If you're planning to watch the Rose Parade on TV Monday, you should be aware of all the contributions from Kern County people – and from one cat. 

Tip your New Year's Day tiara to Sergio Gutierrez, a 2013 graduate of Delano’s Cesar Chavez High School who's now a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo mechanical engineering student. He was one of about 60 students from the SLO and Pomona campuses who worked on the college’s float this year.

Sound your New Year's Day kazoo for the Bakersfield members of Lions Club International, who helped out on that organization's float.

And lift a New Year's Day toast — milk of course — to one noteworthy non-human from Bakersfield. Tara, the Bakersfield feline whose 2014 saga of heroism, captured by her masters' home security cameras, became an internet sensation, will be on the Lucy Pet Foundation Paws For Life float along with her family.

But pay extra attention to the Donate Life float because it holds special significance for Bakersfield's Sophia Rivas and her family. The family volunteered to help put together the float in honor of her uncle Gabriel Martinez, who died in a car accident last March at 44.

Martinez was an organ, eye and tissue donor, and his body parts helped improve the health of six people. Martinez and other donors are recognized each year by Donate Life's parade float.

“It was an awesome experience. We were excited to be able to do it,” Rivas said of working on the float. “We also got to talk with other people who have been through what we’ve been through. We were all emotional together, talking about loved ones we’ve lost.”

Rivas said she and other members of her family were invited by the Donate Life float committee to come assist with the construction of the float, which has a tropical Aztec theme featuring trees adorned with perched macaws. The float is one of 40 in this year’s parade; some 20 marching bands and 20 equestrian units are in it too.

Working on the float helped cap a difficult year for Rivas and her family. She said she was very close with her uncle, who delivered petroleum for Grapevine Oil.

“He was funny and outgoing. Anywhere he went, he was the life of the party,” she said. “If you met him, it would be like you had known him forever. He would give the shirt off his back for anybody.”

After her uncle’s death, Rivas said, her family received letters from people throughout California who had benefited from Martinez’s donations and wanted to express their gratitude. Rivas said one of them had been on a waiting list for a transplant for years and that her uncle’s liver and one of his kidneys strongly improved the quality of her life.

“It was very emotional for us reading the letters,” she said. “Some people never know who the organs go to.”

The letters were sent to the family through OneLegacy, a nonprofit organization that handles organ, eye and tissue donation in the Los Angeles area. They also sponsor the Donate Life float.

Rivas said she hopes to form a yearly family tradition of helping with the float. She said she plans to get more family members involved.

She’ll be watching the parade at home on TV, but Rivas said she hopes to be able to attend one day.

“It’s a beautiful parade,” she said. “The floats are magnificent. It’s awesome.”

Past parades

Bakersfield resident Jim Darling and his wife Nona aren’t involved in this year’s Rose Parade, but they have had a lot of experience with it over the years.

The couple first got involved around 1993. At that time, Jim Darling worked in public relations for Cal Spas and was asked by the owner at the time to oversee a Cal Spas float.

“I had never been to the Rose Parade before that time,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it, but it turned out to be a great experience. It’s the most fun you can have and still get paid.”

Darling said he was responsible for approving designs, interviewing companies to build the float and more. The float had a floral theme, with many different types of flowers as well as some trees, animals and other elements.

“It’s a long process. You have to start far in advance,” he said. “It was chaotic."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Los Angeles Lakers star, rode on the float. The Hall of Fame center was a customer of Cal Spas and knew the owner.

Darling directed another float for Cal Spas for the 1995 parade. After that, he took a break until 1997, when he directed the production of a float in recognition of Bakersfield’s 100th birthday, which was featured in the 1998 parade.

“I met with the centennial committee and I told them that I had some experience in doing [Rose Parade] floats and I wanted to produce one to celebrate the centennial,” he said. “I loved the exposure that we got for Cal Spas and I thought it would be great for our city.”

The committee liked the idea, but there was a problem – there was no budget for a float. Darling took it upon himself to raise the $100,000 that would be needed to fund it. To raise money, he sold calendars as well as spots to ride on the float.

Darling was able to make enough money to fund a float, which featured a rabbit, lamb and a frog.

Olympic gold medalists Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias, who had ties to Bakersfield at that time, agreed to be on the float. Darling said he and his family got to ride on the float with them.

Although Jim Darling initially got involved in doing floats as part of his job, he grew to love the experience. He and his wife have volunteered to help with floats on and off since 1998 for organizations such as the Rotary Club International and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

“The parade is such a great tradition,” he said. “The amount of details that goes into these floats is jaw-dropping. The TV doesn’t do it justice. I’m thankful that I got to meet so many great people.”

Nona Darling said helping with floats, especially the Bakersfield Centennial one, has been a great experience for her as well.

“We’ve gotten to do things on a national level and put a spotlight on my hometown. It makes me feel good,” she said. “It’s been exciting to be part of putting together something so beautiful.”

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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