When Walnut Creek Mayor Kevin Wilk took office in December, the city was stuck in a dark spot, struggling through the pandemic, but there was a silver lining. 

“We had so many Walnut Creek community residents experiencing financial, physical and emotional hardship,” Wilk said. “At the same time, I heard stories about people making a difference in our community — some with big impact.”

Walnut Creek Mayor Kevin Wilk launched the Heroes Among Us program after hearing about city residents who were making a positive impact in their community. (Photo courtesy of the City of Walnut Creek)

Wilk wanted to make sure those stories of hope and unselfishness were told, and early this year the city introduced its Heroes Among Us program, a platform to recognize Walnut Creek residents who went above and beyond for others. 

In March, voters nominated local unsung heroes on the city website. A panel of graduates from the Walnut Creek Citizens Institute — a group of private citizens who study the inner workings of city government — reviewed and screened the applications, and forwarded three names to the city council for recognition.  

“We had the nomination period open for a week and got more than 70 nominations — a sign that this maybe did strike the right chord with our residents,” city spokeswoman Betsy Burkhart said.

At the April 6 city council meeting, Wilk announced the first 2021 winners: Jennifer Perry of The Ballet School Performing Arts, Margaret Stauffer of the Cancer Support Community and Marilyn and Mark Weiss, who organized donations to the Monument Crisis Center.

Perry was chosen for her near-obsession with maintaining student access to her dance and music classes throughout the pandemic. 

“Within 24 hours of the governor’s stay-at-home order, we pivoted to Zoom classes for our 600 students,” she said. “Parents said we were the only thing they could count on for their children through the pandemic.”

Stauffer also acted when the stay-at-home order struck. The chief mission officer of the Cancer Support Community shifted the organization’s network of in-person support groups to online spaces for those living with cancer, as well as for family members and others touched by the illness.

Heroes among us
Heroes Among Us honorees Mark and Marilyn Weiss rallied their Rossmoor community to support the Monument Crisis Center. (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Weiss)

“We had a singular focus this year in particular to make sure people affected by cancer had access to the emotional and psychological support they needed,” Stauffer said.

When the pandemic hit, the Monument Crisis Center ran out of food during its weekly food giveaways. “They had three times the number of people showing up,” Marilyn Weiss said.

Stunned by the development, Weiss and her husband rallied Rossmoor residents to donate nonperishable food or money to the Center. Through the Weiss’ efforts, Rossmoor residents contributed $100,000 in cash and more than $30,000 in food to the organization.

Award winners were surprised by and appreciative of the recognition. 

“I’m a proud business owner in Walnut Creek,” Perry said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ll do anything to keep the city thriving.” 

The next nominating period for Heroes Among Us runs May 3-17.  Application forms will be available on the city website.