The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce held its 17th annual New Heroes Celebration on Wednesday to welcome almost 50 new heroes to the Santa Monica community as well as present its Inspiration Hero award for the second year in a row.
The reception, held at the JW Marriott Santa Monica Le Merigot, welcomed a mix of new educators, police officers, and firefighters.
As part of the event, a representative from each respective organization introduced their new employees to more than a hundred people from the local business community.
This year’s Inspirational Hero award was presented to SMPD Officer Roberto Villegas.
The inaugural award was given last year posthumously to Norm Lacey who was a football coach and educator at Santa Monica High School and St. Monica’s High for many years.
Villegas started his career as a Santa Monica police officer on May 29, 1998.
In June 1999, he requested and was granted the assignment of Explorer Post Adviser, which is a position he still holds today and takes on during his days off when he’s not working with his K9 partner, Nero.
In this role as an Explorer Post Adviser, Villegas meets weekly with young men and women interested in a career in law enforcement to help further develop their competency and prepare them for competitions, work details, and potential career opportunities.
“I enjoy working with the explorers especially when I see a rough diamond enter the program and they come out as a mature, grown person,” Villegas said. “One of the best parts of the job is when I pull over a car and ask for a unit for back-up and I turn around and it’s a young man or a young woman that a few years ago was a little kid that came into my program, and now they are the ones backing me up on calls and being there for me.”
Among the new SMPD officers welcomed at Wednesday’s celebration was Daniel Diaz. Now 26 years old, Diaz was one of Villegas’ explorers when he was part of the program between the ages of 14 and 21.
Diaz said Villegas was a big role model for him during his teenage years and the Explorers program cemented his desire to become an officer.
“It’s a gateway to learn exactly what police officers do,” Diaz said. “From special events to community service to going on ride-alongs with officers, I got to interact with the community as part of the program,” Diaz said.
Among the educators welcomed at the celebration were new employees to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and a handful of private schools/institutions.
The Santa Monica Police and Fire Departments each welcomed a handful of new police and firemen.
Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce president Laurel Rosen said the New Heroes Celebration was her favorite event of the year.
“You look around and this is the community, this is all your police, all your fire, all your teachers, and the businesses interacting with them all,” Rosen said.
“You get all these young people who are brand new to the community. I don’t know any other city where they actually acknowledge, welcome, and celebrate their new employees.”