Four Island women, Lisa Fernandez, Nikki Leopold, Marie Luarca-Reyes, and Sharon Williams were be honored by Assembly Member Rebecca A. Seawright on March 8, as part of the Fourth Annual Women of Distinction Awards.
“In March, during Women’s History Month, we have chosen to recognize the women of today who are speaking up, inspiring others and working hard to put our community on a better path,” said Seawright. The Assembly Member is honoring ten women in total this year.
Lisa Fernandez is the program director for the Carter Burden Senior Center, which took over the sponsorship of the Island’s Senior Center in July 2016. Although relatively new on the Island compared to the other honorees, Fernandez says she feels right at home in the tightly knit Island community, which reminds her of the sense of connection she experienced growing up in a small town outside of Philadelphia.
For Fernandez, community service is grounded in the lessons she learned from her family, which emphasized the importance of giving back. “I come from a large family. My mother is the youngest of ten. As I grew up and my relatives aged, I spent my adult life with my aging aunts and uncles. I loved their stories, and their wisdom.”
Fernandez, who has been with the Carter Burden Network (CBN) since 2010 – initially as a volunteer and then as a consultant – has worked on projects across all of CBN’s senior centers. She conceived of and orchestrated the organization’s annual Covello Fashion Show, in which students in CBN’s clothing-construction classes model their creations on the catwalk. The event has grown into one of the organization’s signature events; the most recent fashion show was picked up by over 25 different news outlets, including the BBC.
Fernandez says she’s pleased with the strides the Island’s Senior Center is making. “I am most proud of our increased general attendance,” she said. “With an art class of a consistent attendance of 12-18 people, fitness classes that have good attendance, service of 85 meals daily, including some home-delivered meals; the staff and consultants are a great group of people to work with. When I arrive late, I truly love walking into the center and there is this cacophony of noise; laughter, music, conversation. I know we are doing something right.”
Nikki Leopold is the executive director of Island Kids, an Island-based nonprofit that provides enrichment classes, summer camp, and after-school programming for Island youth.
Leopold moved to the Island in 1976 and has raised four daughters here. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Hunter College and is currently completing her master’s in early childhood education. Over the past two decades, Leopold has served in numerous capacities, both on and off the Island, including as president of the PS/IS 217 Parent Teacher Association, as a Common Council member of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA), and as a member of the Community Education Council of District 1, an education policy advisory body for the City’s Department of Education.
“I’m honored to be selected for this award along with a group of like-minded women who are committed to serving the community,” says Leopold. “We are divided in many ways, both on a national and local level. It is more important than ever that children have positive adult role models available who they can rely on and who encourage them to live to their potential and make a difference in the world. The distinction motivates me to continue to do the work we are doing, most importantly bringing children of different cultural and socioeconomic [backgrounds] together in a safe and supportive environment.”
In 2005, Leopold resurrected Island Kids into a full-scale program serving the Roosevelt Island community. The organization recently expanded its stated mission to reflect the growing scope of programming, including the recent addition of services for teens and young adults.
“The thing I’m most proud of is how our scholarship program has allowed us to create a diverse culture, similar to the ones we grew up in,” says Leopold.
Marie Luarca-Reyes is currently treasurer for the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association (RISA). The
retired regulatory compliance officer for Citigroup New York is also the executive director for the Global Share Resource Foundation, a group that she says gives opportunity to underserved communities in many countries and the USA.
“Through partnerships with nonprofit organizations, [The Global Share Resource Foundation] participates in programs that provide social work geared towards education and skills training, medical aid, empowering men and women in leadership, orphan care, assisting slum-dwellers in transition to social housing, and use of water sanitation in rural areas,” says Luarca-Reyes about Global Share. She says the group funds projects in Afghanistan, Latin America (including Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras), and Africa (including South Africa, Rwanda, Madagascar, Zambia), Haiti, and the Philippines.
In 2016, after RISA’s former director was ousted and later convicted of stealing funds paid to RISA by the Department for the Aging, Luarca-Reyes, an Island resident since 1985, stepped up to help the struggling organization get its finances in order. She says she believes in RISA and the role it serves in the community. By providing physical and social activities, she says, the group enables seniors to live independently longer and strengthens social connections, resulting in a more cohesive neighborhood. She hopes the award will further spotlight the collective involvement of the all-female RISA board in the community. RISA Board members Barbara Parker and Sherie Helstien received the award last year.
Part of what Luarca-Reyes wants to showcase about her organization is the social capital it brings to seniors. “As the aging population on Roosevelt Island continues to grow, people retire from jobs, lose friends and spouses to death and illness, and see family members move out from homes. This reduction in daily social contacts and stimulation directly impacts mental and physical health,” she says. “RISA plays a vital role in the community and is making possible the health benefits of ‘social capital’ – ties that build trust, connection, and participation – important for seniors because both health and social capital tend to decline as times goes on. This is the importance of RISA on the Island and it should be encouraged to continue existing.”
When Sharon Williams, originally of Kansas City, Missouri, took over as chair of RIRA’s Hands-Only CPR subcommittee in January 2015, only 391 residents had been trained in the lifesaving technique. Today, she has trained over 1,230 people.
The former nurse, who has a degree in social work, says she loves being part of a vibrant and unique community that offers so many opportunities for service.
“It’s a huge honor to receive this award in 2018,” says Williams, “I’m so very thankful for all of the volunteer trainers who have worked so hard, kneeling on the ground with me, face-to-face, with people eager to learn how to save a life. I love that five-minute connection between trainers and learners. It’s a neighbor-to-neighbor connection that is so special and unique to this unique community. I’m just proud to be a part of that because I love this community on Roosevelt Island.”
In 2017, by popular community demand, Williams expanded the hands-only CPR training program to include infant CPR and choking relief as well. She says she appreciates the hard work of the many Roosevelt Island volunteer trainers on her team who have worked to make this program possible. She also serves on RIRA’s Social, Cultural and Educational Committee and has co-chaired the RIRA Elections Committee.
Williams also serves off the Island. She is a supporter of the Citywide volunteer organization NYCares and has participated in numerous projects all over the city. An active member at Calvary Baptist Church in midtown, she volunteers in its ministries and outreach programs. She also serves as a board member of RAM Foundation Pakistan (Resources and Aid Mobilization), a group that provides aid to women and children living in poverty in Pakistan.
Fighting for Women
Since assuming office in 2015, Seawright has championed numerous State bills aimed at protecting or expanding women’s rights and services. This includes a bill she introduced in 2017 that would require the Secretary of State to compile, make public, and maintain various types of information, including gender, about government employees who hold policy-making positions. The goal is to make levels of gender imbalance transparent.
Seawright is currently sponsoring a bill to establish June 20 as Edie Windsor day. Windsor was the lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor, a case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and changed the course of American History for LGBT individuals. Seawright also advocated for a new law that removes the sales tax from female hygiene products in New York State and a bill requiring that cheerleaders be ensured the same protections as their male athlete counterparts on professional sports teams.
“We have to stop thinking of history as a closed book, a story with an end, because, as women, our story is not nearly over,” Seawright told The WIRE last year, “There are exciting new chapters still to be written.”
Over the years, Seawright has recognized many other distinguished women from Roosevelt Island, including Judith Berdy, Judy Buck, Eva Bosbach, Mary Coleman, Linda Heimer, Sherie Helstien, Wendy Hersh, Rebecca Ocampo, Barbara Parker, Ellen Polivy, Joyce Short, Margie Smith, Louella Streitz, and Lynne Strong Shinozaki.
[This article was updated March 10, 2018 to include Luarca-Reyes, who accepted the nomination too late to be included in the original version of the article.]