Among dozens of gleaming autos and teary-eyed supporters, area unsung heroes were honored Wednesday at the 13th annual Threads of Hope award ceremony.
Danville resident Melanie Buerke, founder of nonprofit SonRise Equestrian Foundation in Castro Valley, was one of six honorees to receive the Diablo magazine-sponsored award at the Blackhawk Auto Museum.
SonRise Equestrian Foundation gives free riding lessons to youths who face physical and emotional challenges and has given more than 600 lessons. The foundation offers three different programs for children to participate in, often times using horses that have also been abused or neglected.
"I don't deserve this," said Buerke, her voice quivering slightly. "Our volunteers do all the work...right now we have 12 of them, the horses."
According to an interview in Diabo , Buerke has had a life-long love affair with horses and turned to riding after her mother died four years ago. Since then, she has turned her passion into a full-time position helping and developing long-term relationships with kids.
"When they come to the ranch, they have no social skills," she said to Diablo. "It's like watching a rose open up. The horses don't judge them, so the kids can blossom in an environment that's nonjudgmental and that doesn't put them down."
It was SonRise's unique program and perspective that stood out among hundreds of applications, said Carole Wynstra, board president of the Diablo Theare Company and judge for the event.
"When I read the (Diablo) story and learned about the nonverbal child who opened up after riding, I was so touched," she said.
NBC news anchor and Mistress of Ceremonies Jessica Aguirre compared the work of the six volunteers to the spirit of the holiday season but noted "the nominees are people that give 24 hours a day, all year round, creating miracles that become the fabric of our community."
"I came to the event to applaud," said Elizabeth Cox, executive director for nonprofit The Gardens at Heather Farms. "75 percent of our workforce are volunteers so it's important to pay it forward and support other volunteer organizations."
The other award recipients were Cindy Everson, P.A.R. 4 Kid's Sake; Bill Cain, Rebuilding Together East Bay North; Susan Grey Mason, Blankies for Grown-ups; and John Coward and Dave Henderson, 5 Dollar A Month Club.
The ceremony ended with a surprise performance by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir who sang John Legend's "If you're out there" to an overjoyed audience.
For more information about SonRise and all honored organizations, visit Threads of Hope 2010.