The Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award has honored 408 dedicated New Jersey residents since 1997. The award carries out the legacy of the late Russell Berrie by recognizing individuals for outstanding service and heroic acts that have impacted the lives of others. To celebrate Women’s History Month we’d like to shine the spotlight on five incredible Honorees who continued to make a difference every day.
Women Making a Difference
Oasis: A Haven for Women and Children
Ann Wagner was honored in 2013 as the visionary who founded Oasis: A Haven Women and Children in Paterson, NJ in 1997. With a mission to change the lives of women and children by breaking the cycle of poverty, they provide educational and social service programs that help women enter and succeed in the workforce and help children flourish academically. Oasis continues to meet basic needs through their soup kitchen and provide emergency food, clothing, and social support. Last year, they served 61,680 meals, distributed over 9,000 food bags, and provided hundreds of mothers with diapers and baby supplies. Through their programs, 1,000 women and children were served daily, 384 women attended classes, and 214 children were able to attend summer camp. Ann Wagner’ vision and commitment over 25 years ago has been a steady beacon of hope for women and children in Paterson.
Moms Helping Moms Foundation
When Bridget Cutler became a mother, she quickly found out that diapers and baby supplies were a costly necessity. She wondered how this impacted families with limited incomes, especially when she learned that daycare centers typically require parents to provide their children with diapers for the entire day, which can mean up to 12 diapers a day for babies, and – social safety net programs like WIC and SNAP did not cover the purchase of diapers. Bridget started Moms Helping Moms Foundation in 2011 to address “diaper need” by collecting and distributing diapers and baby supplies to families in NJ. They’ve expanded to provide period products to address the challenges of period poverty. Moms Helping Moms encourages supporters to reach out to legislators to further advocate for changes in law and policy so that all moms and families have equitable access to essential products.
Emma & Quinn Joy
Girls Helping Girls Period
Nearly 1 in 4 menstruating students suffer from period poverty. There are a variety of reasons – including the cost of products reaching $75-125 in one year. Girls Helping Girls Period is a nonprofit founded by South Orange residents Emma & Quinn Joy along with their mother Elise. The mission? To help those in need of period products have healthy and productive lives. Their efforts have led to 2.75 million items to be donated, a huge increase from the 1.4 million donated in 2021, the year Emma & Quinn were honored with the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award. They believe “menstrual health is a matter of basic health. And human dignity.” Periods shouldn’t put anyone’s educational, professional, and personal opportunities at stake. Services from Girls Helping Girls Period are available to anyone no matter gender, gender identity, gender expression, or whether they menstruate.
A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, a Newark native, lost her father due to gun violence. She didn’t let that tragic incident dim her light; it only shined brighter with her commitment to launch SHE Wins, Inc. in her sophomore year at Swarthmore College. Their mission is to give Newark girls impacted by inner city violence “the space to become their own hero.” The inspiration for SHE Wins comes from her wanting to build a similar support system she had, after her fathers death, for other girls in Newark. The nonprofit organization is able to prepare young women for college and become career-ready leaders. This is possible through programs for ages 10-18, such as She Wins Summer Leadership Academy, After School Program & Leadership Institute, and She Wins Healing Circle. Murray-Thomas’ organization goes above and beyond, reaching hundreds of young women from 21 different schools in Newark, and reaching 1,500 community members through youth-led service projects. A’Dorian made history when at 23 years old, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Newark Board of Education, representing the largest school district in the state of New Jersey.
Camden Sophisticated Sisters
Camden Sophisticated Sisters (CSS) is more than a drill team. The mission of the organization is to motivate, educate, and empower youth. Tawanda Jones, a 2014 Russ Berrie Making a Difference Honoree, started this unique program to fill the gap when the Camden Youth Activity Center was suddenly shut down. She was just 15 years old when she began coaching 100 young girls. With the help of her husband and collaborator, they’ve mentored more than 4,000 young people. CSS is a place where youth can beat the 49% graduation rate and find a safe space outside of a 42% poverty rate. How does a drill team accomplish this? Three words Art, Education, and Discipline. Children are taught the importance of service, members are required to hold a C average, and 200 hours of community service is mandatory annually. These requirements have benefitted the team with a 100% graduation rate and 90% of those members chasing higher education. Founder Tawanda Jones is more than a coach – she’s an innovator and mentor who has changed thousands of lives.
New Jersey would not be where it is without these six astonishing women who went to the drawing board to create, implement, and grow these life changing organizations. Thank you for your sacrifices and love.
By Alexis Jones
Ramapo College, ‘23 Student Assistant for Communications & Outreach, Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award