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URMC / Strong Memorial Hospital / Friends of Strong / The Best of Friends Blog / July 2018 / From Patient to Volunteer: Richard Perez Receives National Award for Excellence in Public Service

From Patient to Volunteer: Richard Perez Receives National Award for Excellence in Public Service

Friends of Strong transplant volunteer Richard Perez speaks about the importance of organ donation and transplant after receiving the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Awards for Outstanding Public Service.Long-time Friends of Strong volunteer and liver transplant recipient, Richard Perez, had spent two days in Washington D.C. exchanging inspirational stories with dozens of unsung heroes from across the nation when he found himself sitting at the iconic Mayflower Hotel. He was thinking about the public service volunteers he had met when the award ceremony began, which recognized the very best among them for their efforts to make positive, lasting changes in their communities. Richard was caught off-guard when his son pulled him back to the present. “Dad, they’re talking about you,” Rich Jr. whispered to his father.

Suddenly, Richard heard former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan call him to the podium to accept one of only five Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Awards for Outstanding Public Service Benefitting Local Communities. The award is given out each year by the Jefferson Awards Foundation, the nation’s most prestigious and longest-standing organization dedicated to inspiring and celebrating public service.

Richard Perez and his son, Rich Jr., cheese it up at the Jefferson Awards Foundation ceremony at Washington D.C.'s iconic Mayflower Hotel.Throughout the years, Richard has helped more than 700 liver transplant recipients, 2,000 people who have undergone a transplant evaluation and innumerable family members who have turned to him for reassurance. They come from all over Upstate New York and Northern Pennsylvania. “These patients often wait years for a lifesaving donor organ to become available,” said Roberto Hernandez- Alejandro, M.D., director of Solid Organ Transplant at Strong Memorial Hospital. “He knows and understands the patient perspective and he provides a level of reassurance that is different from that of our clinical team members.”

For those who’ve come to know Richard well throughout the past 14 years, his recognition among the very best volunteers in our country comes only as a mild surprise. “With all his service here at Strong Hospital and throughout our community, Richard brings awareness to the importance of organ donation and boosts up those he meets and volunteers with every day,” said Sandy Arbasak, Friends of Strong Director. “His unwavering determination to bring forth the good in others is, undoubtedly, just one reason he received this prestigious recognition.”

Each year Rochester’s ESL Federal Credit Union and News10NBC team up in support of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, inviting the community to nominate unsung heroes who, every day, work to create a positive difference in the lives of others. Richard first was chosen as one of five people from our area to receive a 2018 ESL Jefferson Award. He then was selected as the one honoree to represent our region at the national ceremony in Washington D.C., where he received the prestigious medal named in honor of the former First Lady who co-founded the Foundation.

Giving Back, to Help Save Lives

Throughout his life, 63-year-old Webster resident Richard Perez feels blessed by the love and support he’s received from the Rochester community. His list of blessings include a serendipitous career in retail and then financial security and starting a family with his late wife, Maria, which led to their son and recently twin grandsons. But among his greatest gifts, Richard says, is a life-saving liver transplant in 2003 at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital (SMH).

Given a rare second chance at life, he embarked on a new mission and purpose—to help educate our community about organ donation and transplant, as well as providing comfort, support and comradery to fellow transplant patients. Even before he received his own transplant, Richard seemed to know, intuitively, that there was a need in Rochester’s Donate Life community—a calling—that he wanted to fill. “I was sitting across the table from my surgeon, Dr. Mark Orloff, listening to the prognosis, and learned how contingent my survival was on a donor and how rare that there would be a viable liver available, given that participation in the organ donor registry is so low,” he remembers. “I asked him right then if there was anything I could do to help change that.”

By June 2004, while he was busily helping raise awareness and get folks registered as organ donors, he also expanded an official volunteer program with SMH’s Friends of Strong to help comfort patients and families who were now experiencing the same transplant journey that he and his family had also traveled. Since then, he’s volunteered more than 5,000 hours at SMH to make their lives just a little more bright.

The transplant volunteer program, with Richard leading the charge, now includes at least eight volunteers at any given time—all of whom are fellow organ transplant recipients who can offer comfort, hope and inspiration to those who face the same daunting obstacles they themselves have overcome.

Richard continues volunteering throughout the Rochester area to help bring greater awareness and support for organ donation. He works tirelessly to recruit those he meets to register for the New York State Donate Life Registry, and over the past six years, he has become one of Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network’s most stalwart volunteers. According to the organization, which coordinates organ donations at 36 hospitals throughout the Finger Lakes, Central and Northern New York regions, the percentage of registered organ donors in our local region has grown from 27 percent to almost 40 percent in the time since Richard joined in their efforts. “This accomplishment can be attributed, in large part, to the hard work of our volunteers—particularly Richard Perez,” says Rob Kochik, executive director of Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network.

“This has been an amazing experience,” Richard says. “I am extremely honored to receive this award, and it’s really thanks to everyone around me for making it possible. All organ donors, my fellow volunteers, the staff at Friends of Strong, the Organ Transplant programs at Strong Memorial Hospital, Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, Harborhouse, Karen Guarino from Lions Eye Bank Rochester, my fellow transplant recipients from across upstate New York and beyond. I’m so incredibly thankful for everyone’s support.”

About Friends of Strong
Friends of Strong is a dynamic volunteer organization enhancing the health care experience for patients, families and visitors throughout Strong Memorial Hospital. Together with more than 1,300 volunteers who collectively serve approximately 142,000 hours annually, we help create a comfortable, healing experience for patients and their loved ones. We push wheelchairs, we help patients find where they’re going, we provide pet therapy and much, much more.
In addition to our volunteer program, we work together with our community leadership council and others to raise funds in support of patient- and family-centered care throughout the hospital. Since 1975, we’ve given more than $16 million to departments and programs throughout UR Medicine's Strong Memorial Hospital.
 
About the Jefferson Awards Foundation
The Jefferson Awards Foundation (JAF) powers others to have maximum impact on the things they care about most. They are the largest multiplier of public service in America. Through celebration, they inspire action. With programs and partnerships, they drive Americans to change their communities and the world. They are celebrating 46 years of powering public service. To learn more about the Jefferson Awards Foundation, visit: JeffersonAwards.org.
 
Photos courtesy of Joy Asico/AP Images for Jefferson Awards Foundation.

Matt Ulakovic | 7/10/2018

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