More than 50 Operation Freedoms Paws supporters and friends of Gilroy’s own Mary Cortani were glued to four television screens upstairs at Station 55 Bar & Grill Sunday night to watch CNN’s “Top 10 Heroes Tribute Show,” where the winner of CNN’s 2012 “Hero of the Year” would be revealed during the finale of a live broadcast streamed from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
The anxious crowd pulling for Cortani waited with baited breath to find out if their local heroine would come out ahead of the nine other finalists who made CNN’s elite top 10 and take home the grand $250,000 award money. The atmosphere was rife with nail-biting and anxious chatter.
The moment of truth came around 6 p.m., when supporters crossed their fingers and held their collective breath in silence as CNN’s Anderson Cooper opened the envelope that contained the name of the “Hero of the Year.”
A gasp and groan followed as it was announced that Pushpa Basnet, 29, garnered the most online votes to take home top honors.
Basnet, a Nepalese woman, takes in young children who would otherwise be incarcerated along with their parents in local prisons.
With grace in the midst of disappointment, the friends of Cortani gave a congratulatory round of applause for Basnet’s win.
“Mary is our Hero,” noted Station 55 co-owner Fran Beaudet with a smile.
Cortani founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Operation Freedoms Paws in 2010. An Army veteran of 14 years and former Army Master Instructor of Canine Education, Cortani is credited with “giving me back my life,” as put by one soldier who was able to overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after getting paired up with a service dog with Cortani’s help.
Operation Freedoms Paws, or OFP, empowers wounded veterans and others with mental/or physical impairments to not only train their own service dogs, but ultimately function with the help of their service dogs at home and in society. OFP begins by hand-picking dogs from local shelters, then matching each canine to a compatible veteran. Many participants who go through the program struggle with issues such as post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
CNN “Hero of the Year” or not, there’s no question Cortani’s humble demeanor would have changed.
From the first time the Dispatch reported on her in 2010, to the time she was honored with the American Red Cross Real Heroes Award in 2011, to when she received a major grant from the local philanthropic Gilroy Foundation, Cortani has always deflected attention away from herself as an individual and onto the bigger picture.
“This award is not about me,” she said, staring into the camera and speaking to hundreds of thousands of viewers Sunday evening. “It is about the men and women who so gallantly serve this country, and come home injured.”
Each of the top 10 CNN heroes were honored individually and introduced by a celebrity during the show Sunday night. The star studded lineup included “Glee” actress Jane Lynch, who gave Cortani a moving introduction before the Garlic Capital candidate took the stage.
Three hundred miles away from Los Angeles, supporters were soaking it all in.
Cortani may have been far away from home, but in spirit she was surrounded by friends, clients and co-workers.
“I have known and worked with Mary for almost three years,” said Cindy Lapalto, a civilian OFP participant who arrived early at 5:30 p.m. with many others to get a good seat to see the 6 p.m. show “This is very, very exciting”.
Lapalto was among many Station 55 supporters who erupted in cheers and applause as Cortani’s name was announced and her video tribute was shown.
At a table nearby, Kathleen Cutshall, her husband Dale and their labradoodle pup – Attie – were also in attendance.
“Mary has an amazing heart and soul – she does her work full-throttle”, Kathleen beamed.
Kathleen is a licensed clinical social worker and post combat trauma specialist who works with service members from all branches of the U.S. military.
She introduced her canine companion as a “guide dog school flunk-out” that was rescued by OFP.
Attie, apparently, has an affectionate and mischievous nature, as well as an intense love chasing squirrels. All of these attributes are considered unbecoming of a traditional guide dog.
“Aunt Mary,” as Cortani is known to the Cutshalls, is responsible for successfully saving and training Attie to be a valuable OFP service dog. The labradoodle now serves as Kathleen’s working partner in support of active duty service members, military veterans and their families.
Vietnam veteran Norman MacVicar and his wife, Gloria – a local couple that owns and operates California Silkscreening in Gilroy – have known Cortani for nearly 20 years. Just like Lapalto and the Cutshalls, they heap praises on Cortani. The MacVicars even designed OFP’s official logo and t-shirts free of charge.
“Mary and I used to bowl together years ago,” Gloria said. “I have been voting online for Mary on CNN’s website everyday.”
“She really does deserve to win,” Norman added.
Station 55 Bar & Grill owners Fran and Bobby Beaudet have known Cortani for more than 10 years, and welcomes a group of OFP participants and their dogs for breakfast every Saturday.
“Our’s was the only place big enough that would have the OFP participants and their dogs each week for breakfast,” Bobby chuckled. “We are happy to have them here.”
Since its inception in 2007, “CNN Heroes” has received more than 45,000 submissions from more than 100 countries and profiled more than 180 heroes. Approximately 24 people were profiled by CNN this year. That group was then whittled down to 10 people – and Cortani was one of them. People in the top 10 group were awarded $50,000 each, with the winner receiving an additional $250,000 grant.
Cortani returned to Gilroy Tuesday after her whirlwind weekend in Los Angeles.
“If there is one message I would like to get out, it’s to thank all of the people that voted for us and cheered us on,” she said. “I also want to thank the Gilroy Dispatch for being the only newspaper that covered Operation Freedoms Paws CNN ‘Hero’ experience.”
OFP is on a “journey,” Cortani said.
The $50,000 the organization received for being in the top 10 – not to mention the international recognition “will help us continue on this journey.
To where and how far, “we do not know,” Cortani added.
OFP volunteer Janet Wenholz accompanied Cortani to the filming of the CNN tribute show.
“This whole CNN experience has been absolutely amazing,” she said, beaming. “We didn’t win Sunday night, but I did make a bet with Mary that I could help raise the $250K she didn’t win from CNN within the next 90 days.
If Wenholz wins the bet, Cortani has to buy Wenholz her favorite local wine – Solis Fiano. If Cortani wins, Wenholz has to buy Cortani a case of Singha beer.
“So if the folks in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister would like to see a true American hero win after all…and provide an excellent case of local wine to someone who loves it, please donate to Operation Freedom Paws!” Wenholz laughed.
If you would like to contribute to OFP, or sponsor a service dog, donations can be mailed to Operation Freedoms Paws, 777 First Street, PMB 515, Gilroy, CA 95020. Donations can also be made online by visiting www.operationfreedomspaws.org.
Between now and Dec. 31, Subaru will also match all money donated through CNN’s website to any hero up to $50,000.
“This award is not about me. It is about the men and women who so gallantly serve this country, and come home injured.”
Mary Cortani, addressing the audience during the live broadcast of CNN’s “Hero of the Year” awards show