“We are a community that banged pots and pans at 7 PM at the start of the COVID pandemic. Tonight, we gather to bang the pots again.”
With those words, Steve Anderson, president of the Upper West Side Coalition, set the tone for our Good Neighbor Awards celebration. It was a time to come together and appreciate just a few of the people who work hard to make our community stronger.
The six honorees ranged in age from 15 to 94. Their unpaid work supports libraries, schools, older adult centers, local neighborhoods, public housing tenants, and cancer patients and their families. Four are from the Upper East Side and two from the Upper West Side. What unites them all is a passion for helping others.
“Leaving the hospital that day my feet hurt but I didn’t care. What I cared about is that I’d made a difference,” said 15-year-old Emma Justus, talking about the first event she organized when she launched her organization to support cancer patients and their families.
“I didn’t choose this life of volunteer work so much as it chose me,” said Dorothy Reiss, a founding member of Friends of Webster Library. “It’s a gift to me.”
The honorees were introduced by the people who nominated them—and who marveled at their dedication. “This is a woman who constantly fights for her community. I want to say thank you for the constant work you do,” said Maribel Mejia, who runs one of the Beacon programs at our partner, the Isaacs Center, while introducing Wilma Lorraine Johnson.
This year’s winners are:
Emma Justus – for her commitment to helping families facing cancer. While in the sixth grade at Wagner Middle School, Emma cofounded the charity organization Club Care, after her father was diagnosed with terminal glioblastoma brain cancer. Club Care’s mission is to support children and families dealing with cancer, and Club Care has created care packages for pediatric oncology patients at a local hospital, hand delivered staff appreciation gifts for the oncology team, created room makeovers for pediatric cancer patients, and more. Emma has worked throughout her time in middle school and high school to expand Club Care, and is working to open chapters across the country.
Melissa Elstein – for her volunteer work with housing, education and environmental advocacy on the Upper West Side. Melissa has been involved in community organizing for over 20 years, starting when she and several neighbors started the West 80s Neighborhood Association, which protected numerous historic brownstones and saved their tenants from eviction. In addition to serving as secretary of the West 80s Neighborhood Association, she is the cofounder/lead organizer of Love Your Street Tree Day and is the board chair and secretary of Stop the Chop NY/NJ, whose mission is to address the air and noise pollution caused by nonessential helicopters in the NY metropolitan area.
Dorothy Reiss – for her work with New York libraries and bookstores. Dorothy is one of the founding members of the Friends of Webster Library, which worked to get the library designated landmark status. In 2004, the Friends opened the Book Cellar, a used bookstore in the basement of the Webster Library, which collects and sells donated books from community members. Dorothy has been there for over 19 years and can still be found behind the cash register. Through the Book Cellar, she helped to raise over $1 million for branch libraries of the NYPL. That money has funded special projects at the libraries, buying computers, books, and most recently a selection of books called the Harlem Collection.
Carolyn Breidenback – for her longtime volunteer work with her local elementary school, PS 198. Carolyn has been volunteering at PS 198 for twenty years, coming in four days a week to serve as an assistant teacher, helper, and overall positive presence. She helps the PTA with fundraising and obtaining items for the school auction, encourages her friends and family to donate to the school, and, at 94 years old, she has seen four principals come and go during her time volunteering. Carolyn has a close relationship with the teachers, students, and school community, and is constantly trying to find ways to improve the school.
Wilma Lorraine Johnson – for her volunteer work and community leadership. Lorraine has volunteered with the Stanley M. Isaacs Center at the Older Adult Center, After School Program, and Beacon for over 23 years. She is the President of the Stanley Isaacs Older Adult Center, and is currently serving on the advisory board of Metropolitan Hospital. At the Isaacs Center she regularly coordinates and leads free art events for all age groups, including art lessons, crochet activities, and making flowers out of recycled materials. She donates art materials, and has always been available to assist during community events. She is a community activist who continues to put her best foot forward and is involved in all aspects of the community.
Margarita Curet Osorio – for her work representing the residents of Amsterdam Houses. Margarita held the position of president of the Amsterdam Houses Residents Association for over 16 years, and went above and beyond while representing over 2000 tenants who live in the development. She advocated for maintaining safety and cleanliness of the facilities, and held monthly meetings with presentations from local organizations. She also facilitated family days which, in addition to barbecuing and entertainment, included tabling by cultural and health organizations that presented information and sign-ups for residents, making programs and services more accessible to residents, and organized educational activities such as computer classes for tenants. She has also served as a board member of the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center.