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(PDF) (DOC) (JPG)May 3, 2011

Recipients of 2011 Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference
Honored at Ramapo College Ceremony

(MAHWAH, NJ) – For her work with disabled children and establishing Camp Acorn, a summer/winter social and recreational program for children and young adults with multiple disabilities, Catherine Carisi of Lodi was awarded a $50,000 Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference.  Carisi began working with disabled children when she was 17.  The experience ignited a passion in her.  With two friends she formed the non-profit organization Camp Acorn in 2001.  It offers a therapeutic and instructional program that develops fine and gross motor skills while building confidence and self-esteem. All activities are adapted to the individual needs of each camper.  Carisi’s mission is to give individuals with special needs experiences they are denied elsewhere.  The camp offers a nine-week summer camp, a Saturday program and monthly dances during the school year.  Carisi has been described as fearless and one who challenges the limited notions people have about what those with special needs can achieve.  For the campers and volunteers of Camp Acorn, she is a teacher, mentor, friend and mother.

Taking home the $35,000 award was Hernan Agudelo of Union.  He is a hero, putting himself in danger to help two assault victims.  This past January, he heard a commotion in his neighbor’s backyard.  He went to investigate and observed an assailant attacking his two female neighbors with a knife and an axe.  Without hesitation he ran to his car and returned with a small baseball bat.  He struck the assailant and was able to stop the vicious attack.  The assailant turned his rage to Agudelo, who suffered lacerations to his ear and neck.  His neighbors, who were in critical condition, are still recovering.  The Union police director who nominated Agudelo said, “There is no doubt that if Mr. Agudelo did not intervene, this incident would have resulted in a double homicide.”

Jane Geoghegan of Toms River received the $25,000 award.  She and her family were nominated for their collective years of service with the Silverton First Aid Squad.  Three generations, spanning 47 years, have selflessly contributed time and talent, making a meaningful contribution to the community.  Husband Jerry founded the Silverton First Aid Squad in 1964 and served as president until his recent death.  Geoghegan, a retired nurse and paramedic, serves as captain of the squad.  At one point, three of the Geoghegan’s children served. Now, a grandchild has hopped on board.  Geoghegan enjoys helping others.  While she muses about the serious calls she responds to, she also has experienced joy, delivering three babies.  Days can get busy.  For instance, an on duty squad may respond to ten calls in a five hour period.  Silverton’s current president said that Geoghegan averages hundreds of responses each year and can be found at the first aid building almost seven days a week.  Last year, the Township of Toms River passed a resolution thanking Jane Geoghegan for her outstanding humanitarian efforts.

In all, 10 finalists were selected by a committee comprised of eminent New Jersey business leaders and professionals.  Established in 1997 by the late Russell Berrie and administered by Ramapo College of New Jersey, the Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference honors Garden State residents for their unselfish dedication to serving others within the state.  This year marks the 15th anniversary of the program, with an emphasis on the community service and heroic efforts carried out over the years by all of the honorees.

Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation told those in attendance, “The award recognizes the power of making a difference.  Every nominee embodies a sense of purpose that spurs them to action.”

The keynote speaker was the Honorable Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

Cash awards of $5,000 were presented to the remaining finalists:

Dean Brauch of North Haledon was dubbed a mystery man.  On his way to work one morning, he saw a Fair Lawn building ablaze.  He dashed inside to help three people on the first floor, including one in a wheelchair, to safety.  Brauch, a former volunteer fire fighter, helped Fair Lawn emergency officials who arrived at the scene. Then he vanished!  Brauch’s daughter learned of her father’s heroic act in a Facebook status posted by her mother.  She knew her father was too humble to make a fuss about his actions.  She sent an e-mail to the Fair Lawn police department, writing, “He should be recognized as a hero, because that’s my dad.”  His daughter marvels that he could just as easily dialed 911 and driven away.  Brauch’s explanation for leaving the scene?   He had to get to work.

Since 2003 Jane Fiedler of Teaneck has served as executive director of Zoe’s Place, an agency that provides a home and necessary services for homeless teen mothers and their babies.  Fiedler gained experience as a program director for Parent Aides for Teens, a mentoring program at the Volunteer Center of Bergen County and working with victims of rape at the Rape Crisis Center.   Her approach is to care for the girls and not be judgmental.  She saw a need for a group home for teen mothers and rallied several dedicated women to work toward fulfilling her goal.  The home was recently completed and will provide housing for five teen moms and their babies or pregnant teens.   Fiedler also opened Zoe’s Cupcake Café two years ago to provide employment and training opportunities for the teens to learn food preparation, sales, marketing, bookkeeping and customer service.  Profits from the café provide a source of sustainable funding for the home.  Fiedler receives no salary as executive director and allows herself a minimal salary from the café.  She has a passion to help others and lavish praise on them, never taking praise for her own accomplishments.

Kristin Kosch of Mahwah began volunteering as a high school freshman, following her brother’s lead and working with Homes For Our Troops, a program that builds specially adapted homes for severely injured veterans at no cost to them.  The following year, when Kristen’s brother went to college, she took over the program.  She spends countless hours each week on the phone networking, recruiting schools, soliciting funds and raising awareness about the program.  Motivated and goal oriented, Kristen set school involvement and fund raising benchmarks.  During the past three years, she has expanded the program to 45 school districts and has raised more than $170,000 in cash, labor and materials.  She was able to see first hand how her efforts changed the life of a wounded veteran when the funds she raised were used to defray the costs of an elevator, a lift to assist the veteran in and out of bed, the expansion of doorways and the remodeling of the bathroom and shower.

Dr. Kye-Eun Ma of Englewood left her medical practice to establish the Friends of Grace Seniors (FGS) Korean Community Center in Englewood.  It was founded in 2001 as a place for immigrant first generation Korean seniors to gather and participate in social, health and cultural activities to promote healthy and independent living.  The goal was to prevent the seniors from living their later years in an isolated environment disconnected from the community.  In addition to socialization, FGS provides primary and preventive health care to poor, uninsured Korean-American immigrants.  The center has more than 100 classes and activities and approximately 10,000 people use it each year.  In addition, the center offers programs to children such as piano instruction and ballet classes.  There are 50 volunteers who help a small staff run the center.  FGS strives to create programs that connect intergenerations of people.  Dr. Ma, who serves as president, believes that everyone has something to offer if they are just given the chance.  The chance awaits them at FGS.

Shannon McNamara of Basking Ridge established SHARE, Shannon’s After-school Reading Exchange, almost three years ago when she was 15-years-old.  The program aims to empower girls in Africa through education.  While preparing for a family service trip to Africa, Shannon learned about the lack of books and the cultural bias that discourages literacy among girls.  Not only did she think this was unfair, but she arrived in Tanzania with 500 pounds of books and supplies that she collected from neighbors.  She transformed a dilapidated school room into a library.  She started a reading program to teach English to the girls.  SHARE’s motto:  Today a reader, tomorrow a leader!  Through Shannon’s efforts, which include promoting youth involvement in New Jersey, book drives and fund raising events to pay for shipping and yearly trips to Tanzania, she has enlisted the help of 850 youth and set up four school libraries that house more than 23,000 books.  Poised and knowledgeable, she’s been interviewed on national television, recognized by the United Nations and speaks regularly to groups in New Jersey.

Gary Oppenheimer of Newfoundland is the founder and executive director of  A home gardener and director of a community garden, he searched for a food pantry to donate excess produce.  An Internet search indicated the closest was 25 miles away, even though Oppenheimer knew there were several in his hometown.  He realized that if he had trouble finding a pantry, so would those in need of the services pantries offer.  Oppenheimer created an easy-to-use, free way to connect gardeners to hungry families through  More than 3,000 pantries have registered online and tens of thousands of pounds of fresh produce have been delivered to food pantries across the nation.  Without drawing a salary, he has created a network of support and has changed the way food pantries serve their clients.  “To do the impossible, you must first believe it isn’t” is a favorite saying of his.

Gail Dunlap Reuben of Convent Station, an audiologist, and Laura McKirdy of Far Hills, a speech and language pathologist, are co-founders of The Lake Drive Programs for Children Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  It is a school they created to demonstrate their passion to change lives and institute high academic standards for students with hearing loss.  The school, the first non-residential one for deaf children in the state, offers a comprehensive continuum of educational opportunities for children with hearing loss from birth to high school graduation.  One-hundred-and-eighty students from 11 counties, 60 infants and toddlers and more than 30 school districts with mainstreamed hearing impaired students depend on Lake Drive for support services.  Earlier in their careers, Reuben and McKirdy fitted deaf babies with hearing aids and taught them to listen, talk and communicate.  At Lake Drive, there is a state-of-the-art audiology department, an award-winning speech and language program, a proactive mental health program and practical skills of daily living program.  Through The Lake Drive Foundation, two pilot programs, Precious Years and Ivy Nursery, show promise for expansion in the state. Their vision has enabled thousands of hearing impaired children fulfill their potential, earn scholarships, attend college and lead successful, independent lives.  (The two honorees share the $5,000 award.)


Ramapo College of New Jersey is the state’s premier public liberal arts college and is committed to academic excellence through interdisciplinary and experiential learning, and international and intercultural understanding. The College is ranked #1 among New Jersey public institutions by College Choice, has been named one of the 50 Most Beautiful College Campuses in America by CondeNast Traveler, and is recognized as a top college by U.S. News & World Report, Kiplinger’s, Princeton Review and Money magazine, among others. Ramapo College is also distinguished as a Career Development College of Distinction by, boasts the best campus housing in New Jersey on, and is designated a “Military Friendly College” in Victoria Media’s Guide to Military Friendly Schools.

Established in 1969, Ramapo College offers bachelor’s degrees in the arts, business, data science, humanities, social sciences and the sciences, as well as in professional studies, which include business, education, nursing and social work. In addition, the College offers courses leading to teacher certification at the elementary and secondary levels, and offers graduate programs leading to master’s degrees in Accounting, Business Administration, Creative Music Technology, Data Science, Educational Technology, Educational Leadership, Nursing, Social Work and Special Education, as well as a post-master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice.


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