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.
Tracey Barone, director of Nursing at Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS) Emergency Department, Trauma, Psychiatric, and Stroke Services is a strong example of a community hero. Barone started her career as a nurse in 1998 and joined MVHS in 2004. When she moved into her current leadership position at the health system, Barone had big aspirations of making the ED great and was soon faced with one of the largest challenges she could have imagined, COVID-19.
"I'm the person that keeps everyone going and reminds them that we can get through each shift,” said Barone. “But, that wasn’t always easy given the circumstances we were faced with. Everyone was really sick. I owe so much to my incredible team.”
Barone was nominated due to her resilience throughout the pandemic, the growing workforce shortages, and the historic number of patients utilizing the ED for care and mental health issues. She always makes a point to ensure the members of her team feel supported and appreciated. She’s even been known to volunteer her own time to step in shifts when there is a need.
Patient care is at the center of everything Barone does in healthcare but it’s especially important to her in this community because her family is here.
“The patients we see are our family,” said Barone. “We are all related to each other. We want to always be the best we can.”
Barone acknowledges her husband as her own personal hero because of the way he supported her so immensely over the last two years. As parents of four boys, Barone’s husband stepped up to manage everything at home while Barone was busy being a leader at the hospital during the pandemic.
Outside of her role at the hospital, Barone finds time to teach nursing as an adjunct lecturer at Utica University. She and her family love the local hockey games and fishing in Lake Ontario. Barone also can’t resist the nostalgia brought from a delicious Holland Farms Jelly Bun.
If there is one thing about Staci Bowman that someone should know – it is that she believes with all her heart that quality care should be a priority in our community. Selected as one of our 100 Heroes, her nominator calls her a “healthcare hero” at Utica Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
In 2015, Staci played an instrumental role in unionizing her facility and has since been a part of two negotiating committees and has been a lead 1199SEIU Delegate there. In the years since 1199SEIU organized her facility, Staci has also been very involved in the political action work 1199SEIU leads. Staci has gone on countless advocacy trips to the New York State Capitol and Washington DC, and she has participated in local advocacy and lobbying meetings in the Mohawk Valley. During the past two years, Staci has also served as an 1199 SEIU Member Political Organizer helping to register many 1199SEIU members to vote, signing up 1199SEIU members for our Political Action Fund, and helping 1199SEIU members in the Mohawk Valley make their plans to vote in key elections for all levels of government. When asked what she is most proud of, Staci says attending rallies and her union work allows her to make sure that she helps people get what they deserve – good quality care.
Staci calls her late brother her hero. He passed away at the age of 49. Staci said, “I was there for him like he would have been there for me. With his sickness it made me understand how much was needed for him when it came to quality care.” She said how thankful she was that her sister-in-law, niece, and two nephews were able to care for him at home. She said, “it made me want to do more after I saw what he went through.” A mentor to Staci is colleague, Colleen Jennings. Someone she says has been by her side for the last 22 years at the home, but the best friends have known each other for at least 45 years.
"To me being a hero means it’s something for my grandchildren to look back on and say ‘wow, my grandma was a hero,” Staci said. In her off time, she enjoys hanging out with her grandkids. She has a grandson with Autism who is 7 years old who she has a special relationship with. She said she enjoys understanding him. Staci enjoys area staples like chicken riggies and tomato pie – but her chicken riggie recipe is so good – she makes her own!
Born and raised in Central New York, Dr. Norman Cognetto (aka “Dr. Norm”) has deep roots in our community, which stretch far beyond his dental practice, Kidsteethonly. He graduated from New Hartford High School and went on to earn his Doctor of Dental Surgery Degree from the State University of New York School of Dental Medicine. It didn’t take Dr. Norm long to realize his passion for working with children, even being recognized as an undergraduate student with the American Society of Dentistry’s “for Children” award. After completing his schooling, he returned to his hometown, where he opened Kidsteethonly on Gennessee Street and began touching the lives of countless families across our region.
As one of United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s 100 Heros, Dr. Norm has gone above and beyond his call of duty to make children comfortable in his chair and make oral hygiene accessible to underserved members of our community. Outside of his practice, Dr. Norm is committed to helping children with special needs as a volunteer for Special Olympics-Special Smiles. He also devotes time to mentoring the next generation of dental professionals in our area, serving as a BOCES Regional Program for Excellence Mentor, where he provides shadowing opportunities for high school and college students, as well as clinical experience for dental assisting and dental hygiene students.
Dr. Norm is the President of the Dental Department at St. Luke's Medical Center, serves on the selection committee for new residents at The Rosanski Dental Center, and has been a chairman for the Oneida-Herkimer County Dental Society for 25 years. The list of his volunteer work goes on and on, from the Mission of Mercy to Mohawk Valley Bike Club to the Ride for Missing Children, and, one of his favorite local events, The Boilermaker Road Race.
“It may be a clique,” said Cognetto, “But we are all in this together, and it's always nice to help somebody. It's something that is innate in most of us.”
Amy Coria has been serving the residents of our community as a substance use professional for more than 20 years. In her most recent role as a Forensic Case Manager at Helio Health, her impact is undeniable, as she works with Utica’s Mental Health Court to support individuals who have resorted to crime in getting assistance for substance abuse and mental health issues.
As one of United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s 100 Heroes, Amy believes "even the smallest gesture of kindness can be life-changing to someone.” Her desire to work with and help others brought her to Helio Health, where she facilitates the Mental Health Court Program and rallies local non-profits to deliver participants with judgment-free care and compassion.
Her goal? To help those struggling with mental health navigate the complex judicial system, and to give those who complete the program a second chance, as they’re often able to get charges resolved, avoid jail time, and move forward without a record.
Prior to taking on this position, Amy played an integral role in Helio’s REHAT (Rapid Engagement Homeless Assistance Team) Housing and MRT (Moral Recognition Therapy) Programs. Following several years of uncertainty due to COVID-19, Amy is just thankful to be able to work and continue serving members of our community. As a mother of two, she spends her free time with family, cheering on her son at his baseball games and her daughter at her volleyball games. She enjoys attending local events, especially those her dogs can attend alongside her.
Dr. Stephen Eadline has worked tirelessly for 34 years to support the children and families of Oneida County. He grew up in Philadelphia and before happening upon the Mohawk Valley – he lived in different states. Dr. Stephen has been living in Utica the longest, and even though he didn't grow up here, he calls Utica his home.
Through the good times and the bad times, he has loved this area and dedicated himself, often 24 hours a day, to its families. Giving his cell phone number to frightened moms and teens made him one who would be there at some of the darkest times a family might face. Fundraising at treadmill challenges, answering phones on telethons, addressing community health concerns on radio and TV has put a trusted and smiling face on charitable endeavors, as well as frightening health issues. On charitable boards, Steve listens with his heart and responds honestly with his knowledge and concern for our community. Our area has been blessed with many selfless people who make Oneida County a treasured place to live but Dr. Eadline has touched so many in Oneida County, from the babies to the grandparents, with his generosity of time, spirit, and wisdom. Those are gifts that make this the unique and beloved place that it is. He has dedicated his life to this community and its families. He's sacrificed much of what we all hold dear to serve and comfort others. He is and has been for 34 years a steadfast community hero.
Something not everyone may know about Dr. Eadline is that when he was looking for placement, a recruiter kept mentioning a place he thought was Attica, but learned he meant Utica. Lo and behold the recruiter was persistent and when the doctor and his wife came to interview – they fell in love with the area. Since then, he has looked at ways to help and looked at where kids may have other needs for healthcare. Dr. Eadline is very proud of a program at Sitrin Rehab in 1999 where Dr. Joanne Joseph and himself provided mental healthcare to children. As Dr. Eadline said, “I am just doing my best and hopefully making a difference.”
When he isn’t hard at work, although he is supposed to be in retirement, he enjoys playing guitar, reading, and spending time with his family.
One of Herkimer County’s best-kept secrets, Kathy Fox spends her time, whether on the job or off, helping people who need assistance. She is the director of Herkimer County's Office for Aging. She has been a volunteer for Herkimer Oneida Organizations Active in Disaster (HOOAD) since 2010 and has served as co-chair since 2018. In both roles, she is on the front lines in Herkimer County helping her friends and neighbors in need. Never one to seek attention, she does her work quietly and humbly.
As a volunteer, during and after the 2017 & 2019 floods, Kathy worked many long hours coordinating HOOAD's immediate response and long-term recovery efforts. More recently she has focused her considerable talents on helping to maintain and guarantee food and health security for Herkimer County seniors. During many days when the pandemic was raging, she was out and about delivering meals to seniors who would otherwise have been without food during that difficult time. Kathy doesn’t limit her community service to her day job and HOOAD. Rather she is active in serving several important community agencies and boards. Among these are the Herkimer County HealthNet, the Mohawk Valley Community Action Advisory Board, the Herkimer County Inter-County Planning Committee, the Alternatives to Incarceration Board, the Mohawk Valley Housing Coalition, the Herkimer Public Health Advisory Committee, and the Oneida-Herkimer Transportation Committee. Kathy is obviously a very busy person, and she keeps busy largely in service to her community.
Describing community service in her own words, she says “my day job is dealing with vulnerable people, and in this role [HOOAD], it's the same. They are vulnerable and it's easy for them to be taken advantage of with nowhere else to turn. That is why I wanted to get involved.” She further states that “in this day and age, there is a lot of division and negativity, and by helping others, you remove that piece. Politics, beliefs, opinions, it doesn't matter, it cuts through that and hits on a human-to-human level.” And that sums up Kathy’s community service… human to human.
She numbers Betty-Joan of United Way of the Mohawk Valley and Mike Block of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) as inspiring mentors. When Kathy isn’t serving her committee, she likes to hike and garden and admits there is always time for a soft vanilla ice cream.
Debbie Hamell-Palmer, a Licensed Master Social Worker and Behavioral Health Therapist at Mosaic Health Utica have dedicated her life to empowering those around her to believe in their own strength and to cultivate their resilience. Prior to working at Mosaic Health, Hamell-Palmer worked to improve graduation rates at Proctor High School in Utica. She was raised by a single mother who always provided a strong foundation for her and inspired her by always working hard and holding great jobs.
Hamell-Palmer was nominated for both her work in the professional mental health environment and in her local community. As a member of the Refugee Health Team, she helps newcomers to our community adjust to their new lives and for many, work through traumatic stress injuries. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamell-Palmer continued to adhere to the growing demand for mental health services by learning to use telehealth. She even volunteered her time to assist with COVID-19 Pods at Mosaic Health.
Outside of work, Hamell-Palmer serves as an individual/family therapist for ICAN as well as a Self-Direction Coach/Respite for the Kelberman Center. In addition, she serves her time at numerous other community organizations, including the following:
● The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley
● Peace Maker Casa Advocate
● Girl Scout Troop Leader
● Fundraising/Donations Junkie
● National Alliance for Children Partner - Mental Health Piece of Breakout Rooms.
“Part of it is, it's just my passion -- it comes naturally to me,” says Hamell-Palmer. “ I want to see others succeed. My journey in life has always been to make a difference in my community. And, being a minority -- it hasn't come easy to me. I want the youth to know there are opportunities out there for them.”
Hamell-Palmer has received many honors throughout her lifetime, including:
● The Betsy Hicks Award
● James Blackshear Memorial Scholarship
● The Sheila Coleman Scholarship
● The Seth W. Spellman Scholarship
● High Honors-School of Social Welfare
“I do what I do not for thanks but because it's in my heart,” says Hamell-Palmer. “You have to have empathy because you can change someone's life. It's the smallest things in life that are the greatest.” Outside of serving her community, Hamell-Palmer enjoys eating a delicious plate of Utica Greens, being outside, socializing, and traveling.
Laurie Hoke knew from early on that she wanted to be involved in either maternity or pediatrics and ultimately found her calling as a Registered Nurse and Certified Lactation Consultant for over 35 years.
Laurie is described as kind and compassionate, having made an impact on many parents to be during childbirth classes and continuing that support after babies are born. Her compassion and willingness to assist is what makes Laurie a perfect choice for our 100 Heroes.
When Laurie began her career, she was one of the younger nurses and credits much of what she has learned to former, more experienced coworkers. She now passes the knowledge and experience she has to new nurses, expecting parents, and breastfeeding mothers.
“I want to be there for new parents during a challenging time to make them feel more comfortable and at ease,” Laurie said. “It’s nice to see the positive impact that I can have.”
In addition to her work, Laurie has volunteered her time with the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts when her children were growing up. In her free time, she enjoys camping and card making.
There is a lot to say about 100 Heroes’ Dave jones. Not only did he strive to help put an end to world hunger for the last three decades – he continues to give back and be a part of Utica’s Thanksgiving Day Run/Walk – even after stepping down as the director back in 2015.
A now-retired Orthotist/Prosthetist, Dave founded the run, and 100% of the proceeds and food raised go to local non-profit food pantries. When asked what he is most proud of, Dave said chairing the event for 31 years – an event that raises a couple of tons of food and thousands of dollars for hunger.
After moving to the area in December of 1981, and after a few years of adjustment with his work, Dave said he saw needs within the community and went out and tried to do his part.
He credits his family for being active in the community and says that’s where his giving spirit comes from. To this day, he has donated 62 units of blood – and says there is always something that you can do.
“Service is my religion. I enjoy giving because I get a lot in return for doing so,” Dave said. “Utica has been a wonderful place to live and raise a family. So, in giving back, I am paying off my debt.”
Dave also credits the people in our community for making the area so unique, saying that there are many people who are generous with their time and money for important causes. “To me being a hero means I’ve been fortunate with many opportunities, and giving back is important because there is always a need in our community,” Dave said.
Dave puts more value on Thanksgiving than any other holiday, enjoys diverse cultural foods, pickleball, diving, and beekeeping. And in the last year, his positive note is putting together the Utica Urban Tree Planting Project, which will be returning this year.
Utica Rotary Club
Adirondack Mountain Club- Iroquois Chapter
Young Scholars LPP
Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP)
African American Community Partners (AACP) @ Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute
Mid-York Beekeepers Association
Lead-Free Mohawk Valley
Growing up in the Mohawk Valley, Dr. Rebecca LaValley always saw her family giving back to the community, while expecting nothing in return, and knew that service and volunteerism would be an important part of her life.
During a time of such uncertainty in the world, Dr. LaValley has been a source of hope and comfort for so many and this is what makes her one of the United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s 100 Heroes.
Dr. LaValley supports the community through her work at MVHS Family Residency Program providing care for anyone in need, including the underserved, refugees, as well as teaching and mentoring resident doctors. She volunteers in local schools for career day, highlighting women in science and medicine, and is an avid supporter of the March of Dimes – raising awareness for premature birth, infant loss, and promoting healthy pregnancies.
Having returned to the area in 2012 after finishing school Dr. LaValley encourages the resident doctors she trains to stay here saying, “I love this community, we rally around people like no other, there is such a great sense of community, I love the people.”
In addition to her work and volunteering, Dr. LaValley enjoys many of our popular local staples including the Utica Zoo, Utica Comets, and getting her kids ready for the Sugarplum Ball.
Melissa Pavlicek has lived a life of service, to her country, community & family. Through her military service, career as a social worker, and mother – she has found countless ways to give back and be part of something bigger than her.
Melissa greatly exemplifies what it means to be one of the United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s 100 Heroes. She is a retired United States Marine, having served for 23 years including two combat tours, and knew upon her retirement that she wanted to make an impact in her community. After retirement from the Marine Corps, Melissa went on to get her master’s degree in social work and has been working with young people at the House of the Good Shephard for the past 2.5 years. Melissa approaches every day with great enthusiasm because she knows that she will be helping young people change their lives.
“I've promised myself that I am going to make people's live better and make every day a good day,” Melissa said.
Melissa draws strength from her children, saying that they are her heroes having persevered during various moves and having both parents deployed during their childhood. Melissa does experience PTSD and because of this focuses greatly on mental health.
“I have learned that every day I have to make a real effort to take care of my mental health and I have things I do that help, such as exercise. I won't let it drag me down, because I want and need to continue to take care of others.”
Melissa is a lifetime member of the Herkimer County Marine Corps League and has received numerous military decorations as a result of her years of service.
Cindy Peters has always gone above and beyond in her roles as a nurse and a community leader. Cindy was inspired to help others at an early age after watching her Aunt Janice take care of her grandfather until his passing. Cindy knew a great way to help others would be to become a nurse, so upon graduating high school, Cindy did just that.
Cindy is very passionate about volunteering and making a difference through food drives. She sees the lines of people that wait all day just to get a fresh meal and knew she needed to help. Cindy knows how fortunate she is and knows she has a lot of positivity to pass on; If she sees someone in need, she's always there to lend a helping hand or a smile. Cindy has helped the community through food drives and also the Erie Canal clean-up but is on hand whenever they need her. When Cindy is not volunteering she loves eating out at Chipotle (because she doesn't have to cook), biking on the Canal Trail, and hiking.
A licensed practical nurse for the past 10 years, Andrina Rivera balances being a parent and still routinely goes above and beyond for both the staff and residents at a local nursing home. When COVID struck the area, she volunteered to care for those in the COVID units, knowing it put her family at risk and yet believing that as an LPN she had a job to do, that being to care for those unable to care for themselves. In the words of her nominator, Andrina is an “amazing team leader, an amazing nurse – a nurse that will not stop until her job is done.” Andrina credits the decline in what is offered nowadays with healthcare as her greatest motivator. It makes her go harder and want to be a better nurse, one with a smile for all her patients despite the long hours and long days.
Andrina sees her dad as her mentor and a true personal hero. He came from Puerto Rico unable to speak any English. Despite this, he was somehow always able to get his point across. He worked hard and raised his kids. Because his kids saw how determined and resilient, he was, he was able to instill in them a solid work ethic and a strong commitment to honesty. For Andrina, what defines a hero is simple, "showing up and working hard, no matter what.” Her dad did that every day.
Andrina is understandably proud of her Latino heritage. She sees a large Spanish demographic here that doesn't know what’s a good career to pursue. With her Puerto Rican background, she hopes to help young Latinos see healthcare as a career possibility. In her words "the younger generation needs to see positive role models.” Andrina strives be that role model.
On a more personal note, Andrina most enjoys the Latino Association festival in front of the city hall with all the different foods, music, and games for the kids. Her favorite foods are the unique area staples – riggies, halfmoons, tomato pie, etc. And the best way to spend time outside work is with her kids. Her next life chapter will be college as she transitions from LPN to RN.
Creating change is not something that comes easy, but Jane Vail is not one to take no for an answer. Through her position as Executive Director at Central New York Health Home Network, Inc. and countless hours volunteering, Jane has made a lasting impact advocating for person-centered care that is innovative, sustainable, and collaborative across the board.
For the past four years, Jane has overseen the NYS Medicaid Health Home Program for Care Coordination – ensuring more than 6,000 individuals in our ten-county region have access to appropriate health care. Under her leadership, CNYHHN, Inc. has established a No Wrong Door System of Care to provide services to high-risk populations and individuals with disabilities, refugee and immigrant populations, and those with chronic health and mental health conditions. Jane has secured $1.6 million in grants within the last year to implement an expanded delivery system of Care Coordination, partnering with various hospital systems and school districts to identify chronic health disparities and social determinants of health for the most vulnerable populations.
“The work that I am most proud of is demonstrating ways that human service agencies can work collaboratively to make a difference,” said Jane. “Our community has a tremendous number of services and initiatives and once you can build partnerships amongst these programs, vulnerable populations get their needs met and in turn, have a positive impact on our community as well. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
Jane serves on the Coalition of NYS Health Homes Board of Directors and is a former Board of Director member for Life Plan CCO and Families Together in NYS. She has also been honored with two awards by the CNY Business Journal - Outstanding Rising Star for Innovative Programs in 2019 and No Wrong Door Collaborative Partnership Award in 2020. In her downtime, Jane enjoys interior decorating, spending time with her two dogs and fiancé, and traveling to warm places.
Many people say that “the way to someone's heart is through their stomach,” no one represents this saying more than Mary Zimbler.
Mary has been a voluntary director of the Country Pantry in Clark Mills for over 12 years. She is an angel on earth whose mission is to address hunger in our local communities. At the start, she was feeding on average about 104 families a month. Now post-pandemic, Mary feeds between 400 and 600 families a month, and upwards of 700 during the holidays.
“Since the start of COVID, we tweaked a lot of things to create the ability to get food out into the community in an organized way without having families having to come to our pantry to get it while keeping our volunteers and families safe, through deliveries and drive-throughs,” Mary said.
Mary recognized her faith 12 years ago when she saw in the local paper that the previous director was leaving and knew this was her time. Mary has adopted children from other countries where food is lacking, which helped bring light to local families in need.
Mary is very passionate, encouraging, and always there to pass-along words of hope. “Helping provide food to people, during a time they have this immediate obstacle, is my way of showing that God is faithful to help with those needs,” Mary said.
When she’s not at the Country Pantry, she loves to coordinate the Senior Picnic at the Clinton Lions Club, visit the shores of Maine, and explore ethnic food.