Shore Publishing’s Beacon Awards recognize a few of the outstanding individuals who selflessly step up to help fulfill the Shoreline community’s promise as a place of opportunity, well-being, and safety for all.
Debra Carcio-Mals has taught countless children how to “boogie-oogie-oogie” through her volunteer work with Old Saybrook Youth & Family Services and Old Saybrook Parks & Recreation. Debra loves sharing her passion and joy for dance with kids who may not be able to go to a formal dance school. She is known as a glittery beacon of light who has also served as the main choreographer for summer stock theater and the annual community variety show and has given countless hours of time to The Kate’s Annual Academy Awards Gala. Whether you recognize her from her dance group Glitter Girls or her work with the children of Old Saybrook, it’s safe to say she leaves the world a little more sparkly.
When it comes to animals, Ken Engelman is an advocate! He volunteers with the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter, the Branford Compassion Club, the Branford Exchange Club, and Pets for Vets. He has created numerous fundraising events to help our furry friends as well as foster public awareness for the need to help creatures. Ken was the driving force behind Woofstock, which was developed in 2013 and held on the Branford Green. He is also the person behind the Animal Carnivale event held at Pine Orchard Yacht and Country Club, and Bark-a-Luau at Owenego Beach Club. He is extremely fortunate to help match shelter pets with vets as companion animals through his work with Pets for Vets. Ken is a vibrant force in the community.
Amanda Gabriele has helped people of all ages. Between serving on the North Haven Board of Education, the PTA and the PTA Council, she has worked on many different subcommittees including policy, athletic fields, and personnel searches. She volunteers for People Investing in People, a foundation that brings education and technology to kids in Connecticut and abroad, and she helps adults and children alike through her work as the vice chair of the North Haven Democratic Town Committee. Amanda works as director of data science at The Hartford, where she serves as an ambassador for United Way Giving, a campaign that raises millions of dollars for well-qualified organizations. Outside of work, she also supports parents of children with craniosynostosis as they face invasive skull surgery. Having a daughter who also has the condition, she hopes to bring peace to parents and children facing a scary situation.
Sonja Gibbs is always available to lend a helping hand—or two. For years, she has volunteered for Clinton Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantry where food is distributed to those in need every Wednesday night. Sonja has coordinated volunteers for the Connecticut Food Bank’s Mobile Food Truck, which visits Old Saybrook and Clinton once a month and helps with the Meals on Wheels program in Clinton. Although she can no longer drive, she still gladly packs up the meals for delivery to residents who are homebound. A retired school librarian by profession, Sonja organized the books in her church library, so they were more clearly identified. She is also a volunteer officer of the Shoreline Branch of American Association of University Women and organizes a monthly ladies luncheon club.
“A historical society is important in these small towns because it saves what might be lost.” Cary Hull moved to Chester in 1976 upon purchasing an old Victorian with a lot of history. Her next-door neighbors were members of the Chester Historical Society and soon after so was Cary. She now serves as president and oversees the saving of so many of Chester’s stories. Like the fact that Chester residents knew how to survive during the great Depression. Their town was able to stay afloat through hard work and perseverance, unlike so many other small towns around them. Cary has done several interviews for the Chester Historical Society’s ongoing Oral History program, is always available to help at the farmer’s market, and has written many successful grants for both the Chester Historical Society and Friends of Chester Public Library.
Wendy Mawhinney is passionate about history. She has been a part of numerous historical groups over the years and has now landed as a volunteer with Essex Historical Society, Essex Garden Club, Governor Trumbull House Mansion (through her work with Daughters of the American Revolution), and the Pratt House. She has a love for history and a passion for Colonial life that led her to update the docent document at the Pratt House. She filled the new 13-page document with well-researched facts about the Essex area, the Pratt House itself, and 18th- and 19thcentury history. She thoroughly enjoys teaching children and adults about the past and can often be found dressed in Colonial attire. Wendy lives in what is known in town as “Long Yellow House,” a 1776 antique gem located right next to the Essex Historical Society.
The Cove Center for Grieving Children is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Founded by Bruce McIntyre’s wife, Renée and Jim and Mary Ann Emswiler, The Cove began with just six families and eight children in an effort to help children navigate the grieving process. Bruce became active in the organization in 2000, when the executive director, Mary Ann Emswiler, asked him to help co-chair, organize, and manage Run for the Cove, a fundraising road race. There is currently no federal, state, or local funding for The Cove and Bruce extends time, effort, and training to help it run successfully. In addition to his work with The Cove and Camp Erin (an extension of The Cove), and raising five children of his own, Bruce and Renée opened their home to Leo Arias, a child in the ABC-A Better Chance program. Leo came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic at age 12 and attributes much of his personal growth to the support he received through ABC and the McIntyre family.
“Family always comes first. But a lot of what I do is for the family.” Kim Olson started volunteering when her children were small as their respective Girl Scout and Boy Scout leader. Now that her children are older, they still come first,but her volunteerism has shifted into areas she finds interesting. She drives the ambulance as an EMT for Deep River Ambulance and volunteers for the Pandemonium Rain Forest Project, a rescue organization for exotic birds and reptiles. Her love of giving back has trickled down to her children as her daughter serves as treasurer of the Friends of Deep River Library and her son volunteers with her at Pandemonium Rain Forest Project. Encouraged by her daughter, Kim and family have also set up the first two free Little Libraries in Deep River, one in Plattwood Park and the other at the Deep River Historical Society. Kim is known around town as the person to call if you find a lost cat, dog—or chicken—as she will always take them in!
Renee Pantani is continuing the legacy that her late motherin- law, 2013 Beacon Award winner Johanne Pantani, began. Many years ago, Johanne went on a mission trip down south and saw a bus delivering food to local children. She said, “I’m going home and I’m doing that.” Minus the bus, Feed Branford Kids (FBK) was created. Today, the organization provides weekend meals for elementary school children who would otherwise not have access to food. Volunteers from FBK pack backpacks full of lunches, juice boxes, milk, and breakfasts and then pass them on to the school social workers who hand them out to those in need. They provide extra food during school vacation weeks and are on a mission to expand the program to help Branford middle- and high school students as well. Renee is also proud to be a part of Christmas Caddy, a Secret Santa Program that her in-laws started. Christmas Caddy collects Toys for the Branford Counseling Center to give out at Christmas time.
Diane has spent 40 years helping hundreds—if not thousands—of kids in the Branford community. “I just want the kids of Branford and other surrounding towns to have every opportunity I can give them. I want them to feel happy, I want them to be kind, I want them to feel respected, and I want them to love learning.” She makes sure community kids are getting all of this and more through her volunteer work with the Branford Early Childhood Collaborative and through her work as a co-chair of Round Tables, a free program that brings together pre-school educators and directors and helps them navigate the world of early childhood. She also gives back through volunteering on the Board of School Readiness Council, which provides daycare and pre-school for children of parents who otherwise could not afford it. In addition to these organizations, Diane serves on the board of the Community Dining Room, which helps bring food to Branford kids and families; she volunteers for the Diaper Bank; and has served as co-director of the North Branford Potato and Corn Festival.
“Little League runs my life.” Tina says with a laugh. Tina Phelan is the vice president of Madison Little League and oversees volunteers, runs background checks, organizes uniforms, and coordinates team parents. She also serves as commissioner of Summer Ball. In addition to her work with Madison Little League, Tina is active in Madison schools as president of the PTO at Brown and vice president of the PTO at Polson. She is a volunteer for Yale and Smilow’s Closer to Free Ride and is described as “the most selfless person who does for everyone in every capacity.” She is also well known for her one-of-a kind Madisonthemed crafts and teacher gifts.
Diagnosed with ALS in 2009, Brian Savo was not familiar with the disease. He was in his early 30s, recently married with a young child and another on the way. The doctor told him he had two- to five years to live and he felt like a deer in headlights. After digesting the news, Brian was determined to show his children that we all have challenges. “But even though we have challenges, you can get over those challenges. So I started giving back.” He immediately went to the ALS Association and asked how he could make a difference. He now serves on the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Chapter of the ALS Association. He has a huge presence in the ALS community, has participated in the ALS walks, helped other patients as they face the disease, and gone to advocate for ALS in Washington D.C. Brian has given a lot of time and energy to fundraising for The Neuromuscular Center at Hospital for Special Care in New Britain. He has watched the Special Care Center go from a small clinic, when he first visited, to what it is today, which is thriving.
An extraordinary volunteer, Susan Smith chairs the programing at Schiller Shoreline Institute for Lifelong Learning. Susan oversees identifying, evaluating, selecting, and arranging more than 35 speakers for the SSILL members. With topics ranging from astronomy, arts, law, medicine, foreign relations, and more, Susan is faced with the logistics of setting up venues, dates, and preparing course catalogs for active seniors on the shoreline. Susan also makes hospital and nursing home visits with her dog Charlie.
Kristin Song experienced tragedy when she lost her son Ethan to a gunshot wound from an unsecure weapon on Jan. 31, 2018. Since that day, Kristin has done everything in her power to make sure this does not happen to someone else’s child. She was instrumental in passing Ethan’s Law, which requires gun owners to secure their weapons when children are in the home. She developed the Ethan Miller Song Foundation (EMSF) because she and her husband Mike wanted to honor all the things Ethan loved: animals, the military, and keeping kids safe. Today, EMSF works to end gun violence in urban areas and has been working closely with New Haven to help at-risk youth. Through the foundation, the Songs have opened a center in New Haven for children who don’t have a bed to sleep in, dinner to eat, or a place to feel safe. Kristin wants these kids to know love, feel cherished, and to recognize that there is a big, beautiful world out there. She and Ethan shared a love for animals, and together helped almost 100 shelter dogs find their forever homes. Today, she continues this work in Ethan’s honor through her work with Pink Shelter. Kristin is struck by the number of people willing to offer help, especially Guilford residents. Whenever she has placed a call for action, volunteers have come running.
“Yes!” is Nikki Travaglino’s answer when someone asks if she will help. Subsequently, she is involved in a lot of organizations. Those most dear to her heart are The Cove Center for Grieving Children, Team PFF, and Homes for Heroes. Nikki’s children were 10 and 7 when their father passed, and they were introduced to The Cove. For five years her children were there every other week and she says it really helped them process their grief. Since then, Nikki and both children have given back to The Cove through their generous donations of time and support. Nikki can be seen around town with her fellow Pink Friends Forever members, a group of eight women who started out raising money for breast cancer research and now support all kinds of group events, from raising money for cystic fibrosis research to making breakfast for the police department.
Giving back is an enriching part of our daily lives. Now, thanks to David Allen, people can continue giving back even after they pass on. After being a part of the Madison Foundation for nine years, he has returned to work on The Heritage Society. A project that he created himself, The Heritage Society allows people to donate their money toward the betterment of Madison by naming the Madison Foundation as a beneficiary in their will or trust. “Thanks to Dave, and his vision, The Heritage Society will have an extremely positive, long-term effect on our quality of life in Madison, now and in the future,” said his nominator.
Like many Beacon Award winners, Elizabeth Abernathy is motivated by the idea of inspiring a younger generation. What’s unusual is that this dedicated volunteer and role model is a senior in high school. Elizabeth is an officer in the Guilford High School SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) group and a co-chair of the Guilford DAY (Developmental Assets for Youth) program, as well as serving on the student advisory board of the Guilford Youth & Family Services Agency. As a regular volunteer at Yale New Haven Hospital, she particularly enjoys the Pediatrics Unit. A pew minister at St. George in Guilford, she also coordinates collections for the homeless, and true to her mission, encourages her CCD students to pitch in.
“Mary has had a special part of the East Haven community,” said one of her nominators. From her time as the president of the East Haven Chamber of Commerce to the time she has spent putting together the East Haven Fall Festival for 20 years where she was one of the original committee members, Mary Cacace has devoted much of her life to the betterment of East Haven. She has been volunteering since the early 1980s and many attribute her to the start of the annual tree lighting in East Haven. She is now involved with the Friends of the Library. “To me it’s easy to volunteer,” she says. “I just feel that it’s something that’s necessary to do.”