100 Heroes: Advocacy

As United Way of the Mohawk Valley celebrates 100 years of making an impact in our community, we are celebrating 100 local heroes who have done the same.

We are excited to recognize this community's UNSUNG heroes, the people who have made an impact in Oneida or Herkimer County, as part of United Way's "100 Heroes."

100 local individuals have been selected based on six categories that align with United Way's mission.
Check out the full list here.

Kimberly Bowen

kimberly bowen

Kim Bowen works what her co-workers call “magic” as the Program Manager at Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency (MVCAA). She has been working on many initiatives and made a huge impact on clients the non-profit serves through Oneida and Herkimer counties. She has always been an advocate for low-income families. Her primary job is to oversee Emergency Assistance programs and help those who are at risk of being homeless find permanent housing and any other assistance they need. For the past 4 years, she has been working as a VITA Coordinator and assisted clients in both Oneida and Herkimer counties with free tax preparation. VITA is something Kim says is one part of her job that she is proudest of, “especially for those coming to get their returns done.” She worked with Catholic Charities of Herkimer and provided Christmas assistance to families in need through Operation Sunshine. She took time to personally go and shop for all families in need of assistance. 

Kim serves on many internal and external committees, including Herkimer Working Solutions, Head Start Enrollment and Recruitment Committee, Agency Safety Committee and Mohawk Valley Asset Building Coalition, Community Partnership Coalition of Herkimer County, CCE Herkimer County Nutrition Education Agency Advisory Committee. Kimberley is also overseeing the Emergency Assistance Program and helped many landlords and tenants with mediation. She attends community events where she assists people with applications for all MVCAA programs. 

When asked if she feels she has made a difference, Kim will tell you she does. “I get to see people who are appreciative. They come in and you can see it. Some days you walk out on cloud 9,” she said. If you asked Kim why she does what she does, and what her driving force is – her answer is simple. She said, “because it's what we have. It's ours, this community. So, it matters. We're hands-on, and we can see the changes.”

“Kim is a dedicated employee who always goes above and beyond to aid those in need. She is very passionate about her job and never hesitates to help others. Her strong leadership skills reflect on the work done by her program staff. She truly touched and changed many lives in our communities and would be well deserving as a hero,” her nominator said. 

Kim says her work mentor has to be Natasha, who got her involved and encouraged her to switch to the Family Resources side of things. She also loves The MVCAA Youth Bash in Rome, and the Backpack Giveaway in Utica and her positive takeaway from the last year was being able to be in-person again with clients. She said, “getting back out there, has been the best!”

Christine Brown

christine brown

Serving as the Commissioner of Jurors in Herkimer County, Christine Brown stays busy within the court system, but it is what she does after work that means the most to those who she has helped. She is known to be always giving and helping and volunteering whenever anyone needs help or is having a fundraiser – she is always stepping up to help.|

For Christine, her father was a great influence in her life. He was a police officer, and she learned her giving and helpful spirit from him. From a young age, she was interacting with her community and did all she could to help those who needed it – whether tagging along with him or staying active within her church. Her father would often give the last dollar in his “stash cash” to someone who needed it. When we asked Christine who her mentor or hero was, she said her parents got her started, but she credits her dad for influencing her willingness to serve, who she in turn, also taught that to her own son. She said, “He died way too young but there wasn't one person you asked about my dad that had a bad thing to say. My son is very giving too. He is so giving and gives to the less fortunate and to those who appreciate and who will pay it forward when they can too.”

Christine remembers giving at a young age, always helping others, but she said after her cancer diagnosis – that was when the light really shined the brightest for her. “When I was diagnosed with cancer my son was very young and people wanted to help me and do things with my son, and someone dropped off a check to pay for more comfortable furniture for me. I wanted to return that kindness to people. I am a true believer in paying it forward.”

Her nominator had many good and gracious things to say about Christine. They said, “Christine is a selfless warrior who is caring and compassionate beyond expectations. She goes above and beyond to help those in need, no thank you required or recognition. For many years she worked tirelessly helping to advocate for victims of domestic, physical, and sexual violence. She has made an impact on those she has helped. Her hard work has made a difference in the lives of all she touched.”

In her downtime, you can catch Christine hitting up a food truck fundraiser, Herkimer/Ilion Days, eating some of the area’s best chicken wings, shopping, traveling, exercising, and spending time with her family and friends. The holidays mean a lot to her, and it’s her favorite time of year. To her, being a hero means being “selfless,” and that is something her nominator stands behind. 

Tara Costello

tara costello



As the current Executive Director of the Kelberman Center, Tara Costello works night and day so that our community has a supportive environment. The Kelberman Center is the leading provider of Autism services for children, adults, and families in the Mohawk Valley. Tara leads a team of over 400 staff that serve and provide critical and specialized services for individuals and families on their Autism journey. 

When asked about her journey, she said, “I’ve been in the field for 20 plus years, and throughout my career, I'm a social worker by trade. Particularly, when I got into the field, I had a passion for people and wanted to give back. The population was struggling to advocate for themselves. I worked with patients struggling with addiction, and then with the county in Mental Health. So first the people, then the system. I saw the gaps and wanted to advocate for people who can't for themselves. I'm always trying to help somebody and find a solution. And that's my way of giving back. It’s not just work.”

One of Tara’s proudest moments she says was back in 2008, when the community suffered from a huge substance use issue when a new synthetic substance came into the area. Her role at the county was to pull key stakeholders together. She credits it as a team effort, where in a community effort jointly provided prevention opportunities, but also put a stop to those places selling it. She says it saved lives, and they later developed a coalition and task force. She looks at the effort as a “huge accomplishment.” 

Her nominator says, “Tara's dedication to our community is unwavering! Her strong morals and values lead her and help lead others to make a difference in people's lives each and every day.”

When asked who her mentor or hero was – no hesitations from Tara. She credits her mother. “The most influential person in my life. My strength and determination have been guided by her. I learned everything from her. She passed away when I was 20,” she said. She also gives credit to her leadership skills to Linda Nelson, and Lou Tehan. She says they encouraged her to be a strong leader. 

And the positive from her last year or so? Tara says that one is simple – her daughter. She said, “watching my daughter grow up and handle the pandemic through her eyes and how she's excelled. Her level of independence, always striving to do better, is so important given what she's gone through. She's received awards and excelled at gymnastics, as a parent, it is so awesome to witness. Especially given what we've all been through in the past two years.”

Michael Daly

michael daly

Michael Daly is not just a product of this community, but an example of someone who is driven to help others living within it. A recurring theme for what Michael loves most about this area is ‘the people’. He’s taken that passion and continued to grow services and programs to help people within the community.

As the former Executive Director of Kids Oneida for 9 years, Michael was always focused on helping kids. A joy for Michael is being able to reconnect with kids he met through Kids Oneida who are adults now. Being able to hear how they’ve been doing and see the impact the program had years ago is a great experience. 

Michael wanted to support beyond just the kids, too, and support those kids and their families when he could, and broaden that scope of influence. For Michael, being able to get involved to reduce abuse and neglect has been a primary focus of his efforts for the past 25 years. “I’ve always wanted to give back to my community,” Michael said “and the goal is to help people through a process to become the best versions of themselves.”

The drive for Michael is always rooted in his love for his community. He recognizes that there is so much to do here and if you want to find something to do, you’d be able to find it here. And that’s due to the people in this community, which is something he is proud of. That’s also one of Michaels's favorite things about volunteering; the people. Having the chance to work with people and always trying to improve services for people with disabilities is what fuels that drive. As he himself sees it, “I want a healthier community. When people's mental health is good, their physical health is good, their family relationships are good, their community relationships are good, and their overall health is good. So it all really ties together.”

Marissa Fenner

marissa fenner

Marissa has been working for The Mobile Crisis Assessment Team throughout the COVID-19 pandemic working endless hours and providing mental health crisis intervention to keep individuals suffering in our community safe, all while experiencing the pandemic herself. Marissa ensures all individuals are safe and connected with the support they need in order to remain safe in the community and successful.

“I have to work with a lot of people with serious mental health issues and making sure those people are all set and have resources on a 24/7 basis is critical to what I do every day,” Marissa said. 

As for something Marissa is most proud of when it comes to making an impact in our community? She said her work with the Underground Café. “I helped my community by working as a case manager for at-risk youth and on a professional level I was able to help my clients but also translated it to outside of work by volunteering at the underground Cafe where those same clients were,” Marissa said. “I specifically had one client who was very motivated to not continue the cycle in her family and she ended up being the first to graduate high school. That client also invited me to her graduation, so I was able to see her walk across the stage. She continued on to be a productive member of the community and went to MVCC for college, which was also a first in her family.”

Marissa says her mentor is her Aunt Jen, who is a therapist and was the one who encourages her to choose her career path and major for her undergraduate degree. “She educated me on why sociology would give me the best experience and I declared sociology as my major. Having sociology as my major and psychology as my minor, opened many doors for me ahead of others. Most people major in psychology, so having sociology gave me a head up on others. During interviews for internships and jobs, I was always asked about sociology being my major and was told that it was a point that stuck out to the interviewer,” Marissa remembered. 

As an active member of our community since her youth, Marissa continues to see a difference in her work and giving back. Her career allows her to advocate for those who are reaching out for help and trying to figure out how to do better for themselves. She said, “it is really rewarding to see that and to see the effort they put in to better themselves. In the long run, it is definitely nice to see how far people have come.”

Marissa says, "To me being a hero means helping others that want to move forward in their lives and not let themselves be held down by negative experiences that they've had.”

In her downtime, Marissa LOVES working out – lifting. She enjoys going to Mohawk Valley Wellness fundraisers, can put back a plate of chicken riggies, and truly enjoys her work.

Craig Grant

craig grant

A Community Coordinator for the UNHS HomeOwnership Center, Craig Grant takes the concept of community well beyond his job. His nominator says, “never one to seek publicity or accolades for himself or his work, you won’t find much written about him, but he is a solid member of the neighborhood.”

As a long-standing member of the Utica NAACP, Craig has held several offices. Currently, Craig is an active member of Utica’s Street Team. The team is a community policing effort that mostly operates out of Utica’s Cornhill neighborhood. On some days, members of the Street Team are chaperones for community events or are trying to stem community violence. You can find Craig working with the homeless and at-risk youth at all hours of the day and night. As a result of his work in the community, there has been a systemic change.  The neighbors meet with public officials on a regular basis and the effect is significant. 

Craig is an advocate for everyone. He sees the need and tries to do something about it. The city and county have even changed local laws, and local ordinances because Craig facilitated or initiated change. He also helped plan, organize, and supervise events such as Movies in the Park, the Cornhill Festival, and Cornhill Hoops – the forerunner of Hoops and Dreams. His nominator says he even was at the forefront of planning the development and implementation of Kemble Park, which was close to two decades in the making. These are simply highlights of the community work done because of Craig’s advocacy of his community.

Craig says he has worked with or partnered with many individuals, organizations, and initiatives that were working in efforts to make the community a better place to live – mostly in the community working on quality-of-life issues, tenant association issues, youth initiatives, etc. “I really like to be in the background, so I assist with a lot of things through the Homeownership Center,” Craig said. “Many times, my vision is the driving force. Often my input can be valuable.”

Being an active member in this community is important to Craig because it’s just who he is. “It goes back to my parents and grandparents. My mother was an RN, and my father owned a business and was a landlord. They were always volunteering and giving of themselves. My grandparents, my mother's father, they helped people; teaching people to read and pass literacy tests to vote. It's part of my DNA,” Craig said. “My mother is 87 and volunteering in her church, driving a younger cousin to medical appointments, still at it.”

When asked how we get youth inspired and engaged he simply said we need to do better at telling our community story; the struggles and the triumphs. “There used to be this group the Screaming Eagles, a drill team – we need another version of them. They had discipline. A lot of that hasn't been passed down,” Craig said. “Youth today need to know the value of hard work. They lack imagination; we had imagination. To some extent, I had some privilege because my parents had jobs, but we were still creative, and we had imagination and inventiveness.”

Like many of our 100 Heroes, Craig doesn’t see himself as a hero. "I don't see myself as a hero. I see a hero as a person who in spite of obstacles and hurdles, that they triumph. They make a difference. Through that, they give back of themselves, of their resources,” he said. 

One of Craig’s favorite community events is Hoops & Dreams and Juneteenth. Food, family, and fun are Craig’s life essentials. 

Robert Green

robert green

Robert Green uses his resolve to overcome and persevere as a way to help others – as he too continues his recovery. He works as a Certified Recovery Peer Advocate helping those who struggle with addiction. Previously, he was on his own at a local outpatient substance use disorder facility. Covering offices in Rome, Utica, and Cortland – currently, Robert is a part of the Recovery Peer Advocate Team at Center For Family Life and Recovery.

Robert handles face-to-face meetings with individuals, he is a facilitator of Moral Recognition Therapy Groups, a facilitator of Utica and Rome H.O.P.E. events (Healing Opportunities In Projects Of Engagement), engages in meetings with Oneida County HOPE, Drug, & Criminal Court individuals, community outreach/outreach for engaging an individual to consider entering treatment, reinforces current patients engagement in treatment, and connecting patients to community-based recovery supports consistent with treatment/recovery, and discharge plans. He is also a New York State of Health assistor.

Robert is a member and volunteer at the RISE Community Outreach Center in Herkimer, which includes engaging members in sober activities – like a BBQ in summer, food trucks, and garden growing. He volunteers at the Salvation Army Drop-In Center and then turned it into a part-time position. He is hoping that now that COVID numbers are down, he will be able to get back into the theatre and stage.

When asked what something he has done for his community that he is most proud of, Robert couldn’t pinpoint just one thing. He said, “In my work, being able to help an individual day by day. His volunteerism goes back to his high school years as a peer helper. 

“I feel that it was in my early stages of recovery when I was able to speak about where I was in my recovery to small groups. It was from there that I could feel like I could make a difference,” Robert said. “I wanted to go back to my high school and talk about prevention. From there I got training and began a more formal peer advocacy.”

Robert says that when he was young, he needed someone to be there for him – but no one was. That is his driving force. “I give back because there was no one for me growing up. I had no one to look up to. So, I want to be that person to give back,” he said. Something unique about our community that Robert enjoys is the diversity. He says he loves the different cultures and cuisines, and he appreciates it. And his favorite thing about giving back is being able to get to know others and hear their stories, to hear how they were before their substance disorder, and seeing them smile about where they are now. 

"Making an impact is important because there is still a plethora of stigmas surrounding those that struggle with substance disorders and mental health disorders,” Robert said. “By advocating for it brings it to light, we can only hope for better understanding, patience and treatment.”

In his downtime, Robert loves Stanley Theatre events, local concerts, Pho Mekong food, his air plant collection, and something positive in the last year was his involvement in the Stand Up For Recovery Day.

Ray Lenarcic

ray lenarcic

Ray Lenarcic is a former professor at Herkimer College who has been and continues to be involved with numerous community organizations. He was a founding member of the Herkimer County Hunger Coalition and oversees the Graham Lorraine Program which provides Christmas gifts for needy children. Additionally, Ray has been an outspoken advocate for local veterans, particularly in the issues of Agent Orange and PTSD. He spearheaded "Fallen Stars," which honored deceased soldiers, and led a campaign to construct Veterans Park on the Herkimer College Campus. He has also been a tireless writer, having published numerous op-ed pieces in local papers.

To call Ray a proud professor would be an understatement. He said his proudest moment when it comes to giving back had to be teaching. “As a professor of history at HCCC, I’m most proud of instilling in my students the importance of having an open mind-teaching them in the process how to find the information allowing them to make informed decisions regardless of the topic. Also, teaching them the value of community service (10 % of their grade) was equally important to me,” Ray said. He started serving his community at Sunday School in Little Falls First Baptist Church in the late 1940s, and early 50s. It is something that is part of his character, and he wanted to instill that in his students. 

Ray’s driving force and call to action, he says is a simple philosophy. “Each of us has an obligation to work actively to make our communities better places in which to live,” he said. “My community activism had nothing to do with a given community but rather, a philosophy of life.” And his favorite part about volunteering – especially when it comes to the children he often works with is his ability to see the impact on their faces. “Much of what we do involves children in need. Imagining the smiles on their faces when they wake up Christmas morn with the gift of their dreams under the tree or getting that new pair of sneakers or that new backpack filled with supplies makes everything I do worth it!” he exclaimed. 

In his free time, you can find Ray enjoying a concert in the eastern and western parks in Little Falls, treating himself to Ed’s Pizza, writing, golfing with Kay, crossword puzzles, and poker! 

Kendra Manzer

kendra manzer

As a Peer Specialist at Helio Health, Kendra connects with patients seeking treatment for substance use disorder. She began her personal recovery journey in 2018, earned her CRPA-P certification in 2020, and has most recently completed CASAC (Credentialed Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor) curriculum. 

Kendra utilizes her personal journey to connect and provide support to individuals with substance use disorder. Her personal growth is a testament that recovery and growth beyond the binds of addiction is real. Kendra's insight into her own work and helping people was when she asked herself, "what can I do to help someone who is in the same position as me?" And that's when she began her journey with her clients at Helio Health -- who she hates calling her clients, because "they're people, good people." This is her job, but she has so much care, compassion, and empathy for the people she helps on a daily basis. "It doesn't feel like a job," Kendra said. It's the personal growth for me and being able to recognize what brought someone to Helio, and I feel like I'm making a huge difference with them." 

"It takes one person. I had a lot of friendly faces when I was going through it, I needed that support and positivity. I wanted to be that person for other people going through recovery. It's huge to someone's success," Kendra said.

Kendra's parents are imperative to her journey through life, recovery, and who she is today. She says she couldn't have done it all and ended up successful without their support, and most importantly love.

Her nominator says that Kendra’s “willingness to share her story has helped to engage individuals in need of treatment and offer them a glimpse of all the positive things recovery can bring. The patients she works with speak very highly of Kendra, as do her colleagues. Her personal growth and commitment to the mission is certainly worth celebrating.”

David Mathis

david mathis

For more than 40 years David Mathis has been involved in the Mohawk Valley community.  He has been part of shaping the lives of many young people through innovative Summer Youth Employment Programs, he has worked with Mohawk Valley Community College to create and fund training for jobs needed locally.  David has served on many boards throughout the area including Oneida Lewis ARC, Mohawk Valley Community Action, NAACP, Mohawk Valley Economic Development District, Madison Oneida BOCES SABA program, and National Association of Community College Trustees, New York Association of Training & Employment Professionals & his Church Board.  When David serves on a board, he commits fully to attending meetings and contributing time, resources, and ideas.

David’s proudest moment in terms of giving back and making an impact speaks to the progression of the area. He said, “I was the first person of color to be elected city-wide when I won a seat on the Utica School Board in 1983, and to parallel that I was the first alumni at Mohawk Valley Community College, and the first person of color, to be appointed on the Board of Trustees there.” David started serving our community back in 1972 when he sat on his first board at the Family Services of Utica, where he went on to chair that very board before he left. 

His passion comes from being raised in this community and the adversity that came along with being a person of color during his lifetime. “My goal should be to give back and I’m a role model and I am aware of that. I had the willingness to step forward and accept the challenges that were put in front of me,” David said. “And after serving thousands of students at graduation without MVCC I would have never been given these opportunities. I believe that everything that has happened in my life started with getting a start at MV. Moving on to Utica College and graduating lent a hand in giving back.”

The ability to find opportunity if you are willing to put forth the effort is something David says offers uniqueness to the area. He said, “there are opportunities to get involved, and this ties into the opportunities to give back regardless of who you are – is that anyone can step up. You’ve got to be willing to take the chance when it comes to you. Maybe in other communities, you wouldn’t have that.”

His mentor when he was growing up was Pastor Reverend Alfonso Whitfield at Hope Chapel. “I was raised by a single mom, and he became a father figure, and he was committed to being a community leader and I followed in his footsteps,” David said. 

If you ask him what his favorite part of volunteering or making an impact is – he will tell you it’s the outcome. “When you serve on a board you are able to see the outcome and impact of your efforts. When you see the impact of kids graduating and you see mothers, people with disabilities, or different cultures – it’s a very gratifying experience all because I was willing to spend some time sitting in a board meeting.”
His nominator says, “David truly cares about the Mohawk Valley and works every day to make it a better place for everyone.” 

One of David’s favorite events was chairing the Animal Fair at the Utica Zoo because despite the work involved, seeing the kids have fun made it worth it. In his free time, you can find him enjoying a nice bowl of mushroom stew over pasta, and a good Friday fish fry, and before he hurt his knee playing racquetball and basketball! 

Maureen Petrie

maureen petrie

As Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Herkimer County, Maureen works tirelessly to improve our community in areas of housing, food, and many other impact areas. She is moved with compassion to work towards social justice and equity in our area as well. 

The proudest moments for Maureen when it comes to making an impact in our community? She says one is working with the state and the local Department of Social Services to establish the Valley Housing Coalition to address the housing and homeless need in Herkimer County – “ultimately becoming a part of the Balance of State Continuum of Care.” Another moment in Maureen’s success was forming the Community Partnership Coalition of Herkimer County to gather all agencies to collaborate in addressing alcohol-substance use problems in Herkimer County, with a focus on youth. Maureen said, “Out of the coalition, we formed the Herkimer County Overdose Response Team to track overdoses as well as facilitating peers and resources to those experiencing substance abuse issues.”

“I sincerely hope that I have helped to fill the gaps in services in our county for the most vulnerable,” she said. “I have a vested interest in the county as I grew up here.  It is rewarding to give back to my community.”
Maureen’s mentors/heroes in life are her grandfather and father, she says “my grandfather taught me to be compassionate and empathetic to others, and my father taught me if you are going to anything, do it well!”
To Maureen, being a hero means being a champion for others and she says making an impact is important because it means that you have made a difference or change for the good in some way. 

Maureen’s nominator said, “There is nothing she would ask a staff member to do that she would not do herself. She goes far above and beyond, every single day of her life, to make a positive impact on the lives of the citizens of Herkimer County!”

In her free time, Maureen’s favorite community event is the Annual RSVP Luncheon that honors local volunteers, she enjoys eating pizza and greens, reading, gardening, and spending time with her family. 

Howard Potter

howard potter

Howard Potter advocates for the children of the Utica School District, fighting for their rights to a good education system. His company and himself have done a lot in the community, always showing their support. He truly cares for the community and does his best to make MV a better place for everyone.

Howard says his most consistent mentor has been Tim Tallman, who owns Tallman Tires. He said, “you don't hear him, but you hear him. Honest opinions, fosters growth, guides you. He built what he has from the ground up. Never looks for recognition. Do good because good is good to do, philosophy.”

Debra Reuben-Deronda

debra rueben-deronda

Debra Reuben Deronda was a fierce advocate for children's rights and one of the most influential contributors to what is the Oneida County Child Advocacy Center today. Before her passing in 2017, she served for years as a senior case manager for the Oneida County Sexual Abuse Task Force, where her expertise in investigations, joint interviewing with law enforcement, court testimonies, and legislative advocacy led to the safe placement of countless children.

Her daughter, Kari Procopio, says “I know she would say she wasn't able to save or impact every child's life that she worked with, but she got up every day and did the difficult work that needed to be done. For those that she was able to do anything for she was proud of that.”

Inherently Debra had a huge heart, especially for the most vulnerable, which are children. It was a culmination of many experiences and interactions she had that led her to devote her life to advocating for those who couldn't speak for themselves.

Debra’s driving force was children and doing whatever she could to make sure they could have happy, healthy childhoods and grow up to become who they were meant to be. 
Kari says, “whether she deliberately set out to find opportunities or if they came to her, I think the connection stemmed from her perpetual openness to new experiences, ideas, and points of view.”

Perfectly stated in her obituary: “Debra was compassionate, fierce, and led a life of loving-kindness, devoting herself to the field of human services where she protected and saved children who were abused, abandoned or neglected.”

Debra’s hero was her grandmother, Jean. Throughout her childhood, her grandmother was her advocate and was always there for her. She enjoyed eating greens and loved volunteering at the Boilermaker and partaking in post-race parties. She loved to entertain, hike in the Adirondacks, music, and hear live music. 

In the last few years of her life, something positive her daughter says was important to her was being able to move back to the area to be closer to her daughter and granddaughters. Kari said, “she left us on Mother's Day 2017. I think that's a testament to how she wanted to be remembered - as a devoted mother and mother figure to all the children in her life.

Billie Jo Snyder

billie jo snyder

Billie Jo Snyder is described as a fierce and strong advocate for everyone she encounters in her role as a domestic violence advocate with Herkimer County Catholic Charities.  She is supportive and compassionate, knowing that she is crossing paths with a person at an extremely vulnerable part of a their life. 

For that past 6 years Billie Jo has been able to work with community members and their families to help build self-esteem, by providing a listening ear via the 24-hour domestic violence hotline, helping a family adjust in a shelter, being a legal advocate and through counseling. The care and compassion she exhibits is what makes her one of the United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s 100 Heroes. 

Billie Jo knew she wanted to get involved after she herself utilized the services of a domestic violence program, she knew she wanted to impact people’s lives the way that hers was impacted. She said making an impact is important because everyone is fighting a battle, some you may never know, smiling, creating a good experience, you never know what impact that will have. Sometimes it is really about planting the seed for someone to know they have a place to go for help. 

Outside of her work with Catholic Charities Billie Jo loves to attend live music shows, biking in the spring and summer months along with spending time with friends and family. 

Steve Sperbeck

steve sperbeck

Steve Sperbeck started a local chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace (SHP) in the Utica area. He is what we say is living by United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s mission and values – he saw a need and took action. There are children in our area that sleep on floors, mattresses on floors, couches, or even maybe just a blanket on their floor. Without proper sleep conditions, these children struggle, at home, at school, and with learning. 

According to his nominator, “when Steve realized that there are children not just in the Utica area but the surrounding areas as well, he asked to be able to open SHP to surrounding areas.  So far this year, there have been 17,837 beds delivered to children that were in need.  There were 40 new chapters started, Utica being one of them because of Steve.  

He got his entire family involved and has gotten the word out to many that have donated their time volunteering also.  Those volunteers do the bed deliveries, so they can see how much their volunteering means to those receiving. “I volunteered my whole life. The meaning behind the non-profit is what I fell in love with,” Steve said of his passion for volunteerism. “I also have 25 years in the volunteer fire department, and 5 years as Chief. It’s a lot of work but rewarding.”

Steve said back in 1987 he started with the fire department because as a kid he used to chase firetrucks. He says the camaraderie and closeness similar to your own family, between the members – “it really is a brotherhood.”

“I believe that I have the means to give back; if no one cares, we'll never move ahead. This area is always so generous. We haven't bought any bedding yet, and we've delivered 200 beds. That's just how this area is,” Steve said of the region’s generosity. 

And if you ask Steve who his mentor is, he will say Steven Kowalsky of Empire Recycling. He said, “he has a calming effect on people and donates We all have to pitch in and make it a better place.”

Virginia Whitford


Currently serving as the Chief Strategy Officer at The House of the Good Shepherd, Virginia Whitford is no stranger to a life of public service and advocacy. She is dedicated to improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our communities to not only survive, but thrive in their homes, schools, places of work, and communities. 

Virginia has always been involved in her community. “I grew up here and I would say it’s sort of been ingrained in me since childhood with parents who serve a lot,” she said. Her plan was to move away from the area after college – and that she did. But she eventually found her way back home. She made a choice to commit to this community and make a change. She said, “if not me, then who?” Her driving force? She says it’s her faith. 

The uniqueness this community has that most don’t – Virginia says “it’s very well-rooted and people aren’t as transient and in my opinion that creates a community that the world has slightly lost.” There are always opportunities to serve according to Virginia, but it’s a matter of opening your eyes to them – they are everywhere.

Virginia’s parents were her mentor and heroes in life. She said they were doing things that were hard and took on making change. She said, “I think they did that through being a good neighbor and helping others. and they really set the stage for me in terms of its really important to be a person of good character, work hard, help others.” 

Now, her favorite thing about giving back is the ability to help others, after she herself received help too. “I think my ability to give is sort of my language of saying ‘thank you’ for opportunities I’ve had. Two years ago my son had serious brain surgery –  so since then, we have done a lot of work for the children’s hospital. My son and his stepfather started a business where they raise money to give back to the hospital and say ‘thank you’ to the hospital staff and support the families because we know what it was like to be there.”

To Virginia being a hero means humility and making an impact is important because we are here to serve, not be served.

Her nominator said, “Virginia is creative, smart, open-minded, and determined, which are all strong traits that have helped me grow as a young professional. Our agency also is lucky to have her as a member of our Executive Team. I appreciate that Virginia is always willing to challenge others’ thoughts and perspectives to help advocate for change, while always having the best interests of our children in mind. In order to be a strong leader, you have to have the courage to disagree, at times, in order to help facilitate growth and change. Virginia exemplifies this definition, and the child welfare system is fortunate to have her as a key advocate for change.”

In her downtime, you can find her at House of the Good Shephard special events, enjoying all the food this community uniquely offers and spending time outdoors in the woods.

Richard Williams

richard williams

During a time of uncertainty, Rich Williams joined Upstate Family Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic – and never stopped getting things done. Rich arranged for vaccines for patients and other members of the community. Upstate Family Health was one of the first organizations to give out vaccines to protect the community against the virus. Because of Rich and all his effort, over 20,000 vaccines were given to people in the community. He also arranged for patients who are homebound to get vaccinated. He set up and continues to have clinics to vaccinate all members of the community. He has made access to care very easy in a situation where it is almost impossible in other areas. He even donates his days off to make sure vaccines are given. He has created several pop-up clinics to help people who might not have been given the vaccine – like the refugee population and the homeless for starters.

His nominator said, “I know as a Nurse Practitioner in healthcare, that Rich has saved thousands of lives with his dedication and commitment to our community. Rich is above a hero in my eyes.” 
When you ask Rich what he has done for the community that he is most proud of, his answer was simple. The COVID vaccine. “Last year we administered more than 26,000 vaccines to 9,000 plus people and went to the home to perform them,” he said. “Hearing from some of the people especially the elderly after getting them vaccinated and getting their children and grandchildren vaccinated definitely made a difference – it felt great. I’ve been an RN for 27 years this year. Nursing is a calling, and I was called to serve the community. I could really feel the impact over the last 2 years.”

Rich is passionate about this community because he grew up here. “I was born and raised in Utica. I have seen the changes good and bad in the city. Even if I can be just a small part of it so I can see the city thrive and prosper,” he said. Something unique about the area that made him want to give back is the diversity Utica is known for. It's the diversity. The population that we serve, the people that we serve. On any given day you can serve a ton of people with different back stories, Rich said. “It is one of the best parts of my day.”

To Rich being a hero means being selfless. making sure other people’s needs are met and recognizing the need and making sure that you can be there for others. He said, making an impact is important because it changes not only the people that you’re working with but in a small way it changes the community by making it just a little bit better.

In his downtime, Rich loves attending different fundraisers with the Utica Rescue Mission, a good tomato pie, watching baseball, doing things around the house, and gardening. His positive from the last year or so? He got married! 

Bernadette Wormuth

bernadette wormuth

A therapist by career, Bernadette Wormouth makes doing good look easy – but it goes beyond just a job for her. Characterized as a caring advocate that goes above and beyond to help create a better outlook on life for people who cross her path – she takes the extra step with not only her clients at The House of Good Shepherd but her volunteer work as well. 

Her volunteer work started back in the first grade when a classmate was diagnosed with spinal cancer. Bernadette wrote letters to him, helped support his family, and built connections with other kids while he was away. Whether through Bridge Builders or the Hope House, Bernadette says that it gave her exposure to the community and the needs of residents. “Any youth should go through that to be humbled, Bernadette said. “I learned more about common decency - they didn't have anything, yet they were so kind. I encouraged other students to get involved and volunteer. Have conversations with others - be uncomfortable and why - break barriers.”

She keeps herself busy being the co-Chair of United Way MV Volunteer Committee, a University of Albany alumni advisor, beer pouring, spring clean-up, the Emergency Food and Shelter Board for United Way MV, Emerging Adulthood, and International Journal Academics - all for colleges and universities that submit their research to be published.

It was through her parents being so active in the community that Bernadette learned how to advocate and be there for others – big or small. “My dad was always saying it is the right thing to do. Ethically - do what is right,” she said. Her passion comes from all aspects of life. “Working at House of Good Shepherd, I make sure the children, who are our future, are invested in so they have a good future. I worked there from 2014 as an intern to 2017, then I was hired on after getting a master's, I worked for the state, then came back in 2019.”

If you ask who her mentor or hero was in life – her father comes first to mind. “My dad is my mentor for volunteering; so gracious, and humble, it is what is ingrained in people,” she said. But she also listed Abe Lincoln, for his “amount of courage, the things he was faced with, excellent leader, and it was based on good decisions. Always take time to reflect.” But her mom is the “gel who holds us all together. I got the communication piece from her. Holding people accountable – mom does that.”

To Bernadette being a hero means doing the right ethical choice, that you know in your heart is right, despite others not having the same view or opinion – to stand up and be courageous – it speaks volumes.
A community favorite would be the Heart Run & Walk, she loves a good pastry from Ramon’s Bakery, she enjoys crafting and is a huge animal advocate as well.