UNION COUNTY, NJ - Eight individuals and five organizations received a Union County Human Relations Commission Unity Award for Achievement, an honor annually bestowed upon those who dedicate their time and efforts toward volunteerism and philanthropy in Union County, during a special presentation held Monday, May 8 at the Kean University STEM Building in Union Township.

The 2017 awards marked the 16th year in which the Commission has named Unity Award honorees.  

“This annual award recognizes programs, services, activities, and efforts being put forth by local role models who promote cultural diversity, strong community relations, and human rights,” Commission Co-Chair Nora Mislan said. “Those who are nominated for this award are regular people who do extraordinary things. Their efforts make others’ lives better.”

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“Our commissioners unequivocally agree that one of the best ways to strive to accomplish our mission – to actively encourage, develop, promote, and strengthen respect for human rights and cultural diversity among the people of Union County – is to publicly honor those who already do it well,” said the Commission’s other co-chair, Union County Prosecutor’s Office Director of Communications Mark Spivey. “Monday’s presentation was intended to highlight the extraordinary work being done by those who don’t think twice about giving back to their communities, and we are pleased that they are at least getting a fraction of the recognition and thanks they deserve.”  

Two local students received the Unity Award for Achievement by a Student: the first, Nicholas Tarabokia, is an eighth-grader in Berkeley Heights who was honored for his efforts to improve the quality of life for children and their families affected by cancer through advocacy, charity, and support. At age 6, three years into a diagnosis of leukemia, he wrote down the words “cancer stinks.” At age 8, he turned those words into a mission to help other children overcome their anxieties and fears while they battle the disease, and with the help of his brother Ryan and his family, he founded the Cancer Stinks Children’s Foundation, which has delivered more than 5,000 care packages in its six years of operation.  

Also receiving the Award was Alexandra Jackman of Westfield, who at age 8 befriended a girl with cerebral palsy who communicated through hand gestures. At age 10, she volunteered to help special-needs children through a local nonprofit organization, Autism Family Times with Brianna. Her award-winning 14-minute documentary, titled “A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism,” which can still be seen on YouTube, has been viewed by tens of thousands of people worldwide. Now a senior in high school, Alex’s aim continues to be to raise awareness to, in her words, “look past the special need and get to know the person.”  

Imagine: A Center for Coping with Loss, received a Unity Award for its efforts dedicated toward the strong belief that no child should have to grieve alone. The Center provides free, year-round bereavement support in a safe environment for grieving children, teens, adults, and families who are coping with loss, providing them with the opportunity to become part of a larger support system and make lifelong friends. Director Mary Robinson accepted the Award on behalf of the Center, which recently moved to Mountainside from its original Westfield location so it can expand its services to more children and families.  

The Union County Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers received a Unity Award for Achievement in Public Service for their efforts to care for many of the nearly 600 children in Union County under the age of 21 who are currently in foster care. Sworn in by a judge and empowered to speak to foster parents, teachers, doctors, lawyers, tutors, therapists, and more, these volunteers help their assignees gain access to an education and other services that meet their specialized needs, and make recommendations to a family court judge to ensure that each child’s best interests remain prioritized. The award was accepted by CASA Executive Director Maria Higginbotham.

Other award recipients included:

  • Retired Westfield Police Lieutenant James Schneider, for a highly distinguished 30-year career in law enforcement, but also for his lifelong commitment to save lives and lend a helping hand to fellow policemen and women struggling with substance abuse. A longtime volunteer with the Cop2Cop suicide prevention hotline service, he has also made himself available 24/7/365 for any officer in need and their family members.  
  • Plainfield Auxiliary Police Division Captain Wally Torian, for almost four decades of volunteerism, community service, and civic activism, including his 36-year career as a volunteer auxiliary officer. His many volunteer activities, including acting as a mentor, counselor, and coach, have provided him the opportunity to protect children and encourage young men who might not have been looking to further their education begin or complete their college degrees.
  • Robin Johnstone and Melissa Thompson, two Union County mothers who founded Missions Possible of New Jersey to make a difference in the lives of children and families who fall victim to misfortune, whether via neglect, abuse, or abandonment, by collecting and distributing gently used household items and furniture, toys, and clothing.
  • Terri Todd of Linden, for creating a creative mentoring program called The F.A.B. (Fashion Against Bullying) Coalition. The Coalition’s efforts focus on using fashion as a tool against bullying by providing a safe harbor where students of different backgrounds and interests can create their own style and express themselves while working together on common projects and goals. The annual culmination is hands-on business exposure and education by participating as a team in New York City’s Fashion Week.
  • Mobile Meals of Westfield, for 50 years of service providing well over one million healthy meals to homebound individuals who are elderly, live alone, or sick. The Mobile Meals drivers, who sometimes are the only other person to visit meal recipients on any given day, develop a relationship with those they meet on their routes, and also monitor health and well-being. Director of Operations Josephine Walsh accepted the award.
  • American Muslims for Hunger Relief, for serving the hungry and homeless with compassion, dignity, and respect, without discrimination of any color, race, gender, or religion. This nonprofit group currently serves 10,000 meals every month in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
  • Carolyn George, Recreation Coordinator for the Berkeley Heights Recreation Department, for her efforts serving as a tireless and inspirational leader and role model for her community, and her “above and beyond” contributions that have enriched the lives of the residents of Berkeley Heights.

Two veterans were also honored Monday evening, both for their dedicated service to our country and for their continued commitment to support fellow veterans, especially those who are homeless, jobless, and, in many instances, friendless.  

Award recipient Kevin Murphy, a Roselle resident, previously served in the U.S. Air Force, New Jersey Air National Guard, New Jersey Army National Guard, and the U.S. Army. In addition to active service to community organizations including the borough’s Rotary Club, First Aid Squad, and Chamber of Commerce, he also founded the local Veterans Chamber of Commerce, which recently combined its resources with Operation Chillout, an all-volunteer outreach program to homeless veterans. In addition to providing emergency supplies and survival gear to some of the most vulnerable members of the community, he also runs backpack and clothing drives, and raises funds for special equipment needs.

Recently retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brett D’Allessandro, whose service included a tour of duty in Afghanistan, was also honored Monday. Upon encountering a homeless man holding a sign that read “Vietnam Veteran” several years ago, Sgt. D’Allessandro immediately went home and filled his service backpack with clothing and returned to find that man and give it to him. Thus the nonprofit group “Backpacks for Life” organization was born, and it has distributed more than 2,300 such care packages since.

For more information about the Human Relations Commission and the Unity Awards, go online to www.ucnj.org/uchrc.

In photo, back row (left to right):

  • Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brett D'Alessandro (VETERAN);
  • Alexandra Jackman (STUDENT)
  • Nicholas Tarabokia (STUDENT)
  • Captain Wally Torian, Plainfield Police Auxiliary Division (LAW ENFORCEMENT)
  • Lieutenant James Schneider, Westfield Police Department (ret.) (LAW ENFORCEMENT)
  • Kevin Murphy, U.S. Air Force, NJ Air National Guard, NJ Army National Guard, U.S. Army (ret.) (VETERAN)
  • Ghani Khan and his son, Arbaz M. Khan, American Muslims for Hunger Relief (COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION)

In photo, front row (left to right):

  • Maria Higginbotham, Union County Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Volunteers (PUBLIC SERVICE)
  • Robin Johnstone and Melissa Thompson, Missions Possible of New Jersey (NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION)
  • Josephine Walsh, Mobile Meals of Westfield (COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION)
  • Carolyn George (PUBLIC SERVICE)
  • Terri Todd (INDIVIDUAL)
  • Mary Robinson, Imagine: A Center for Grief Counseling (NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION)