Heroes with Heart award ceremony recognizes compassion above and beyond the call of duty

Officers from throughout Orange County will be honored at the Heroes with Heart Awards.
From left, Costa Mesa Police Officer Orlando Lopez, Newport Beach Det. Cynthia Carter, Fountain Valley Community Resource Officer Jessica Lee and Seal Beach Captain Nick Nicholas and facility dog Yosa will be among 20 honorees at the Trauma Intervention Program of Orange County’s Heroes with Heart awards Thursday in Irvine.
(Photos courtesy of the Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Fountain Valley and Seal Beach police departments)
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When dispatchers summoned Costa Mesa Police Officer Orlando Lopez to investigate a death one evening in July, he found a woman in her 30s grieving the sudden, unexpected death of her father. The man who died was in his 60s. He had been under doctor’s order to avoid strenuous activity but had agreed to help a friend tidy up when he collapsed in her garage, according to Kristen Nemes, a volunteer with the Trauma Intervention Program of Orange County who was with them that day.

The man’s daughter “lost it, understandably, given the circumstances,” Lopez said during an interview Thursday.

By the time Nemes and fellow TIP of O.C. volunteer Bonnie Brewster arrived, the woman was weeping in a heap on the garage floor. At times she would reach out to touch her father’s body and tighten her grip, clinging to any part of him she still could in that moment. She was, by all rational observation, inconsolable.


Brewster and Nemes said in situations like these, officers typically leave to handle other matters after completing their investigation, and people specifically tasked to help others manage grief like TIP volunteers stay behind. But Lopez decided he needed to be there.

“I know at the end of the day, me saying words isn’t enough,” Lopez said. “I have to show it.”

Costa Mesa Police Officer Orlando Lopez
Costa Mesa Police Officer Orlando Lopez will be among 20 honorees at the Trauma Intervention Program of Orange County’s Heroes with Heart awards Thursday in Irvine.
(Courtesy of the Costa Mesa Police Department)

He knelt down, placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder and occasionally whispered comforting words to her, Brewster and Nemes said. While the volunteers found a sheet to hold up and shield the scene from prying eyes, Lopez gave her a bottle of water from her car that she used to wash off a small amount of blood from her hands.

Tension existed between her and the woman who lived at the home, so Lopez made sure the two gave each other space. When mortuary officials arrived, he helped walk the grieving daughter’s husband through paperwork that had to be sorted out.

“At one point he looked up at me and the other volunteer with me and just said, ‘Step forward,’” Nemes said Wednesday. “So we do as we’re told and he walks up to us, then swats this huge spider that had been coming down on a web from the ceiling that was about to land on us.”

The amount of care Lopez provided to every person involved in one of the worst days a family can experience stood out to the TIP of O.C. volunteers. It’s the reason the organization decided to include him among 20 honorees at its Heroes with Heart awards ceremony taking place Thursday evening at the Irvine Mariott. The first responders from throughout the county are being recognized for works of compassion amid crisis.

The nonprofit will be highlighting Newport Beach Det. Cynthia Carter’s efforts through 2022 as the department’s former homeless liaison officer. She worked that detail for three years, and during that time she has seen about 50 people she formed lasting bonds with transition from life on the street to some form of permanent housing. She has also helped guide many others to drug or mental health counseling, shelter and other avenues of support.

None of that would have been possible without the backing of her department and collaboration with TIP of O.C, the Orange County Health Care Agency, outreach groups like City Net and Be Well OC as well as many other organizations, Carter told the Daily Pilot. She believes her main contribution was coordinating all of those groups.

“Because we were all kind of on the same page, we were able to look at each homeless person as an individual instead of: ‘This is how the process goes so check this box and this box.’” she said. “Everybody navigates homelessness differently and at different paces.”

Newport Beach Det. Cynthia Carter
Newport Beach Det. Cynthia Carter will be among 20 honorees at the Trauma Intervention Program of Orange County’s Heroes with Heart awards Thursday in Irvine.
(Courtesy of Newport Beach Police Department)

She has kept in touch with many of those she’s led to housing and said plans to continue doing so even after getting promoted from homeless liaison officer to detective two weeks ago. When TIP of O.C. asked her if she could think of anyone who might be able to benefit from charitable donations last winter, 32 people almost immediately came to mind.

“I think they look at us like family,” Carter said. “That might sound weird, but they still reach out to say: ‘Hey, I’m doing OK. Hey, I’m paying my rent. Hey, I’m struggling right now...’ so I had a good gauge of where people were.”

Carter said delivering bundles of desperately needed clothing, food or gift cards for supplies over the holidays were two of the best days of her time as an officer. Some wrote back to let her and the others responsible for the unexpected generosity know how much of a difference they made.

“The last time I saw you I was wearing a sleeping bag,” wrote Thomas Labrey, one of the people surprised over the holidays wrote. “I’m so grateful to all the people that helped me. I don’t know where I would be today.”

Community Resource Officer Jessica Lee was there for the family of a woman in her 90s when she suffered a seizure one afternoon last October and wound up barely breathing when she was taken to the hospital later that day. The officer had been on patrol duty when she was called to their home, and it became clear the woman’s husband, a man in his 80s, was especially struggling to come to terms with the situation.

“He felt hopeless that he couldn’t do anything for her,” Lee said. “It was sudden. They weren’t expecting any of this.”

Fountain Valley Community Resource Officer Jessica Lee
Fountain Valley Community Resource Officer Jessica Lee will be among 20 honorees at the Trauma Intervention Program of Orange County’s Heroes with Heart awards Thursday in Irvine.
(Courtesy of Fountain Valley Police Department)

She parted ways with them hoping for the best but learned when she followed up that evening that the woman had died. Lee decided to get TIP involved and came back to the longtime Fountain Valley couple’s home along with two volunteers, a card and flowers. The officer spent time listening to the elderly woman’s relatives reminisce and made sure they knew the department was available if they needed anything before leaving them to be with each other and trained volunteers.

“It’s pretty amazing the things they do for people,” Seal Beach Capt. Nick Nicholas said of TIP. “These people do it for free, entirely out of the kindness of their hearts. They go into horribly sad, tragic situations solely because they want to help people.

“Vicarious trauma is a real thing,” Nicholas added. “These volunteers are exposed to tragedies all the time, and the fact of the matter is, I know it can be as impactful on them as it is on some of these people experiencing this trauma.”

He said he has seen their team manage to make the family of a child who has died laugh shortly in the wake of that loss. Nemes said she has consoled relatives of people torn apart in traffic collisions and held a dying baby for a mother who “just needed a break” during her time as a volunteer.

“I don’t really exist when this stuff is going on,” she said. “I’m there as an extension of the client’s grief, sadness, apathy or, even for that matter, hate. It’s whatever they’re going through. If they’re sad, I’m sad. If they’re mad, I’m mad. If they believe in God then I believe in God, and if they don’t then I don’t either.”

Volunteer with the Trauma Intervention Program of Orange County, Kristen Nemes.
Biomolecular engineer and volunteer with the Trauma Intervention Program of Orange County, Kristen Nemes, smiles in Santa Ana Thursday, April 20.
(Eric Licas)

Comforting those in need takes many forms. And those who deliver it come in many forms.

This year is the first time TIP of O.C. is recognizing a canine emergency responder at its gala. Nicholas, along with his partner, Seal Beach Police Service Dog Yosa, are among the 2022 honorees. She is a Labrador/golden retriever mix who joined the department about two years ago and was specifically trained by Canine Companions to provide emotional support.

When a dispatcher learned that a child who was alone with two younger siblings in Cypress had called to report the death of her mother one morning, she notified Nicholas and suggested bringing Yosa to their home. The captain and K-9 found a hectic scene when they arrived, with emergency personnel focused on various tasks crisscrossing the area. It took a moment to find the woman’s three children seated with a few relatives in front of their home.

“One of them was a boy, maybe something like 3 or 4 years old,” Nicholas said. “I remember he just looked so small with all of these people and things going on around him. And here I come, I’m 6 foot 2, another big person lumbering up to him, but Yosa makes a beeline right to him.”

Yosa nuzzled up against the children, inviting them to pet him. Some smiled while she sat in her lap, demonstrated commands with Nicholas or just played.

Seal Beach Police Capt. Nick Nicholas and facility dog Yosa
Seal Beach Police Capt. Nick Nicholas and facility dog Yosa are among this years Heroes with Heart honorees.
(Courtesy of Seal Beach Police Department)

More information about the April 27 Heroes with Heart dinner and fundraiser can be found at