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.
Born and raised in the Central New York area, Susan Cruze has devoted her life to helping others. As a proud Mom of four children (and now a grandmother of five), she first got involved with the Frankfort-Schuyler School District in hopes of providing the best possible experience for her children and others. That drive and passion lead her to a rewarding 36-year career (and counting) as a Teaching Assistant in the district, where she has made a truly remarkable impact.
As one of United Way’s 100 Heroes, Sue is described by her peers as dependable, supportive, generous, and unruffled. Her position takes her in many different directions, from assisting teachers and substitutes, to serving as a one-on-one aid for children of all needs, to even covering the school nurse’s lunch break. Luckily, Sue has an almost superhuman ability to shift gears without warning.
In addition to her work during school hours, Sue serves as PTO president and works many nights and weekends in a residential home for disabled adults. One of the projects that she is most proud of is designing a new playground for West Frankfort School, which was named in her honor after several years of hard work and fundraising.
Sue comes from a long line of heroes and gives praise to her parents for setting such an honorable example. Sue’s mother also served as PTO President at one time, and her father served as Chief for the Frankfort Fire Department. Her favorite thing about giving back is “making the kids happy, and making sure that everyone enjoys themselves,” she said. “And anyone who can't afford something, making sure they can enjoy it too.”
Vice President of PTO
School Volunteer - 36 years & counting
5 ½ years for Catholic Charities – Mental Health
National Kidney Foundation Committee
Dance Competition Fundraising
For Jane Domingue, being a hero means caring for others–and she has certainly had the opportunity to do that as Executive Director of Thea Bowman House. Jane discovered she had a gift for working with children early in life. Even at 10-years-old, she described herself as a “kid magnet,” as she supported and cared for the younger children in her neighborhood.
As one of United Way’s 100 Heroes, Jane is described by her peers as humble, smart, and passionate about the mission of the Thea Bowman House. Now, as she leads the organization, Jane is able to make an even greater impact than she ever thought possible, working with children and families to offer childcare with supportive services, including programs like Universal Pre-K, Emergency Food Pantry, and even a used clothing shop.
Jane is a parishioner of Mary for Lourdes Parish and has received several awards over her 35-year career, including the Vivian C. Kinney Lifelong friend of Children Award. She is a member of the NAACP, the Interfaith Coalition, and the Mohawk Valley Pax Christi. She’s proud to see the growth in the community around the issue of racism and the efforts people are making locally to counteract that.
In addition to her work at Thea Bowman, she works closely with many other agencies in our community to develop grassroots programs and create positive change locally and statewide. Jane’s favorite part about giving back? “To see transformation in the lives of the people that we serve” and “to accompany people on their journey,” she said. “I love it when I meet kids that were at the center 20 years ago who still remember me.”
Jane enjoys hiking and biking with her husband, John, and spending time with her family in her free time.
A graduate of Frankfort-Schuyler Central School, Lucille Hand went on to earn an associate’s degree from Cobleskill Tech, a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Brockport, and a master’s degree from SUNY Upstate. Lucille started her teaching career as a first-grade teacher in Rome for one year. After that, she returned to her alma mater and taught second and third grades for 33 years. Since retiring, Lucille remains a very active substitute teacher in the Frankfort-Schuyler Elementary School and continues to tutor students on her own time. She has been for many years and remains a very active and valuable contributor to the Frankfort-Schuyler community.
In addition to teaching, Lucille ran the Grandma Lorraine Christmas Clothing Program for elementary students, Uncle Frank's Back to School Program for students in need, the America Reads program, and food drives sponsored by the Hunger Coalition. She also spearheads collections for Operation Candy Cane and sends Christmas Cards to Vets. At Christmas time, Lucille takes a class of students to the Mohawk Valley Nursing Home to spread holiday cheer. She has continued this tradition since 1998. She is also an active member of the PTO and has done so since (can you believe it) 1967. And if all of this isn’t enough, during her career Lucille belonged to too many committees to name. Lucille never asks for anything in return for all the work that she does. She just loves to help, and she wants to continue to run these programs for as long as she can. The term “kind heart” best describes and defines her. She only wants what’s best for her community.
Lucille has been recognized for numerous awards over the years, including "Educator of the Year" in 2000. Among her other awards is the Distinguished Service Award from Kiwanis, the Hearts for Others from Catholic Charities, the Everyday Hero Award from Kiwanis, the Asset Builder Award from the Herkimer County Cares Campaign, and lastly the Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2017 from the Hunger Coalition.
Lucille gets joy from giving back when she sees the faces of her students light up. She says “it’s the kids” who make me want to give back. She admits that “teachers were good to me, and I wanted to carry that on.” She lists her dad as her number one hero and inspiration.
Lucille has been married to her husband Chuck for 51 years. They have two married daughters, three granddaughters, and two dogs. She loves to attend the Herkimer County Fair and is a big fan of Utica greens. When she is not busy helping others, Lucille likes to pass the time reading and gardening.
An educator for 25 years who started as a chemistry teacher, Dr. Tolga Hayali is now Superintendent of three Central New York charter schools, including the Utica Academy of Science. The three K-12 charter schools he administers serve more than 2,200 urban children. Hayali is responsible for defining the vision, goal setting, strategic planning, and leadership/management of all educational, administrative, and operational functions at these schools. Among his most-cherished accomplishments is a home-visit program that has strengthened the student-parent-teacher triad. He also focuses much of his energy on building partnerships with community organizations and higher-education institutions to foster support for programming, educational initiatives, and relationship-building between students and the community. Among his volunteer activities is his involvement in the CNY RISE Center, the Northside Learning Center, the Mohawk Valley Junior Frontiers, 100 Blackman - Syracuse Chapter, and the GENIUSOlympiad. To say he is a busy man does not do his commitment to children and his community justice.
Dr. Hayali is most proud to be helping urban kids to see the opportunities that exist for them and exposing them to the many career paths available to them. He believes that “we have a dual mission – pushing them to post-secondary education and inspiring them to become productive members of our community.” He was born in Switzerland but is of Turkish descent. He loves the diversity that the city of Utica offers, welcoming people from all over the world. The way people from these diverse cultures live together is inspiring to him and provides children with many valuable teaching moments. All his work in the community brings him joy and gives his life meaning. He credits Jawwaad Rasheed as his mentor and hero. He is the one who led him here to this calling. For Tolga being a hero is simple, just serve. That is the focus of his life.
Dr. Hayali is married and has four children, and nothing is more important to him. He believes that if you walk the path with them and serve as a positive role model, they will follow your lead and embrace their community. He finds much to love in Utica – the Bosnian Festival, the Italian restaurants and bakeries, Utica greens, Bosnian ground beef and cheese, and Iraqi kebabs. As for a hobby, spending time with his family is it. He said "nothing is more important right now."
Brooke Jones is a passionate and enthusiastic educator at Herkimer High School. Brooke teaches English and Special Education. She knew at an early age that she wanted to become a teacher and help inspire young kids to follow their dreams and encourage their success in school. Brooke loves the community she teaches in and is always working with students and the community to better their surroundings.
Brooke finds inspiration from Mary Tomasso, her high school principal. Mary is the of the most giving spirits of anyone Brooke has ever met. She helps the students, her staff, and the community. Brooke owes her success to having such a great leader.
“I think overall I am most proud of being with the seniors and watching them in their final steps in high school and that tiny bit of influence I have over them,” Brooke said. “You see them get jobs and have real-life connections after, whether it’s seeing them in public or at an event. I just love seeing them be successful.”
Brooke involves herself in anything that requires a teacher: lock-ins, Student Council, distribution of yearbooks, graduation rehearsal, sporting events, etc. Brooke truly has a passion for what she does!
Brooke loves to take day trips with her family to New York City, Cheese Fest in Little Falls and loves the pasta sauce this area has to offer. Brooke is also expecting a baby soon and says it’s amazing to see the investment her students have in her bundle of joy.
Nancy Ketz is the epitome of educator, volunteer, advocate and leader. During 35 years of teaching (at Poland Central and Holland Patent CSD), she also served as President of the NYS Association of Foreign Language Teachers, facilitating professional development for teachers throughout the state. She achieved National Board Certification in World Languages and went on to mentor future candidates. During 15 years on the Teachers' Center Policy Board, she facilitated the New Teachers' Mentoring Program, and initiated and chaired the Oneida County LOTE Network (for teachers of Languages Other Than English).
After retiring in 2006, Nancy continued with volunteer efforts as the CNY Legislative Lead for AARP, leading appointments with members of Congress, NY Senate, and Assembly, as she advocated for AARP's senior citizens' issues. Nancy is also currently on the Board of Directors for CNY Arts and for the League of Women Voters (assisting with voter registration at local Naturalization ceremonies).
When asked if she felt she has made a difference, Nancy had a mixed reply. “Yes; I don't usually when I think to myself, but people have been appreciative. Just the fact that people mention their appreciation, is helpful to hear. All appreciation, no complaints!" she said.
With a passion for lifelong learning, Nancy has been a regular volunteer instructor for the Mohawk Valley Institute for Learning in Retirement (MVILR), where she has served on the curriculum committee, and the board of directors, and is currently the president. This non-profit volunteer organization provides 50 classes per semester for retired citizens of Central New York.
Nancy knows the importance of education and loves to inform people. Her community is her driving force for giving back. She said, "I love Utica. I've been here since 1976. Moved here for a job and never left. So much going on, but then I find people are looking for something and if I have something to offer – I can talk!"
When we asked Nancy who her mentor or hero was – the list was far from short. This question was hard for some to answer, but Nancy had a whole group of supporters who pushed her through over the years. She listed Rose Hosp, who was a colleague that taught her a lot about teaching; her mom; Jacques Cousteau, who found a problem with the environment and did something about it. She even touted Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) and Eleanor Roosevelt: “a woman is like a tea bag; you never know how she is until she's in hot water!
When you lead by example, you create a picture of what’s possible, and Jana Lambert does this for her students every day. Jana has been a school psychologist for 29 years and 20 of those have been at the Frankfort-Schuyler Elementary School. It is with this district that she has made a lasting impact on every student and adult that walks through its doors.
In addition to her important role as school psychologist, some of the initiatives Jana started at her school include a Character Education Program, a Girl Power Support Group that promotes empowerment, a diversity lunch that deals with the concept of diversity, Unity Day in support of anti-bullying and she is one of the founders of Frankfort-Schuyler’s school spirit team, which encourages fun and positivity for both students and staff.
“I always try to promote kindness and positivity within my school through good character and example,” said Jana. “I am big on laughter, peace, working together, and having fun. With all the stressors with COVID-19 the last few years, school can be scary for adults and children, and I work to make sure both staff and students know that they are doing a great job.”
If Jana were to credit someone for her positive influence on others, it would be her parents. Her mother always told her, “No one is better than you, but you are no better than anybody else” and that is something that inspires Jana to this day.
There is only so much time in a day, week, or month, but one person who makes the most of every minute is Andrea Carney. Andrea is a special education teacher by day in the Utica City School District, and a coach, mentor, volunteer, athlete, mom, wife, and daughter by night.
As the Girls’ Varsity Cross Country coach at New Hartford High School, Andrea has spent countless hours training her runners, not only physically but mentally as well. She intertwines self-confidence and positivity with strength training, group runs, proper nutrition, and working through obstacles with long-distance running and the mental game that comes along with it. As a stellar athlete herself, Andrea’s dedication and advocacy for her team have led them to win Sectional titles in 2019 and 2021. She is also an active member of the Utica Teacher’s Association and has served in various positions for the union including building representative, vice president of special education, and a member.
“My passion is in helping young people succeed both in the classroom and in life,” said Andrea. “It is very rewarding when you can see something click and you witness that change, and you know that something you did made someone else feel empowered and capable of doing whatever they put their mind to. And that is what motivates me to continue to keep giving. We are only here for a short time, so why not do as much for as many people as you can while you are here?”
When not working or volunteering, Andrea can be found running, being active, or playing with her son. She also loves to enjoy a meal at Zeina’s, which is owned by her cousin.
Kevin Marken moved to the Mohawk Valley in 1997 to run the Oneida County Historical Society and has been an asset to the community ever since. Having been raised by his parents to always help people it felt natural for Kevin to always look out for others and actively identify ways in which he can help.
Kevin is described as a “true advocate for those individuals who may not have believed that a college degree was obtainable” and this is one of the many reasons why he is one of the United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s 100 Heroes.
Kevin is employed by On Point for College which allows him to help countless people navigate the often-challenging process of applying, enrolling, and ultimately graduating from college. In addition to his work with On Point, Kevin is the founding president of the Utica Collegiate Access Network (UCAN), founding president of the Oneida County Historians Association, and founding co-chair of the Oneida County Freedom Trail Commission. Kevin's service on boards includes the SUNY Poly Equal Opportunity Advisory Board, the Mohawk Valley Latino Association, the Parkway Center Board, the Utica Rotary Board, the Utica Karen Community, NAACP Education Committee, the DeSales Center, the Multi-Ethnic Association of Burma, the Literacy Coalition HOC, Downtown Utica Development Authority and many others.
Kevin shared that there have been so many people throughout his life that have helped him and had a positive impact on his life, especially his grandfather who was always there when he needed advice, that he wants to pay it forward as much as he can. As an added bonus, his volunteer work with so many local organizations helps him get the word out about On Point.
In his free time, Kevin enjoys spending time with his wife, daughter Angela, other family, and friends, playing tennis, helping those in need, and even dressing up as Santa for charities.
James Mott is a beloved teacher at Central Valley Academy, and his colleagues would say he is one of the most “popular” teachers with the students because “he truly gets the kids, and they respond very well to that.”
About 15 years ago, one of his students joked about his time doing the Boston Marathon, so Jim bet the student that he could not complete one (105 laps around the high school track). From that bet, The Mott Marathon was born. Every year, members of the senior class, teachers, and alumni can raise money for cancer research, or other things impacting people locally. “Aside from the money raised, this challenge teaches the students that they can do anything they want to accomplish, sometimes with a little soul searching on the track. Jim will stay on the track until the last person finishes their marathon,” his nominator said.
When asked what his proudest moments were when it comes to making an impact – Jim narrowed it down to two. He said, “the Mott Marathon has turned into my legacy at the school. It involves the community, raises money and awareness, and meant a lot to the people impacted.” His other passion project is the Utica Roadrunners Run Against Racism. The run committee brings national attention to the run which takes a stand against racism and injustice.
His impact on students is something that means the world to him because he started coaching by accident when his life path was going in a different direction. “My first two seasons were horrible, but the connection I made with some of the kids, seeing the impact I had on one student’s life was my turning point,” Jim remembered. “His name is Matt Maguire – still a lifelong friend. He showed me how powerful coaching and teaching can be. And to me that's community. He became a teacher and a soccer coach and his son played at VVS, where I started. So, it truly came full circle.”
Jim credits others in his success as a teacher and coach. He said, “you are only as good as the people around you though – so I have been fortunate to have good people to work with. The school supports and sponsors kids going out and doing 105 laps.”
When he isn’t coaching or teaching, he loves running, being a huge baseball fan, having had the opportunity to teach his own children, and finding vegan recipes! He said the most positive thing that’s happened in the last year was being able to watch his kids become independent people.
President of the Utica Roadrunners Running Club Race Director for The Summer Sizzle Road Race
Founder of the Richard Mott 3.5 Mile Road Race
Founder and Organizer of the CVA Mott Marathon Challenge
Boys Varsity Soccer Head Coach-33 years 5 years VVS, 18 years Ilion, and currently going into 10th year at CVA)
Founder of VVS Soccer, Ilion, and CVA Soccer Camps Section 3 Boys Soccer Committee
Former CSC and current TVL Chairperson for Boys Soccer ELA
Teacher/Instructor of 30 years
School Administrator for Two Years
Sauquoit AYSO & Boys Little League Coach of many years
Ever since she was a little girl, Jennifer Reid had a passion for teaching. What started as “playing school” with her younger brother and cousin, has transformed into her career, now serving as Special Education Teacher at Little Falls City School District.
In addition to working in the classroom full-time, Jennifer is an early interventionist with Simply Special, working with birth through pre-school ages students who are medically fragile or who need services to help with speech, motor skills, and development. She also volunteers her time to mentor new hires for the district, which is a role she holds very near and dear to her heart.
As one of United Way’s 100 Heroes, Jennifer is described by her peers as a leader and someone with a natural ability to connect with students, making them feel safe, valued, and loved. Her colleagues also praise her for making learning fun and for differentiating instruction so that all students are growing and feeling successful.
Jennifer is an active member of the Parent Teacher Committee and volunteers for nearly every school event, including the Color Run, STEM Building, the Heart Healthy event, and various pancake breakfast benefits. She has also enjoyed participating in Literary Scene Nights, Stuff the Bus, and other family events held by the district.
What drives Jennifer to give back? Her love of helping others. “It's just something I’ve always done, and I love it,” she said. “Bringing positivity into a world with so much negative makes me feel good.”
Born and raised in Columbia, Lia Savage has been an advocate for kids throughout her entire career. Lia was adopted and admits that she was not a great kid. She took being adopted really hard and made many bad decisions as a youth. In her own words, “I never behaved and was constantly sent away to boot camps.” She just lived day-by-day, somehow getting from one day to the next. Given that her tendency as a child and a teen was to run from school, it’s ironic that her career ended up with her working as a school counselor.
In 2011, she came back to Utica because her father was sick. That’s when she got a part-time job in an after-school program called Underground. It’s a program that tries to take young kids and teens off the street and provide them with wholesome activities so they could stay out of trouble. On her first day in the program, she said "I think I love this place." From that point on she never looked back. She helps her students whether they’re in school or out. Only a call away, she is there for them night and day. She gives many of these teens a reason to keep moving forward and do the best they can. Running the afterschool program, she finds joy in helping at-risk youth find a love for sports. In her program they can try sports they never played and foods they never ate. It’s Lia’s way to help create new pathways and open new doors for them. She does everything she can to help them graduate.
Lia keeps herself more than busy with her many volunteer activities. Beyond the Underground after-school program, Lia volunteers in Safe Schools Mohawk Valley, the CYO Youth basketball league, the Hoops and Dreams basketball league, the Holland Patent Baking Club, the Rec Center after-school program, and the Green Team Oneida County Summer Youth program.
Lia admits that “her kids” are her passion. Her education taught her why she acted out as a child, and now all her energy goes to helping her students, many of whom are living through those same experiences. Many of her students don't have a real functioning family unit. For many, no one asks about their day. Lia’s focus is to not let them slip through the cracks. Her fulfillment comes from “being for her kids that adult at school that I never had when I was young. These kids are my kids. I love watching them grow up, go to college, get married, and live good lives.”
Lia loves to travel and it’s her tradition to get a tattoo from the countries she has visited.
Leading by example is what has magnified the impact of Richelle Singer’s contributions to childcare in our community. As a Family Development Issue Leader and Director of the Child Care Council Director of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), Richelle has done everything in her power to ensure children are raised in a secure environment where families, professionals, and communities are committed to excellence.
Through her work at CCE’s Child Care Council, she has worked tirelessly to support childcare providers through COVID-19, helping them access the supplies and support they need to remain viable. Richelle works with many groups throughout the state to raise awareness about issues relating to childcare and development. An area of interest for her is in reducing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and improving the resilience of children. She attends endless meetings and training on ACEs and empowers her staff with this knowledge so that they, too, can provide support throughout the community to help people understand the effects of ACEs and the value of nurturing relationships.
“Everyone who knows Richelle knows that if they ask her for help, she will be in their corner,” said Richelle’s 100 Heroes nominator. “She does not judge anyone and holds out her hand to everyone to support them in any way she can. She is an incredible leader who leads by example. I know that her work has impacted our community in a myriad of positive ways and I'm extremely proud to work with her.”
Richelle was the 2015 recipient of the Genesis Striving for Success Award and volunteers her time as a board member for the Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency and Early Care and Learning Council. Her ultimate love is working with children and believes you can learn every life lesson from a children’s book.
Marshal has been the Server and Network Administrator for 25 years, serving the Mid York Library System in Oneida County, Herkimer County, and Madison County. He helps build and maintain the network for Mid York's 43 member libraries. The libraries can operate and help the public on a daily basis because of the help Marshal offers our libraries. The public may see their libraries and librarians on a regular basis but there is also support staff such as Marshal behind the scenes making sure the libraries are able to operate. When the library has a technology question, their internet is down, website issues, or needs help with new purchases, Marshal is usually their first phone call.
Marshall started serving his community over 25 years ago. Since then, Marshall has seen the library system evolve with digital time. Starting with only a couple of computers and barely any internet connections, Marshall helped transform the library system into what it is today. Imagine, 25 years ago computers were new, and the Internet was something everyone was learning for the first time as it barely existed. It was part of Marshal’s mission to make sure the free public libraries were up-to-date and offered services to those who needed them across the area.
When asked who his mentor was, Marshal didn’t skip a beat. Linda Lawendowski was his previous boss – with whom he worked for her for over 20 years. She taught me a lot of technical stuff. I know the ins and outs of the library world and she taught me how to do the job,” Marshal said. “I learn from everybody. I am learning from all the library staff and the public, but she guided me.”
In his downtime, Marshall enjoys a Halfmoon or two, spending time with family and friends, and of course, he loves the computer and technical work in his off time too.
"Making an impact is important because I want my job to be more than just a job. it's good to do positive things for the community,” Marshal said. To him, being a hero means being there when they need you. And Marshal has done and is doing just that.
A true community hero, Shirley Waters of Rome, New York was dedicated to bettering the local region. Waters passed away at the age of 100 and never missed an opportunity throughout her long life to be an ambassador for her hometown.
Waters, the Vice President and majority owner of the Rome Sentinel Company until 2012, attended Syracuse University, where she studied Fine Arts and Painting. As a wife and mother of five, Waters still found time to help her community in many ways.
She was committed to the economic, educational, and cultural growth of her community and was particularly passionate about supporting the men and women at Griffiss AFB during activities presented by the Military Affairs Committee. She served as the regional representative for American Field Service International students and host families and was a proud member of the Order of Saint Barbara. Waters was an honorary member of the Northeast Air Defense Sector and the Officers Wives Club. She also worked to expand educational opportunities for the students in Rome through trustee meetings and the Rome College Foundation. Waters also joined others to facilitate the establishment of Lucy’s House, a domestic violence shelter for local women and children.
"Shirley was a dedicated, selfless volunteer, generously giving of her time, talent, energy, and resources to advocate for Rome's future," said Robert Sporing, Water's 100 Heroes nominator.
Waters' love of art was instilled in her passion for helping others. Her countless contributions to the local art community were outstanding and included the following:
Member of the National League of American Pen Women, CNY Chapter
Trustee of Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute
Board member at Sculpture Space
Vice-Chair of New York Newspapers Foundation
Allocations committee member for the United Arts Fund of the Mohawk Valley
Central New York Community Arts Council
Women’s History Project
Utica Art Association
Rome Art Association
Associated Artists of Utica.
Waters also found time to be greatly involved in other area organizations, including the following:
SUNY College of Technology Foundation Board
Rome College Foundation
Industrial-Labor-education Council of the Mohawk Valley
Emergency Psychiatric Social Service Board
Wednesday Morning Club
Rome Area Chamber of Commerce
Fish Creek Club
Teugega Country Club
Lake Delta Yacht Club
Red Hat Society
Waters had been honored many times for her distinguished service and received the following awards:
SUNY College of Technology Distinguished Service Award
YMCA Salute to Women Award for Art in 1989
The Rome Area Chamber of Commerce awarded Shirley its Cultural Vitality Award in 1990
Was bestowed the 1992 Roses for the Living Award by Rome Rotary Club
YWCA of Utica selected her for the Salute to Women Award for distinguished service
In 1995 Shirley and her husband were selected as recipients of the John Peter Zenger Award
Rome/Utica/Herkimer Chamber of Commerce Athena Award in 1996
Outside of her deep involvement in the community, Waters was an established practicing artist and had a strong love for animals and nature.