5th Annual Queens Impact Awards Honor Unsung Heroes

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Once again TimesLedger  Newspapers has recognized wonderful people in Queens area of New York who have made impact in humanity with lifesaving initiatives, and all, behind the scenes.

The TimesLedger Newspapers is a chain of award-winning weekly newspapers that cover the borough of Queens, America’s  most ethnically diverse county. The papers deliver a steady stream of breaking news, neighborhood stories, features, political analysis, crime and enterprise projects.

This year the paper dug out the borough’s unsung heroes who volunteer and work outside the public eye, rescuing vulnerable residents and inspiring youngsters to reach for the gold ring against quite often, formidable odds.

The 26 honorees in this year’s awards share remarkable motivation to help others. We have profiled a few of this year’s Impact winners. Their stories are quite inspiring.

While many kids spend their free time playing hours of video games, Gabriel Gonzalez of Middle Village spends some of his doing stuff that most 10-year-olds wouldn’t choose to do.

Back in January, the compassionate PS/IS 87 fourth-grader organized a local coat drive for the second straight year with his mother Mati Gonzalez. The “Team Life Changers” duo were surprised with the outcome. They collected a total of 143 coats (they received 223 the first year) at two drop-off locations: his school and Ultimate Champions Tae Kwon Do in Maspeth. Several bags were brought to New York Cares, which holds an annual coat drive.

So many New Yorkers in need enjoyed a warmer winter thanks to the team’s efforts. It was a teaching moment for Mati Gonzalez’s son, who has discovered firsthand what giving back really feels like.                              Gabriel Gonzalez

The youngster said it all started when he asked his mom to buy a coat for a 4-year-old boy and girl. “My baby brother was 4, so I wanted to give to 4-year-olds. I asked my grandparents and my mom to ask some friends to give coats, and my mom told me that what I was looking to do was a coat drive. I just wanted to help people in need. After a very cold winter day… thinking that people, especially children, didn’t have coats made me sad and I wanted to help.”

Gabriel described his brother as “very funny” and “the best gift I’ve ever been given,” and added, “My mommy gives good advice and makes good points. She has taught me to be a better person and is always teaching me positive things. And my dad teaches me about what I like, specifically Marvel. He’s taught me to love and appreciate comic books. We have a lot of fun playing Star Wars with our light sabers.”

During this second year of the coat drive, the team also collected money for One Warm Coat, which gives two coats for every dollar donated, so they were able to raise $750, which means that 1,500 people got warm coats.

“So, in two years, we’ve been able to help almost 2,000 people. That’s almost 2,000 lives changed,” said Gabriel. “As long as people have coats to donate, there will be a third coat drive.” More coats have already been collected.

Neighbors find Gabriel’s work very inspiring, according to the youngster. “My friends think it’s cool that they know someone that’s been in a newspaper and they think is famous. I never wanted to be famous, I just wanted to help. They help by donating coats also.”

He says his neighborhood is “special” because so many people have supported the coat drive.

You may have guessed that this special kid is a good student, as well.

“I enjoy being in class and learning,” said Gabriel, whose favorite subjects are math and science. In his free time, he likes playing golf and practices Tae Kwon Do at the Ultimate Champions Tae Kwon Do in Maspeth. “I’m part of the student staff in my school and like helping the younger kids. I also like to draw Marvel characters and animals.”

Barbara Bell’s long and difficult road from addiction to healing can be measured in baby steps. 

After years of pain and suffering, a strong, empowered woman has emerged, one who has found her calling: helping others beat addiction and find their way. The Far Rockaway resident has made a real difference in her community and beyond as a trained recovery coach.

A dark past shaped who this Queens Impact Awards honoree would become. Bell has embraced the valuable lessons she learned the hard way and moved on. As her demons faded, she found clarity, strength and a strong commitment to staying the course. These days, she remains positive and is keeping the faith.

Born and raised in Jamaica, Bell remembers a good, family-oriented childhood. Young Barbara was a churchgoer who went to dance school and belonged to a Brownie troop.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Barbara Bell

But in her teens, a life of partying led to an unexpected pregnancy. She dropped out of school and became a struggling single mom in the early ‘80s. A cocaine habit evolved into a crack addiction and eventually Bell found herself behind bars. Between crises, she was homeless.

After being released from prison in 2000, she knew it was time to turn her life around, so she entered various drug rehab programs. In 2001, during her fourth recovery program, she finally achieved her goal of sobriety, which she has since maintained.

In 2010, life threw her another curve when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Leaving her job as a recovery coach in 2013, Bell took time off to focus on her health before starting a new chapter.

She recently graduated from a city program that connects unemployed or underemployed New Yorkers in recovery to full-time positions as peer advocates with NYC Health + Hospitals facilities. SBS Certified Recovery Peer Advocate Training Program graduates can support, guide, and motivate those who are seeking or sustaining recovery from substance abuse.

Thanks to the program, Bell was able to reach out to others with shared experience and work toward the same goals. She credits the program with helping her become a better person and after four-plus years out of the workforce has accepted an offer for a position in an emergency department.

She sees this as an opportunity to follow her passion in a meaningful way.

“I am excited about this position and new journey as a CRPA, not as a counselor, but helping someone as a peer,” she said. “I know what it is to feel rejected and not loved and wanting to give up.”

Everyone has a cross to bear, but the trick is to keep moving forward and never look back.

 Ridgewood native Carmin Caterina has been a champion of empowering young women in the borough for years, working with girls in the school system through her organization, Lessons for my

Daughters.

Caterina, a speech language pathologist, has worked with inner-city children in the public school system and was inspired to start the organization after spending a year home-schooling her two daughters.

“I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who asked ‘Why don’t you make some videos about the lessons you would leave your own daughters?’ and really in that conversation, Lesson for my Daughters was born,” Caterina said. “I didn’t make any videos, but I started writing about all the things I had learned up until that point and the                                                                                                                                                Carmin Caterina

things that had taken me so long to learn — really just powerful, universal truths about life. We spend so much money on self-development, but why isn’t this part of the regular curriculum in addition to the academics? The part about just being human and being happy, having empathy and compassion.”

Caterina teaches the girls in her program mental habits for keeping a positive mindset and has been running Lessons for my Daughters since 2015. The organization is gaining traction with elected officials who have been supportive.

She recently started a partnership with Ridgewood Savings Bank with the ultimate goal of bringing the benefits of her program to the community she grew up in, particularly Grover Cleveland High School.

Ridgewood Savings has been an active supporter of Lessons for my Daughters, helping it remain a free service for schools that lack funding to pay for empowerment programs.

“Across the board, all the girls have the same sort of needs that are universal and also needs that are new because of social media,” Caterina said. “So the program really focuses on self-confidence and self-esteem, but also a lot about mindset and giving girls the tools they need to live a happy life: positive decision-making, self-care, things that we don’t really talk about.”

Caterina’s program is unlike any other, she said, because it teaches girls to think for themselves and give them concrete tools to navigate their adolescence and the anxieties that go along with it.

Students keep a work log as they go through the program, which Caterina encourages them to refer back to in times of duress.

“There’s a lot of research on how social/emotional learning is tied to so many other things besides just happiness, but also academics and whether or not they’ll graduate or turn to drugs or engage in self-harm,” Caterina said.

While the program mostly operates out of Grover Cleveland, Caterina is working with other schools to expand Lessons for my Daughters.

Brianna Ferranti is being honored for the difference the toy drives she organizes have made for underprivileged children in her Howard Beach community.

The 25-year-old pre-K teacher set the gears in motion to collect toys for distribution at food pantries and hospitals after seeing news stories about the struggles of low-income families and enlisted the help of her neighbors to bring joy to the borough’s youth during the winter holiday season and Easter.

Ferranti explained how a simple idea snowballed into a much bigger initiative with widespread support.

“I started getting the kids from the neighborhood to help me and saw the positive reaction I was getting. It was making the kids happy and                                                                                                                                             Brianna Ferranti

families were getting involved. It just started becoming a community-wide effort,” Ferranti said.

Ferranti does not act alone. She enlists the help of family and friends in her endeavor and works out of her home. During her November “Acts of Kindness” toy drive, Ferranti collected up to 300 toys for Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park and St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Bayside, which were distributed by hospital staff to children in the hospital.

In the weeks leading up to Easter, Ferranti collected 160 baskets with toys, especially clothes, stuffed animals, Easter candy and plastic eggs, which were wrapped and distributed throughout the Howard Beach area at food pantries like the River Fund in Ozone Park.

“I try to stay in the Queens area. I want to help the community, but eventually I will branch out,” Ferranti said.

Ferranti issues her own newsletter to parents at the school where she works to drive engagement with families in the area and started a Facebook page for “Acts of Kindness.”

Ferranti is currently going to school for a degree in speech pathology at Queens College, but between her classes and her full-time job as a teacher at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy, she plans to keep the momentum going to bring smiles to children in her community and eventually across the city.

“I plan to make this into a big non-profit organization,” Ferranti said. “I can’t imagine getting any bigger right now, because I’m so young and I’m doing it by myself, but the plan is to get more people involved and on my side.”

Henry Foster, a retired home-care contract manager for the city of New York, is a lifelong tenant and community organizer.

For 30 years, the St. Albans resident used his spare time to give back to his community and to help those in Long Island City, the Bronx and Coney Island do the same for theirs.

In Queens, he has been a major force at Kiwanis International, the 198th Street Block Association, the Hollis Avenue Merchants Association and the Hollis Local Development Corporation, to name a few.

As a member of the East Elmhurst branch of Kiwanis, an international service club, Foster helped provideChristmas baskets for families in the shelter system there.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Henry Foster

His family includes Claudette Foster, his wife of 32 years, six children 14 grand kids and one great-grandchild.

Over the years he has involved his family in community service.

“I want them to learn to contribute back [to the community],” said Foster.

When it came to guiding kids outside his family to participate in community service, Foster looked to the work of former state Sen. (1975-1982) and U.S. Rep Major Owens (D-Brooklyn) as an example.

“How he organized things and his foresight in developing programs to educate young people was an inspiration,” said Foster. “He always saw young people as assets to the community.”

One of Foster’s ways of helping youth was his work with the 198th Street Block Association, where the 69-year-old sponsored Little League baseball teams in Cambria Heights and St. Albans.

The 198th Street Block Association also sponsored the Flushing Meadow Soap Box Derby, an event which Foster has been the director of for 17 years. Throughout the years, the local race has sent representatives to the national youth car-racing event.

As a member of the Hollis Local Development Corp., he has helped send several students to colleges with the group’s scholarship program.

To support the merchants in the nearby town of Hollis, Foster created the Hollis Merchants Association and has sponsored clean-up programs along the Hollis Avenue corridor.

Foster has also has had an impact on schools in the borough.

At Vaughn College in East Elmhurst, he collaborated with the higher institution and shared his administrative skills with the school to develop a STEM program he also sponsored.

Foster is also a highly respected officer at the Antioch Baptist Church in Flushing and conducts the Bible School program in the summer and the after-school tutorial programs, too.

“Community service is very important to me,” Foster said. “Practically my whole life I have been involved in community service. It helps to build up the community and galvanize the young people and makes sure that they too give back.”

 When Amna Javid came to this country from Pakistan in 1997 with a 9-month-old daughter, she did not intend to become a community advocate for children’s safety in the water.

But when she lost a child to a drowning incident, she became a proponent for change.

The Little Neck resident was on a camping trip with her three little girls when her youngest, Fajr, gave up her life vest to another child and drowned in a nearby body of water.

The Fajr Memorial Foundation was born at that moment and since then the 2010 tragedy has focused on tackling the issue of drowning, one of the leading causes of childhood deaths, according to the CDC, by teaching youngsters, especially those with a Muslim background, to swim.                                                                                                                             Amna Javid

“It was quite a difficult time in our lives and we all decided we needed to do something positive for society and the community,” Javid said. “So I started this foundation in memory of my daughter and I started teaching children and students water safety and drowning prevention education.”

For the last seven years, the Fajr Foundation has been renting a swimming pool from the Boys Club in Flushing and teaches these skills using paid teachers as well as volunteers to educate the people of Queens on the dangers water poses to children.

“I am Muslim and when my girls were younger, I never found a swimming program appropriate for them, because everywhere they had to wear a bikini or there was a dress code that was not appropriate for a Muslim girl,” Javid said. “After losing her, I realized there were more religions where dress code is an issue. We started this and it’s open for all religions — males and females.”

Javid, who migrated to the United States to reunite her family with her husband — an NPYD sergeant — said she would like to expand her program, but finds obstacles because many swimming pools have dress code requirements that go against Islam’s practices. This is a problem felt in some Jewish communities as well, and Javid said the two religions at times come together in the foundation’s program.

The Fajr Foundation has grown significantly over the years, with about 200 to 300 children going through the program annually. Each session has about 25 to 30 children and offers a scholarship opportunity for low-income New Yorkers who cannot afford other programs.

“[Fajr] took off her life vest and gave it to a younger girl and told her, ‘You need it more than me,’” Javid said. “Every time I think about her and my goals, it serves the community because they need this more than me.”

Javid said the nationwide issue of childhood drowning is not well-known, despite being the top cause of death for children under the age of 4, according to the CDC.

She said it is difficult to draw the public’s attention to this issue and her attempts to reach out to elected officials for support have been fruitless.

There are defining moments in life when it seems as if the universe is testing you.

Kindell Keyes, an assistant manager at Goodwill’s Long Island City thrift store, at 4747 Van Dam St., may have experienced such a moment last summer when she found a donated purse filled with over $39,000.

The Far Rockaway resident made headlines last year because of her reaction. After opening the black handbag and finding an envelope with an address on it, which had a small stash of $1 and $5 bills, she dug deeper and discovered the rest of the money. Once she got over her initial shock, Keyes quickly told her manager about her unusual find.

In a situation such as that, anyone might feel momentary temptation, but not Keyes.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Kindell Keyes

“It felt weird, because I honestly thought it was probably a prank,” she recalled. “But as I continued to look through the purse I realized the money was real. I was so happy that I found it and excited that the money was returned to the rightful owner. I never for once thought about keeping it. I have an awesome conscience.”

Another Goodwill employee, Maria Torres, was able to trace the item back to a neighborhood in Queens from the address on the envelope. It came from the former home of an almost 102-year-old grandmother of two California brothers, who had donated the purse after cleaning out her belongings when she died.

Keyes was awarded $3,900 for her kindness, goodwill and honesty. One could say the gods had smiled upon her.

Katy Gaul-Stigge, CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey, called the do-gooder a hero, adding that “good behavior is recognized,” DNAinfo reported last year.

A spiritual person, Keyes grew up in a family of seven brothers and sisters in a single parent household.

The Impact Award honoree believes her neighborhood is special because “even though we are part of New York City, it’s not that busy out here. It’s quiet,” she says. “I can take a walk on the boardwalk, admire the ocean and there is a calmness to the neighborhood that makes it so peaceful to live out here.”

Her favorite pastime is writing screenplays. At the moment, she’s working on a television pilot called “Burden of Sin,” and says it’s a drama series about a mother raising her daughters in a time when things aren’t always fair for women.

She also likes to film friends, family members, and co-workers, and has a two-part video called “The Kenny Challenge” available on YouTube. “We have an awesome staff of hard workers at Van Dam. So, at times, I like to do challenges with them. It’s a dance that one of the staff members created.

“Our staff at Van Dam believes that it’s not always about work but that you should have fun at your job. So, the challenges are a great way of keeping the staff happy and have made it easy to talk to our management team, and it’s a great way to get to know the people you work with.” Keyes says.

Sister Kathleen McKinney has dedicated her life to education. 

Born and raised in Brooklyn, McKinney always knew she wanted to study science as soon as she took her first chemistry course and when she made the decision to become a sister, her focus turned to becoming an educator.

“It was always science,” she said. “Once I was in school, I wanted to do something with chemistry. I started college before I decided to become a sister, and once I made the decision to be a sister, I minored in secondary education. So I entered the community, which is a teaching community, and that’s how I made the transition into an educator.”

McKinney said she never imagined becoming a sister, but when she got the call, she could not ignore it.

Sister Kathleen McKinney

“It’s interesting. I was in school and had a lot of friends, but there was something inside me,” she said. “ I went to Catholic school and I found religious life was something I could relate to. There was something in me that told me I had to try this.”

McKinney began teaching as soon as she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Joseph’s College. In 1971, she worked as a chemistry teacher at The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates.

She taught chemistry at the school for 17 years. While teaching, she attended Adelphi University for graduate school, where she received a master’s degree in chemistry and a certificate in computer education. She continued her studies, earning a doctorate degree in educational administration and supervision.

She would then go on to become assistant principal at Font Bonne Hall Academy in Brooklyn in 1988 for nine years before returning to Mary Louis Academy, where she has been head principal for the last 17 years.

McKinney has spent the majority of her life in service of others, whether it be God or students. She said she has always been about connecting with people.

“I always wanted to be in a field where I was in contact with people,” she said. “I guess I love helping people, having a job where there would be a mutuality of sharing and watching people grow.”

She said her greatest privilege has been watching young women reach their full potential.

“ I have loved being a principal,” she said. “Being able to make things happen and give other people the opportunity to find their gifts, do things they didn’t even dream they have the gift for. I get to watch these young women grow, they come in unsure of themselves and eventually blossom through the years. I just love it.”

 Whitestone resident Maureen Regan has tapped into her passion for environmentalism to help seniors and young people in Queens.

Regan is the founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens, a Queens non-profit looking to promote environmental solutions through urban farming and therapeutic gardening. The nonprofit helps people with special needs, underprivileged youth, and seniors in the community.

Regan founded Green Earth in 2010 to provide seniors and young people with outdoor and indoor gardening access and to expand access to healthy local food.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               She was motivated by the belief that people living in a big city like New York could still learn about farming and its benefits. Urban Gardens also serves as an employment and community service hub for high school students.                    Maureen Regan

Regan had been successful as a business executive in the apparel industry. She decided to dedicate her time to beautifying the city through gardening.

She currently serves as the president of Queensboro Hill Neighborhood Association and is a board member of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and the Voelker Orth Museum.

Regan said her time in the fashion industry had her burned out, working all four season and traveling the world. But she said it was in her travels that she saw how much the environment had suffered and came up with the idea for Green Earth.

“I saw so much damage to the environment and what happens to seniors when they get old,” she said. “People who are on the fringes, like the disabled, and I decided to take a break from the fashion world and start this non-profit and address issues locally. If there is some way this organization can get seniors out into nature and can help them become less home-bound, less dependent on government and medical care, they’ll be healthier.”

She went back to school to learn what resources her organization could provide for children with disabilities like autism. She said it has been amazing for her to see kids in nature and how it can offer them a safe space while at the same time giving their caretakers respite.

“It opens up a new world to them so they can be more independent,” she said. “They’re able to learn in nature and find a stability that they can’t find in their everyday world.”

She said the programs get seniors and young people out into local parks to garden, volunteer and care for their environment.

“I saw, especially with the seniors that if you give them something to care for, it gives them a purpose,” she said.

Regan said she saw the same thing with the younger participants.

She has been running Green Earth for seven years now and loves being able to give back to her community. She said she returned to the fashion industry after a short hiatus but learned now how to balance both and is looking forward to expanding the program and touching as many people as possible.

Africh Royale

Africh Royale

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