19 ‘unsung heroes’ recognized with Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award

When the COVID-19 pandemic clobbered New Jersey, creating devastating food insecurity for many vulnerable residents in Bergen County, Dionisio Cucuta jumped into action.

Cucuta, a Marine Corps veteran from Teaneck known as “Chef Dion,” created Hot Wheels, hot dinners prepared from scratch for families at Bergen Family Center. He has since created Table to Table Tuesday, a raw food distribution donated by the Table to Table food rescue organization, which has packed and delivered more than 300,000 tons of organic raw food.

Cucuta, a longtime mentor to young people through the Disabled Combat Veterans Youth Program and Englewood’s Culinary Cadets program, will be honored for his efforts with a Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award next month.

Cucuta will receive the top honor, a $50,000 award that can be used to help him in his efforts.

The Berrie awards, in their 25th year, were created to recognize unsung heroes from across the Garden State whose outstanding service to others and heroic acts make a substantial impact on the lives of others.

In addition to the top prize of $50,000, there will be four awards of $25,000 and 14 awards of $7,500. The award has now given $3.75 million to 380 people, each of whom has an inspiring story to tell about how they made a difference.

Russell Berrie Foundation President Angelica Berrie said this year’s honorees truly stepped up during a time of unprecedented need.

“As challenging as 2020 was for so many of us, these selfless individuals answered their communities’ call for help,” she 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. This year’s awardees:

The $50,000 honoree:

  • Dionisio Cucuta Jr., aka “Chef Dion,” a military veteran from Teaneck, is described as an irreplaceable asset to his community.

The following honorees will receive $25,000 awards:

  • Kim Gaddy of Newark has spent more than 20 years on the frontlines 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 tenacious advocacy by Gaddy and other environmental leaders, New Jersey now has the strongest environmental justice legislation in the nation. In recognition of her steadfast leadership, she is the recipient of a $25,000 award.
  • Anthony Capuano of Jersey City was in the right place at the right time. As a lifeguard and swim instructor, Capuano knew he couldn’t stand on the sidelines as he saw a car sinking in the Newark Bay with the driver trapped inside. The cold November water or even his prosthetic leg didn’t stop Capuano from jumping into the water to save the driver — who, unknown to Capuano, could not swim. His quick thinking, bravery and lifesaving action earned him a $25,000 award.
  • Maria Torres of Newark became the manager of United Community Corp.’s Champion House food pantry just weeks before the onset of COVID-19. Recently diagnosed with lupus, she was at extremely high risk, 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% over prior years. Torres will receive a $25,000 award for her dedicated service.
  • Sister Frances Salemi of Jersey City has improved lives for decades, and the students she has helped number in the thousands. On Dec. 10, 2019, she and her staff saved the lives of their students as two attackers ambushed a grocery store across the street from Sacred Heart School, where she serves as principal. In the hours-long shootout with police that ensued, four people were killed, and the school was riddled with bullets. Sister Frances is the recipient of a $25,000 award.

The following honorees will receive $7,500 awards:

  • Donna York, Hillsborough, is founder of HARK ALS, which provides financial and emotional support for families affected by ALS. York’s daily acts of heroism exemplify commitment, courage and leadership to the ALS community.
  • Paul Nickels, Hackensack, is the creator of Homeless Resource Guide and an advocate for the homeless. Pulling from his own experiences, Paul provides a voice for those who have been silenced by their struggles.
  • Larry Abrams, Cherry Hill, founder of BookSmiles, is a champion of literacy working to combat “book deserts” in South Jersey to ensure that underserved children have their personal library at home to help develop good literacy skills.
  • Sheryl Olitzky, 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 175-plus chapters in the US, Canada, and select European cities.
  • Rosa Zaremba, South Plainfield, founder of Mexican Alliance of New Jersey, helps young people in Latinx communities explore college and career options by connecting them with mentors and learning opportunities.
  • Phil Stafford, Wallington, is founder of N.J. Food and Clothing Rescue. Grit and heart have fueled Stafford’s volunteer efforts before and during COVID-19 to secure and redistribute food to vulnerable individuals at risk of falling through the cracks.
  • Paul Winslow, East Hanover, founder of Students 2 Science, brings together the public and private sectors to change the life trajectory of students from underserved communities through STEM education with real-world applications and real-world solutions.
  • Affectionally known as “The Rescuers” (Kieran Foley, Joseph Dietrich, Drew Scalice, Ryan Day and Tyler Armagan), Middletown, these teens created a human chain to save two small children whose sled entered an icy pond on a cold December day.
  • Emma & Quinn Joy, South Orange, founders of Girls Helping Girls. Period., address one of the most overlooked and underdiscussed issues facing low-income women today — period poverty. The Joys embody the spirit of making a difference while advocating and educating others to erase the stigma surrounding menstrual health.
  • Amanda Ebokosia, 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, 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, Montclair, is founder of Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts. For over 25 years, Miller has expanded arts education access for thousands of underserved N.J. young people — primarily children of color.
  • Jerzy “Jerry” Maziarz, Elizabeth — his exceptional volunteerism and compassion for those in need makes Maziarz an asset to the community. As a volunteer with St. Joseph Social Service Center for over 19 years, Maziarz chooses to make a difference every day.
  • Lynn Regan, Farmingdale, founded CFC Loud N Clear Foundation after witnessing her loved one’s agonizing struggle with addiction. She created a successful relapse prevention model that has helped thousands of young people achieve long-term sober living.