Town Heroes is a profile series featuring people who grew up in Oakland and are making a positive contribution to their hometown. Know of someone who you think we should feature? Email

In 2017, Sabrina Valadez-Ríos was attending an outdoor picnic and staff retreat with LifeLong Medical Care in West Oakland. An assistant in the community health center’s HR department at the time, she noticed that her team had purchased too many blankets for employees. 

That’s when she had a thought: Why not distribute the extra blankets to those in need?

“I wrote a letter to our CEO asking if I could distribute the blankets, and he said yes. That was my first time ever organizing,” she recalled. “I loaded up my Camry with the boxes, and every time I drove around, I started giving them out.”

It was her first time organizing a blanket drive, but not the first time she’d helped people in need; Valadez-Ríos said she always carries bottled water, granola bars, and other essentials in her car to give to unhoused community members she encounters during her drives around Oakland. 

The impulse to help, she explained, is inspired by her own personal hardships, which began at an early age.

A childhood interrupted by tragedy

Valadez-Ríos was born in Berkeley and raised in West Oakland. She attended Prescott Elementary, went to middle school at Oakland Military Institute, a public charter, and high school at St. Elizabeth (now Cristo Rey De La Salle East Bay High School). 

Her mother’s family moved to West Oakland in the 1970s from Michoacan, México, and her father’s family migrated to West Oakland around the same time, from Jalisco. 

Growing up in West Oakland, Sabrina Valadez-Ríos participated in the Prescott Circus Theatre. Credit: courtesy Sabrina Valadez-Ríos Credit: courtesy Sabrina Valadez-Ríos

In 1998, her maternal grandfather bought a Victorian triplex at 1048 Peralta St., where she and her family lived for a time. Unbeknownst to her grandfather then, the home had a storied past: It was once the central headquarters of the Black Panther Party

“Whenever I tell people my story, they’re like, ‘Wow, you have activism in you,’” she said. “There’s a lot of history with my family in West Oakland.”

Valadez-Ríos, who still lives in West Oakland, fondly remembers what it was like growing up in the area, roaming up and down Peralta Street and outside her childhood home on Linden Street and getting treats from the local corner stores. “All the neighbors knew me,” she said. “I felt safe.” 

But those feelings of security were periodically interrupted by turmoil at home, she said. When she was 5, her mother took her and her younger brother to a shelter in San Leandro. Valadez-Ríos has vivid memories of the water, peanut butter, and moldy bread they were offered to eat there and the other mothers cramped on a small bed with their little kids.

“At such a young age, it stuck to me—you never know what a person is going through,” she said. “That moment started opening up my heart. I became more compassionate and empathetic.”

Sabrina Valadez-Ríos lost her father, Francisco Valadez, to gun violence when she was 11 years old. Credit: courtesy Sabrina Valadez-Ríos

Her life took an even more abrupt turn in 2008 when her father, 30-year-old Francisco Valadez, was shot and killed outside the family home on Linden Street. 

The trauma of losing her father at age 11 affected her focus at school, and her behavior began to change, too. She started hanging out with gang members and skipping school. Once a straight-A student, Veladez-Ríos says she barely graduated high school. 

She opted out of college, focusing instead on finding a full-time job. In her early 20s, she worked various jobs including at Smart & Final, Costco, and an optometry clinic. It was at the clinic that a patient told her about an opening at LifeLong Medical.

She applied, got the job, and began to grow within the company, eventually being promoted to a coordinator role where she helped organize health education events at neighborhood locations like the historic California Hotel. The job allowed her to get even more immersed in the neighborhoods she’d grown up in, and providing services felt gratifying. 

“I was giving back to my West Oakland community,” she said. 

As her career flourished—even without a college degree—she began reflecting on what her life would’ve been like if her dad were still alive. Before he was killed, he’d been taking community college courses with a plan to transfer to UC Berkeley. If he’d been around, Valadez-Ríos believes now, “I would’ve had my college degree.”

It was then that Valadez-Ríos made the decision to go back to school. 

For the past two years, Valadez-Ríos has balanced work with attending school full-time at Laney and Berkeley Community College. This fall, she’ll transfer to a four-year university to work on her bachelor’s degree. Like her dad, UC Berkeley is at the top of her list. 

“I want to finish what he started,” she said. “[I’m] tapping back into the childhood Sabrina who was getting straight A’s when my dad was alive.”

Sabrina Valadez-Ríos at Joaquin Miller Park as a youth and today. Credit: (left) courtesy Sabrina Valadez-Ríos, (right) Amir Aziz

In addition, she said, “the influences of those around me [at Lifelong and other organizations] and learning about their degrees” were a big factor in her decision to go to college.

One of her recent class assignments was to produce a podcast for her Chicano Latino Studies class. She decided to honor the memory of her father by interviewing those who knew and loved him. The result was a four-episode series titled, Still I Rise: A Memoir through Sound. Although the work was cathartic and helped channel her grief, Valadez-Ríos said she can no longer bring herself to listen to the episodes. 

“It’s beautiful to have the podcast; my family can access it,” she said. “It serves as a reminder to think of my dad in the good ways. But, it’s hard to think [about how] he was taken from us.”

Taking a cultural approach to health care at Freedom Community Clinic

While still navigating her grief and working at LifeLong Medical Care, Valadez-Ríos became involved with another local community health organization in 2019 when she met Dr. Bernie Lim, founder of the Freedom Community Clinic.

The clinic’s approach draws on both ancestral indigenous healing practices and Western medicine. It launched in 2019 with pop-up clinics in underserved Oakland neighborhoods and has since expanded to operate what the clinic calls “healing sanctuaries,” physical locations in West Oakland and Fruitvale where the clinic offers everything from doula care and herbal medicine to nutrition workshops, physical therapy, and HIV and STI education and testing. 

When Valadez-Ríos met Lim, the organization had just been formed, and its services were focused mainly on the unhoused community, with pop-up clinics offering medical check-ups, acupuncture, and health education. Valadez-Ríos jumped at the chance to volunteer. 

Sabrina Valadez-Ríos at a ‘Heal the Hood’ event in Oakland. Credit: courtesy Sabrina Valadez-Ríos

As she got more involved with the clinic’s efforts, she was given opportunities to organize more comprehensive events with services that extended beyond health care. 

“When I started wanting to volunteer, I didn’t know where to start,” Valadez-Ríos recalled. What she did know, is that she “wanted to provide that space for people looking to give back to the community.”

In October 2021, she helped launch an event series with Freedom Community Clinic called “Heal the Hood,” offering health and legal services, food, and more.

Despite the satisfaction she gets from helping to provide the assistance, Valadez-Ríos said the one-day events are only a drop in the bucket of what’s required to address the range of societal and systemic challenges impacting health in Oakland’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Finding solutions to things like poverty and the cost of housing, she said, is beyond what grassroots organizations can do. 

“Yes, it’s a beautiful day. Yes, we’re putting smiles on their faces. But at the end of the day, we’re packing up and we’re leaving,” she said. “It’s a temporary relief.” 

Her community work has allowed Valadez-Ríos to talk about her father’s death in a way that’s helping young people affected by what she calls the “public health crisis” of gun violence.

One such opportunity came last September after six people were injured during a mass shooting at Rudsdale High School on the King Estates campus in the East Oakland hills. One of the victims, David Sakurai, an OUSD carpenter, passed away a month later due to his injuries.

When Jose García, a staff member at Rusdsdale who manages safety initiatives, reached out to Freedom Community Clinic seeking support, Valadez-Ríos organized a healing event at the campus with grief counselors, acupuncture, and other healing services. 

“A lot of the kids just wanted to talk,” she said, but “many of them were newcomers who don’t speak English.” Even though she was initially only there to coordinate, Valadez-Ríos, who is bilingual, stepped in to talk to the kids.

She opened up to them about losing her dad to gun violence and about friends of hers who’d been shot and killed. One student told her about having nightmares ever since the campus shooting and how he could still hear the gunshots in his head. 

Sabrina Valadez-Ríos has helped organize pop-up health clinics around Oakland. Credit: courtesy Sabrina Valadez-Ríos

The conversation inspired Valadez-Ríos to do even more to help students at the school overcome their anger and trauma.

With the help of a $5,000 grant from the Department of Violence Prevention and another $10,000 grant that Mr. García received for the school, she began teaching an elective class last semester at Rudsdale called “Embodying Mindfulness.”

In the class, she said many of the students opened up about their traumas and spoke about times of the year when they experience sadness. She also facilitated a photo project in which the students were asked to take pictures of things that give them joy. 

Freedom Community Clinic has since become a vendor with Oakland Unified School District, which Valadez-Ríos hopes will allow her to secure funding to bring the class to other schools.

In the meantime, Valadez-Ríos said she plans to continue her community health work while carving out time to complete her degree. Along the way, she hopes her community-service journey will inspire others to embark on their own.

“Start looking at your life,” she said. “How are you helping your community?”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.