Russ Berrie Making a Difference Awards

2019 Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award winner Fraidy Reiss describes her own experience extricating herself from an arranged marriage to a violent man and the genesis of her organization, Unchained At Last.


One of our foundation’s signature initiatives, the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award recognizes New Jersey’s most exceptional unsung heroes each year for remarkable work transforming their communities. Along with a monetary prize — $50,000 for the top winner, $25,000 for the second and third-place winners and $7,500 for runners-up — the awards, which are announced in a ceremony at Ramapo College, also provide a rare moment of public recognition for recipients’ tireless efforts to help others. Russ Berrie created the Making a Difference Awards two decades ago, explaining to The New York Times, “It’s another way of looking at philanthropy — inspiring people to look at themselves and what they can do for the community.”

Recent Top Award Winners

2019Fraidy Reiss For her extraordinary work helping women in New Jersey and across the United States resist or escape forced marriages and rebuild their lives. Reiss, who was 19 years old when her family arranged her marriage to a violent man, founded and serves as executive director of Unchained at Last, the only organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the United States through direct services and advocacy. In 2018, Reiss worked with state legislators to make New Jersey the second state, after Delaware, to outlaw marriage before the age of 18

2018Pino Rodriguez For transforming blighted Camden neighborhoods by creating the Block Supporter Initiative, which engages residents in beautifying, cleaning up and otherwise enhancing their blocks, leading to declining crime and huge quality of life improvements. What began as an unfunded volunteer effort has grown into an extensive program in which Rodriguez, now working with Camden Lutheran Housing, has engaged hundreds of households. 

2017Bonnie O’Brien For her passion to improve the lives of individuals transitioning from incarceration back into society. O’Brien founded and runs Transition Professionals, a collaboration of volunteers including psychologists, employment specialists, lawyers and ex-offenders that has served hundreds of people pre- and post-incarceration, making a difference in the lives of those who desperately need another chance. 

2016 — Chief Vincent Mann For his remarkable efforts to force the Ford Motor Company to renew remediation at a 500-acre site it had contaminated decades ago. Chief Mann, leader of the Ringwood, New Jersey-based Turtle Clan of the Ramapough-Lenape Tribe, continues to serve as a passionate advocate for the environment.

2015 — Dominique Lee For his passion as a teacher and his innovative spirit and perseverance in helping schoolchildren overcome poverty and inadequate educational resources. Lee created a school management non-profit, BRICK (Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids), focused on infusing Newark’s failing schools with best practices for academic success and for addressing the elements of poverty that often impede it.

2014 — Joyce Jenkins For creating the Paul M. McGuire Family Health Center in Freehold, where volunteer medical professionals provide desperately needed health care services to thousands of underserved children and adults. Jenkins, a nurse practitioner, dreamed up the Health Center after a free clinic she had volunteered at closed, then secured funding and private donations to make it a reality.

For a complete list of past winners, please click here.