MAHWAH, NJ — This past year, as communities across New Jersey and the country faced an array of challenges caused by the pandemic, concern over racial injustice unrest and natural disasters, unsung heroes stepped up to help feed, comfort and educate their neighbors, and in other ways protect public health and safety.
On Friday, May 7, at a virtual awards ceremony starting at 11:30 a.m., the Russell Berrie Foundation will recognize a number of these unsung heroes from across the Garden State for their compassion and selfless dedication to others during the 25th-anniversary celebration of the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award.
For 25 years, the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award has honored New Jersey residents whose outstanding service to others and heroic acts make a substantial impact on the lives of others. A top prize of $50,000, four awards of $25,000 and 14 awards of $7,500 will be presented this year.
“As challenging as 2020 was for so many of us, these selfless individuals answered their communities’ call for help,” foundation President Angelica Berrie said. “From activists fighting injustice and systemic inequities to neighbors helping neighbors struggling during the pandemic, it’s an honor to celebrate this remarkable group of individuals as part of our 25th-anniversary celebration of the awards and Russ’ legacy.”
Ramapo College of New Jersey manages the awards program and ceremony on behalf of the Russell Berrie Foundation. Among this year’s awardees receiving $25,000 are:
- Kim Gaddy, of Newark, has spent more than 20 years on the front lines fighting for environmental justice in New Jersey communities of color, starting in her own South Ward neighborhood where she raised her three children who suffered from chronic asthma. That personal experience and losing her brother-in-law to a fatal asthma attack compelled her to be a voice for communities impacted by industrial pollution. After a decade of advocacy by Gaddy and other environmental leaders, New Jersey now has the strongest environmental justice legislation in the nation.
- Maria Torres, of Newark, became the manager of United Community Corporation’s Champion House food pantry just weeks before the onset of COVID-19. Recently diagnosed with lupus, she was at extremely high risk of contracting COVID-19, yet never wavered in her commitment to the community. As lockdowns and unemployment led to a huge rise in food insecurity, the pantry served 150,000 people in 2020 — an increase of more than 1,000 percent from prior years
These following honorees will receive $7,500 awards:
- Sheryl Olitzky, of North Brunswick, is founding director of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, whose mission is to build trust, respect, and relationships between Muslim and Jewish women and teenage girls, with more than 175 chapters in the United States, Canada and select European cities.
- Emma and Quinn Joy, of South Orange, founded Girls Helping Girls. Period., which addresses one of the most overlooked and underdiscussed issues facing low-income women today: period poverty. The Joy sisters embody the spirit of making a difference while advocating and educating others to erase the stigma surrounding menstrual health.
- Amanda Ebokosia, of Newark, is founder of The Gem Project, which educates young people about critical issues affecting their communities. Through activism and service-learning, youth strengthen skills of leadership and community organizing.
- Wilhelmina Holder, of Newark, is president of Newark Secondary Parents Council. Decades after having children in the public education system, she continues to advocate for equity and opportunity for young people in Newark Public Schools.
- Sharron Miller, of Montclair, is founder of Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts. For more than 25 years, she has expanded arts education access for thousands of underserved N.J. young people, primarily children of color.
To learn more about each of the 2021 honorees and to register for the virtual celebration, visit www.ramapo.edu/berrie-awards/.