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Editor’s note: Biographical information for the 2021 Spice of Life awardees was provided by the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce.

Man of the Year: Roland Velasco

Roland Velasco served as Gilroy’s mayor from 2016-2020, part of a long career of public service.

Roland Velasco

Velasco served two terms on the Gilroy City Council, first elected in 1997 and then re-elected in 2003. He ran for city council in 2014, and was elected as mayor in November 2016. 

He has been involved with local and regional organizations throughout the years.  He served as a board member for Leadership Gilroy, a Fire Commissioner for South County Fire District and as a K-9 handler with the Santa Clara County Search and Rescue. It was due to his knowledge of South County cities that Velasco was appointed by former Santa Clara Valley Water District Director Sig Sanchez to represent South County during the formal 2010 redistricting process for the District.  

Prior to his time on the city council, Velasco served in the United States Army as an Intelligence Analyst. Upon returning home to Gilroy, he attended Gavilan College and then San Jose State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Later, he received a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of San Francisco.

As a veteran, Velasco is actively involved with the events held by the Veteran’s Hall, and was recognized as the Veteran of the Year by the American Legion Post #217.

He is currently an adjunct instructor of political science for Gavilan College. 

Woman of the Year: Deborah A. Flores

Gilroy Unified School District Superintendent Deborah Flores began her career in the mid-1970s as an elementary special education teacher and then became a special education administrator for about 10 years. For the past 21 years, she has been superintendent of schools with almost 14 of those years in the GUSD. 

Deborah Flores

Flores earned her bachelor’s and Master’s of Education at the University of Massachusetts and her doctorate at UC Santa Barbara. Flores has received a number of awards during her long career including Teacher of the Year (in Massachusetts), Santa Barbara Central Office Administrator of the Year, and in 2016, she was selected as the Santa Clara County Superintendent of the Year and the California Superintendent of the Year by the Association of Ca. School Administrators.

During Flores’ tenure in GUSD, two general obligation bonds have passed thanks to the voters of Gilroy which has resulted in renovations, construction, and/or technological improvements at schools.  The biggest projects were the construction of Christopher High School, the renovation of Gilroy High School and the new Brownell Middle School campus. The new South Valley Middle School campus rebuild has been designed and is underway.  

Large Business of the Year: Alpine Landscapes

Alpine Landscapes was a spin-off company when Ryan Dinsmore’s father, Allen, sold Dinsmore Landscape Company in 1997, which was located in Santa Clara. At the time of the split, Dinsmore Landscape Company had 80 employees.

BEST LANDSCAPE Alpine Landscapes earned a top award at a statewide convention in 2019. Submitted photo

From 1997–2009, located in Gilroy, Alpine Landscapes averaged seven to 10 employees. Dinsmore and his father grew the company to 25 employees from 2010–2015. He purchased the business from his father in 2016.

Over the past year, Alpine Landscapes has had to search for a new location because they have outgrown their current one. Its new headquarters is currently under construction on north Monterey Road within the city limits, and it expects to move in mid-2021, according to Dinsmore.

Alpine Landscapes offers commercial services such as maintenance, irrigation, enhancement/construction, and tree care. The company also supports various local organizations, such as Rotary, St. Joseph’s and Wreaths Across America.

Small Business of the Year: Bracco’s Towing & Transport, Inc. 

Bracco’s Towing and Transport Inc. was founded in 1992 by Dion Bracco, and has the equipment to transport passenger cars to large commercial vehicles.

Dion Bracco is the founder of Bracco’s Towing and Transport. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

Bracco’s Towing is a member of the California Tow Truck Association, where Bracco served on the Executive Board as Treasurer and Vice President of Education. Bracco’s Towing has been recognized by the State of California and the City of Gilroy on numerous occasions for its support of programs to eliminate drunk driving.

Bracco’s Towing also dedicates time and resources to organizations that include the Exchange Club of Gilroy, Memorial Day Parade, Sober Graduation, Every Fifteen Minutes, Towing Operators Working to Eliminate Drunk Driving, Breast Cancer Awareness, Gilroy Gang Task Force, Police Activities League D.A.R.E., School Crossing Guards, Salvation Army, St. Joseph’s Family Center, New Hope Compassion Center, Downtown Flag Project and Anchorpoint Christian Warriors Football.

“It’s the way I was raised,” Bracco said. “I grew up seeing my father helping others and volunteering in the community. It’s satisfying to give, help and support others.”

Non-Profit of the Year: Operation Freedom Paws

FOUR PAWS, TWO FEET, ONE TEAM Operation Freedom Paws founder, executive director and head trainer Mary Cortani talks with client Army veteran Lee Bell of Morgan Hill and his service dog. File photo

Operation Freedom Paws (OFP) has been building human-canine relationships as a nonprofit organization for a decade. Its mission is to empower veterans, first responders, children and other individuals with disabilities to restore their freedom to live full lives. 

Clients are taught to train a rescue dog for their specific disability and upon completion of the program become certified service dog teams. 

Founded by Mary Cortani, OFP provides its 48-week training program, a safe place to go 24/7 and the resources needed for healing at no cost to its clients. Since opening its Gilroy doors in 2011, the organization has served 439 clients, 2,195 family members and rescued 377 dogs. 

In times of emergencies, the team coordinates with police, firefighters, EMS and local shelters to house dogs for free, and provide food and support for first responders during events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the California wildfires.

Firman B. Voorhies Volunteer of the Year: Jorge Mendoza

Jorge Mendoza has been an active community leader in Gilroy since 1994, but his passion to help others and for social justice began when he was very young.

Jorge Mendoza

Through his volunteer work, Mendoza has been involved in several community-based agencies, local and county government departments and has co-founded many Gilroy community-based initiatives. He has been an active member with the following social justice groups to advocate for human rights and immigrant rights: St. Mary Parish, Services Immigrant Rights and Education Network, People Acting Together in Community and PICO National Network. 

Additionally, Mendoza has played an integral role in co-founding San Ysidro Nueva Vida (mission is to create better living standards for everyone in Gilroy), Nuevo Amanecer (focus is to help homeless families), Survivors of Cancer (focus is to bring resources to Gilroy for families who have been impacted by cancer). He has also been involved in St. Mary Parish as a member of the coordinating team for the youth group and in different ministries. During the last 25 years of his involvement, he has founded the Virgin of Juquila community celebration, the Virgin of Guadalupe Celebration and has served as a member of the Hispanic Council and Pastoral Council. 

Mendoza graduated from the Institute for Leadership in Ministry, Diocese of San José in 2000.

Firman B. Voorhies Volunteer of the Year: Maria Cid

Maria Cid has coordinated countless fundraisers for local nonprofits and has sponsored a variety of organizations on her own.

Maria Cid

Currently, Cid serves as a board member for Youth Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of youth and families throughout San Benito and South County. She is a supporter of the Edward Boss Prado Foundation and Cecilia’s Closet & Food Pantry whose sole mission is to provide food and assistance to challenged youth and families throughout South County. 

She was named board president for the Poppy Jasper International Film Festival Inc. and is a founding board member of 6th Street Studios & Art Center. 

Cid was also a founding committee member for #GilroyStrong in response to the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Cid sponsored lunches for first responders.

“Contribute to your community without expecting or receiving anything in return,” she said. “Be genuine and if you can change or inspire one person’s life, then you did your job.”

Educator of the Year: Teri Mikkelsen

Teri Mikkelsen comes from a family of educators.

Teri Mikkelsen

She said there have been many memorable moments during her tenure at Gilroy Unified School District, but her fondest memories have been made at Brownell Middle School. When she began teaching eighth-grade ELA and Social Studies, she became a member of a three-person cohort. Eleven years later, the three of them are still teaching together.

Every Thursday she anxiously awaits her week’s edition of the Gilroy Dispatch, so she can scour its pages for her current and former students who might be in the news.

“It’s fun to share the accomplishments of my students during class where we celebrate successes of those who were in the same exact seats as my current class,” she said. “My classroom scrapbooks celebrate accomplishments like national merit scholars, youth leadership awardees, scholarship recipients, Gilroy Garlic Festival royalty, valedictorians, high school and college athletes, and so much more.” 

Mikkelsen said she enjoys learning new things, experiencing new situations, and growing as a person.

“I think this exceptional year is an excellent example of why having a growth mindset is so important: new approaches, techniques and strategies had to be pursued in order to ‘be better and do better’ by my students,” she said.

Educator of the Year: Leadership Gilroy

LOCAL LEADERS Leadership Gilroy presents a community service project every year, such as cLOVE Days in 2020. Submitted photo

Leadership Gilroy has a 22-year tradition of developing leaders who serve the Gilroy community. Since the first Leadership Gilroy class in 1998, more than 300 graduates have completed the multi-month Community Leadership Program.

Participants develop leadership and team-building skills, and gain a deeper understanding of the local community. 

The alumni roster includes city council members, police and fire officials and local nonprofit leaders.

Program participants receive training in a wide range of topics including: team building, communication, ethics, change management and conflict resolution.

A significant component of the program is the required class community service project. Recent Leadership Gilroy class projects include Gilroy cLOVE Days, the Bonanza Day Parade and others.

Young Professional of the Year: Chef Carlos Pineda

Chef Carlos Pineda is the Director of Hospitality and Culinary Services at Rebekah’s Children Services. 

Carlos Pineda

Pineda was born and raised in Gilroy and graduated from Gilroy High School before attending and graduating from the Professional Culinary Institute in 2008. After graduation he interned with The Pebble Beach Company, then went on to work as a chef in Monterey, Carmel, Los Angeles, San Jose, Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

In 2010 he helped develop the Culinary Academy at Rebekah Children’s Services, which serves youth ages 15-25. The program, which has served 1,500 students since its founding, teaches job skills, culinary skills, and life skills so that graduates will be ready to enter the workforce, trade school or college.

Pineda is an avid supporter of the LGBTQ community and has contributed to various service organizations in the Bay Area, including serving on the Board of Directors for the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, South County Young Professionals Network, Gilroy Exchange Club, El Cajon Project, Leadership Gilroy and Gilroy Foundation. 

Susan Valenta Youth Leadership Award: Danielle Russell

Danielle Russell

As an avid genealogist and aspiring historian, Christopher High School senior Danielle Russell first discovered her passion for history in fifth grade and found her love of genealogy in seventh grade. After learning of the lives led by her ancestors, many of whom were veterans who have been lost to the folds of time, she became inspired to preserve the lives and memories of other veterans.

One of Russell’s proudest achievements in high school was winning one of two national student scholarships to the 2019 Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg, Penn. This scholarship allowed Russell and her mother, Debbie, to travel to Gettysburg, where they met some of the leading historians in the field of Lincoln and the Civil War Era.

Beginning in fall 2021, Russell will be playing tennis for, and attending, Gettysburg College, where she plans to major in history, with minors in Civil War Era Studies, museum studies, and public history.

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.

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