Desert Gala Honorees

To find out more on each honoree, click on their photo to read their bio.

American Veterans Assistance Group - 2021

American Veterans Assistance Group - 2021

Dr. Douglas Coward - 2017

Dr. Douglas Coward - 2017

Ernest Cowell - 2017

Ernest Cowell - 2017

Gail Grove - 2017

Gail Grove - 2017

Mary Lawson - 2017

Mary Lawson - 2017

Toberman Community Center - 2017

Toberman Community Center - 2017

Michele Warner - 2017

Michele Warner - 2017

Shawn Wehan - 2017

Shawn Wehan - 2017

Billy Whitford - 2017

Billy Whitford - 2017

Barbara Winkler - 2017

Barbara Winkler - 2017

Christy Zamani - 2017

Christy Zamani - 2017

  • American Veterans Assistance Group - 2021
  • Dr. Douglas Coward - 2017
  • Ernest Cowell - 2017
  • Gail Grove - 2017
  • Mary Lawson - 2017
  • Toberman Community Center - 2017
  • Michele Warner - 2017
  • Shawn Wehan - 2017
  • Billy Whitford - 2017
  • Barbara Winkler - 2017
  • Christy Zamani - 2017
  • American Veterans Assistance Group - 2021

    The American Veterans Assistance Group is a community of veterans within each manufactured housing community involved with the Veterans Affordable Housing Program. Their mission is to thank and reward veterans for their service.  AVAG helps to support veterans by creating a safe and supportive living environment and a way to connect with one another.  Partnerships with other veteran and community groups allow AVAG to reach more veterans in the community providing services and information on healthcare, training education, and other services and resources. During the pandemic, AVAG and its partners fed over 10,000 households and helped to provide them with necessities. Other activities and programs include special veteran holiday events, informational seminars, movie nights, parties, dinners, recreation such as exercise classes and sports teams, food distribution programs, outreach programs, and resource referrals for employment, career training, and benefits.  Mr. Richard Simonian, is a veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets, created the non-profit organization American Veterans Assistance Group (AVAG) to assist veterans with affordable housing, holiday meals, informational workshops about veteran benefits and other outreach programs. Mr. Simonian had various life events that made him very aware of God’s blessings in his life. As a successful businessman, he feels very passionate about serving the veteran communities and understands the challenges veterans face in today’s society. Mr. Simonian and the AVAG team are angels on earth by serving veterans who have courageously served this country. 
  • Dr. Douglas Coward - 2017

    Dr. Coward founded the Animal and Bird Clinic of Mission Viejo to provide high quality pet health and wellness services to assist pets in living a longer, happier, and healthier life. His work as a veterinarian has always gone above and beyond and he has always treated his patients with outstanding care. The clinic’s approach to veterinary care spans the life of the pet and includes a blend of traditional and holistic medicine. Dr. Coward honors the bond between pets and their families and works to keep them at their healthiest. He educates and involves pet owners so they can create a lifetime health care plan. He takes the time to study options for each animal, talks with pet owners about what they’d like for their pets, and treats each animal as an individual. He genuinely cares for each animal he treats, is never rushed, and serves as an exceptional clinician. Dr. Coward also travelled the world to study various treatments so that he could provide the best possible care for every animal he treated. He also gives in service, fostering rescue dogs. He is an angel on earth to pets and their owners.
  • Ernest Cowell - 2017

    Ernest Cowell is the Director and Coordinator for L.A. County and Ventura County for ESGR. ESGR, a Department of Defense program, was established in 1972 to promote cooperation and understanding between Reserve Component Service members and their civilian employers and to assist in the resolution of conflicts arising from an employee's military commitment. ESGR has served our country for more than 40 years, fostering a culture in which all employers support and value the employment and military service of members of the National Guard and Reserve in the United States. These citizen warriors could not defend and protect us at home and abroad, without the continued promise of meaningful civilian employment for themselves and their families. Ernest is also the President of the L.A. National Cemetery Support Foundation. He helps to conduct about eight major events throughout the year. During Memorial Day they host 7000 Boy and Girl Scouts who salute each resident at each grave and place a flag at each stone. Ernest has given a lifetime of service, especially to those who serve this country.
  • Gail Grove - 2017

    Ride to Fly is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing therapeutic horseback riding and the associated learning experiences to children and adults with disabilities in a safe, nurturing environment. They believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people and wish to share the special gift of horsemanship with those with special needs. Ride to Fly is a PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) member that has been serving the South Bay area since 1994. Ride to Fly serves children and adults with a variety of physical, emotional, and learning disabilities. Riding horses simulates the natural motion of walking and improves balance, muscle tone, and limberness. The relationship between horse and rider helps to improve emotional stability, build confidence, and create joy. Gail started as a volunteer in 1997 and is now the Executive Director. She has been committed and passionate about changing lives and works hard to maintain high-quality service for all her riders.
  • Mary Lawson - 2017

    Mary Lawson is the Vice President of External Relations at Ocean Institute in Dana Point. Ocean Institute is a community-based organization that offers in-depth Marine Science, Maritime History and Outdoor Education programs. The facility includes state-of-the-art teaching labs, the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center, two historic tall ships, and an oceanographic research vessel. Mary and her team help inspire children to be future innovators, problem solvers and environmental stewards. Ocean Institute makes a positive impact on the environment and on the care and safe-keeping of the ocean. Mary’s tireless mentoring of staff and volunteers, her ability to develop relationships with industry, government, and nonprofit organizations, and her heartfelt commitment have been a driving force at Ocean Institute. Ocean Institute serves over 100,000 children each year introducing them to the ocean as an interactive, living classroom, while also providing living history through the tall ships moored at the location inside Dana Point Harbor. The thriving Adopt-A-Class program embraces children from Title I schools and offers Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) learning through field trips. Many of these otherwise local children have never seen the ocean, a whale breach, or a dolphin jump alongside a boat. The magic of the sea continues to impart a broadened vision of the world--both its fragility and its limitless possibilities--to children who come to Ocean Institute.

    mlawson@oceaninstitute.org

  • Toberman Community Center - 2017

    Toberman Neighborhood Center is a non-profit community-based organization committed to assisting Harbor Area families and individuals by delivering life-changing services that encourage, inform, educate and empower them to live healthy and purposeful lives. Toberman Neighborhood Center offers comprehensive services that include outpatient counseling services, legal services, income tax services, and emergency food and clothing assistance. Case Managers work with clients to identify problems and then develop a plan, seek, coordinate, and monitor services from a variety of resources, community agencies and staff. Their programs for youth include an afterschool program, youth mentoring program, and Leaders in Training program. Toberman also offers parenting classes, support for grandparents as parents, family activities, and a Toyota Families learning program. Their Gang Intervention Unit was developed to increase the safety of the overall community by directly reducing gang violence and providing holistic, integrated human services. The goal of the Gang Intervention program is to build and maintain a collaborative “Peace Infrastructure” throughout the Harbor Area and to raise the quality of life in the community by creating a safer and violent free community, while redirecting the lives of youth and young adults. Toberman Neighborhood Center offers resources and care for the community that help create a healthy, safe, and supportive environment for all who live there. Accepting the award on behalf of Toberman Neighborhood Center is Sandra Rascon for her outstanding work in the afterschool programs.
  • Michele Warner - 2017

    Hemophilia Alliance of Orange County (HAOC) is a nonprofit organization, supporting the bleeding disorders community in Orange County and the Inland Empire. They are dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of individuals and families affected by Hemophilia, von Willebrand disease and other inherited bleeding disorders by creating programs and services that provide education, emotional support and advocacy. Individuals with bleeding disorders can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on medical costs and live with the reality that there is currently no cure. Michele started this organization because she understood how challenging bleeding disorders are for parents and families. As a parent of a son with hemophilia she also understood how helpful it could be to connect with others in order to share, learn from, and support one another. HAOC strives to provide an inclusive, supportive culture to help each other through life’s challenges, develop programs to meet needs, and share stories. Michele has become a leader for this community and it is her amazing commitment and her successful business mind that have created a network of support for those who need it.

    MWarner@HAOC.org

  • Shawn Wehan - 2017

    Shawn Wehan is the Founder and Executive Director of Future Leaders of Our Community. FLOC is an organization that brings awareness, inspiration and participation opportunities to young professionals in our community. FLOC was established in 2009 to help bridge the gap between young professionals and nonprofits so that volunteer opportunities, awareness events, and opportunities for leadership were available for all those interested in making a positive impact. FLOC has discovered great success and has partnered with over 150 nonprofits in Orange County, assisting to their needs by engaging thousands of young professionals in their causes and creating hundreds of volunteer opportunities. Each month FLOC invites an Executive Director of a local non-profit to speak to its members about service and ways to participate in the community. FLOC focuses on three areas: service, community, and leadership training. Leaders should be in service to the community, connected to the community and those who are impacted by service, and should possess the leadership qualities and tools to lead with passion and commitment. FLOC also serves as a sort of nonprofit university, offering training to improve fundraising, learn to direct and sustain a nonprofit, and how to coordinate volunteers. Shawn oversees and manages all operations and ensures all programs and trainings are held to a high level of quality. He builds relationships and makes connections so that organizations and individuals are able to serve at their highest capacity.
  • Billy Whitford - 2017

    Newport Aquatic Center was founded in 1982 as a non-profit corporation offering the public unique opportunities in the Olympic water sports of rowing, canoeing, kayaking and outrigger canoe competition. Billy has dedicated his life to serving the public, especially kids. He has created programs for Santa Ana’s inner-city kids and outrigger paddling programs for the blind. He has created camps for all ages and their desired water sport. Billy welcomes competitive Olympic athletes from around the world to train out of Newport Aquatic Center. He trains the whole athlete, pushing people to go beyond their fears, become humble winners and gracious losers, and find joy in their sport. He creates opportunities for championships, travel, and success. Billy is described as a mentor, a coach, and a father figure. He exemplifies what he teaches: that it’s not about you, but about what you can do for others. Billy’s work keeps people happy, vibrant, and in touch with the ocean. His influence has changed lives and leads others to where they dream of going.

    billy@newportaquaticenter.com

  • Barbara Winkler - 2017

    Barbara Winkler has been sewing for Quilts of Valor for 14 years. The mission of the Quilts of Valor Foundation is to cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor. Barbara wanted to put her sewing experience to good use and when she found Quilts of Valor, she knew she could make a difference. After sewing for the National organization, she and her team began SoCal Quilts of Valor. Here she conducts workshops, holds Make a Difference Day events, and plans the Big Sunday volunteering events. Barbara coordinates the fabric, stores, and transports all the necessary supplies for the quilters. She also presents most of the quilts, which often involves travel and participation in events. She works with Long Beach Unified School District high school students and their parents to help the teens earn service hours. She and her volunteers teach the students and parents how to construct the quilts and give them a skill they can use all their lives. It also gives them the inspiration to give back to their community and to the Veterans who earned their freedoms. Barbara and her team have made over 4,000 quilts and presented them to Veterans. Her work lets Veterans know that someone cares for them and can provide the warm comfort they need.
  • Christy Zamani - 2017

    Christy Zamani has served as the Executive Director of Day One since 2007 and her passion and extensive experience have helped improve public health. Day One is a community-based nonprofit organization with a 29-year history of providing effective, high quality and culturally-sensitive public health education, intervention, and policy development. Day One provides many programs to improve youth leadership skills, recognize the contributions of locally active youth leaders, and provides teens with the education, strategy, and empowerment to make positive change in their lives and in their communities. Their Environmental Prevention programs focus on community systems and help to improve public health, quality of life, and create healthier environments for residents. Day One also provides substance abuse prevention and control and tobacco control and prevention programs. They also provide parenting programs to help parents explore issues that affect their children, learn parenting tips, and connect with valuable resources and other parents. Day One’s programs are comprehensive and work to improve the health and well-being of the community by looking at the community as a whole. Christy’s commitment to advancing public health and her exemplary leadership have guided Day One and enhanced countless lives.
  • American Veterans Assistance Group - 2021
  • Dr. Douglas Coward - 2017
  • Ernest Cowell - 2017
  • Gail Grove - 2017
  • Mary Lawson - 2017
  • Toberman Community Center - 2017
  • Michele Warner - 2017
  • Shawn Wehan - 2017
  • Billy Whitford - 2017
  • Barbara Winkler - 2017
  • Christy Zamani - 2017