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(PDF) (DOC) (JPG)May 29, 2003

Top Award of $50,000 Presented to Families of Three Camden County Firefighters Who Died Trying to Save Three Children During House Fire

MAHWAH, N.J., May 29, 2003 – Three Camden County firefighters who died trying to save three children during a July 4, 2002 house fire in Gloucester City received the top honor at the Russ Berrie Award for Making A Difference awards ceremony.

The cash award of $50,000 will be shared among the loved ones of the three firefighters — Thomas G. Stewart III of Gloucester City and James E. Sylvester and John West, both of Mt. Ephraim. Accepting the award were two widows, Marilyn Sylvester and Angela West, and Danielle Ruggiero, Stewart’s fiancée and the mother of his infant son.

In all, 19 finalists were distinguished with cash grants during the Awards Ceremony, which was held at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah. The top three finalists, chosen by a selection committee comprising eminent New Jersey business leaders and professionals, received cash awards of $50,000, $35,000 and $25,000.

The $35,000 award was granted to Roberta Vickery of Pine Beach, who is a retired physical therapist, blind from birth. She founded the Ocean County Volunteers for the Blind in 1968 to provide taped and Brailed material to visually impaired and legally blind clients throughout New Jersey and nearby states at no cost.

The grant for $25,000 was awarded to Frances Jackson of Jersey City, a school crossing guard, who pushed three children out of the way of a speeding vehicle to safety, sacrificing her own well-being. Jackson was struck by the vehicle, sustaining neck, head and abdominal injuries.

The 2003 ceremony was the first since the death of philanthropist and businessman Russ Berrie, who died on Christmas Day 2002. Berrie, who created the award in 1997, was recognized with a video tribute.

Russ wanted to create an award specifically for unsung heroes-people who really make a difference by dedicating their lives to improving life or helping others,” said Angelica Berrie, who succeeded her husband as Chief Executive Officer of Russ Berrie and Company, Inc., and is president of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

The day also featured a keynote address by acclaimed broadcaster Charles Osgood, a former New Jersey resident. U.S. Representative Robert E. Andrews of Haddon Heights attended to honor the memory of Stewart, Sylvester and West.

This year, nearly 270 entries were considered by the Advisory Board of the Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference. Recipients of the 16 runner-up awards of $2,500 included:

Evelyn Dudziec of Kinnelon, who founded Healing the Children Midlantic, Inc., a charity that arranges for free medical care for New Jersey children. The group organizes field trips to developing nations to provide surgical care to children and brings children from those countries to New Jersey for complex surgical procedures.

Louis Feliciano of Edison, who saved two small children and their father from a fire that had broken out in the small ice cream store where he was working.

M. Hunter Halvorsen of Ridgefield, who founded We Must Care, an organization dedicated to preventing sexual abuse, rape, torture, mutilation and murder of children everywhere. Over the past 40 years he has volunteered his time to deliver more than 3,000 talks and lectures to college groups, civic and service organizations, police organizations, high schools and churches.

Dr. Allen S. Keller of Montclair, who started the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture after serving as a medical volunteer in a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border, where he witnessed human rights abuses. Since its inception, the program has served more than 600 patients from over 60 countries and has grown to 12 full-time staff.

Henry and Patricia King of Belmar, who have devoted their lives to saving Honduran street children since the 1980s. They established a non-profit organization, House of Friendship, which operates five children’s shelters in Honduras. House of Friendship currently houses more than 100 children ranging in age from 3 to 16 years old.

Robert Kita of Manville, who serves as a tireless advocate for bone marrow donation. Kita donated his bone marrow to a man dying from a rare disease in 2000, then organized a Thanksgiving dinner meeting between himself, the marrow recipient and that man’s family.

Roberta Leveson of Marlboro, who works as a crisis counselor in the East Orange school district. She devotes herself to her middle school students, dealing with suicide attempts, drug overdoses, child abuse, runaways and broken hearts. Leveson, who lives with a disability, serves as an inspiration to her students.

Carl Lovern of Voorhees was driving through Audubon when he saw flames coming from a home. He pulled to the side of the road and while his wife called 911, Lovern ran into the building to the fourth floor to assist an elderly man and carry his disabled adult daughter to safety.

Reverend Brian McCormick of Trenton, who is founder and president of Martin House, an organization that offers hope and opportunity through home ownership and education. For more than 30 years, Martin House has provided more than 4,000 adults and children with housing and educational services to better their lives, an effort that has organized and empowered citizens to reclaim their streets.

Saranne Rothberg of Tenafly, a performer who founded the Comedy Cures Foundation after her breast cancer diagnosis in 1999. The non-profit organization is based on the belief that laughter is the best medicine.”

Ellarae Saunders of Glen Rock, who founded The Order of the Lamp, an organization committed to providing scholarships for college-bound African-American students in Bergen and Passaic counties. As one of 12 children born to an uneducated sharecropper in the South, Saunders vowed that successive generations would enjoy the opportunities that she did not have. Now 84, she continues making presentations, soliciting ads, planning annual fundraising events and encouraging promising young scholars.

Thomas Slane of River Edge, a student at the University of Maryland who saved an injured worker from a fire in a physics laboratory. Slane serves as a member of the River Edge Volunteer Fire Department and the College Park Maryland Volunteer Fire Department during the school term.

Christene Smellie of Irvington, who helped save three small children and alerted several of her neighbors about an apartment fire during a severe winter storm. The Irvington Fire Chief credited Smellie’s quick action for assuring the safety of all three children.

Mary Smith of Livingston, who founded Babyland Family Services, an organization that answers the need for child care for working mothers. Today, the organization provides daily care to 1,500 children and their families. Among Babyland’s services are programs that help raise awareness for minority males and at-risk teen mothers.

Richard Ward of Ringwood, who founded Operation Silver Eagle, which has provided assistance to more than 40 disaster sites in 25 states and three Caribbean islands during the last 10 years. Mr. Ward, a professional truck driver, has solicited donations of materials, help from trucking companies, air cargo space, shipping cargo space and the help of volunteers including 20 fellow truck drivers.

Yaakov Weiss of Teaneck, a high school senior, who saved a drowning 10-year-old girl in Loch Sheldrake in upstate New York.

Russ Berrie founded Russ Berrie and Company, Inc. in 1963, and throughout the last 40 years built the company into the world’s premier gift company. Headquartered in Oakland, New Jersey. The company and its wholly-owned subsidiaries design, develop and distribute approximately 8,000 gift, home decòr, infant and juvenile products to retailers worldwide.

In addition to his business accomplishments, Mr. Berrie devoted endless time, energy and resources to numerous charitable causes. As a private individual, through The Russell Berrie Foundation and through corporate donations, he supported organizations that expressed his values, passions and ideas and helped strengthen our communities.

Ramapo College of New Jersey is the state’s public liberal arts college, serving 5,500 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 20 states and 60 nations. The College named its center for performing and visual arts, the site of the Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference ceremony, in honor of both Mr. Berrie and his wife Angelica.


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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