By Angelica Berrie
As daunting a burden as the COVID-19 pandemic is by itself, it also magnifies racial inequality and other societal fissures that make it even worse for many people. Challenging times like these can be softened by extraordinary individuals who see a need and step up.
These are real heroes who make a difference in their community by unselfishly giving of their time, talent and even their own personal resources to make things better for others.
Five years before his death in 2002, my husband Russell Berrie created a way to salute New Jersey’s unsung heroes — everyday people who, over the course of a lifetime, or in the flash of a moment — who made their neighborhood, community, state or society as a whole a better, safer, healthier place.
Each year, the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award provides $50,000 in cash to a selfless New Jerseyan whose deeds stand out. There are two $25,000 awardees and several who receive $7,500 awards. These awards were Russ’s way to recognize people in a tangible way — realizing that honorees often sacrificed their financial resources and gave up their time to use their talents to help others and make change.
The deadline to nominate an unsung hero for the 25th anniversary Making a Difference Award is February 12. Ramapo College of New Jersey administers the award process and an advisory board of prominent New Jerseyans reviews the nominations and recommends honorees to be recognized in May.
Russ Berrie was a grown man who had a child’s heart. His success was fueled by selling trolls, teddy bears, sculptures bearing the inscription “I love you this much” — and every tchotchke in between. What started in a garage grew into a $300 million business. He went on to launch the Russell Berrie Foundation, based in Teaneck, to support advances in medicine, focusing on diabetes and humanism; foster religious understanding and pluralism; promote the continuity and enrichment of Jewish communal life and elevate the profession of sales.
But Russ didn’t want to just make large philanthropic gestures. He also wanted to, as he put it, honor “outstanding people — just common folks, not great scientists or people of great wealth…people who work really hard and spend a lifetime giving up a lot of themselves.’’ Russ didn’t care if you were the president or a cab driver — he had a sense of humanity that connected him to everyone.
The list of Making a Difference Award winners reads like a roster of those who gave of themselves — not for fame and certainly not for money. They are folks like:
- Pino Rodriguez of Camden, who inspired and empowered those around him to deter crime in their neighborhood through a program that grew into the Block Supporter Initiative.
- Chief Vincent Mann of the Ringwood-based Turtle Clan of the Ramapough-Lenape Tribe, who rallied his people and won media coverage that pressured the federal EPA to reopen a Superfund site at the former Ford plant in Mahwah and force the company to do additional cleanup.
- Joyce Jenkins of Marlboro, founder and director of the Paul M. McGuire Family Health Center in Freehold, who convinced a clinic to donate the trailer they had been using to provide medical services to Jenkins’ church. She recruited a medical director and medical professionals and secured funding to start a family health center to serve the uninsured.
- Angelica Mercado, RN, of North Bergen, saved the life of a driver whose gas tanker overturned and exploded. She assisted at the scene of the accident and transported the driver to the hospital.
Making a Difference Award winners come from all walks of life. They all have in common an altruistic gene that helps them realize no person and no deed is too small to make a difference.
Since 1997, the Award has given 366 New Jerseyans, from every county, more than $3.5 million in cash awards. They, and the nearly 4,000 who were nominated and didn’t win an Award, continue to inspire us. In many cases, their organizations now work with each other, proving that the ripple effect of people influencing others to do good is one of the most powerful benefits of the award.
Has an unsung hero touched your life? Do you know someone who is taking little-known action for the good for others? Please nominate him or her for a Making a Difference Award.
New Jersey’s post-pandemic reality will require everyone to pitch in, whether to feed the hungry, help someone find a job, fight injustice or give hope to the forgotten — because no one can do it alone.
Angelica Berrie is president of the Russell Berrie Foundation board of trustees.
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