The 10th annual Beacon Awards was held on Oct. 11, 2021 and honored 15 members of the shoreline community.
Judy Zamecnik of Clinton is a knitting and sewing powerhouse – but she doesn’t just do this for the fun of it. Ever since COVID began and the students of Lewin G Joel Elementary returned, she has singlehandedly sewn masks for both the children and adults. She delivers them every month and even supplies the school with different-sized masks. Judy accommodates the design to the month like Christmas and Valentine’s Day as well as other themes; Disney, Star Wars, cats, and dogs – in hopes that this had made wearing masks a tad more enjoyable for all.
Active in the local community for decades, Valerie Votto is a people person. Valerie joined Middlesex Habitat for Humanity in 2018 as a board member and has been the board chair since 2020. In each endeavor, she values everyone for who they are, not only what they’re giving to the organization. She listens because she truly wants to from learn others and understand her team and community. This way, she can serve Middlesex to the best of her ability through hard work, empathy, and connection. To her, it’s about the people just as much as the cause, making her a perfect fit for this role.
Ginger Vickstrom puts her heart and soul into volunteering. A four-year member at Feed Branford Kids, she performs with the same energy and gusto no matter the challenge, manifesting a fierce determination to succeed. This is especially true when she sets up and decorates for the auctions, naturally taking the lead for her teammates, making it a swift and seemingly easy task. Ginger says her favorite part of being with Feed Branford Kids is helping the families. “When the children come to the warehouse to pick up food on Thursdays, they are so excited to get the bags. It is just a great place to be to see children happy,” she says.
If someone was asked to describe Kristen Russo, the word “generous” would undoubtedly be the most recurring. She takes on various community-based projects, often leading them herself. Recently, she coordinated a tag sale to raise over $4,000 to aid Ukrainian families. She fundraises with numerous organizations like UNICEF and Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, collects and donates necessities to a women’s shelter, and so much more. Kristen does all this while working and raising two children as a busy and selfless spirit.
Mike Neff is the Emergency Management Director and Fire Department Deputy Chief in Clinton. As a first responder, he answers to any emergency call. When COVID struck his town, he responded to this crisis, too. Mike led a team of volunteers, setting up help sessions to get people registered for vaccine appointments on the website. These sessions were especially necessary for those without computers or who had difficulty navigating the process. He then made sure these residents had transportation, called people when he found available timeslots, also giving out PPE and test kits to be distributed all over town. Mike filled a gap by stepping up to the plate, during an urgent and volatile time resting on the need to be vaccinated to get life back to normal. The Deputy Chief continues to exemplify a work ethic of unwavering loyalty to his community.
You may know her as the owner of longtime Madison boutique bellaPerlina. Andrea Panullo closed her shop of 20 years back in 2020 but continues to create unique jewelry out of her home. On top of this, she now works as a volunteer at IRIS: Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. This, however, isn’t just a job to her. On her own time, she became the main support and maternal figure for a young Afghani woman who came to the U.S. Andrea found her a job, an apartment, helped her furnish the home, and provided basic necessities. Starting bellaPerlina was about helping one’s neighbor and this is simply an extension of the mindset.
Old Saybrook Rotary is responsible for and supports many of the collective efforts in the Saybrook area. Thanks to current president Gary McCauley, who was sworn in over two years ago, the Rotary has been more active in leading a sense of goodwill and humanitarian efforts. Gary first joined the Rotary four years ago. He has led projects essential to the people such as awarding $30,000 scholarships to graduating seniors at Westbrook, Old Saybrook and Old Lyme. Gary recognizes how exemplifying “teamwork for good causes,” as he says, is the most essential part of volunteering. Notably, he has helped coordinate causes in supporting The Estuary (Meals on Wheels), sponsoring OS summer concerts, and a Thanksgiving dinner drive. For Gary McCauley, it also means giving their heart to the community.
Shortly after moving to Clinton, Beth and her wife Pam drove past a church where an endless line of people waited outside at a food drive. Soon after, they started to help by handing out pizza to assuage everyone’s wait. One evening, a mom asked Beth where she could get diapers; thus, Bare Necessities Inc. was conceived, a diaper bank partnering with other nonprofits along the shoreline. Beth says the most surprising part of this work is how amazing the community is. She recalls how parents bring back diapers their babies have outgrown, so they can help that next family behind them. While growing up, Beth’s grandparents owned a camp for children with special needs, so she has always been around the ethos of giving back.
It’s said that the youth of today will shape our world. Jane Leamon is a shining example of this. She created the Leo Club in 2021, a youth group based out of North Haven that provides services to the community and gives students opportunities to become involved again in post-pandemic life. After being elected president the first year, she’s eager to make it studentrun and inclusive space, empowering everyone to make a difference no matter their background. Jane is always looking to effectuate change and she exhibited this mindset when she joined the Youth of Elm Shakespeare Advisory Council, another teen group that care about the intersection of theatre and social justice, implementing healthier theater practices on all levels based on the needs of others. With such an ambitious person already making a name for herself, the shoreline will be in safe hands with Jane at the helm.
Timothy Haut continues to serve as pastor of Deep River Congregational after 41 years. Even when the pandemic began, he carried everyone through the difficult months. He began livestreaming his services and still hasn’t missed one Sunday. Through this alternative method, he was essential in keeping his congregation in positive spirits when COVID was at its height. He never lost his creativity and passion for preaching; this is further evident when Timothy posted an uplifting Facebook note daily from March 2020 to May 2021. He continued to post inventive ideas like sharing his wall art and inspirational quotes, keeping their community-based connection everpowerful.
Joe Genua spends his year organizing for the book sale at Blackstone Library in Branford. He has been a volunteer with Friends of the Blackstone Library for seven years now and is essential in the process of generating funds to support the library. He does everything he’s needed for, constantly helping in whatever way he can, and involves himself in every part of the book sale (picking up, sorting, and storing books from all over Branford). Joe remarks that the best part of working with any volunteer organization is being “part of a larger mission to help make a difference in the lives of many residents of Branford.”
A master vocal coach, Billy DiCrosta began New Haven Academy of Performing Arts out of his house 11 years ago. Now, he and his husband, Neil, run it from a store in East Haven thanks to its rapid success. The couple also founded Broadway on Main (to debut this fall), a nonprofit that showcases Connecticut’s diverse population through involvement in theater. They aim to focus on promoting inclusivity, distribute scholarships to deserving students, and spend time on mental health awareness, helping those with mental illnesses immerse themselves in theater as a healthy outlet. Billy affirms he’s “committed to providing arts education to every child.” This means no matter their financial status, race, or orientation, Billy will donate his time to serve his people.
Neil Fuentes is both a professional chef and lover of theater. He once won a competition on Food Network that allowed him the opportunity to participate in food festivals around Connecticut to raise funds for causes like cancer. He has taught cooking for children at a public school and during the pandemic, he created an online cooking class for kids. Moreover, Fuentes owns New Haven Academy of Performing arts with his husband Billy DiCrosta in East Haven. He believes in their business because of the joy it brings the youth; this creative style of learning allows them to believe in themselves, break out of their shells, and “transform themselves into confident individuals.”
When Pam started Bare Necessities Inc. with Beth, her spouse, they had no idea how large its reach would become. After starting the diaper donation organization in 2015, she notes how much pleasure she finds by helping others. Recently, a mom who previously used their services, sponsored a baby. This was her way of giving back and paying it forward. Bare Necessities was there when she was in need and now another parent in the same situation needs support, too. It’s this mindset that Pam attributes to the nonprofit’s success. She helps secure donations anywhere from Huggies to locals, then sends off the diapers and wipes to social services, food banks, and churches. Pam’s organization has expanded to such a magnitude that Visa is soon taking over operations to continue helping all who need it.
Laura Burban has helped animals in need ever since she was a child growing up on a farm. She currently works at Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter in Branford as well as volunteering at numerous animal organizations, including Rescue Kitty; Vine Animal Sanctuary; and Mystic Aquarium, where she rescues stranded and injured sea animals. Having turned her passion into a life’s commitment, she is assisting with Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter renovations and improving upon its amenities to make life more comfortable for the animals. Laura is a community member who always answers to the call of duty and is a true friend to the animals of the shoreline.