United Way honors people who helped build the community
“I am that positive face of recovery,” said Carol Cruz as she accepted one of eight community builder awards last week at a United Way community builders recognition luncheon.
Cruz nearly had her son taken away from her 20 years ago because she was a drug addict, abusing alcohol and using heroin and crack cocaine.
She started the organization REACH OUT in recent years after attending a Parent Leadership Training Institute course in Milford, which was designed to mold community leaders. The course members had to do a project, and Cruz chose to start REACH OUT.
It is the type of group she’d dreamed of starting for many years because she strongly believes that people like herself who have faced these challenges can help others going through them.
Her struggle with addiction peaked in 1994. In 1994 Cruz was pregnant, and a week after her son was born her mother and sister took the tough love approach and told her they wouldn’t help with the baby until she got clean.
Addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, Cruz was in the bathroom of her apartment getting high when she heard her son screaming. The drugs made her paranoid and she thought the worst, that someone had broken in.
But when she got to her baby, he was fine, looking at her with big eyes that to her said, “Mommy please stop. I need you.”
So she stopped. And she has “been clean” ever since.
For her accomplishments, she received the United Way’s Meeting Critical Needs award.
The other recipients of the United Way awards are Dr. Perry Opin, who received the United Way’s Lifetime Achievement award; Ardienne Damicis, earning the Spirit of Milford award; Officer James Kiely, who took the Strengthening Families award; Diane Frankel Gramelis, who received the Champion of Caring award; Lillian Holmes, recipient of the Distinguished Service award; Megan Altomare, who received the Nurturing Children award; and Alec Albright, who received the Youth Leadership award.
Former Library Director Jean Tsang nominated Damicis for the Spirit of Milford award for devoting time to preserving Milford heritage.
Damicis coordinates school group tours at the Historical Society, and “she dons a Colonial costume and becomes an active participant in the tours,” according a United Way write-up.
A retired teacher from Orchard Hills School, she is involved with the Friends of the Milford Cemetery and the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she worked on the city’s 375th anniversary committee.
“Ardienne has worked tirelessly to preserve our city’s heritage and to instill civic pride in countless city school children,” United Way officials said.
Kiely is a school resource officer at Jonathan Law High School, and he has been with the Milford Police Department more than 20 years.
Kiely is involved in a host of community activities in Milford, including the Boys & Girls Club and Special Olympics.
United Way officials said Kiely is well-respected in the community, “and this was never more apparent than through his involvement in the tragedy at Jonathan Law, a little more than a year ago.”
Kiely was on duty April 25, 2014, when Maren Sanchez was stabbed at the school, and he was involved in securing the scene and Maren’s accused attacker.
Diane Frankel Gramelis
United Way officials said Gramelis is a “true champion of caring.”
She has developed programs on a variety of topics, including simple stress solutions and youth smoking prevention, and she is a motivational speaker who gives workshops in schools and in health care settings.
Gramelis is an adjunct faculty member at Southern Connecticut State University, and is about to launch a wellness program on Connecticut Public Access television. She is former director of community education at Milford Hospital.
Altomare is the director of the Boys & Girls Club of Milford. At last week’s United Way event, she said she was “a typical club kid growing up.” Later, in college, she worked part time at a Boys & Girls Club, and for the past four years she has been director of Milford’s club.
“As the executive director of the Milford Club the past four years, Megan has been a part of growing the club from a very small rec center to a fun, energetic place that over 350 youth in Milford attend annually,” according to a United Way write-up.
Lillian Holmes may be best known in Milford for bringing the annual Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony to City Hall each year as part of the LINKS organization.
But Holmes is involved in much more than that. She has been an active member of the First Baptist Church, and several years ago she was appointed facilitator for the United Way of Fairfield County’s Project Blueprint, a program designed to help United Way and other nonprofit organizations become more inclusive and reflective of their culturally diverse communities.
She’s also served the local mental health agency, Bridges; Boys and Girls Village; and the Milford Council on Aging, which she currently chairs.
United Way officials said she has “distinguished herself in so many ways.”
Holmes, speaking to a packed room at the Costa Azzurra Restaurant April 29, said she was honored to receive the award, but said, “We know we don’t do anything in a vacuum.”
She thanked her church, her family, senior center representatives, and others for helping her.
She added, “It’s part of my obligation to give back to my community.”
Alec is a student at Notre Dame in West Haven, and he started to help build his community at a young age.
Alec was only 10 years old when he started collecting Halloween costumes for needy children, distributing them in New Haven housing complexes. Over the years he has collected hundreds of costumes and given them away.
“His effort was exceptional,” Untied Way officials said, “soliciting family, neighbors, friends at his grammar school and then later in high school, for donations.”
The young man, a black belt, has taught martial arts at summer camp for underprivileged children, and he got involved in pushing the passage of a House bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to veteran volunteers of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.
Dr. Perry Opin
In his 50th year of practice as an orthodontist, Dr. Opin and one of his sons, who joined his practice, “devote a significant part of their practice to treating children with cleft lips and palates and other craniofacial abnormalities,” United Way officials said. “Dr. Opin continues to lecture throughout the world on this and other subjects.”
He’s been involved in a host of community organizations, and has received a number of awards for his service.
Throughout it all, Opin has maintained a sense of humor, evident at last week’s award ceremony.
He joked with former Miss Connecticut Heidi Voight, who was one of his orthodontic patients, and recalled that he told her she had to win the pageant.
“It’s the most selfish thing I ever asked anyone,” he joked, adding that he wanted her to get up on stage and say, “I thank my mother, my father and Dr. Perry Opin.”
But he’s serious, too. As he accepted his award, he said, “You can accept conditions, or you can accept the responsibility for changing them.”