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2018 ESL Jefferson Award Winners

Richard Perez, Regional 2018 ESL Jefferson Awards Winner Receives National Honor in Washington, D.C.

Please join us in congratulating Richard Perez! On June 28, he received the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefitting Local Communities at the National Jefferson Awards Foundation Ceremony. He exemplifies what it means to give back to one’s community and to help others in need, as shown through his work with Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, Golisano Children’s Hospital and Strong Memorial Hospital. Congratulations, Richard!

Congratulations to all of our local volunteers who were recently recognized by ESL Federal Credit Union and News 10 NBC WHEC with the 2018 ESL Jefferson Awards. Read more about this year's honorees below. 

Richard's Story

Throughout his life, 63-year-old Webster resident Richard Perez feels blessed by the love and support he’s received from the Rochester community. From a serendipitous career in retail and then financial security, to starting a family with his late wife, Maria, and subsequently their son and recently twin grandsons, a life-saving liver transplant on July 21, 2003, at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital (SMH) would turn out to be among Mr. Perez’s greatest blessings.

Given a rare second chance at life, he has since embarked on a new mission and purpose — to help educate our community about organ donation and transplant, as well as providing comfort, support, and comradery to fellow transplant patients.

Even before he received his own transplant, Mr. Perez seemed to know, intuitively, that there was a need in Rochester’s Donate Life community — a calling — that he could help fill. “I was sitting across the table from my surgeon, Dr. Mark Orloff, listening to the prognosis, how contingent on and rare that there would be a viable liver available, given that participation in the organ donor registry is so low,” he remembers. “I asked him right then if there was anything I could do to help change that.”

So, after his transplant, Mr. Perez began volunteering with the Rochester Eye and Tissue Bank, now the Lions Eye Bank at Rochester, educating the public about organ donation and encouraging people to sign up for the Organ Donor Registry at various community events.

By June 2004, while Mr. Perez was busily helping raise awareness and get folks registered as organ donors, he also expanded an official volunteer program with SMH’s Friends of Strong to help comfort and provide comradery to inpatient patients and families who were now experiencing the same transplant journey that he and his family had also travelled. Since then, he’s volunteered more than 5,000 hours at SMH to make their lives just a little more bright. “Richard is always smiling and never down,” says Sandy Arbasak, director of Friends of Strong. “He generates enthusiasm and goodwill with patients, family and staff with every visit.”

This program, with Mr. Perez leading the charge, now includes at least eight volunteers at any given time — all of whom are fellow organ transplant recipients and uniquely able to provide comfort, hope, and inspiration to those who face the same daunting obstacles much like they themselves have overcome.

Throughout the years, Mr. Perez has helped a significant number of the more than 700 liver transplant recipients, 2,000 people who have undergone a transplant evaluation, and innumerable family members who have turned to him for reassurance. They come from all over Upstate New York and Northern Pennsylvania. “These patients must often wait years for a lifesaving donor organ to become available,” says Roberto Hernandez-Alejandro, M.D., director of Solid Organ Transplant at Strong Memorial Hospital. “He knows and understands the patient perspective and he provides a level of reassurance that is different from that of our clinical team members.”

Kurt Engel

Kurt Engel, a Kodak retiree, began volunteering with the MAC (Making A Connection) Academy two years ago. The MAC Academy is a program at OACES (Office of Adult and Career Education Services), and a part of the Rochester City School District dedicated to helping refugee students who have been relocated to Rochester establish financial and personal wellness. He donates more than 50 hours a week to helping his students create lasting connections in our community and build a foundation on which they can grow.

Many of the students at the MAC Academy were forced to leave their home countries for fear of religious or political prosecution; many have no family here in Rochester or at all. Kurt and his colleagues attempt to become their family. Kurt helps them acclimate to their new circumstances by stressing the importance of English proficiency, assisting the students in developing resumes, helping them find jobs, obtain drivers’ permits and licenses, set up banking, and find housing. So far Mr. Engel and his colleagues have helped five refugee students find academic placements at Monroe Community College. They also make a point of acculturating the students into our community by visiting local landmarks like the Monroe County Hall of Justice, George Eastman Museum, Rochester City Fire Dept., Seneca Park Zoo, and the Irondequoit Town Hall among others. In May 2017, Mr. Engel and his colleagues took a group of 20 refugee students to Washington D.C.

In addition to helping students successfully assimilate into our community, Mr. Engel stresses the importance of giving back. The team at the MAC Academy volunteers regularly at the Salvation Army, the Salem Nutrition Center, Saints Place, Seneca Park Zoo, House of Mercy, and the Irondequoit United Church of Christ. Mr. Engel constantly encourages his students to give to those less fortunate — an incredible demonstration of “passing it on” in real life. He makes himself available to his student 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ESL Jefferson Awards thanks Kurt Engel for his outstanding contributions to the Rochester community.

Devon Reynolds

To the people in his neighborhood, Devon Reynolds is a cut above the rest. Mr. Reynolds uses his hair salon and his barber skills as a way to connect with his community. In the last three years, Mr. Reynolds has periodically visited schools in the RCSD to provide free haircuts for students and staff. On top of that, he regularly holds community events at his shop, such as a “Healthy Barber-que,” where he provided food for his community while emphasizing the importance of healthy practices in the inner city (like blood pressure screenings, HIV/AIDS awareness, and STD screenings) and an annual “Back 2 School Giveaway” where he gives away free backpacks, sneakers, and school supplies to local kids. In November, he teams up with other area salons for “Cutting The Hunger,” as a way to collect non-perishable food items so members of the community may enjoy a hot meal on Thanksgiving Day.

Mr. Reynolds recently began hosting Community Forums at his salon to uplift struggling individuals and connect them with financial resources. The ESL Jefferson Awards salutes Devon Reynolds for demonstrating outstanding volunteerism in our community.

Ashley Donlon

Ashley Donlon models goodness without any thought that she is giving of herself. When she was in the 6th grade, Ms. Donlon noticed that students in her school’s self-contained Special Education Class were sometimes isolated and ostracized. She observed adult employees at her school interacting with these students and decided that it was important for her as a young student to exercise principles of inclusion, too. She began to befriend students with special needs at her school, many of whom were on the Autism spectrum, and ultimately formed a “Lunch Bunch” social group promoting inclusion at lunchtime. Ms. Donlon spent her High School career seeking out her special needs friends at their lunchtimes in order to facilitate “Lunch Bunch” and ensure that they were not isolated.

To her special needs friends, Ms. Donlon is more than a lunchtime buddy. She’s a living example of kindness and friendship — she provided a good example of how friends interact with one another and demonstrated unconditional care. It’s no surprise that Ms. Donlon joined her school’s “T.I.E.S.” (Together Including Every Student) program, supporting kids with special needs inside and outside of the classroom.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Donlon went on to study nursing at MCC and still makes time for her former classmates. She regularly looks forward to joining her special needs friends for cooking classes, bowling outings, monthly movies, and “Girl Power,” a social group facilitated by AutismUp. Ms. Donlon demonstrates exceptional volunteerism but would never deem herself a “volunteer” — rather, a great friend with an enormous heart.

Geri Spino

Since the death of her son, Scott Spino, more than 13 years ago, Geri Spino has carried on Scott's mission to make a difference in the lives of local children. Ms. Spino formed the Scott Spino Foundation to honor his important mission. Throughout the years, the foundation has been responsible for raising approximately $450,000 for the Rochester community. These funds have provided:

  • Five deserving students with $5,000 scholarships each
  • 1,000 new coats as well as hats and gloves to children in need in our community
  • 1,700 new books to 19 schools and organizations throughout our community

Each month, more than 150 individuals volunteer with the Scott Spino Foundation to read to area students in kindergarten through first grade using the books collected by the foundation.

Ms. Spino has been tireless in her efforts to provide this support to children who appreciate the efforts started by Scott. Ms. Spino has truly turned her grief and her love of her son into a legacy of giving and caring to the children and the causes Scott loved. The ESL Jefferson Awards applauds Geri Spino for continuing to contribute to these vital causes in our community.