battling cancer,” he says.
“He is inspiring, compassionate and giving,” says Dezara Leslie. “Hearing his story and watching the way he conducts himself today has helped me to get through some of my darkest days.”
He still struggles with serious and life-threatening health problems due to the various cancer treatments over so many years, but “life is good,” David says confidently. “My faith has grown stronger. I was given a gift to survive cancer 11 times so I could help others. When I called out to God, He reminded me to help them.”
Michael Dunn — Kingsburg's 2017 Hometown Holiday Hero
Most often, our heroes are humble and avoid the limelight, not seeking fame or notoriety but reaching out to help and contribute without fanfare. Mike Dunn is such a person. He is a Kingsburg resident, father, loving and devoted husband to Vallerie and a true hero to the Kingsburg community.
Mike grew up in Laton, where he met his wife of 44 years. They moved to Kingsburg 25 years ago. He retired two years ago from his position as human resources manager at Fresno State University. He also worked for 24 years as civil servant at Lemoore Naval Air Station.
Mike’s educational journey was not traditional, earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees after age 40 and becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. He loves to write and indulge in historical research, and that is where his selfless and heroic contributions shine.
Immediately after retirement, he became immersed in the physical renovation and development of the Kingsburg Train Depot. His intense involvement led longtime friends Larry and Shirley Esau—the key drivers of the Depot renovation – to invite him to become the train depot historian. His writing ability and historical prowess was immediately put to use, and his historical articles and photos appeared routinely in the Depot Newsletter.
Upon retirement, you could find Mike around town videotaping events, like the spring car show, and posting them on Facebook. This practice fed into his love of community, local history, writing and photography, and now you can see postings and a community following that promotes the Kingsburg Village Mall, downtown Kingsburg and community events.
Laurene Runner, owner of Gypsy’s Attic in the Village Mall—next to Diane’s Swedish Bakery and Restaurant, where Mike and his wife often enjoy the Swedish fare—says about Mike, “I’ll be in my store, and Mike will pop in unannounced, snap a few pics, and immediately update his Facebook page. Mike willingly and without prompting takes the initiative to not only promote Gypsy’s Attic and Diane’s Swedish Bakery, but other retail businesses throughout the community. If anyone ever needs a helping hand, Mike, without hesitation, will ask, ‘Where and when do you need me?’”
While traveling, Mike’s generosity led him to go to his car, retrieve a pair of his own shoes and give them to a shoeless person in need.
An active member of the Kingsburg Historical Society, he is heavily involved in the traveling exhibit coming to Kingsburg in January 2018, “Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American World War II Experience.” Mike is working on stories of local Japanese families interred and Japanese soldiers who fought as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
You can find Mike’s imprint on the Kingsburg community by visiting “Kingsburg: A celebration of history, architecture and people” and “The Village Mall” on Facebook. More than 10,000 people have viewed Mike’s video, “Living in Kingsburg.”
Carole Farris — Hanford’s 2017 Hometown Holiday Hero
“While we have a large number of fabulous volunteers, Carole Farris is one special lady,” says Shelly Johnson, executive director of Main Street Hanford. “Her willingness to serve so many organizations and her giving attitude is truly inspirational.”
Born and raised on the East Coast, Carole moved her family to San Diego close to 20 years ago. She said she had a hard time even leaving her house because of panic attacks. “It was a great day if I could manage the short walk to the elementary school to help in my son‘s classroom. Anything else was out of the question,” she says.
Six years later, the family made the move to Hanford. Carole said she knew that if she didn’t start getting out of the house, her kids would grow to hate the small-town life. She began to get involved in the community. One step at a time, she was soon helping out at a small grassroots organization called Hand-in-Hand Family Resource Center. The director invited Carol to a lunch meeting of the Kiwanis, “and I really never left,” she says with a grin. “I grew into a life of service because it worked for me. I found a purpose.”
That was just the beginning. Carole found herself up to her ears in community service. She became a committee member and Special Olympics coach. “I can be having the worst day, and when I’m with the athletes, none of that seems to matter anymore,” Carole says.
As an advisory board member for the Salvation Army, Carole became a bell ringer, money counter, whatever they needed her to do. Her favorite thing is to spend Thanksgiving Day there cooking for and serving those who come through the door.
She’s the district administrator for Builders Club, a service club for middle-school students. “Like Kiwanis, but they're younger and have a LOT more energy.” Carole oversees clubs in California, Nevada and Hawaii.
As Key Club Region Advisor, she serves on a committee that supports the leadership of 46,000 members. “Three times a year, I get to spend the weekend with 100 of the most amazing young people I have ever known.”
Carole performs senior exit Interviews at Jamison High School in Lemoore, a continuation school. “I have met some incredible students who have fought many battles to get where they are,” she shares. “It's an honor to be a part of their journey.”
She’s also the spelling bee judge. “Usually the ‘light judge’ because nobody else wants to do it – something about making kids cry,” she says. She serves as the Academic Decathlon speech judge, chili cook-off judge, is a paper screener for the Excellence in Education Awards, volunteers at Kings Rehab, United Way, Main Street Hanford events, is an Akton Club advisor and more.
With her three children all grown, Carole enjoys time with her five grandchildren. She works as a retail merchandiser, and says, “It allows me the flexibility to do the things that make me whole.”