The May 10 ceremony at Ramapo College recognized a diverse array of community changemakers

FBW | May 13, 2024

Since 1997, the Russell Berrie Foundation has recognized 430 New Jersey residents for making a positive impact in their communities. On May 10, twelve people were honored with the 28th annual Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award. Hoboken’s Ron Hine, the Executive Director of the Fund for Waterfront, was among this year’s distinguished group of honorees.

The awards ceremony took place at the Angelica and Russ Berrie Center for the Performing and Visual Arts at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. Broadcaster Steve Adubato was the master of ceremonies. The keynote address was delivered by Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, the CEO of Multiplying Good. 

In addition to Mr. Hine, this year’s honorees represented a broad array of issues and diverse communities throughout the state of New Jersey, as follows:

  • Kristy Whilden was a music educator for 10 years until 2014 when she learned that she was losing her hearing due to progressive sensorineural hearing loss. This inspired her to create Hands Up Silent Theatre with her daughter Hailey in Millville, New Jersey. They have produced 9 theatrical productions teaching over five hundred students basic ASL through theater and reached thousands through its annual productions, shows, and classes.  
  • By bringing people together through live music, Jazz for Prostate Cancer Awareness, based in Sayerville, advocates for men’s wellness by supplying accurate information about prostate cancer and providing access to free or low-cost screenings. Ralph Stowe created this all-volunteer group in memory of his brother, legendary NYC jazz trombonist James “Jimmy” Stowe, who at age 61 succumbed to prostate cancer. Jimmy insisted that his three brothers, including Ralph, be tested for the disease.  All were diagnosed and underwent successful prostatectomies due to their early screenings. 
  • In 2004, Ruth Perez immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. in search of social and economic prosperity for her family. In 2020, Ruth helped to found Movimiento Tricolor (MTC) that hosted its first Dominican Restoration Day in Camden, New Jersey, with live performances, on-site social services, and small business vendors. After seeing the outpouring of support for the event, MTC recognized the need to continue the work of uniting and empowering the Dominican community by providing services and resources to address the social and economic barriers facing their community.
  • From We Can’t to We Can, based in Vineland, New Jersey, began with a life-long friendship between Trinity Jagdeo, and her best friend, Alexus Dick. Alexus has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, also known as SMA. Trinity founded this organization to help normalize children with disabilities and raise awareness through children’s books, local events and financial support. 
  • After leading educational programs working with national groups including Americorps and the Boys and Girls Club, Riccardo Dale of Beverly established Free All Minds Academy to instill in young men essential skills for success, nurturing their growth in a family-like environment, enriched with diverse educational workshops, mentorship and training. 
  • Shirley Green is the Director of the Whitesboro Historical Foundation Museum in Cape May County that preserves the history of the community named for North Carolina Congressman George H. White, the last post-Reconstruction era African-American to hold a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1901, White and other notable investors including Booker T. Washington and Aletha Gibbs, purchased tracts of land and founded the community, created to be a safe haven and self-reliant community for and by African-Americans.
  • Mark Leschinsky of Mahwah is founder and Executive Director of the Student World Impact Film Festival (SWIFF). a global film festival that celebrates the power of film to create positive change by showcasing student voices from around the world. SWIFF streams films live to global audiences during the festival, providing access to young and low-income filmmakers who are often hindered by submission fees at film festivals.
  • Kim Sleeman, a former Peace Corps volunteer, founded The Warehouse in Short Hills, New Jersey to help individuals and families who have experienced homelessness successfully transition into their new homes by providing them with donated furniture, household items and other essential needs.
  • For over 15 years, Phyllis A DiNardi of Ocean Township worked diligently advocating for and fostering children. Her inspiration for We Are Loved came from the lack of support, empathy, and communication she had seen for the children in foster care as well as the foster parents. The organization is dedicated to empowering and supporting foster youth and resource parents. 
  • Twelve years ago, Nadine Wright-Arbubakkr, a mother of an autistic child, now 19-year old Nassan, founded Nassan’s Place. This nonprofit organization in East Orange helps to make a difference in the lives of children and families affected by autism in and around under-served communities. Nassan’s Place provides educational and recreational programs, social outings, and resources so parents don’t have to struggle to find affordable programs and services as Ms. Wright-Arbubakkr did.
  • Born in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, Maud Dahme was six years old in 1942 when she and her sister were separated from their parents and placed in hiding by the underground Dutch resistance that opposed Adolf Hitler’s regime. At age 14, after reuniting with her parents, the family immigrated to the United States. Today, Ms. Dahme of Flemington devotes her energies to Holocaust and genocide education. She remains active in the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education

The twelve honorees, dubbed “outstanding changemakers,” each received cash awards, one for $50,000, two for $25,000 and the others for $7,500. Since 1997, the Russell Berrie Foundation has awarded $4.2 million to the 430 honorees.

Established in 1997 by the late Russell Berrie, the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award honors New Jersey residents whose outstanding community service and heroic acts have made a substantial impact on the lives of others. The Award is a signature program of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

“This award is special in that it recognizes dedicated people working tirelessly in their communities for the public good,” stated Mr. Hine.