Over the past year, as communities across New Jersey and across the country faced a number of challenges caused by the pandemic, concerns over rioting due to racial injustice, and natural disasters, unsung heroes came forward to feed their neighbors comfort and educate and otherwise protect public health and safety.
Officials said at a virtual awards ceremony on Friday, May 7th, starting at 11:30 a.m., the Russell Berrie Foundation will support a number of these unsung heroes from across the Garden State for their compassion and selfless service to others during the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award.
The Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award has honored New Jersey residents for the past 25 years whose service to others and heroism have made a significant impact on the lives of others. This year there will be one grand prize of $ 50,000, four prizes of $ 25,000, and 14 prizes of $ 7,500. The award has now grossed $ 3.75 million, each with an inspiring story about how they made a difference.
“As challenging as 2020 has been for so many of us, these selfless people have responded to calls for help from their communities,” said Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation. “From activists fighting injustice and systemic inequalities to neighbors helping neighbors struggling during the pandemic, it is an honor to meet this remarkable group of people as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the awards and to celebrate the legacy of Russ. “
Ramapo College, New Jersey, administers the award program and the award ceremony on behalf of the Russell Berrie Foundation.
This year’s winners are:
Mr. Dionisio Cucuta Jr., also known as “Chef Dion” A military veteran from Teaneck and this year’s $ 50,000 winner is described as an irreplaceable asset to his community. Chef Dion realized that the COVID-19 pandemic was causing devastating food insecurity for many vulnerable residents of Bergen County and he took action. Drawing on his culinary background, he created Hot Wheels, hot dinners made from the ground up for families at the Bergan Family Center. He has since launched Table to Table Tuesday, a raw food distribution donated by the Table to Table Food Rescue Organization. Chef Dion has also been a longtime mentor to young people through the Disabled Combat Veterans Youth Program and the Englewood Culinary Cadets Program.
Mrs. Kim Gaddy of Newark has been on the frontline for environmental justice in New Jersey’s color communities for more than 20 years, starting in her own neighborhood, South Ward, where she raised three children who suffered from chronic asthma. That personal experience and the loss of her brother-in-law to a fatal asthma attack forced her to be a voice for communities affected by industrial pollution. After a decade of tenacious endorsement by Kim and other environmental leaders, New Jersey now has the toughest environmental justice legislation in the nation. In recognition of her staunch leadership, she received an award of $ 25,000.
Mr. Anthony Capuano of Jersey City was in the right place at the right time. As a lifeguard and swimming instructor, Anthony knew he couldn’t stand on the sidelines when he saw a car sink in Newark Bay with the driver trapped in it. The cold November water or even his prosthetic leg didn’t stop Anthony jumping into the water to save the driver – who was unknown to Anthony and couldn’t swim. His quick thinking, courage, and life-saving action earned him an award of $ 25,000.
Mrs. Maria Torres of Newark became manager of the pantry of the United Community Corporation’s Champion House a few weeks prior to the start of COVID-19. She was recently diagnosed with lupus. She was at extremely high risk, but never wavered in her commitment to the community. As lockdowns and unemployment led to a huge spike in food insecurity, the pantry served 150,000 people in 2020 – an increase of more than 1,000% over previous years. Maria receives a $ 25,000 award for her dedicated service.
Sister Frances Salemi of Jersey City has improved life for decades, and the students she has helped number in the thousands. On December 10, 2019, she and her staff saved the lives of her students when two attackers raided a grocery store across from the Sacred Heart School, where she is the headmistress. During the hours of shooting with the police, four people were killed and the school was riddled with bullets. Sister Frances received an award of $ 25,000.
The following award winners will receive $ 7,500:
Mrs. Donna YorkHillsborough is the founder of HARK ALS, which provides financial and emotional support to families affected by ALS. York’s daily exploits exemplify commitment, courage and leadership towards the ALS community.
Mr. Paul NickelsHackensack is the creator of the Homeless Resource Guide and a homeless advocate. Based on his own experiences, Paul offers a voice for those silenced by their struggles.
Mr. Larry AbramsCherry Hill, Founder of BookSmiles, is a literacy advocate fighting “book deserts” in South Jersey to ensure underserved children have their personal library at home to develop good literacy skills.
Mrs. Sheryl Olitzky, North Brunswick, is the founding director of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, whose mission is to build trust, respect and relationships between Muslim and Jewish teenage women and girls, with more than 175 chapters in the US, Canada and select European cities.
Rosa ZarembaSouth Plainfield, founder of the Mexican Alliance of New Jersey, helps young people in Latinx communities explore study and career opportunities by connecting them with mentors and learning opportunities.
Mr. Phil Stafford, Wallington, is the founder of NJ Food and Clothing Rescue. Grit and Herz fueled Phil’s volunteer efforts before and during COVID-19 to secure food and distribute it to vulnerable people at risk of falling through the cracks.
Mr. Paul Winslow, East Hanover, Founder of Students 2 Science, brings the public and private sectors together to transform the lives of students from underserved communities through STEM education with real applications and real solutions.
Affectionately known as “The Rescuers” (Mr. Kieran Foley, Joseph Dietrich, Drew Scalice, Ryan Day and Tyler Armagan), Middletown, these teenagers created a human chain to rescue two young children whose sleds went into an icy pond on a cold December day.
Mrs. Emma & Quinn Joy, South Orange, founder of Girls Helping Girls. Period., Address one of the most overlooked and least discussed issues low-income women face today – poverty in time. Emma and Quinn embody the spirit of making a difference while advocating and educating others to remove the stigma of menstrual health.
Mrs. Amanda EbokosiaNewark is the founder of the Gem Project, which informs young people about critical issues that affect their communities. Through activism and service learning, young people strengthen their leadership skills and the organization of communities.
Mrs. Wilhelmina HolderNewark is President of the Newark Secondary Parents Council. Decades after having children in the public education system, she continues to advocate justice and opportunity for young people at Newark Public Schools.
Mrs. Sharron MillerMontclair is the founder of the Sharron Miller Academy for the Performing Arts. For over 25 years, Sharon has been expanding access to art education for thousands of underserved young people in New Jersey – especially children with the color of skin.
Mr. Jerzy “Jerry” MaziarzElizabeth, his exceptional volunteering and compassion for those in need make Jerry an asset to the community. As a volunteer at the St. Joseph Social Service Center for over 19 years, Jerry makes a difference every day.
Mrs. Lynn Regan, Farmingdalefounded the CFC Loud N Clear Foundation after witnessing her loved ones’ agonizing struggle against addiction. She created a successful relapse prevention model that has helped thousands of young people sober up in the long term.
To find out more about each of the 2021 award winners and to register for the virtual celebration, visit www.ramapo.edu/berrie-awards/.