New Jersey's most extraordinary unsung heroes were recognized for their compassion and concern for others when they were named as recipients of the 2017 Russ Berrie Making a Difference Awards. The 21st annual awards, accompanied by cash prizes ranging from $5,000 to $50,000, were announced at a ceremony at Ramapo College on May 5.
Bonnie O'Brien of Paramus (left) received the top award of $50,000 for her passion to improve the lives of individuals transitioning from incarceration back into society. In the mid-1990s, Bonnie, a human resources professional, was asked to conduct career training at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack. It was a stark introduction to the reality of recidivism: Approximately two thirds of people released from jail or prison are rearrested within three years, evidence of a dire need for programs to help those people successfully re-enter society.
After years of exhaustive efforts to improve the situation, in 2013 Bonnie purchased a building in Hackensack with her personal funds and launched Transition Professionals, a collaboration of volunteers including psychologists, employment specialists, paralegals, attorneys and even ex-offenders. Since its inception and with Bonnie as executive director, Transition Professionals has served hundreds of individuals pre- and post-incarceration, making a difference in the lives of those who have been long underserved but deserve another chance.
Losing a child to suicide is unimaginable for any parent. Yet Tricia and Kurt Baker (left) have dedicated their lives to helping children, teens and young adults avoid struggling with mental health disorders in silence and eliminating the stigma that leads to that silence. The Princeton couple, winners of the $35,000 award, established Attitudes in Reverse (AIR) in 2010, shortly after their son Kenny took his own life after a long battle with severe depression and anxiety.
Since 2011, AIR has delivered its interactive educational presentation, "Coming up for AIR," to more than 50,000 middle and high school students and colleges, helping young people feel comfortable discussing these difficult topics. The Bakers often bring therapy dogs with them to their presentations, giving students a sense of belonging and comfort. Another impactful component of the program is the "In Their Shoes" exhibit, consisting of 265 pairs of shoes that represent the number of 10- to 24-year-old New Jersey residents who took their own lives over the past several years. The shoes have tags with statements representing thoughts youth have when they experience emotional or mental difficulties.
Brenda Antinore (left), of Camden, knows what desperation feels like. In the 1990s, she and her husband were caught in a vicious cycle of drug addition that nearly destroyed their lives. But the Antinores rebuilt their family and founded the non-profit Seeds of Hope and She Has A Name (SHAN) ministry, which provides a clean, safe place for women who roam the streets of Camden. Over the years, Brenda, recipient of the $25,000 award, has developed relationships with recovery programs throughout the tri-state area. When a woman decides to leave street life, Brenda gets to work finding an appropriate recovery program, and often drives the woman there herself. She says she can’t make them take help, but her persistence and caring continues to turn around the lives of many young women who felt they had no other choices.
Dominique Lee (left), founder of the school management non-profit BRICK (Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids) and winner of the top Making a Difference Award in 2015, was the keynote speaker at the ceremony. In addition to the top awards, cash prizes of $5,000 were presented to:
- Joseph Brown of Galloway
- Marlene Ceragno of Tenafly
- Gilman Choudhury of Paterson
- Katelyn Darrow of Pitman
- Danielle Gletow of Ewing
- Lorna Henkel of Secaucus
- Kiersten Miles of Wall
- Charles Valentine of North Arlington