Celebrating Local Heroes 2015
A Man for Animals
No sick or injured sea animal is too big or too small for Peter Wallerstein to save.
The one-man army behind Marine Animal Rescue has brought more than 4,000 ocean mammals to lifesaving care over his three decades patrolling Westside and South Bay beaches, but never so frequently as this year.
Since January, Wallerstein has rescued a record 475 marine mammals — mostly starving sea lion pups unable to find food in unusually warm El Niño waters, but also fur and elephant seals, a couple of dolphins and a whale tangled in a net.
“Peter Wallerstein is the Energizer Bunny of animal rescue. … He just keeps going,” Marina del Rey Harbor Patrol Deputy Tim Hazelwood told The Argonaut last year.
Wallerstein once worked as a director for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, but he left that job — and his home on a rustic Topanga hillside — to answer rescue calls 24/7 from an RV at Dockweiler Beach.
“We were going around the world doing amazing stuff, but I realized I could do even more right here,” Wallerstein says. “Before me it was animal control and parking enforcement officers who weren’t trained for this. They were getting bit; animals weren’t getting rescued.”
Marine Animal Rescue patrols more than 40 miles of coastline, from Will Rogers State Beach to Wilmington (south of San Pedro). The operation is donor-funded, and for the first time in years Wallerstein is finally able to hire some help.
What keeps Wallerstein going is seeing his results.
“It’s just that I’m having a positive effect on the environment,” he says. “I know I can’t save all the animals, but I save all the ones I can.”
Visit whalerescueteam.org — Joe Piasecki
Victoria Beyer & Benita Lin
Health Care Connectors
Victoria Beyer is a visiting doctor from Australia. Benita Lin is an aspiring medical student from Santa Monica. Their volunteer efforts this year at the Venice Family Clinic have increased the number of low-income and under-insured patients receiving specialized medical care by an astounding 20%.
Beyer, 28, and Lin, 22, are what the clinic calls referral coordinators. When one of the primary care clinic network’s 23,000 patients needs to see a specialist, Beyer and Lin navigate the complexities of the American health care system to make sure it happens.
“It’s quite easy for patients to fall through the cracks. People don’t realize how much work goes into just seeing another doctor,” says Beyer, noting that the American health care system is “about 100 times more complicated” than the universal health care system back home.
While in the States, Beyer is also helping to coordinate a childhood diabetes prevention study at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Lin, who also volunteers with the American Cancer Society, spends Friday mornings at VFC auditing whether female patients over 40 have received breast and cervical cancer screenings. She aspires to be a doctor in order to “treat patients holistically, rather than piece by piece.”
Lin and Beyer, meanwhile, have filled a health care gap for hundreds of patients, VFC Volunteer Services Manager Cassie Roque says.
“They are friendly, smart and resourceful,” says Roque, “and to the patients who gain access to health care through their work, they are heroes.
Visit venicefamilyclinic.org — Joe Piasecki
Caretaker of Dogtown
Thanks to Jesse Martinez, there isn’t a single tag on the 16,000-square-foot concrete surface of the Venice Skate Park. Trash and stray cigarette butts disappear overnight. Sand that collects in the bowls is gone by sunrise.
A former pro skateboarder who came up under the wing of late Z-boy Jay Adams, Martinez arrives at the park before dawn each day to clean it. He doesn’t get paid. He just does it. And he’s done it for more than six years.
Martinez, who campaigned for the park to be built, says he isn’t looking for recognition — he just loves skateboarding and wants to keep the skate park in good shape for the next generation of skaters.
Someone once told him it would be impossible to keep taggers away from the skate park, and he set out to prove him wrong.
“That sort of pushed me on. It’s always been that in Venice, that pride,” Martinez says.
“Jesse’s been instrumental in the creation of the park and maintaining it since it opened. He’s down there almost every day doing this on his own. It’s an amazing thing,” says Nathan Pratt, chairman of the nonprofit Venice Skatepark Foundation.
Pratt, an original Z-Boy, also credits Martinez with taking on an ombudsman-like role to ensure that skaters remained focused on skating, steer clear of delinquent behaviors and keep their machismo in check.
“He’s maintained a level of safety at the park that really would not otherwise exist. He’s always looking out for people and keeping an eye on what’s going on,” Pratt says. “Little things happen, but Jesse keeps them from turning into big things.”
Visit veniceskateparkfoundation.com. — Bonnie Eslinger and Joe Piasecki
Turning Science into Action
If an environmental issue is on the docket for the city of Santa Monica, chances are that Benjamin Kay’s Team Marine is tracking it closely.
Since 2006, the team of student activists at Santa Monica High School has been leading the charge on environmental and sustainability issues, including plastic bag and smoking policy.
Under Kay’s leadership, Team Marine has won science fair competitions, commissioned research, recorded PSAs, lobbied for environmental platforms and even converted a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle into a fully functioning electric car.
“Science can be used as a megaphone to positively affect communities as well as to get people interested in solutions,” says Kay, who teaches biology at both SaMo High and Santa Monica College.
Kay grew up with his mother, Fay, instilling in her son the importance of recycling, composting, conserving energy and growing one’s own fruits and vegetables. These seeds of environmental activism were subsequently nurtured by Ray Millette, Kay’s marine biology teacher at Palisades High School.
The winner of multiple awards both individually and for Team Marine, Kay looks to pass along principles of ecological stewardship to his students. The kids may give up some of their after-school and social lives for the club, but their teacher knows they are making a difference.
Having encountered these “informed, inspired environmentalists” at multiple City Council meetings, Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown lauded their instructor.
“Benjamin Kay’s kind of teaching creates tomorrow’s leaders,” says McKeown, “and our world has never more greatly needed sustainability leadership.”
Visit teammarine.org. — Evan Henerson
The holiday season is a particularly busy time for Sadie Cerda and her corps of volunteers with St. Augustine Volunteers for Emergency Services (S.A.V.E.S.) in Culver City.
Among other things, struggling local families need gifts for children of all ages, warm winter clothing and enough food on the table to feast for the holidays.
Thanks to the connections she’s made during her 35 years as the director of S.A.V.E.S., Cerda receives donations from throughout the community that allow her organization to help thousands of people each month regardless of their age, ethnicity or religion.
“We never know how it is going to go each year. Everything is so expensive,” says Cerda. “There are many people who are very generous.”
In the generosity department, few could outdo Cerda, who learned the value of giving from her mother. Refugio Ochoa experienced the effects of the Great Depression and World War II and would donate hand-knitted blankets and food to the needy, bringing young Sadie along.
“We used to walk miles to the donation center,” says Cerda, 87. “Helping has been instilled in me all my life.”
Cerda has helped grow S.A.V.E.S from a single-room parish operation to a flourishing volunteer center, partnering with local businesses as well as civic and nonprofit operations along the way.
Culver City Mayor Micheál O’Leary says Cerda “stands tall among our local citizens who take seriously the call for service to the needy and less fortunate.”
Cerda credits her faith and her family for inspiration.
“Our world is so sad, and people won’t share,” she says. “There needs to be more compassion.”
Visit st-augustine-church.org — Evan Henerson
Keeping the Torch for School Spirit
Elias Regalado learned to share his wife Alice with the community a long time ago.
“I can remember years ago hearing these knocks on the door. At first I didn’t see anyone. When I heard them again, I looked down this time and there were these little children standing there,” he recalls. “Does Mrs. R live here?” They asked me. When I told them yes, they said, ‘Could you please tell her that we love her?’”
Those children were students at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista, where Alice Regalado (aka Mrs. R) has assisted the school’s bilingual coordinator for 25 years and volunteered countless hours, both after work and during summer recess, earning affection from kids and adults alike.
Mar Vista Chamber of Commerce President Sarah Auerswald, whose two sons attended Grand View Boulevard Elementary, is one such admirer.
“Alice is the ultimate volunteer because she’s doing it for the love of the school and because she believes it’s the right thing to do. She doesn’t do it for the applause or for the thanks. In fact, she has been very reluctant to accept any kind of praise or attention for what she does,” says Auerswald, also founder of the Mar Vista Mom blog.
Regalado often waters plants at the school over summer vacations (sometimes even roping her husband into doing landscaping work), and generally “helps to make the place special for the many generations of kids who have attended
and will attend Grand View,” Auerswald says.
For Regalado, the pleasure is all hers.
“I really enjoy volunteering with kids and working with parents,” she says. “It’s so rewarding.”
Visit grandviewelementary.org. — Gary Walker
Bridging the Generation Gap
In his 20s, Vincent Migliazzo was a combat medic who stormed foreign beaches to bring Gen. Douglas MacArthur back to the Philippines, earning a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Philippine Liberation Medal for four treacherous assault landings during World War II.
He went on to spend 34 years as a public school teacher, counselor and administrator, logging thousands of volunteer hours for Little League Baseball, the Westchester Family YMCA, Boy Scouts of America, Knights of Columbus and the American Legion along the way.
A 1948 graduate of Loyola University (before it merged with Marymount to become LMU), Migliazzo later earned a place on his alma mater’s Wall of Fame for his dedication to young people.
Now in his 90s, Migliazzo remains especially active with the Flight Path Museum in Westchester, where he supervises the Flight Path Flyers youth flight simulator training initiative. In February, the museum’s board feted him with its Honorary Service Award.
“It’s an educational program, and that turned me on because again I get to work with young people, and I like that. I like conveying knowledge,” says Migliazzo, who has lived in Westchester with his wife since 1950.
Despite his volunteer service honors, Wall of Fame status and all those war medals, Migliazzo remains humble about his life’s work.
“I’m not a hero,” he says. “My service in World War II, it probably made me more humane. When I saw the devastation, saw the tragedy, all the death … it changed my attitude — made me appreciate life.”
Visit flightpathmuseum.com. — Emily Barnett and Joe Piasecki
(Photographs taken by Ted Soqui during our Local Heroes luncheon at The Proud Bird in Westchester)