The Russell Berrie Foundation

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Jewish Renaissance

We want to spark a new Jewish renaissance in the 21st century.The Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference

Honoring New Jersey’s Unsung Heroes

The Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference celebrates New Jersey’s unsung heroes—everyday people whose extraordinary volunteer efforts have made a real difference in the lives of others. Created in 1997, the annual award program honors individuals who have performed outstanding community service or an act of heroism. A selection committee comprised of New Jersey business leaders and professionals chooses the unsung heroes from a pool of several hundred nominees. In 2015, the Foundation provided funds for one top award with a cash prize of $50,000; the second place honoree received $35,000 and the third place honoree received $25,000. Eight awards with a $5,000 cash prize each were also announced. To read the full list of winners and finalists and their stories please follow this link: Berrie-post-event-release

Award Group

2015 Russ Berrie Award for Malking a Difference, Key Note Speaker, top Winners and Semifinalists. From left to right, back row : Gary Oppenheimer, Brian Meersma, Paige Alenick, Eileen Griffith,Anne Ciavaglia McMahon (her husband attended on her behalf), Tom Cash, Dora E. Arias and Angelica Berrie. From left to right, front row: Dr. Peter Mercer, Evangelia “Poppy” Davis, Linda Gillick, Anthony Bevivino, Dominique Lee and Josh Weston.

Top Winners

From left to right: Dr. Peter Mecer, President of Ramapo College; Linda Gillick ($35,000 award); Antony Bevivino ($25,000 award), Dominique Lee ($50,000 award); Josh Weston, Honorary Chairman, Automatic Data Processing, Inc and co-chair of the Making A Difference Award Advisory Board and Angelica Berrie, President of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference

2015  Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference
Celebrating Nineteen Years

This year, The Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference Celebrated its 19th Anniversary. The ceremony was held on Friday, May 1, 2015, at Ramapo College and welcomed more than 240 guests including goverement officials, community leaders and the families and loved ones of selected finalists.

Gary Oppenheimer, Founder and Executive Director of, an organization that aims to reduce hunger and malnutrition in America, served as the keynote speaker.  Gary is also a past recipient of the Russ for Making A Difference Award, a CNN Hero, a World Food Prize nominee and a Point of Light Award recipient.

Gary spoke about his journey in establishing to encourage home gardeners to share their excess harvest with the needy in their respective communities. After a sucessful career in the computer field, Gary soon discovered his passion when he bought a home in rural northern New Jersey and begun planting an orchard and garden as a hobby.He soon realized that while his garden was producing more vegetables than he could consume, many other Americans were struggling to feed their families. As he searched for local pantries to donate his bounty, he also learned that more than food pantries across America were providing needy families donated canned/boxed goods and that these families almost never received fresh produce.

Alarmed and eager to do something to change this and utilizing his gift for computers and $9 to purchase a website domain; he begun by creating an online platform where he could connect home growers to local food pantries, educate the public and encourage and empower growers to share their excess harvest with the needy in their community. Since its founding in 2009, and its "No Food Left Behind" goal, has expanded its reach nationwide to assist America’s 42 million home gardeners to provide more than 7,000 local food pantries with their excess crops. Through his words and deeds, Gary was an inspiration for all the other nominees and award winners that are following their own journeys. To learn more about please visit:

Angelica Berrie, the President of the Russell Berrie Foundation spoke eloquently and inspired others to respond to the call of sevice. In her speech she spoke about the impact of the award over its 19 year history and the basic essence of the program. In her words, "Every one of our nominees brings this gift of passion to create something extraordinary in their lives. This is what the Making a Difference Awards are about, everyday people doing extraordinary good".

Angelica also spoke about the ripple effect of this program and she noted that "after 19 years, a network of over 2500 nominees with 264 winners are creating collective impact in New Jersey. Past winners and nominees have since been recognized nationally, sparked connections and collaborations among themselves, and identified other unsung heroes. Today, we honored ten everyday heroes, celebrating their achievements with cash awards that were a heartfelt thank you for their gift of passion and purpose". Angelica's uplifting message of the power of transformation that one individual can trigger resonated with all the nominees and winners which embodied her message of living a life of purpose, passion and generosity. To read more about Angelica's message on the power of passion please follow this link:The Power of Passion

Top 2015 Winners

Dominique Lee of Newark has been awarded the $50,000 Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference for his passion as a teacher and his innovative spirit and perseverance in helping school children overcome poverty and inadequate educational resources. As a Teach for America recruit, he was dismayed at the number of 9th grade students who were reading below a 5th grade level. In an effort to remedy a system that produced such abysmal statistics, Dominique enlisted help from fellow Teach For America alumni to create a school management nonprofit, BRICK — Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids. BRICK’s focus was to infuse best practices learned from district and charter schools and to address the elements of poverty impeding academic excellence. Through Dominique’s efforts, BRICK was placed at two schools in the South Ward of Newark, both of which were in the bottom two percent of elementary schools in the state. Since the launch of BRICK, those teacher-run schools are now growing. The students are thriving in the classroom. The collaboration with other district schools and the success of BRICK led to the creation of the South Ward Children’s Alliance, which brings needed resources, including health and social services, and innovation to the children and families in the South Ward.

Linda Gillick of Toms River was awarded the $35,000 award. When Linda's son was only 3 months old, he was diagnosed with cancer. As more and more children from the Toms River area faced cancer diagnoses, Linda pushed to get state health officials to look into environmental causes for the unusually high cancer incidence. This got the attention of journalists and investigators who confirmed illegal dumping of chemicals into the local water waterways. Linda’s tireless efforts led to funding of research and forced cleanup of several sites in the area. She is the founder and executive director of Ocean of Love, an organization that provides much needed support, information and care to the local families that are struggling with the disease. The Ocean County nonprofit has served more than 450 families since its 1988 inception. Linda’s son Michael has defied the odds but still is hounded by cancer’s aftereffects, which inspired Linda to author For the Love of Mike, and was chronicled in the book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Linda’s work is truly incredible in that she not only attacked her own problem, but proactively attempted to solve the environmental clean-up and helped others outside her family who were suffering. 

Anthony Bevivino, of Villas, was awarded the $25,000 award. As a former science teacher and bed-and-breakfast owner in Cape May County, Anthony realized that all the B&Bs were disposing their linens at the end of the season. He was sure that those items could be put to use by people in the community who were in need. He gathered the linens himself and delivered them to individuals and agencies. That single act of kindness so many years ago kick-started a community-wide effort to provide blankets, clothing and other essential items, including baby furniture, store gift cards and monetary offerings to homeless shelters, veterans’ organizations, victims of domestic violence and church food pantries, among others, throughout Cape May County. In the past three years alone, Anthony has collected and distributed more than 3,800 coats to adults and children.  More than 25 organizations and countless individuals have received assistance from Tony and his volunteers.