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  • Bob Knight

Volunteer Spirit Awards: April 7th at 12:00 Noon ET

Volunteer New York! announced today that its premiere annual benefit, the Volunteer Spirit Awards, which has grown to become the largest volunteer recognition event in our region, will this year become an interactive digitally-streamed event on Tuesday, April 7 at 12:00 P.M. EST via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and The 600-person Volunteer Spirit Awards breakfast was cancelled at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The virtual Volunteer Spirit Awards experience will honor 6 outstanding Hudson Valley residents who generously donate their time to local nonprofit organizations as they are presented with their respective awards for outstanding volunteer efforts.

“Their accomplishments in so many important local civic, social and environmental endeavors bring pride to our communities and are models for other volunteers to achieve,” says Jane Solnick, Con Edison’s director of Westchester Regional and Community Affairs. Con Edison is the chief sponsor of the event. “We look forward each year to the Volunteer Spirit Award winners because they are proof of how high someone can reach.”

The broadcast’s finale will spotlight the 2020 Legacy Award presentation to the Gallin Family, on behalf of the Volunteer New York! Board of Directors, for their incredible shared passion for giving back to our community through Stars for Cars and Volunteer New York!, among countless other local organizations.

“This one event brings so many people together and stokes the passion for volunteerism that local nonprofits depend on year round, while also being our largest, most critical fundraiser to keeping our own lights on,” says Alisa H. Kesten, Volunteer New York! Executive Director. “It’s important for so many reasons, which is why we are thrilled to be able to offer the Volunteer Spirit Awards to the world at a time when people are longing for a sense of community and the spirit of ‘We can do this if we work together.’ The primary reason to take part in this live community experiment is to give our honorees the moment they deserve—the feeling of a cheering, connected crowd,” Kesten continued. “For the first time we’re not limited by the size of the ballroom. Let’s make some digital noise in support of volunteerism.”

Volunteer New York! plays a vital role supporting social infrastructure any time, but now it is also coordinating Coronavirus response and recovery opportunities to protect the most vulnerable in our region—and providing community volunteers the opportunity to volunteer from home.

Since mobilizing the Virtual Volunteer Center on March 18, Volunteer New York! has enjoyed a 50% spike in its website traffic and a 160% increase in the number of connections made as compared to the previous year’s same timeframe.

In 2019, the organization inspired more than 26,000 volunteers to give 275,000 hours of service to 500 nonprofits at a value of over $8.7 million.


EDUCATION & LITERACY AWARD: Amy Tietz (New Rochelle resident) for her work with Friends of New Rochelle Public Library.

GOING GREEN AWARD: Gale Pisha (Nanuet resident) for her work with Sierra Club, Lower Hudson Group.

QUALITY OF LIFE AWARD: Ana Yee (White Plains resident) for her work with Gilda’s Club Westchester and White Plains Youth Bureau.

SOCIAL ADVOCACY AWARD: Hector Rodriguez (Yonkers resident) for his work with Rising Ground.

TRANSFORMATION AWARD: Duke Searles (Peekskill resident) for his work with the Montrose VA Food Pantry.

YOUTH LEADERSHIP AWARD: Abe Baker-Butler (Rye Brook resident) for his work with Students Against Nicotine and Westchester County Youth Board.


Every year Volunteer New York! selects a recipient for its Legacy Award that goes to a business or civic leader who has made a personal and professional commitment to volunteerism, has significantly supported the values and mission of Volunteer New York!, and who encourages deep employee and community engagement in service.

Previous honorees, now members of the Volunteer New York! Legacy Circle, include Betty Cotton, Markham F. Rollins, III, Matthew G. McCrosson, George Troyano, Geri Shapiro and Albert (Doug) Rogers.

The 2020 Volunteer Spirit Awards Breakfast is just one of the exciting events on Volunteer New York!’s 70th Anniversary Calendar, celebrating their extraordinary 7 decades of impact with an action-packed array of signature community programming. For more info about #VNY70 visit


The Gallin Family is a staple in the New Rochelle community and truly a part of the Volunteer New York! family.

It all started with a young Jake who, at the age of eight, was moved by the statistic that 1% of our nation is serving and protecting the other 99%. That immediately became more than a number as Jake witnessed a Gold Star mother share the pride and pain of the loss of her son who died in Iraq at age 20 while fighting for our country. He quickly looked for a way to help bring attention to support and honor service members and their families. In partnership with the USO of Metropolitan New York, Jake founded Stars for Cars to raise awareness of the sacrifices that heroic military families make when a loved one is called into service. Jake conceived the design of star-shaped magnetic car decals that state, "We Support Blue Star & Gold Star Military Families" and began to sell them both in person and online. Jake also inspired more students his age and adults across the country to pause three times a year for the 3 Holidays Announcement in schools on or before 9/11, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day to acknowledge the sacrifices made by military families. Since 2011, Stars for Cars’ activities have spread to all 50 states, and Jake, with the support of his family, has devoted thousands of volunteer hours and raised thousands of dollars for the USO. It is no surprise that Jake saw a need and immediately sought a way to help. His mother, Ally, and father, Tom, had already been leading by example through their involvement in the community, schools and parish. Ally is an active member of Volunteer New York!'s Board of Directors and she recently served on the New Rochelle Public Library Foundation's 25th Anniversary Gala Committee. Tom is frequently seen biking miles alongside his son, to West Point and back, to raise money and awareness for the USO. You will regularly find the entire family volunteering together at Volunteer New York!'s 9/11 and MLK Community-Wide Days of Service and marching with Stars for Cars in New Rochelle's annual Thanksgiving Parade. For the Gallins, it is the volunteer hours that matter most. Because as Ally recently shared, "those hours are the centerpiece of our family. It's what we do.”

EDUCATION & LITERACY AWARD: Amy Tietz (New Rochelle resident)

for her work with Friends of New Rochelle Public Library.

Amy Tietz’s passion for community involvement was instilled at an early age. “I grew up in Queens in the 60s and 70s and did lots of marching and protesting,” says Amy. Her parents were vocal advocates for fair housing, and her mother was the president of the League of Women Voters and later became an active member of the Friends of the New Rochelle Public Library (NRPL).

After her mother passed, Amy received a call from the president of the NRPL who asked her if she would volunteer. She didn’t have to ask twice. Amy, a recent corporate retiree with a background in customer service and marketing, began volunteering with the NRPL in 2005. Her leadership, intellect and dedication were quickly recognized, and she was asked to become the organization’s president in 2017.

Today Amy can be found at the library at least three full days a week, overseeing the multitude of tasks being performed by the Friends’ active members, including a 15-member board and 20 active volunteers ages 16 to 101, a bookstore and warehouse with over 30,000 gently-used volumes, and mailings to the 400+ current Friends. She also advocates for the NRPL at City Council and other public meetings to ensure that the library can continue to deliver on its mission for the benefit of the community.

Not your typical fundraising group, the Friends of the NRPL “recycle” thousands of books, DVDs, CDs and other published materials each year and sell them at extremely affordable prices, raising an average of $75,000 annually to support the library and the more than 500 public programs it offers each year, while ensuring that everyone in the community can own a book.

“It’s important to have an educated populace, and that’s something the Friends take seriously,” says Amy. “We can’t have a democracy without education and literacy to learn and understand each other.”

In addition to the Friends of the NRPL, Amy has volunteered with the Village Light Opera in NYC for over 40 years. Amy shares her passion for volunteering with her husband Michael, a conductor, and son Benjamin, a producer in Brooklyn, who to no surprise is a veracious reader.

GOING GREEN AWARD: Gale Pisha (Nanuet resident)

for her work with Sierra Club, Lower Hudson Group.

Gale Pisha laughs when she says that she has lived in Rockland County for so long that she remembers when the original Tappan Zee Bridge was built. She also recalls volunteering in high school as a candy striper at Nyack Hospital where she earned her 75-hour pin.

Rockland County always has been home and an anchor to Gale. It’s the place where she was born and raised. It’s where she served as a special needs teacher for seven years. It includes Valley Cottage and Nanuet, where she and her husband, Louis, raised their children and the place where she cared for her ailing mother-in-law for a number of years. With such a strong emotional connection to her community and surroundings, it’s no wonder why Gail cares so deeply about the environment and how it impacts every aspect of life.

In the mid-90s, Gale and her husband joined the Sierra Club Lower Hudson Group as a way to get their son Louis and daughter Catherine out of the house on weekends and enjoy nature together as a family. Eventually though as Gale had more time to give, she felt the pull of her nagging concern for the environment. She remembers being worried for the planet and where things were headed. In 2012, she joined a grassroots group working to defeat a proposal to establish a highly energy-intensive desalinization plant to supply drinking water for the county. Volunteering, Gale says, gave her passion a focus and spawned an entirely new and unexpected career as an advocate for the environment.

Today Gale devotes between 30 to 50 hours a week to environmental commitments at the local and state level. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club Lower Hudson Valley Group and has been elected an At Large Delegate to the Executive Committee of the New York State chapter of the Sierra Club. Through her experience as a volunteer, Gale says that she has grown a lot and found her voice. Her advice to others? If you see a problem in your community, don’t get discouraged – do something about it.

QUALITY OF LIFE AWARD: Ana Yee (White Plains resident)

for her work with Gilda’s Club Westchester and White Plains Youth Bureau.

Growing up, Ana Yee’s father, a diplomat to El Salvador, saw firsthand how helping others could help build a better community. One day while cooking food together as a family to donate to a local shelter, he said, “Imagine if everyone did something to give back, what a wonderful place our world would be.” His words stuck with Ana and continue to guide her to this day.

A longtime resident of White Plains, Ana has made elevating her community her priority. Fourteen years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer, Ana turned to Gilda’s Club Westchester, which offers resources to those whose lives have been touched by the illness, for support. To give back, Ana became a Gilda’s Club volunteer in 2012 and devotes more than 150 hours to the organization each year. But, she wanted to do more and thought about how she could make an even bigger impact.

As a key member of the Berkeley College Career Services team, Ana led the effort to make Gilda’s Club part of Berkeley College’s annual Community Service Week initiative, where faculty, staff, students and alumni serve at more than 40 nonprofits and community organizations each year. As the Gilda’s site captain, Ana leads a Berkeley team in planting flowers and beautifying the grounds each May, a service that Gilda’s has come to rely on and celebrate.

Ana also shares her passion for helping young people with the White Plains Youth Bureau, which works with 2,000 youths every day in the city she calls home. She helps students acquire mentors, resources and contacts and even helps them dress for success. She also spearheads the Bureau’s Thanksgiving drive where Berkeley College donate turkeys and staff provide fixings to feed more than 75 families. Ana’s team also has fulfilled holiday wish lists for more than 100 local children.

Ana believes volunteerism not only changes the lives of those being served, but also those in service. “Do one nice thing for someone else,” she says, “and it will brighten your day.”

SOCIAL ADVOCACY AWARD: Hector Rodriguez (Yonkers resident)

for his work with Rising Ground.

As Hector Rodriguez begins to tell his story, he stops for a moment to reflect. “Sometimes things simply come full circle,” he says.

Hector was born in Puerto Rico. His mother died during childbirth, and he was raised by his father and his grandmother until age 4, when his family made the difficult decision to send young Hector to New York to be raised and adopted by his aunt. He was fortunate, Hector says, to have been part of a family and a culture that surrounded him and provided a safety net and a path to grow and flourish.

As a result of his life experience, Hector has great compassion and empathy for Rising Ground’s Passage of Hope program that offers assistance to unaccompanied migrant children ages 4 to 17.

When he retired five years ago, Hector was intent on using his skills to volunteer in a meaningful way. Through a friend, he heard about Passage of Hope and their need for volunteers that meet a very specific list of qualifications. Not only is Hector bilingual and familiar with Hispanic culture, he has a degree from Columbia School of Social Work and the experience that comes from being a social worker for many years. Lastly, Hector was willing to be consistent with his time at the program so that the fragile and traumatized children could benefit from his understanding smile and stalwart presence.

Hector lives in Yonkers with his wife, Elizabeth, a retired 4th grade teacher. Together they have an adult son, Richard, who lives in Manhattan. In his spare time, Hector is a member of writing groups at Sarah Lawrence College and Will Library in Yonkers. He says that he finds sharing his feelings and experiences through his writing to be cathartic.

TRANSFORMATION AWARD: Duke Searles (Peekskill resident)

for his work with the Montrose VA Food Pantry.

Duke Searles knows the pain of hunger. A Vietnam veteran, he went through many dark days after the war battling PTSD, addictions and homelessness, before putting his life back on a positive path. “I was ready to give up,” says Duke, but thanks to staff and friends at the VA who encouraged him to seek help, today he is the one helping fellow veterans and their families as the volunteer director of the Montrose VA Food Pantry.

Duke knew firsthand the struggles that veterans face trying to get back on their feet, so 20 years ago he started volunteering at the Montrose VA Food Pantry. One of only two food pantries attached to VA facilities in New York, it has grown under Duke’s leadership from a small broom closet to a large and plentiful pantry filled with fresh produce and a variety of meats that serves nearly 2,500 households each year.

Open three days a week, the pantry is run by a group of 8-10 committed volunteers, including Duke’s wife, Ellen, and his best friend, James, also a veteran. In addition to sorting and stocking the shelves, the pantry’s volunteers always make the veterans and their families feel welcome, even setting aside a favorite item or two.

When Duke isn’t at the pantry, he’s out in the community, spreading the word about the pantry to bring in donations and volunteers. Thanks to his outreach, the pantry received a new van to transport food and a number of industrial refrigerators and freezers from local donors. He also has partnered with service organizations such as the Elks, Masons, American Legion and Girl Scouts to host monthly food drives to help the pantry feed as many veterans as possible.

Duke and Ellen have two grown sons and 10 foster children. In his spare time, Duke enjoys bowling with his buddies and listening to jazz music. He also has been a proud member of Volunteer New York!’s RSVP of Westchester program for more than 12 years. When talking about his volunteer journey, Duke says, “It has given me rewards beyond my wildest dreams.”

YOUTH LEADERSHIP AWARD: Abe Baker-Butler (Rye Brook resident)

for his work with Students Against Nicotine and Westchester County Youth Board.

In addition to being an exceptional student, Blind Brook High School senior Abe Baker-Butler has amassed a list of accomplishments outside the classroom that would take most people a lifetime to achieve.

He is the executive director and co-founder of Students Against Nicotine and was instrumental in the passage of Westchester County’s Tobacco 21 legislation. He is the co-founder of the Westchester Student Coalition Against Gun Violence, and he serves as vice president of the Westchester Youth Advisory Board. He has conducted original neuroscience research on Alzheimer’s and sleep at NYU-Langone Health. In 2019, he was named as a Bronfman Fellow and selected by the New York State Department of Education as one of New York’s two delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program. Most recently, Abe was selected as a 2020 Coca-Cola Scholar, one of 150 selected from a pool of 93,075 candidates nationwide.

All that, and Abe still finds time for extracurricular activities like Model UN and playing saxophone in the Blind Brook Jazz Ensemble.

Abe credits his parents and his Jewish heritage with instilling a strong value of volunteerism in him at an early age. He first began volunteering in middle school preparing meals for people in need at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Port Chester. Then, in eighth grade he developed an oral history project for his synagogue, Congregation KTI, which really turned him on to the power of volunteering with others.

Abe recalls “I thought, ‘If I could do that on my own, just imagine what I could do working with other people.’ ”

Through his involvement with UJA-Federation of New York and J-Teen Leadership, Abe saw firsthand the impact that teens can have working together on community service projects. That experience compelled him to tackle two of the biggest issues facing young people in America today – vaping and gun violence – through social action and legislative advocacy.

Now, as Abe gets ready to attend Yale in the fall, he looks back and cannot imagine high school without volunteering. He hopes his experience can inspire other youth to take action in their communities. “Find what fuels your passion and gives meaning to your life, and the rest will follow,” he says.

Harrison Edwards PR is proud to be a sponsor of this year's historic event. During these unprecedented times, it's great to pause and celebrate so many from our community. Congratulations to all the 2020 honorees and to Volunteer New York! for its extraordinary leadership!

Click here to watch the VSAs live on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 at 12:00 p.m. EST.


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