MAHWAH, NJ (Bergen County) – Eight residents of Sussex and Warren counties were among the 37 new Hometown Heroes honored by Congressman Josh Gottheimer. He hosted his third Hometown Hero Awards on Friday, honoring North Jersey residents who have made outstanding contributions to our community.
Fifth District Hometown Heroes Awards were presented to community leaders, first responders, veterans, members of the business community, students, and seniors to recognize their dedication to improving the lives of their neighbors, families, and all Jersey residents.
“Today’s awardees are bound by a shared sense of duty – to their families, their communities, and their country. They are our veterans, our firefighters, our first responders, our educators, and our family – our brothers and sisters and our sons and daughters. None of these people stood up because they sought recognition, they did it because they wanted to do what was right. That’s what Jersey Values are about and that’s what makes me certain that we live in the greatest country in the world. On behalf of the Fifth District, I couldn’t be more proud to honor these Hometown Heroes today,” Gottheimer said.
Santina Flynn of Hackettstown was honored for her Cookies for the Troops. Each year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, volunteers – as well as flour, dough, and chocolate chips – flood Santina’s kitchen to bake as many cookies as they can to send to our troops that can’t be home for the holidays. This year, in the 11th year of the Cookies for the Troops, Santina and 22 volunteers used 20 pounds of sugar, 30 pounds of butter, 40 pounds of flour, and 96 eggs to bake 3,028 cookies to send to our troops serving around the world, including Santina’s son, Justin, who is serving our country as a Marine. The charity has continued to flourish even in the wake of Santina’s breast cancer diagnosis, when volunteers and her daughter stepped up to take on extra responsibility while Santina was going through chemotherapy.
Anita Rodriguez of Hackettstown was honored for her annual Rodriguez Family Thanksgiving Dinner held in Hackettstown. This year’s 15th dinner was hosted at Marley’s Gotham Grill, where she served ten 22 pound turkeys. Anita hosts the events to provide a “meal, companionship, and belonging during the holidays” for those who would not otherwise have it.
Fred Goerlitz of Mansfield Township was honored for being a life EMS first responder, Assistant Chief and puts in more hours volunteering than anyone else in the department. He is very dedicated and always goes above and beyond to make sure the town has ambulance coverage. He has been volunteering in EMS for at least 30 years.
Jeanette Iurato of Blairstown Township was honored for turning the Blairstown Museum into the centerpiece of the historical district and a tourist destination. The museum is not only a testament to Blairstown’s rich history, but to Jeanette’s tireless work to preserve what makes that region of New Jersey so special. Jeanette was particularly helpful to those affected by the fires in Blairstown earlier this year, and has been talked about as the most qualified, passionate, and staunch advocate for Blairstown’s historic district since John Insley Blair himself. Gottheimer was thrilled to get to help Jeanette cut through the red tape with the IRS earlier this year and loved his visit to the museum with its exhibitions on Friday the 13th — the landmark 1970 film which was shot in Blairstown.
Alfred Carrazzone, of Hardwick Township is a WWII Army veteran who served our country in a combat unit in the South Pacific. Since coming home, he has been an active member of the American Legion Post in Blairstown, participating in the annual Memorial Day parade and the Fourth of July Celebration in the Park. At 92, Alfred is still the treasurer of the Hardwick Historical Society that has preserved several Hardwick properties by getting them placed in the National Register of Historic Places. Recently, he helped the Vass Farmstead Property get $900,000 in grants and donations to restore the Vass Farmstead property in Hardwick, where family and friends can now create new memories.
Marie Bilik of Green Township was honored for her career in public service took her from serving on the Green Township school board, to serving as the town’s first female Mayor. When she saw a new opportunity listed in the newspaper for the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), she applied just to see what could happen. She retired as the executive director of the NJSBA in 2012…. Only to come out of retirement to be the Deputy Executive Director of the National School Boards Association until 2016. She now works with the Allamuchy-Green First Aid Squad as a trustee, and as the director of the Green Township Historical Society.
Isobel Costello of Newton for starting the Weekend Bags program. As a freshman in high school, Isobel noticed that some of her fellow students were going home on Fridays worried about having enough food or hygienic products to last them through the weekend. So she coordinated with local nonprofit Connect For Community and Thor Labs, to help care for these students. Isobel puts together 175 bags a week with her mother and a few other volunteers for students across five schools, growing to six soon. With graduation on the horizon, Isobel has put an organization in place that will endure and continue to help people even after she graduates.
Ted Wilson of Vernon was honored for donating his time, equipment, and efforts to install an ADA walkway in a new play area at Veteran’s Memorial Park so even more people can access this great park in one of the most beautiful parts of our state. Rallying support and volunteers from the community, Ted managed to get this wheelchair friendly walkway to connect one end of the park to the other — two miles in total.
Below are more biographies of the Hometown Heroes:
- Noreen Springstead of New Milford has been with Why Hunger since 1992, an organization focused on eliminating hunger she now leads as Executive Director. Noreen has worked her way at Why Hunger from the front desk to executive director where, in the last five years, she has helped invest over $2 million in 355 front line organizations to fight hunger. Her incredible passion and tenacity has helped 2.4 million children access healthy meals.
- Yvonne Visocky of Fair Lawn is in her 50th year teaching at Westmoreland Elementary School, where she teaches 5th grade. She has won teacher of the year three times at Westmoreland and has helped prepare students there for success in the 21st century. Ms. Visocky spearheaded efforts at the school to launch Google Classroom as well as other online learning tools like ConnectEd and NewsEla to help students improve their reading skills and reach their full potential.
- Sergeant Geoffrey Cole and Officer Michael Laferrera of Bogota received a call about cars being stranded on Elm Road in Bogota during last August’s flooding. Little did they know, one of the cars was carrying a bride and groom who had literally just been married. They sprang into action, helping them both to safety amidst the rising waters.
- Doug Sadowski of Glen Rock is a volunteer firefighter in not one but two towns, Glen Rock and Fair Lawn. Since he started at 18, he has been an integral part of both fire departments. This year, Doug started and ran the Civilian Fire Academy – an eight week crash course to introduce citizens to the training that firefighters go through and introduce them to leaders in the departments. The inaugural class of 13 recently graduated – with 2 of them inspired to go through the full fire school training next semester.
- Laura Hoogstrate of River Edge took over the River Edge Environmental Protection Commission (EPC), it could not even field a quorum at a meeting. Under her leadership, the EPC has become a fully functional, engaged organization where volunteers and programs for initiatives like the Hackensack River clean up have reached record levels, sweeping more than 3,000 pounds of waste from the river. She has also gotten young people involved in her environmental efforts, helping a local Girl Scout troop with a recycling initiative that will help clean up our communities, and recruiting a high school student to be a part of the EPC for the first time.
- Pat Khanjian of Wyckoff is a board member of the Wyckoff Love Fund, Pat has helped provide children in crisis situations the help they need, whether it be putting a safe roof over their head, medical bills, and school expenses. Pat does many of the intake interviews and is constantly noted for her compassion and respect for the families that have fallen on hard times.
- Chief David Brown of Rochelle Park is an Army veteran and life-long resident of Rochelle Park, Dave is an employee of the Department of Public Works, a volunteer firefighter at the Rochelle Park Fire Department – just like his father – and has twice served as the Chief of the Rochelle Park Fire Department. This time of year, you can find Dave riding atop a fire truck dressed as Santa, a role he’s played for almost 20 years. Rochelle Park Mayor B.J. Hauser said if he were to pick one person who best exemplified Rochelle Park, he would pick Dave without hesitation.
- Heather McGee of Montvale has been a volunteer with the Tri-Boro ambulance corps for over 30 years, serving as an officer for most of them, culminating in her current presidency. She has dedicated countless hours training others in the corps on how and when to deliver CPR and use an AED, making sure to leave behind a legacy befitting of her service. In her tenure with the ambulance corps, Heather has responded to 5,000 emergency calls, including 5 where she and her team had to perform life-saving CPR.
- Principal Joe Occhino of Westwood is a principal of Northern Highlands Regional High School, Joe has promoted various educational and preventative programs in his school related to the opioid crisis that the state and the country are currently grappling with. He was among the first in the nation to get Narcan — the life-saving drug for opioid overdoses — approved to be kept on school grounds in case of an incident happening in school.
- Sharon Reissman of Upper Saddle River has an unparalleled reputation of being an advocate for Upper Saddle River, her home for over 25 years. She is a founder and long-serving president of the Jewish Community Organization of North Bergen, a founding member of the Upper Saddle River Education Fund, a founding member of USR Cares, and serves as the Bergen County Ambassador for the Rockland County Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education.
- Keith Gross of Oakland has a very different idea of retirement than most people. Just this year, volunteering with Rebuilding Together NJ, Keith installed a wheelchair ramp for a young girl born with Spina Bifida, repaired damaged flooring for an Army veteran, and is currently installing a wheelchair ramp for a young boy with cerebral palsy. As if that wasn’t enough, an Englewood family credits Keith with saving their lives for installing a carbon monoxide detector that caught dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide in their home shortly thereafter.
- Mike Epstein of Paramus is the owner of Gold’s Gym in Paramus, which just celebrated its 26th year. He has brought not only jobs into Paramus, but an incredible giving spirit. During Hurricane Sandy, when so many lost so much, Mike stepped up and opened Gold’s Gym for families and neighbors to take a shower at no cost while their power was out. He is a leader in fitness, always happy to help those looking to break into the industry, or someone just looking to meet their own goals. Mike is the type of guy you hope you run into if you aren’t having a great day. His sense of humor and his deeply caring nature is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.
- Thomas “Chopper” Russo of Oakland is the owner of Chopper Russo Real Estate Group in Oakland. Running a business keeps him extremely busy, but he dedicates what free time he has to making Oakland a better place. As Chairman of the Oakland Public Events Committee, he helps to decorate the town for the holiday, and he also organizes the Oakland Carnival, which draws thousands of people every year and families look forward to all year long, as well as “Choptoberfest”, which honors the volunteers of Oakland and invites nonprofits to come out and interact with the community.
- Lilly Trentacosta of Dumont started making lollipops as a fun activity on a winter day with her father. Immediately, she had the idea to start selling those lollipops to support causes that were important to her. This lead to months of paperwork, organization, and, of course, perfecting her recipe. Now, at 13, she and her family now work out of a commercial kitchen at a nearby church and the proceeds from these “Lillypops” go to support causes like Pet ResQ in Tenafly that helps animals in need, and Save the Children, an organization that offers support to children in developing countries.
- Officer Michael Dombrowski of Mahwah was donating blood in 2016 when he volunteered to submit an additional cheek swab to enter him into the national blood donor system. While only 1 in every 540 people who submit to these tests get the call, Officer Dombrowski was that one. And he answered it. Without hesitation, he agreed to donate bone marrow through an extremely painful process to someone he did not even know. Those close to him were far from surprised: service is in his blood. His father is a retired lieutenant from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and his brother, Chris, is currently in the Police Academy.
- Mark and Amy Steppe of Ridgewood are veterans that have dedicated their time to helping other veterans and wild mustangs heal their wounds together. A rescued horse named Phoenix had a profound impact on Mark and Amy, as they nursed her back to health, built her an enclosure, and gained the horse’s trust. As a result, they started the Unbridled Heroes Project that brings rescued horses and veterans together in the process of healing. Participants in the program have hailed it — almost to a person — as “life changing.” They say it gives them a routine and a companion as they try to figure out the next steps in their lives.
- Marilyn Clark of Woodcliff Lake is an institution in the Woodcliff Lake community. I would call her a “pillar” in our community, but there is literally a street named after her in Woodcliff Lake which, I think, is more impressive. Marilyn leads a very active Senior Association, and is in large part responsible for the beauty of Woodcliff Lake that we have today… and that attracted the famed Mandarin Pantankin, or “hot duck” from Central Park that was rumored to weekend in Woodcliff lake. She is a member of the Shade Tree Committee and the Green Team, helping the town designate new trees in town. She even donated a new tree truck to the town to further their efforts.
- Bob Shannon of Wyckoff has spent 30-plus years volunteering in the township, including 15 years with the Fire Department. Bob is a Wyckoff Chamber of Commerce board member, member of the Wyckoff-Midland Park Rotary, and a founding member of the Wyckoff Education Foundation. It is no surprise, then, that he teaches other municipal officials at Rutgers about how to make purchases for their towns. Mayor Scanlon said that not only has Bob saved Wyckoff literally millions of dollars over the course of his career, but he’s been a tremendous friend to the Wyckoff community through his volunteer service and being a kind, giving person to everyone he works with.
- Brian Taylor of Teaneck, since being hired by Teaneck in 2003, Lieutenant Taylor has served the Teaneck Fire Department with distinction, constantly seeking ways to advocate for firefighters in Teaneck and around New Jersey. For five years, Lieutenant Taylor served as the State Delegate for Teaneck’s FMBA Local 42 unit before being elected Vice President in 2017, then President this past July. Lieutenant Taylor is a leader- someone who his brothers and sisters in the fire service could count on for anything they need.
- Officer Gary Yarnall and Officer Tom Connors of West Milford responded to a call in April about a suicidal individual with access to weapons and intervened in saving the individual. They are an example of the kind of bravery our officers display each and every day they put on the uniform, rushing towards danger when so many run away from it and saving an individual from the terrible impulse of suicide.
- Velvet Poveromo of New Milford carries on her late husband Charlie’s tradition of placing a cooler of ice and water outside the house on hot summer days. Her act of kindness has inspired people across the country to do the same.
- Chief Ed Aldrich of West Milford, at age 16, walked into West Milford Fire Company Number Six for his first day as a volunteer, following in his father’s footsteps. Today, 50 years later, he’s been with the company ever since, including serving as chief and president of the company. Ed has been on the frontlines of keeping our North Jersey community safe for five decades from fires, storms, and lone-wolf terror.
- Chief Larry Rauch of Upper Saddle River was in the Navy, he was not only stationed off the coast of Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also it was his ship that picked up John Glenn in the Atlantic Ocean off of Cape Canaveral after he returned from the Friendship 7 mission in 1962. Larry volunteered with the Upper Saddle River fire department for 48 and has served as chief of the department once in every decade since 1970. He has also served as Coordinator of Safety Programs at the Bergen County Fire Academy and spent 15 years as the Bergen County Fire Coordinator, including during the horrific fire in Edgewater in 2015.
- Stephanie Reifman of Upper Saddle River started the “HAPPY Week Heroin Program” about drug abuse, which has won national awards. The program reached 40 New Jersey and New York public schools and their 15,000 students.
- Lukas Graf of New Milford, late one September night while off duty, was driving off of Cahill Cross Road when he saw an overturned SUV engulfed in flames. When he got closer to the crash, he heard yelling and banging from inside the car. Realizing that there was someone trapped inside, Lukas rushed toward the scene, fire extinguisher in hand, doused some of the flames and pulled the man out from the driver’s seat as the blaze started to burn the interior of the car.
- Robert Paoli of Ridgewood has been the Commander of the American Legion Ridgewood Post 53 since 2006. His service in the American Legion includes Ridgewood’s Memorial Day Service, Gold Star Mothers’ Day Event, Blue Star Families Dinner, Veterans Day Observance, Fourth of July Events, School Programs, Scout Activities and many others involving veterans or promoting patriotism. Bob served in the United States Army and was deployed to Germany.
- Peter Jacullo of Emerson is an Army veteran who fought in the Battle of Normandy who wanted to join the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Army so badly before World War II, he purchased a fake birth certificate to serve his country. A former Emerson Borough Councilman, Peter, who turned 100 years old on Sunday, Nov 25, built the home he still lives in back in the late 1940’s.
- Toney Jackson of Hackensack is a lifelong resident of Hackensack and is passionate about teaching children to enjoy learning. Toney was dubbed the rapping teacher after being featured in a national Microsoft commercial showcasing his teaching style. Whether his latest involvement with Microsoft as an Educational Innovator, hosting poetry slams in Bergen County, writing and illustrating books, or volunteering with with the Hackensack Cultural Arts Board, his ultimate commitment is first and foremost to the students of Hackensack.
- Chief Jeff Schuster and Captain James Drobinske of Woodcliff Lake are firefighters who assisted a man who had collapsed on the golf course at Valley Brook. They performed CPR on the man for seven minutes until he regained a pulse. He was taken to the hospital and recovered.
Full video of the ceremony can be found HERE.