Tag Archives: star of queens

Star of Queens: Thao-Nguyen Le, co-director, Vietnam Heritage Center


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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BACKGROUND: Thao-Nguyen Le was born in Vietnam. Her family immigrated to Seattle in the ’90s. She went back to Vietnam to work for a startup after a career at KPMG and then came back to the U.S. She has been living in Queens for the past two years. She finds Astoria to be very quaint with its tree-lined streets.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Le develops and implements programs for Vietnam Heritage Center, recruits and manages volunteers, organizes special community events to celebrate Vietnamese culture, and cultivates and maintains relationships with donors and community members.

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “I hosted two festivals — the first of their kind in the city — celebrating the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and the Moon Festival, in February and September respectively,” Le said.

“Together, they brought 1,000 people to celebrate. There is a lot of work involved, with recruiting and training around 50 volunteers, and creating a program that will draw people in.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Seeing the organization grow and reach its full potential,” Le said. “Trying to balance different facets such as fostering and building relationships with advisors and board to get donations, train volunteers and retain them, how to reach out, get people interested in Vietnamese culture to come together for events.”

INSPIRATION: “The community I serve inspires me,” Le said. “The students learning Vietnamese, the young people who come to volunteer after spending long hours at work, and all the people who come to support us for our events.”

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Star of Queens: Harold Rutgers, contributor, Jewelers For Children


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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BY ASHA MAHADEVAN

BACKGROUND: Harold Rutgers was born and raised in Flushing. His father Victor was a jewelry designer who opened a jewelry store in Great Neck in 1962. Rutgers, a certified gemologist, joined the family business and opened Bell Family Jewelers in Bayside in 1987.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Rutgers is associated with Jewelers For Children. It is a nonprofit organization that donates to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Rutgers has a box and a sign in his store that states that he won’t charge customers for services such as jewelry cleaning.

Instead, they can donate a sum of their choice to the charity by dropping it in the box. Rutgers said that after he started this initiative 10 years ago, he found that people come to his store for the services because they also get the opportunity to give back at the same time. This year, he has already collected more than $1,500 and hopes to surpass that and collect $2,000 next year.

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “Being able to give back to the wonderful community,” said Rutgers. “Just being able to give back every day makes me feel great. I try to teach my two children to do the same.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Staying competitive in the business, keeping prices reasonable with today’s rising costs,” said Rutgers. “It’s a tough business environment.”

INSPIRATION: “My father,” said Rutgers. “He gave me an engraved ID bracelet when I went to high school that said, ‘The secret to success is consistency to purpose.’ That’s the rule I live by.”

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Star of Queens: Suzanne Bettis, assistant district attorney, Iraq veteran


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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BY ASHA MAHADEVAN

BACKGROUND: Suzanne Bettis was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to the U.S. in ’97. She joined the Marine Corps when she was 17, because she wanted to be a part of something bigger than herself. She did two tours in Iraq as part of the unit that searched for and found troops who died on duty, processed their effects and sent them home to their families. She left the Marines in 2010, studied law at the New York Law School and now works in the office of Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown. Since August, she has made Woodhaven her home.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: When she was a law school student, she set up an association that helped veterans and their dependents navigate the red tape of the Veterans Affairs department and get access to the benefits available to them. Now she is involved with the community falling under the 103rd Precinct. Every month, she attends the community council meeting to work closely with the community and the cops and reduce instances of gangs and gun violence. This year, she’ll be participating in the Veterans’ Day Parade.

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “I feel like I am not done yet,” said Bettis. “I could go to law school because of the benefits from Veterans Affairs. That’s why when I was at school I focused on how veterans and their dependents can maximize the VA benefits. There are lots of veterans coming home now, and they should be able to use them to the best advantage. Also, many veterans can lose their benefits if they are convicted of criminal charges. At the DA’s office, we try to give them a second chance.” If they reform, for example, the charges against them are dismissed.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Getting acclimatized to being home,” said Bettis. “Military people are closed up. I am learning to interact with more people, ease myself year by year to trust people and hope they don’t look at me as a threat. There are so many misconceptions about why people join the military. We are all not killers. I just want to be understood. In the military, we don’t have the luxury of being fallible. Turning that off when you get home is tough.”

INSPIRATION: “I have a lot of people to thank,” said Bettis, “but especially those men and women we had to send back home in boxes. At 18, 19, 20, they are willing to sacrifice their lives for people they’ll never meet. Everyone I processed, searched for, dug out of still burning Humvees, are special people to put themselves in that position, knowing you’ll never get the opportunity to go to school, get married, have a family life. Their story has to live on. Every day I come to work, interact with someone, this is the community they were protecting. And I have to continue doing that.”

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Star of Queens: Michael Brothers, chairman of the board, NYFAC Foundation


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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BACKGROUND: Born in the Bronx and raised in Pequannock, New Jersey, Michael Brothers, 56, moved to Queens in 1987 to become a licensed insurance broker for a firm in Woodhaven.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Brothers has been the chairman of the board of the NYFAC Foundation based in Howard Beach since its inception in 2012. NYFAC is a 100 percent volunteer organization and works to better the lives of adults and children with autism. Brothers chairs the quarterly board meetings, ensures the board members are running fundraising events and raises awareness about the NYFAC Foundation. Under his leadership, the organization developed its website which helps it to spread awareness and raise funds.

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “Without a doubt my family is my greatest achievement,” said Brothers. “I have a wonderful wife, Aida, and two great sons. I come from a strong, tight-knit family. I am lucky enough to still have both my parents and four supportive siblings in my life. I also love my job and look forward to coming to work every day. Serving as chairman of the NYFAC Foundation is right up there as well. Knowing we are helping is a great feeling of accomplishment.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Fundraising! Knowing the economy here in New York still has not recovered, it is extremely difficult getting donations, sponsorships and participation in our events. With the many worthy charities out there it is a difficult decision for people to determine where their charity dollars go.”

INSPIRATION: “I have many people who inspire me — my wife, my sons, my family. But when it comes to why I am involved in the world of autism I have two people who inspire me. First is my sibling, Dr. Kevin Brothers. He is the founding executive director of a school for children with autism. When he was going through his training many years ago, he showed me what patience it takes in dealing with a child with autism. That always stuck with me and I always knew I would someday help out an organization involved with autism. Second would be Andrew Baumann, president and CEO of NYFAC. His dedication is remarkable. He is a father of three children, one of whom has autism. He eats, sleeps and works for NYFAC. When I met Andrew for the first time back in 2009, I knew his organization was the one I wanted to volunteer for.”

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Star of Queens: Dr. Nicholas Rallis, volunteer, Free to Smile Foundation


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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BACKGROUND: Born in Greece and raised in Brooklyn, Dr. Nicholas Rallis, 51, moved to Queens in 1988 and began his dental practice in Bayside in 1990. He knew that he wanted to be a dentist since high school as he sees this profession as the only one in which a doctor “can see the result of your handwork, what you build for people, the before and after,” he said. “You can be a doctor and an artist at the same time.” He likes the fact that he gets to interact with his patients and feel the joy they express after a dental makeover.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Rallis’ friend is involved with the Free to Smile Foundation, an organization that offers free dental and surgical care to the underprivileged around the world. Last year, the foundation invited him to Guatemala to help treat people with dental emergencies. It was a shock, seeing how people live in mud huts with no roofs over their heads. He was touched by the experience, and this year, he went again to Guatemala, taking two assistants from his private practice with him. He led the team of 22 dentists, nurses, anesthesiologists and surgeons in their work in the city of Santiago Atitlan. He stayed there for nine days in the first week of September. The team treated about 260 patients and conducted 48 surgeries. They treated problems such as tooth pain, dental abscesses, cleft palates and cleft lips. These are not just cosmetic problems, according to Rallis. “Kids [with cleft palates or cleft lips] are usually undernourished because they cannot eat and cannot be fed even through a bottle as they don’t have the ability to create suction with their tongue,” said Rallis. “It is a challenge to make them get the nutrition necessary to make it possible for them to undergo surgery.” The organization works in other countries such as Tibet, Niger, Cambodia and Colombia, and Rallis is eager to volunteer again next year. “You see the need that is there, you can’t really stop going,” he said.

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “My family is my greatest achievement,” said Rallis. “I have a beautiful family, three wonderful children and a great wife.” He adds, “I am also the clinical instructor of the Mouth Rehabilitation Clinic at New York University. It is a prestigious position. It is a four-year continuous education course where we teach dentists, not students, from all disciplines of dentistry how to incorporate the various disciplines and become better clinicians. It is really fulfilling.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Both of them [family and position at NYU],” he laughs. “Things that you are good at are the things you have to work on the most, because you always want to strive to become better.”

INSPIRATION: “I had a mentor in dentistry who passed away,” said Rallis. “His name was Dr. Dan Ianniello. I just like the way he interacted with people and strive to be better at his work. He was very humble. I try the best I can [to emulate him].”

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Star of Queens: Ed Shusterich, president, Pullis Farm Cemetery Historical Landmark


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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BY ASHA MAHADEVAN

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Ed Shusterich is the founder and president of Pullis Farm Cemetery Historical Landmark, a nonprofit organization that handles the upkeep of the Pullis Cemetery in Juniper Valley Park, Middle Village. Shusterich founded the association in 1993 to transform the decrepit site into a beautiful garden, firmly believing “we could do better than what we have.” Over the years, he planted trees and other foliage on the barren wasteland and even built a utility house. He believes that it is part of the culture and heritage of the community and it is the community’s civic duty to improve it. Most of the volunteers involved in the project are above 50 years of age. Shusterich said that one of the unintended benefits of the project is that it also helps senior citizens connect with each other. On Oct. 18, his organization is holding a drive, calling volunteers of all ages to plant more flowers in the park.

BACKGROUND: Shusterich was born to Slovenian immigrants in Brooklyn but moved to Queens more than 50 years ago. He was in the army for two years during the Korean Conflict before working in the private sector. He lives in Middle Village.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Getting funding and support from local elected officials is the biggest challenge,” said Shusterich. “They support us but it takes time. Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. has been a great supporter.”

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: Shusterich recalled, “I had a flag pole installed in 2003. It cost us $17,000. On the occasion I dedicated the flag pole and the plaque to the heroes and victims of 9/11. I invited the fire department, veterans and the general public to the installation.”

INSPIRATION: “Self-inspiration,” laughed Shusterich. “I am a self-starter.”

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Star of Queens: Laura Newman, co-founder, Make Queens Safer


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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BY ASHA MAHADEVAN

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Laura Newman is one of the founders of Make Queens Safer, which was formed in late 2013 after a child was killed while crossing Northern Boulevard with his grandmother. It was the third such incident in approximately 12 months and sparked in Newman a desire to bring about change. Make Queens Safer works toward ensuring the streets are safe for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. Last November, Newman’s organization hosted a march from Corona to Jackson Heights to raise awareness about road safety, while talking to elected officials and parents who lost their children in road accidents. Recently, the group hosted a safety fair educating children about bike safety and pedestrian safety.

BACKGROUND: Newman was born and raised in Forest Hills. Over the years she lived in various boroughs of the city but came back to live in Queens because she said it is a down-to-earth place with no pretensions. She is a qualified psychologist.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Allowing space for everybody in the community to be a part of this movement. Earlier the mood was adversarial. It is easy for pedestrians to blame motorists and motorists to blame bicyclists. That only raises anger levels without accomplishing anything,” Newman said. “We are all on the roads. We should unify to take a stand together as a community. This is solvable.”

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “It is still a work in progress, but my greatest achievement would be bringing a sense of values in younger generations to take responsibility in a variety of ways,” Newman said. “As a parent, I want my daughter to be aware and committed to make a change in the community. Through Make Queens Safer, I can impact other parents to do the same and give the younger generation a sense of involvement and engagement. It is about empowering families and young children to own a sense of responsibility toward making their community a safer, more caring, better functioning neighborhood.”

INSPIRATION: “I can’t say I have a personal hero everyone knows by name,” Newman said. “But there are some young adults I have encountered in Queens and the city at large who are working for food justice and environmentalism. They are trustworthy and inspiring.”

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Star of Queens: Lauren Elizabeth Cornea, Clinton Club of Northeast Queens


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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JANAE HUNTER

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Lauren Cornea has been a Young Democrat with the Clinton Club of Northeast Queens, which serves the neighborhoods of Auburndale, Bay Terrace, Bayside, Douglaston, Flushing, Little Neck and Whitestone, since 2010. The club keeps the community updated on local events and politics in the neighborhood. She is also a member of the Bayside-Whitestone Lions Club and does community and volunteer work for the community through the chapter. When she is not doing work for these organizations or volunteering for attorney Paul Vallone, she is a Learning Leader volunteer, where she tutors students at P.S. 21Q in reading, writing and math.

BACKGROUND: Cornea was born and raised in Flushing. After graduating from the Harvey School, Cornea spent some time traveling in Europe. Now, she is back in Queens and works as a realtor at Amorelli Realty in Astoria, and is the single mother of two children, Dominic John, 8, and Violeta-Rose, 6.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “The greatest obstacle I have faced is being a single mother juggling career and family life,” Cornea said. Raising two young children and balancing a job can be hard, but she makes it work. As for her career, being a female commercial realtor is tough when there are so many men doing the job. “This is a man’s world, and I have had to work extra to live in it. I work extra hard for people to take me seriously and value what I have to say. I have worked very hard to be seen as a woman who is knowledgeable and hard working and not just seen as a pretty face.”

GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “I have so many achievements that I’m proud of that it’s hard to choose,” said Cornea. “One of my top achievements has been closing the deal on Steinway Mansion. That deal took 18 months and when we finally closed the deal it went for $2.6 million.” But, she added, raising her children, successfully bouncing back from the divorce, having the opportunity to give back by teaching children to learn to read, write and do basic arithmetic, and being a successful woman in a male-dominated profession are also some of Cornea’s greatest achievements.

INSPIRATION: “This may sound corny, but my biggest inspiration is definitely my kids,” said Cornea. “They rely on me for everything. On days when I do not feel like getting up, all I have to do is think about my two children who need me to be a success in order for them to have a better future.” Cornea said she is also inspired by her natural competitiveness that makes her try and be the best at whatever she does.

 

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Star of Queens: Kellyann Tobin, volunteer, SHAREing & CAREing


| ctumola@queenscourier.com

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COMMUNITY SERVICE: Kellyann Tobin started volunteering two years ago with SHAREing & CAREing, a nonprofit organization based in Astoria that offers grassroots support services to breast and ovarian cancer patients and their families through counseling, educational forums and advocacy services throughout the city. Formed in 1994, it not only provides breast health outreach, education, support and advocacy services for medically underserved and uninsured women, but has also evolved to serve the emerging needs of cancer survivors of both women and men of all ages.

After first creating biographies and other write-ups for its website, Tobin began doing patient outreach, taking individuals to and from chemotherapy, running errands for patients, doing office work, and whatever else the organization needed from volunteers.

Tobin, a registered nurse, also goes into high schools to educate students to give them to tools to educate their parents about cancer awareness. “It’s never too early to start good health practices,” Tobin said.

Her work as an RN and her mother’s battle with breast cancer in the past inspired her to volunteer with SHAREing & CAREing. “I’ve been blessed in life and it’s time for me to give back. It has been so fulfilling,” Tobin said.

“At this age we should not have anyone die from breast cancer. If it’s caught early enough it doesn’t have to be fatal,” she added.

Tobin notes that SHAREing & CAREing is the only local nonprofit that offers these types of services for free. “They don’t have to be afraid to ask any questions and we’ll be there,” she said.

BACKGROUND: Tobin was born and raised in Astoria and never left. She has been an RN for about four years, specializing in psychiatric, mental health nursing and trauma. Tobin originally worked in set design and special effects, but after taking care of her grandparents, including her grandfather who had end-stage renal disease, and who always said she should become a nurse, she changed fields. After becoming a nurse, she decided she wanted to work in the underserved community of the south Bronx.

FAVORITE MEMORY: One time, Tobin was doing outreach at St. John’s Preparatory School in Astoria, where she encountered a student who was scared to do self-breast examinations and to discuss the disease with her mother, until she spoke to her. “[The girl said she] wanted to become a nurse because of me,” Tobin said.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Funding is one of the biggest challenges the organization faces.

“There is so much more we want to do for patients but there are limited resources,” she said. Though the organization wants to go above and beyond with patients, it is difficult when there are so many. “But when you don’t have the finances you figure out a way to do it,” she said.

 

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Star of Queens: Charles Silverstein, captain-commanding officer, Whitestone Community Volunteer Ambulance Service


| ctumola@queenscourier.com

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COMMUNITY SERVICE: Charles Silverstein is the captain-commanding officer with the Whitestone Community Volunteer Ambulance Service.

Established in 1947, Whitestone Ambulance is a 100 percent free service consisting of about 75 volunteers. It provides a free basic life support ambulance to all of Whitestone, with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline to respond to medical emergencies. The service also transports Whitestone residents to and from medical facilities in non-emergency situations, and allows them to borrow walkers, canes, wheelchairs and crutches at no charge.

Silverstein started volunteering with the volunteer ambulance service about eight years ago because he needed EMS experience before joining the city’s fire department.

“I wanted to be a fireman. I just didn’t leave,” he said.

He describes his work as mostly administrative. “[I am] kind of like the manager,” he said. Silverstein handles problems with the ambulances and other issues that may arise, and also conducts the service’s monthly meetings.

BACKGROUND: A Queens native, Silverstein, 30, currently lives in Whitestone. He is a firefighter with the FDNY, working in Brooklyn, and has been a member of that department for the past six years. He started as an emergency medical technician, then was upgraded to hazmat, followed by a paramedic, before becoming a fireman.

“It’s phenomenal,” Silverstein said, describing his job. “I’m like a regular guy with a bunch of regular guys and you get to be something else for a moment.”

FAVORITE MEMORY: One of his favorite memories with the ambulance service was Memorial Day 2012, which was a big celebration for the volunteers. They were commemorating the ambulance service’s 65th anniversary and had redone its building. Every year, the neighborhood has a parade for the holiday, and it “pretty much ended at our place,” he said. “It was the culmination of a lot of years of work.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: The biggest challenges Silverstein has while volunteering are people-related. It can take work to find committed volunteers, who must go through a lot of training. Dealing with the public on a day-to-day basis can have its challenges as well, he said.

 

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Star of Queens: Marie T. Carella, president, Greater Astoria Historical Society


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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Community Service: Marie T. Carella has been president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society since January of this year.

The Greater Astoria Historical Society is a nonprofit cultural and community-oriented organization dedicated to preserving the past and promoting Long Island City’s and Astoria’s future.

Background: Carella has been a lifelong Astoria resident. Besides volunteering at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, she also volunteers at Immaculate Conception School on Ditmars Boulevard, where she is president of the Alumni Association.

“Having a public relations background, combined with good organizations skills, I enjoy working with the public, organizing and attending events and meeting new people,” she said.

Favorite Memory: Carella says her fondest memory would be the “It’s a Small World” boat ride at the Pepsi Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.

“As a young girl, the memory of those animated figures representing different countries was amazing,” Carella said.

Inspiration: “My outlook on life is always positive with a good balance thrown in,” Carella said. “I feel that life has its ups and downs and for everything bad that happens, there is always a good reason for it. I believe in following the ‘do what it takes to get the job done’ rule for success.”

Biggest Challenge: According to Carella, the biggest challenge faced at the Greater Astoria Historical Society is being underfunded and recruiting additional volunteers.

“There are so many great ideas at work at the Greater Astoria Historical Society and often times the lack of funding stands in the way of doing a program or not,” she said. “We also find that having more volunteers can bring additional exposure to the society and the programs.”

 

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Star of Queens: Jade Reid, volunteer, Brandywine Senior Living


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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Community Service: For the past four years, 15-year-old Jade Reid has been volunteering her time at the Brandywine Senior Living at The Savoy in Little Neck. During that time she has helped out with recreational activities and office work on weekday evenings and on weekends.

Background: Jade lives in Roosevelt, Long Island, and is a sophomore at Roosevelt High School.

When she is not volunteering at the senior home, Jade is active at her school. She is part of the basketball, soccer and softball teams, as well as the student government and yearbook club. She also volunteers in her school’s community services program where students help clean and maintain the community.

“It’s just part of my characteristics and how I view things,” she said. “I’m a helpful person and that’s why I decide to volunteer.”

Jade said she began volunteering at Brandywine after accompanying her mom, who works at the senior home, and just lending a helping hand.

“I was just looking for a place that needed help,” she said. “One day I decided to help and from that day on I just helped everybody.”

She volunteers every week, and when she has days off from school comes more frequently to the site. Even with school she said she makes time to volunteer and help those who need her.

Favorite Memory: Jade has many fond memories of the past four years she has spent volunteering at Brandywine, including many of the activities that are organized for the residents. During those times she has helped in barbecues and car washes.

“Those are the fun times,” she said. “Seeing the residents happy, makes me happy.”

Inspiration: Her biggest inspiration are the people who work at Brandywine, including her own mother. Jade hopes to go into a career in the nursing field and continue working on helping others.

 

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Star of Queens: Lorraine Sciulli, first vice president, Juniper Park Civic Association


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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 HARVIND JAPRA

COMMUNITY SERVICE: Lorraine Sciulli is the first vice president of the volunteer group Juniper Park Civic Association (JPCA) and a member of Queens Community Board 5. Sciulli is also the editor of Juniper Berry, a quarterly all-volunteer magazine of the JPCA that focuses on the history of Middle Village, Maspeth and Elmhurst and other pertinent information about the community.

BACKGROUND: “At Juniper Park Civic Association we do everything, literally everything. People come to us with problems and we help anyone we can. We have over 1500 members and we’re in charge of all of Middle Village and Maspeth.”

FAVORITE MEMORY: “My favorite memory goes way back to the late 70s when there was a problem with a parking lot. There was prostitution going on down there and Arthur Catsman was the council member at the time, and he helped me with the petition for closing down the parking lot. It was the first spark and the first beginning to when it pulled me into the whole system, where I just wanted to keep doing it.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “The biggest challenge I had to face was in the early turn of the century. We wanted to include the area of the Elmhurst into Middle Village, because it was right across the road and it would make it easier for the people of Elmhurst to identify themselves. We wanted to include the area into the 11379 zip code and it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of work and patience, but we did it.”

INSPIRATION: “I’ve never looked at anything hopelessly. Anything is possible; if you have a goal and you set out to get it you will win, and even if you don’t win, you’ll win enough to want to stay working at it. That’s what happens when people come to us at JPC — they come to us with a problem and we find tangible results. They like making a difference, and they end up staying active with us.”

 

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Star of Queens: Frank Toner, president, Rocky Hill Civic Association


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

Frank Toner

KATELYN DI SALVO

COMMUNITY SERVICE: Frank Toner is the president of Rocky Hill Civic Association (RHCA), a volunteer organization started  more than 80 years ago. Today it continues to work and enhance the quality of life for more than 1,000 households bounded by Braddock Avenue, Union Turnpike, Stronghurst Avenue and Winchester Boulevard.

BACKGROUND: Toner was born and raised in Middletown, N.Y. His family moved to Elmhurst when he was a teenager. Toner and his wife Margaret, a Bellerose native, married in 1973 at St. Gregory The Great and settled in the neighborhood.

Toner’s interest in the RHCA was piqued when he started receiving the association’s monthly bulletin.

“I was aware that this community organization existed, and I was a little curious,” Toner said.

But it wasn’t until he was playing basketball at a local school that he decided to sit in on a RHCA meeting that was being held in the same building.

“I saw that they were really devoted in helping the community, and from there I was committed,” Toner said.

He signed up to be a block captain, and dealt with the complaints of his neighbors and the distribution of bulletins on his block. Toner was asked to be on the board after impressing the association president with volunteer work and a 95 percent collection rate on dues. When the president stepped down in 2007, Toner took his place.

GOALS: A goal Toner has for the near future involves surveying the streets for potholes and notifying the city so they can be fixed. He also intends to lobby for long-removed greenery to be restored to the median on Winchester Boulevard.

Another key focus for Toner and the RHCA is participatory budgeting, where community members vote to decide how public money is spent.

“This is something we will soon be hearing a lot about,” Toner said. He said he is excited about being a part of this project and optimistic that it will lead to more involvement from people in the community. “This allows people to get money for any project they have. They just need the vote,” Toner said.

FAVORITE MEMORY: Toner’s fondest memory is participating in a coalition with a number of other civics associations in Queens, called Eastern Queens United.

This group consists of about 10 different civic groups that come together when there is a problem in communities.

“There is power in numbers, and this is a positive thing for the community,” Toner said. One of the projects that the RHCA has worked on with the help of Eastern Queens is enforcing the zoning rights in Toner’s community.

“It took all of us working together to rezone the area, and that was a big victory for us,” Toner said.

INSPIRATION: Toner said his biggest motivation is a belief in people and the community, saying, “I’ve always felt that real change comes from the community level.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Toner’s biggest challenge is outreach. “The ethnic make up in the neighborhood has changed, and I would like to see more diversity in the group,” he said.

 

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Star of Queens: Cookie Marie Kurtz, president, Parent Organization, St. Luke School


By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

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COMMUNITY SERVICE: Cookie Marie Kurtz is the president of the Parent Organization at St. Luke Catholic School in Whitestone.

BACKGROUND:  Kurtz was born and raised in Brooklyn and went to Catholic grammar, high school and college.  She graduated from St. Joseph’s College with a degree in education and is currently working at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and also has been a wedding singer for 31 years with a band called The Projekt.

Kurtz now lives in Beechhurst with her family.  She has been president of the St. Luke Parent Organization since 2011.

“I went to a meeting one year and they were looking for people who were passionate about getting involved. I raised my hand and that was it, and I’ve been doing it for three years now,” she said.

Kurtz has also been on the carnival committee at the school for four years. In 2009 Kurtz was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She had 18 months of treatment and five surgeries and still maintained her job and volunteerism.

“I didn’t want to give the cancer any energy,” she said. “I would put my wig or hat on and I went to work.”

She started promoting breast cancer awareness at St. Luke with her fundraiser,“Pink on Purpose” in 2011 where she had sponsors come in, raffles set up, and speakers come and talk about the importance of breast cancer awareness.  “It was a really beautiful event, and it brought the parish together,” said Kurtz.

GOALS & ACCOMPLISHMENTS:  As president Kurtz has opened up a whole new communication method for parents at St. Luke. The parent organization has six meetings a year for parents to come in and voice their opinions and concerns on things like classes, events, safety and health in the school. They are also using email and Facebook.

“We try to do as much as we can to give parents information they wouldn’t get on a regular basis,” said Kurtz.

Kurtz and the parent organization have created new clubs at the school as well as developing new traditions like the Happy Birthday Jesus Breakfast and the Welcome Parents Breakfast, which she says is wildly popular.

“We’ve established these special events to bring together church, family, friends and fun,” said Kurtz.  In the future, Kurtz would like to see more parent involvement and more performing arts and sports programs developed at the school.

FAVORITE MEMORY: Her fondest memory would be the first Welcome Parents Breakfast, where about 100 parents came to the event. Parents were able to come together and create two new events — the walkathon, where they raised $25,000, and the princess ball for little girls and their parents.

INSPIRATION: Her inspiration is her daughter. “She loves that I volunteer, and I’m teaching her to try new things and be confident,” said Kurtz.  She also said that she was inspired by the Catholic school system, praising the teachers and administration at St. Luke. “Last year 70 percent of the graduating class left with a scholarship to high school; that’s amazing,” said Kurtz.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Her biggest challenge is trying to get more parents involved. She understands that people are busy or fearful of over-committing, and she explains it can be difficult to convince people to take that first step.

 

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