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.
Katie Aiello is the owner of Character Coffee in the heart of downtown Utica. As a local business owner, she has worked hard to create an open space for all. The motto she created is "all character’s welcome," and that is truly how the coffee shop feels as if every person who enters the business is part of a community. Katie is also the newly elected City Councilperson for Utica's First Ward who empowers others to learn the value of their voice and works to educate others to be more engaged in the political process. She is also a Feed Our Vets board member.
If you were to ask Katie what she is proudest of, she will tell you: “I think I’m just trying to make our local government as accessible to people as possible. I’m trying to bridge the accessibility gap and try and help people get resources,” she said.
Katie’s passion comes from others. “I just love these people. Utica is just so different. There is a lot of poverty and underserved people, but there is the opportunity to make it good for people too,” she said. “Utica is underdeveloped enough to have a seat at the table if they want to. You can't do what you can here, that you can in other cities. A unique time to have an opportunity here.”
She loves the opportunity that giving back gives her to change lives. “On a local level. Locally is where you can actually show up to a meeting and try and get your road paved. No one knows Utica better than the ones who live there. Giving other people the chance to make an impact and make their voices heard,” she said.
Her favorite community event is Levitt Amp, loves a good Mello’s sub, and she loves hanging around the coffee shop and listening and learning about people. And her positive in the last year or so? She said, “I won my election after losing the first time. I wasn't going to run again unless people wanted me to. and it was really cool to see the community together.”
Tabo Bo has created a performance-based forum for expression with the creation of Nomadic Voices. His initiative and determination to create this space would have been challenging under ideal circumstances, but given the pandemic is was particularly important. Not only is he providing a critical opportunity for the expression of feelings and thoughts, but he is serving as a role model to others.
“We started Nomadic Voices, for a selfish reason during the pandemic, when we were quarantined. I started writing poetry, I wasn’t able to be out in the community, so I needed to do something,” said Tabo. “I realized I was pretty good at it – but there weren’t any platforms available to share my creativity. So we went to a park, outside and held an open mic night with a bunch of creators – and that’s how it all started.”
That’s not the only thing that Tabo taps into, he loves helping the kids, he volunteers at the Community Center, he is a tutor at area high schools and middle schools. He loves feeling like he is inspiring kids to get out there and do something – at only 22 years old!
“I know I have made a difference, but not enough. There is a lot of projects and potential to be made – I am always going to be content with myself, but I am never going to be satisfied. There is always more to do – and a lot of kids to help,” he said. |
He started doing community service for Young Scholars in middle school and has committed to never stop. As a kid, he wanted to get his community service hours done, and then it turned into something more. He sees potential in kids, and he wants to bridge the generational gaps.
A 51-year member of the Willowvale Fire Department, Ed Bradley is not shy when it comes to his volunteerism. He is a true community member, and his fire service family means everything to him.
Volunteer firefighters go above and beyond to make sure their local communities are safe, and that’s just what Ed has done with the department. For Ed, the fire service is an accomplishment he is most proud of, takes a lot of pride in, and something he cares about greatly since day one in 1964.
His father was an active member, his grandfather had in over 50 years of active service – and that got him involved. Chadwicks is a small community, and he followed in his dad’s footsteps and that's what got him involved in volunteering all the time.
His daughter says,” I think his driving force was when he became a father, he wanted me and my sister to do for our community and to volunteer. He just loved helping people and giving. We could be 100 miles away and this man knows someone. His biggest thing is doing for others and being a good neighbor.”
His mentor was his dad, and he meant a lot to him and that would be someone he looked up to as a hero. He taught him a lot. His father-in-law also meant a lot to him as a hero he was a big person in his life.
Making an impact is important to him because was just something he could do for his community.
In his downtime, you can catch Ed at the Memorial Day Parade, enjoying chicken wings, and spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren – his pride and joy.
Many could say Jeff Burkhart stays busy – but if they only knew the half of what one man can accomplish in a day, year, lifetime – they too might feel inspired to do a little more. Not only has he been a member of the Oriskany Fire Department for the last 30 years, he is in 11th year as chief. He currently works for the New York State Department of Homeland Security Office of Fire Prevention and Control, he also founded and is the Event Director for the Central New York Memorial Stair Climb, he is the current Vice President of the Association of Memorial Stair Climbs, and on top of all that – he is still working as a part-time police officer.
It all began decades ago when the Trinkaus Manor Complex in Oriskany burned down. Jeff said he basically grew up in the building. There was an arson investigation following the fire which led him down his path – he calls it the “hypothetical match that started the fire” and called him to serve. For Jeff, his driving force is simple. He wants to see Oriskany stay a community that people can be proud of and be a place that people can bring their children to and be safe and comfortable. “I like to see the area improve. I went to school here, worked here, and have friends and family that work and live here. This region seems to have heart, maybe not the fanciest and flashiest community I’ve ever been to, but we want to make things better.”
Jeff credits Harry Moe Silverman as his mentor. He says he is a local bar owner and longtime member of the fire department who he knew since childhood. “He took me under his wing when I was young. He sparked my drive and was a huge influence on me growing up in the department. My father, and his father, and now I have passed it down to the kids,” Jeff said.
“I consider myself another guy, another neighbor, ya know? I see other people do way more spectacular things than I do, but we just do things because that's the right thing to do. Making an impact is important because if we don’t do it, who will?”
After rattling off a ton of community events that the area is known for and does well, Jeff landed on the CNY Stair Climb as one of his favorites, partly because he runs it. In his downtime, you can catch Jeff camping, enjoying time on the water in the summer months, he took up bagpiping as well. And his positive from the last year or so? The fact that COVID is seeming to “go away” although he still wasn’t able to go on his cruise. But the upside is that his wife has been working from home – so they get to spend more time together – and at camp!
Evon Ervin has overcome the challenges of growing up in a low-income neighborhood, struggling with dyslexia, and the responsibility of being a single parent. She also had to balance getting her education, working a job, and being a role model for her siblings. After years of marriage, Evon and her husband Venice, purchased a home in the Cornhill section of Utica. Living in the area would give her the opportunity to continue working with children and youth with the same barriers she encountered while growing up. Thirty-seven years later, she is still providing mentoring to help young men and women to go after their dreams.
In addition to her incredible life-changing work for MVCAA, she is currently serving on the Oneida County Board of Legislators (including representation on the Economic Development and Health & Human Services committees). She has held the position of Vice President on the Utica City School District Board of Education, as an elected board member. Evon has sat on numerous community boards, Are Oneida-Lewis Chapter, the Utica Public Library, Oneida- Herkimer-Madison BOCES, NYS School Boards Association and as Treasurer for the city of Utica's Harbor Point Development Corporation Board of Directors; and more. If you ask Evon what she is proudest of, she will tell you it has been working with Rev. Maria Scates on the Johnson Park startup. The positivity it brings to the neighborhood shines bright for her.
When asked if she felt like she’s made a difference she said the proof is in the good word she gets from those she has helped. “Just last week I was at Rome Police Department doing training and an officer said do you remember me? I played ball at Boys and Girls Club. I see a lot that have done something with their life and have made accomplishments,” she said.
Her nominator said, “Evon Ervin has consistently demonstrated the dedication and drive of a true leader. Her successes in the face of multiple barriers is a testament to her hard work and unwavering pursuit of fulfilling her lifelong goals of making a difference in the Utica and Oneida County area. Evon's most repeated quote when speaking to groups of people is ‘If I Can Do It Anyone Can.’ She has continually been an outstanding role model that many people consider a hero for helping them in a time of need.”
"To me being a hero means being a servant,” Evon said. "Making an impact is important because we all need one another and it changes the world - a small portion of it.”
In her free time, you can find Evon reading, shopping, and enjoying a jelly bun!
Wendy Grullon saw a need in the community in 2002 for interpreter services and knew she needed to act. Through her work as a community volunteer and at ACR Health she has been able to help countless immigrant families get settled in the area.
The support Wendy provides to families during a time when they are relocating to a new place and may not be fluent in the language is what makes her one of the United Way of the Mohawk Valley’s 100 Heroes. Wendy goes above and beyond for the people she helps, providing transportation, navigating complex medical situations, and getting documents in order, all with a smile on her face.
Wendy also volunteers her time with her church, providing bilingual communion services and credits Padre Luis of St. John’s Catholic Church as one of her main inspirations for giving back to the community.
In her free time Wendy loves to turn the music up loud and clean. Her favorite food is the traditional Dominican dish mofongo.
Bob Harrod has been heavily involved with the Frankfort-Schuyler AYSO Program for 10 plus years now, at one time serving as commissioner and helping develop a strong sports program for area youth. This led to his creation of the Mohawk Valley Sports Club which aims to provide a more affordable opportunity for area youth to continue playing sports in an indoor/club setting. Right now, Bob’s free time is spent coaching six different teams, where he is not only trying to hone in on athletic abilities, but also teach the kids to be good human beings. And for his day job? Bob owns Technergetics, LLC – which he started from the ground up, and employs about 45 people.
Aside from being busy, Bob says he got into his volunteerism so he could spend more time with his kids and coach them. One thing led to another, and Bob’s journey with the sports club started. Something he is truly proud of he says is his involvement in the club and the impact it has on area youth. Trying to lower the cost for kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford other clubs in our community – yet offer the same experience – was huge for the organization. “We all have common goals of helping youth be good people through sports and seeing them do well on the field or court is only half of the equation – seeing them be good people is very special,” Bob said.
When asked when he decided to start serving his community his answer was simple. He said, “When I sat on the sidelines and watched the joy the kids were having, I realized it would be fulfilling for me to be involved too. My wife comes from a big family who was always active in the church, and I really owe her a lot in setting the example for me.”
Bob has been an active volunteer since 2010 in areas such as youth sports and Habitat for Humanity. He has connected with great people through volunteerism to identify opportunities to work together. “My passion for our community stems from the good that I see happening every day, especially from the impact of the hard-working people in our area trying to make a difference for their families and others,” Bob said. “If others are supported to succeed in our community, I believe that success becomes systemic and opens up opportunities for others. My drive to give back stems from the great people in my life that have enabled my success.”
His nominator said, “Bob has a unique blend of vision, coupled with the generosity of time and talent, which has led him to be a leader in our community.”
A mentor for Bob came from his parents in his younger years, even losing his father young – he set an example for him through coaching and volunteerism. His mother was very involved in his life and mentored him. But for Bob, his late father-in-law, who was a farmer, also had a profound impact on his life. He describes him as a selfless and giving individual – someone who showed Bob how you can be successful and give back.
For Bob, his favorite local community event is the Boilermaker, he enjoys chicken riggies as his favorite area staple, and you can catch him playing tennis, volunteering, coaching, walking with his wife, or spending time with his kids in any way he can in his “free” time.
Sometimes, for people who want to give back, it can be hard to pinpoint who to help, who to donate to, who to fundraise for, or knowing where to start. For Joe and Monica Hickel, the solution to that is easy- help everyone. Help all organizations with all needs and continuously aim to grow bigger and better each year. Having been able to donate nearly $100,000 to different organizations in different ways over the years, it’s safe to say they’ve succeeded with that!
While both were involved with giving back before they met 9 years ago, when they brought together Joe's fundraising and Monica's event planning, they were able to take their events to the next level. Some of their fundraising highlights were their Toy Drive they held for 3 years, where 24 different locations had a toy dropbox. Needing to shift their approach during the pandemic, they set up online auctions to raise money, with an initial goal of raising $5,000. Well, they shattered that goal when they were able to raise $16,000!
Joe and Monica find the drive to keep their efforts going through their heroes; each other. For Joe, it was Monica who helped take the fundraising efforts to the next level. For Monica, it was seeing Joe's passion and everything he was doing to give back. Being able to see the impact they are making and the joy they are bringing to those in need, and to do that together, is everything to them.
Joe and Monica have always geared their efforts towards children. They feel if you give a child hope at a young age, they never need to feel that feeling of hopelessness. This is why they aim to give back- to help others. When asked what being a hero meant to them, they said “A hero is someone who wants to make a difference but doesn’t want to be seen as a person out there making a difference. Clark Kent is Superman, he’ll always be Superman but he lives his life as Clark Kent.” That’s exactly who Joe and Monica are for their community and the people living in it!
Allison Jackson has over 20 years of experience in the Human Services field and is currently serving as ICAN's Chief Program Officer. Her work in the field began 24 years ago, and although she has always worked with kids, teens, and adults – her heart will always be with the teenagers she works with, and the work she did at the Evelyn House she will forever be proud of.
Her favorite thing about making an impact is the sense of gratitude that comes from the work. “I have a greater sense of the importance of making connections and supporting each other and it allows me to be so grateful for the blessings in my life,” she said. Although she has many moments along her career path that she takes pride in, the work she did at Planned Parenthood she is especially proud of. “I facilitated an LGBTQ support group for teens. Even 15 years ago things weren't at the point that we are at now. It was ACR Health that ran the group and I volunteered for them. It started really small in the community room at St Francis De Sales and we really built it and we did pride proms and I think for that community I am really proud of the work we did for the kids and raising awareness within in our community for support,” she said.
Her nominator said, “for as long as I have known Allison Jackson, she has made it her commitment to empowering those around her to live a better life. I am an example of that. As a teenager, Allison was my mentor. She provided encouragement, and support for my personal and professional development and I contribute much of my success to her efforts. Allison’s mentorship empowered me to break the cycle and gave me the confidence I needed to overcome any barrier that got in my way. I am just one of the hundreds of youth whose life changed for the better once they met Allison.”
Her passion comes from the connection she gets with others. She said, “I think we have really gotten away with connecting with people. You can't have a strong community unless you care about others and create relationships, building relationships with one common goal.”
In her downtime, you can catch Allison at a Saranac Thursdays and she loves when ICAN has the opportunity to volunteer to "pour” with United Way MV, reading, traveling again, and enjoying one of the area’s staple food items – greens.
Lindsey Mandia is relentless with her time and many aspects of her community. Whether through her volunteer efforts or other ventures through her day job – she is always finding an opportunity to do good within our local community. Through her work at Utica National, she organized a donation to Flint, Michigan to help the community with the water crisis. Lindsey also organized a mural in collaboration with United Way and continues to find solutions for problems that she observes. When Utica National switched to having employees work from home, she saw a need to increase staff engagement and took the initiative.
If you ask Lindsey what she’s proudest of right now, she’d tell you it was organizing the mural in the works at the Parkway Center in Utica. She is very proud that she and her family are contributing to the continued beautification of the city through the Karam Foundation to honor her uncle.
She started serving her community during her time in the Youth Coalition at New Hartford High School 20 plus years ago and has been at it ever since. Looking back at her high school years, she had a teacher and youth coalition advisor make a positive impact on her, and that made her feel like she too could make a difference. Seeing the end result is what keeps that passion and drive to do good strong within her. She has faith that her visions will be successful because she has seen the positive impact on the community from previously completed projects.
"There are so many people who want to make a difference. You just have to find them,” she said. “It only takes one positive volunteer experience to create a lifelong volunteer.”
Lindsey’s mentor in life is her grandmother. They share many qualities, including their birthday. She was an amazing person and was very optimistic, which left a positive impact on many.
In her downtime, you can catch Lindsey enjoying church festivals, putting back some grape leaves from Karam’s Bakery, and maybe some Roma’s tomato pie. She loves spending time with her kids, writing, giving back, and playing cards.
Justin Parkinson moved to Utica in 2010 and just a few years later founded Made in Utica in 2014 and Handshake.City in 2018. He has selflessly given his skills, talents, sweat, funds, and even sometimes a little blood to support local businesses and people in a unique way. Through these two endeavors, he sparked a catalyst for change that has helped make Utica the renaissance city it has become.
From promoter, to organizer, to carpenter, to maintenance for Handshake.City - he does it all without compensation, using his free time after his day ends from his full-time career. In 2021, despite a challenging year for Handshake.City, he was a major partner and force behind the “Be A Neighbor Fund”, raising over $24,000 for small local businesses struggling due to COVID restrictions.
“When I think about what we have done that has made a difference, I think of it in two timeframes: 1) the immediate, and 2) the future,” said Justin Parkinson. “The “Be a Neighbor Fund” is an example of that immediate impact. What I strive and hope for is that our work continues to make a future impact and that in 5, 10, and 15 years from now, other people are still driving this force, even if it’s not us.”
As an individual who is not originally from the area, Justin craved the hometown feel and sense of being a part of this community. What started out as a hobby and a way to meet people while supporting and learning about Utica, became a movement that many community members were yearning for as well.
Justin’s desire to create a network of people that felt like family, people you can help and rely on in a time of need, flourished but was not immune to pushback, hesitation, and lack of support. Nevertheless, Justin and the Made In Utica crew persevered. When asked who Justin’s hero and mentor has been, it was a quick response. “Frank Elias, the owner of Utica Coffee, was one of the first to tell us ‘do it’ and support us when we shared our ideas,” said Justin. “Since then, he has always been in our corner as a willing and active partner.”
“The thing I am most proud of is how we disrupted the status quo. As a “have not”, we challenged the thought that you need to have power and a lot of money to make something happen,” stated Parkinson. “Several years later, I am proud that we never sold out our values and mindset while bringing Handshake.City and Made in Utica to life.”
Handshake.City is a place where people come together for annual events put on by Justin and his team of volunteers or rent for their own gatherings or events. A couple staple events the group hosts are “Barks and Brews” and Justin’s personal favorite “Downtown Getdown.”
For over 20 years, Jason Phelps has worked for the United States House of Representatives working on veterans’ policies and issues within Oneida and surrounding counties. Jason has worked for various members of Congress starting with Representative Sherri Boehlert and every member of Congress serving Oneida County. Through his job, Jason has served the people of Oneida County
Jason is a fixture in the community that not many know of because he is too humble. If you talk to any veteran’s organization, they know his name well because he has in one way, or another helped them. His passion for serving his community and serving his country.
He said in regard to if he feels he has made an impact, “I am pretty humble and I work as part of a team, but I have a good working relationship with VA. I think I could do more.”
Mentors for Jason are many. “I have been very fortunate to have many. Parents and family are always involved. All the politicians I have worked for have all different personalities and have shared different parts of them with me and mentored me to be a good professional and person and deal with people and guide me,” he said.
His nominator says, “Jason has been instrumental in my own growth as a person and as a public servant. He always acts kind to everyone and never falters on his beliefs. His dedication to excellent customer service has been at the forefront of his work ethic and he shows that every day. All of Jason's bosses give him excellent reviews and understand his work is unsurpassed.”
To Jason being a hero means doing your job, not for any recognition or reward but just to make sure you make a difference, and making an impact is important because people matter, and you want people to be successful and you want them to have their basic needs and be happy.
Jason is the son of a veteran, a husband, and a father to two wonderful children. Jason grew up in the area and went to school at VVS. He has remained here to work and raise his family and has a deep investment in the people he lives and works with. His dedication to his family and community is unwavering.
His positive in the last year or so? Jason says it’s seeing his kids mature and see them grow – it gives him a sense of pride. “They're in middle school now and back in school and watching them becoming self-aware and become young adults – it’s great.”
Shawn Platt is a local police sergeant by day, but he is also tied to his community through volunteerism, and simply being a good neighbor. He is active in his church, he serves on a security team, participates in Christmas with a Cop, he was active in Cub Scouts, Little League, did a lot of parent volunteer opportunities, he was also a volunteer fireman for several years, and even uses his passion for photography and takes senior pictures for students free of charge.
When asked what his driving force is to give back to his community, he said it’s just who he is. “I feel that I'm a religious person and that's something that I am called to do,” Shawn said. “The community where I live is a small close-knit community, kinda family-oriented if you will. And you just get that feeling if you do something for one – you've done it for several.”
For Shawn, his parents had a profound impact on who he is as a person, and his efforts to help his community come from them. They are the people he “looks up to most in his life.”
His nominator said, “He is well respected and dedicated. While on duty he treats the community with compassion. He goes out of his way to speak with children, especially those he knows are troubled and whose home life is not the best. He knows his community and pays close attention to our business owners and makes sure he patrons their business to assist during these difficult economic times. If a local neighbor is out of town for vacation, Shawn watches their home. Shawn participates in the Shop with a Cop program and finds unique ways to fund-raise to keep the program going. When not on duty, Shawn is still a giver. He has a passion for photography and has taken senior pictures for high school students free of charge. On a snowy day, you can find Shawn not only removing snow from the family's driveway but multiple homes on the street. He is a true Christian who gives back to those in need by offering his ear, his money, and his time to volunteer at his church. He is a genuine example to his family and community of a humble hero.”
To him being a hero means being selfless and making an impact is important because it’s something we are all called to do – and it just makes life a lot happier.
In his downtime, you can catch Shawn at the Boilermaker, enjoying his wife’s black forest cake, running, and his positive in the last year or so was helping his son get his pilot’s license!
When it comes to giving back, Tim Reed’s nominator says there is no other person that has impacted our community more than Tim. He has been a volunteer, leader, and community advocate for our area for many years. Tim’s volunteer efforts include Boys & Girls Club, Munson Williams, United Way, Oneida County Tourism Board, Mohawk Valley Edge, Hospice& Palliative Care, Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce, Masonic Care Community Foundation, The Community Foundation Grants Committee, Sleep in Heavenly Peace, Grace Church warden and vestry member, and he coached Little League basketball and soccer for over 10 years.
If you ask Tim why he gives back, he will tell you it’s because he is fortunate. “I started out in a place where he was very fortunate, and always felt that he needed to give back, because not everyone is there, and that is not fair, especially kids, who end up in a life where they did nothing to be in,” he said. He started serving in the early 1980s as a big brother, and he says he got more out of it than his little brother did, same when he joined the Boys and Girls Club. “I had moved back to the area at that time, and had come across Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and there was an incredible need, about 200 littles that needed a big.” He had the time and felt like it was something he needed to do.
His passion comes from helping and making an impact in someone’s life. “If I can help one person, or help one aspect, celebrating those wins and the impact is what keeps me going,” Tim said. Those that helped him along the way, he credits for shaping his efforts. “My dad was my first hero. My brother, who has made even more of an impact than I have. and Mr. Romano- he understood the importance of community,” he said.
When we asked Tim his favorite food or area staple, he couldn’t pinpoint just one! He said, “My favorite food? There are so many things! That's what I love about this community, the range of ethnicity, you get to experience so many different cultures' cuisines." And a positive for Tim this year was being able to spend more time with his kids. “They are able to work remotely now, so even though they live in other areas, they have been able to visit and spend time with us more because they can work from anywhere."
Marianne Reynolds, the president of PJ Green, spares nothing when giving her time and generosity to our community. She is Board Officer for Baggs Square Association, Board Officer for Zonta Club of Utica, Board Member for Empowered Pathways and Committee Chair for The House of the Good Shepherd’s 150-year Gala, Past Board Member of Luther Homes Foundation, Past Board Member of the YWCA. Current committees: House of Good Shepherd’s 150-year Gala, Empowered Pathways Table and Tastings, and partakes in the Zonta Club of Utica’s Brunch Event.
In her eyes, she is just doing what she was put here to do. Marianne says she, “Continued my father’s legacy of giving back to a great community that always comes together to support each other.” And her efforts started when her own children started elementary school. She became involved in the school’s PTA and it trickled from there. “When my children started school, I wanted to be involved in their education by volunteering with the Parent Teacher’s Association, where we discussed matters that affected the children and helped organize events to raise monies for the school,” she said.
Her nominator said, ” Marianne Reynolds is a hero and impacts our community because she beholds the essence of leadership. Marianne acts with urgency in all facets of her life, her community service; and she follows through to build a team. Marianne believes in other people, and that quality combined with humility brings out a heightened level of energy from that team.”
Marianne says it’s a community effort, and he passion for giving back is spearheaded by others’ willingness to serve right along with her. “I think it is the tight-knit community we live in that rally behind each other to help any person or organization in need,” she said.
She credits her parents for being her guidance when it comes to giving and making an impact – they are truly her mentors and heroes. “My parents are my heroes – they raised six children while running a successful business (PJ Green Inc.) that is now being run by the 3rd and 4th generation,” Marianne said.
To her being a hero means volunteering without any expectation of recognition, and making an impact is important because it makes our community a better place to live and work in.
In her downtime, Marianne enjoys the House of the Good Shepherd Wine event, Italian food, working out, walking, her grandchildren’s sporting and dance events, and her positive in the last year or so? Marianne says, “I think my Father Terry Green would be proud to see that his children and grandchildren are keeping the dream of our Grandfather Philip J Green alive by continuing the business now in its 94th year.”
As the Executive Director of the Rome Alliance for Education, Melissa Roys has been paramount to success of the Connected Community Schools initiative which has assisted tens of thousands of individuals in both Herkimer and Oneida county. Melissa works tirelessly both on the macro/business end of things as well as boots-on-the-ground, hands-on, sweat-inducing work right alongside her staff. She has garnered a great deal of respect and attention from not only the surrounding communities but nationwide, presenting with the U.S. Department of Education and getting recognition from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“I think when taking this position on this brand-new initiative what I recognized a really simple philosophy working collaboratively to ensure that students and families’ basic needs were met and they could participate in their opportunities and be successful,” Melissa said. “I feel that myself and my team have made a difference, the initiative started right before COVID. We distributed millions of pounds of food and thousands of meals and assessed people’s needs.”
And Melissa’s call to action you ask? Because she was lacking growing up – so what better way to give back? “I was a struggling kid that probably lacked all the supports that they needed and resources. I didn't have self-confidence and didn't feel I had a voice, so I think I was called to provide that to other kids and families,” she said. “I am very empathic to people’s situations. I truly believe the community as a whole has everything it needs but if we could do better about working collaboratively, they would be ok.”
Her nominator said, “Through her hard work and her true passion and love for helping people succeed and thrive, over 1.5 million pounds of food have been distributed to families in need, and 60,000+ unduplicated individuals have received tangible goods through our community hubs (such as snacks, food items, hygiene products, clothing, and school supplies), and thousands of referrals and connections have been made for individuals and families to much-needed supports and services in their community.”
Her mentor or hero is Melissa’s mother. “It was my mom because I saw as a young kid – we weren't the wealthiest of families, but my parents went out of their way to provide support and resources to other families. They provided this model of you always need to give more than you receive,” she said.”
In her downtime, Melissa loves Saranac events, the diverse variety of food the area is known for, and painting.
Rev. Maria A. Scates’ mission is simple. To serve the residents and promote the revitalization of the Johnson Park-Cornhill neighborhood of Utica. Rev. Scates is the Chief Executive Officer of Johnson Park Center. She is formerly homeless and a veteran that is an advocate for the homeless, women, children and families. Rev. Scates says she’s a visionary; she pioneered and led the way for positive change and revitalization in the Johnson Park community, which she loves and resides in. She is the Founder of the Johnson Park Center; Cornhill-Utica an inner-city community-based organization.
Rev. Scates said, “Johnson Park has seen it all, and now it is clean and beautiful and safe. I was able to be a change agent in the community. I wanted to change my neighborhood and we were able to bulldoze through all of that and be an agent of change.” She decided to create that change in November of 1995. “I started with shoveling and picking up trash and it went from there. And with the trash, the children were so intrigued they started following me throughout the process and we were able to instill in them that there is hope. If we do one small thing at a time. Our first program was a food pantry, and I understand what it is like to be homeless. And now, 2,000 households per month we are feeding.”
“My driving force is that I was homeless and, on the streets, and after all those years of homelessness to be able to help people and get their lives on track – it comes full circle. I was able to live out what the Bible says in Matthew 25.”
Her mentor or hero was her father, Rev. Nathaniel Scates, Sr. He lived until he was 89 and brought her up in the right way, with home training. She credits him for raising her in a good home and coming from a good family. And it was her father who showed her the way. They have a family full of preachers now – and she truly believes it is their legacy.
To her being a hero means giving of herself and being a community asset. “Making an impact is important because you give people hope and a chance to believe that they can be better. I get challenged too that I can do better too so it's always a process,” she said.
For Rev. Scates, she loves the annual Christmas and back-to-school party for the children, enjoys a nice prime rib, giving back, reading the Bible, singing, and serving.
Barbara Seaton’s nominator hit the nail on the head when saying “Barb really does it all.” Involved in a multitude of organizations when it comes to volunteer work and community impact – it’s safe to say she keeps herself busy. She is the current president of Rome Community Theater Board of Trustees, the Director of Music Rome First United Methodist Church, works continuously with United Way of Mohawk Valley, the American Cancer Society, and many community bands as a player and conductor, and she’s also an American Red Cross volunteer. She originally intended to go to school for medicine to become a doctor, but she stumbled upon a temporary job in academics and realized she had a different calling.
When asked what her driving force was and where her passion stems from when it comes to giving back to her community, she didn’t have to dig deep for an answer. It was simple. “My mother was the example, teaching third grade in the poorest school in Rome, and was a mother, father, and savior to so many kids,” she said. “We didn't have a lot, yet we always shared. It didn't matter that we didn't have a lot, we were always happy just doing what we could for others. Sharing time, talent, money, with others in need is just what was normal for us.”
To her, making an impact is important because you never know whose lives you are going to touch. She said that sometimes the smallest seemingly insignificant action makes a world of difference to someone else.
In her spare time, her favorite local community even is the St. Mary of Mount Carmel Italian Festival, she enjoys music and theater, and her positive in the last year or so was celebrating her father’s 85th birthday with about 16 of his RFA classmates from 1954. She called it their own “mini-reunion.”
Stephen Turnbull is the epitome of “don’t judge a book by its cover” because aside from his every day, there is so much to uncover! He might be a successful insurance agent working for his family business, but what many don’t know is how successful he is in giving back to his community as well.
Stephen is currently the president of the Rotary Club and has coordinated several fundraising campaigns and volunteer projects through the organization. He also is a board member for The Greater Utica Chamber of Commerce, and a CABVI Hockey Committee Chair. He is a big supporter of local businesses, co-hosting a podcast, "Small Business, Big Future" and he is a member of Business Networking International.
One of his proudest efforts thus far has been working with Kathy Beaver, and the Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, to bring the US Blind Hockey Team here locally and Utica is now the lead in that. He said, “making that happen has been something.” His work with the Rotary Club is a family effort that started with his grandfather and father. He was always helping the effort and officially joined after college. He says the community makes up his clientele, so it’s only right to give back to the community that keeps his family business going strong.
“Whenever giving back, the feeling of the accomplishment never gets old. Whether it’s helping to buy pizzas for nurses during COVID, picking up trash, etc. That feeling for the work that you did never gets old, and I think that fuels you to want to do more and do bigger things. Broaden that impact on the individual level and then the business in the area to piggyback on,” Stephen said. ‘The size of our community allows single individuals to get involved on a very personal level and partner with a community partner to make a bigger impact.”
For Stephen, his mentor is his father, and his grandfather is his hero. my father is my mentor. “Whether it be rotary or CABVI, I am the third generation to make an impact. My grandfather and father also have a long history with them. My heroes are the two of them and the ability to carry on the legacy of making a difference,” he said.
In his downtime, Stephen is a Comets season ticket holder, he’s a huge hockey guy, loves Roma’s tomato pie, and enjoys spending time with his family and friends. His positive from the last year? He got engaged!
When you first meet Keren Vita, she’s a breath of fresh air, someone that the “good” exudes from – and you know she was meant for the greater good. And she is so humble, and kind – she doesn’t even realize the grand impact her kindness and want to help others is making.
“It happened all organically. I didn't set out thinking my efforts would turn out as such a group effort. I had participated in other group art shows, but never had my own solo show. When I had my first art show and saw what it did for my confidence, and how it impacted me as an artist. It was a really unique feeling,” Keren said. “It started with "Gerber's" picking me as the artist of the month in 2019. Later that year, I decided to take my solo experience and expand to see how many other artists would like to join me, and it turned into more than 50 different artists. I had my first group art show at "Inkorporated Tattoo Studios." It was a huge success and the artist were able to make some money. Then, when I was asked to paint a mural for McDonald's in the Adirondack Bank lot, it opened me up to the homeless population across the street at the bus stop. It was neat, I got to talk to so many different people in the community. I heard their stories and did not forget. it was a learning experience with unexpected rewards.”
Keren then organized a first-time event called Brushstrokes for Breast Cancer, which was an art auction featuring donated pieces by a multitude of local artists. The event raised over $8,000 and every penny was given to the MVHS Breast Cancer Patient Assistance Program to help pay for treatment for those who would typically struggle. She was able to accomplish all of this while concurrently losing her father to illness.
She is now volunteering on the Uptown Board and trying to help lift their efforts. She says it’s important to know where the money is going. Joe Hickel, another of the 100 Heroes, helped her with that and made sure it was for Mohawk Valley breast cancer assistance, which is a never-ending needed fund. Keren says “it’s been the right process.”
Her crusade for the betterment of others, ironically, began when her father became ill in 2017. Keren said,” I knew that there wasn't time to waste. I use my grief as a tool. I'm grateful for that push.” She says her father’s illness and who he was as a person helped drive her passion for helping others and giving back because he too liked to help people. She credits him for being her hero and mentor throughout life, as well as her mom.
“One thing I've noticed is that this small-town vibrations when you give back – you feel it directly. Immediate, right there, and doesn't get lost in a bunch of paperwork. Handing Faxton the funds mattered. With the artist, it's all a part of the empowerment. I do it through art, it’s lasting and will be here for a long time,” Keren said.
To Keren being a hero means providing a safe place for people to be themselves and making an impact is important because it's the footprint we leave behind and the proof of the capacity to be able to love.
In her spare time, you can catch Keren at any group art shows locally, enjoying The Grapevine, Domenico’s Coffee, and the Uptown Theatre. She is also a musician and a fiber artist, and she just started tattooing. Her positive in the past year or so would be that her dad would be proud to see her help raise her nephew that was born shortly after he passed away. She said it is “quite a life change and a new way to love.”
James and Becky Weiderman opened a non-profit organization, 'Tagless' on North Main Street in Herkimer. The goal and mission of this organization is to close the gap of hardships for individuals who cannot afford to buy 'nicer' clothing. The organization is run by a group of volunteers who offer their time every Monday through Friday 4-7 p.m. and every Saturday from 1-7 p.m. Anyone who goes to Tagless has the opportunity to get clothing, that is stylish and currently in style, to help boost their confidence, whether it be at a job interview, going to work, going to school, or just in their everyday-to-day life. In addition, James and Becky have created different campaigns based on the needs at that time. They have held school supply drives, COVID-19 vaccine clinics, Halloween costume giveaways, and during the holidays, they were giving away different gifts for those who cannot afford to buy presents for Christmas.
Susan was at the helm of the Helio Health, CNY Services and Insight House merger that occurred in 2021. The merger of three organizations, three groups of staff and three company cultures was no easy task, but Susan proved to be up for the job. Her compassionate and competent management style helped staff to feel at ease at a time of great organizational change. Susan became involved with services being provided in Oneida County, joining the Opioid Overdose Task Force, a member of CNY Alcohol and Drug Association, Oneida Square Outreach Team to help come up with ways to prevent homelessness, working together with many agencies and the county to help those struggling with substance use disorders and housing, and local animal shelters, whether it be donating funds or products to help.
Something she’s most proud of? “Helping to bring three organizations together to form a more comprehensive care model for the community,” Susan said. And her day job isn’t the only thing that takes up her time and volunteerism. She may be a part of leading the way at Helio Health, but she certainly uses her resources to help wherever she can. “I like to run, so I do a lot of charity runs and walks,” Susan said. “Giving to local charities like Rome Humane Society, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Food Bank of CNY, rescue missions. I am a social worker, so helping people is in my nature.”
Susan has a couple of people she looks to for guidance when she faces a challenge in the workplace or in life. ‘My immediate supervisor, EVP and COO of Helio Health, Kathleen Gaffney-Babb, and my mother, Judith Parker are my two mentors and role models,” she said. “Their kindness, their brilliance. They model strength and resilience, and always help and challenge me to be better. When I try to be more like either of them, it makes me a better person. I love being surrounded by smart women.”
Her 100 Heroes nominator said, “Susan's dedication to the Helio Health mission shines through in every aspect of her work. She can often be found spreading the word of our mission within the communities we serve, touching base with an anxious patient, or helping staff navigate new systems. Susan truly leads by example and works tirelessly to ensure easy access to our programs for all that need it. She is a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion that understands that substance use is something that affects every demographic, and makes certain individuals entering our programs feel welcomed, safe, and seen.”
In her off time, you can catch Susan enjoying Holland Farms halfmoons, Joe’s Pizza in Whitesboro, and she loves the Boilermaker for her favorite local community event, as one of her pastimes is running.