Esslie-Frenia Law June 2023 Leaderboard

Countdown of Top 5 Stories of 2023: Number 3

The inaugural group of the community’s Top 5ive winners drew one of the biggest audiences to our website and is our Number 3 story of the year. File photo

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Greenville Pioneer is counting down the top 5 local stories of 2023. We looked at the top stories of the year, those that drew the highest number of readers to our website and Facebook page, or that had the greatest impact on our community and its residents. Here is the Number 3 story of the year.

Top 5ive award winners are community changemakers

The Top 5ive Awards will be distributed to winners at The Wire event center in Coxsackie on March 31 during a special dinner and awards ceremony.

The inaugural awards ceremony honors the top five community changemakers in southern Albany County, Greene County and Columbia County. The program was started this year by Capital Region Independent Media, which publishes the Ravena News-Herald, the Greenville Pioneer and The Columbia Paper, as well as the media company’s website,, and community guidebooks geared to specific communities.

The categories are expected to change from year to year. This year’s winners were selected from the following categories: BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color), Business, Women and Youth.

“We wanted to honor the people and businesses that make our communities what they are and bring positive growth and change,” said Mark Vinciguerra, president and owner of Capital Region Independent Media. “There were so many nominees that are deserving of this honor and have done great things for the communities we serve.”

Nominees were selected by residents in each of the three counties. Then a panel of judges chose the winners.

“In my 30-year career in the newspaper business, I know as an executive that I have to make sure the bottom line is met,” said Warren Dews Jr., vice president and publisher of Capital Region Independent Media. “But we also work to touch our community. For example, the Feed Your Mind program, which distributes turkey meals during the holidays – I do that because it does something for our communities. This Top 5ive is in that vein — I want to put a spotlight on people that are doing things in our communities, that are movers and shakers and making a difference.”

Here are brief profiles of each of the winners of this year’s Top 5ive Awards:



Fathima Chowdhury is a junior at Hudson High School.

She is involved with many clubs and volunteer work through her school. She is a member of the National Honor Society, an executive member of the Student Council and president of the school’s Multicultural Club. That club puts on events for the school and the community, including hosting a Hispanic Heritage Month dinner and a Black History Month tribute. They are now planning their second Multicultural Festival.

She has been involved with the school’s Environmental Club, part of the Mock Trial team which made sectionals, and she writes an article each month for the school newspaper.

After high school, she plans to study chemistry and physics in college.

“Though I am not 100% sure what career path I want to follow, I have been considering going into some type of engineering to be able to use my degrees as well as pursue a career in STEM,” she said, referring to Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics. “Something I’ve also been thinking about lately is studying abroad after high school. I would love to be able to explore more of the world while also being able to learn more in the scientific field.”

With regard to the Top 5 award, she said, “I am not only honored, but also so grateful to have been nominated for this award…. It truly does feel nice to be acknowledged for the efforts I’ve been putting into my school and community. I feel seen and celebrated.”


Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School junior Alivia Ortiz is involved in a diverse range of extracurriculars at school, from sports to music and more, and has showcased her talents on the state stage.

“I play tennis and I used to do soccer but during COVID I realized that I like tennis more — it is very intense and I love it,” Ortiz said. “I wrestle in the winter and I just competed in the first-ever New York state girls’ wrestling tournament and I placed third in my weight division. I participate in the Drama Club and we just had our play — I was Morticia in ‘The Addams Family.’”

Ortiz has also been on the track and field team as a sprinter, pole vaulter and 4×4 runner, and made it to the state qualifiers for several sports. She is also very active in music, getting accepted for all-state and all-Eastern choirs, becoming one of the few high school singers from the East Coast selected for the honor.

She is active in the martial art jiu-jitsu and trap shooting, president of student council, a member of the Diversity Club and SADD, and others.

“I am busy. It gets exhausting, but I feel like I have been gifted by God with a lot of talents and I want to use them when I have the chance,” Ortiz said. “I want to explore them and I want to enjoy them while I am young and healthy and I have the time. It’s a lot of work, but these are all things that I love.”


Over nearly four years at Greenville High School, graduating senior Olivia Ruso has been involved in everything from sports to theater to community service.

“I have been super involved with almost everything at my small school my entire life,” Ruso said. “I have been a varsity soccer player and cheerleader, I’ve been involved with the music program — I have done all-county, all-state — and this year I am in the school musical. For community service, I am in my school’s Media Club, where I do morning announcements and host my own show.”

Ruso’s show, “Spartanville Spotlight,” helps keep fellow students apprised of what is going on at the school.

“With a small school, people who do one thing usually do everything,” Ruso said. “I’ve just had a lot of different hobbies over the years and I wanted to do everything that I like. I’m an outgoing person so being in all of these activities makes my spirit feel full.”

While she hasn’t yet committed to a college for next semester, Ruso is considering SUNY Oneonta, where she would be a Communications major.

“The person who nominated me for this award is one of my biggest inspirations and why I want to go into communications,” Ruso said. “Sierra Pizzola is our school communications specialist, a brand-new role at our school this year, and I love what she does. She is so perfect in her job and she thinks I would be good at it as well, so I’m looking to do something like that in the future.”


Greenville High School senior Hunter Smigel has spent a great deal of time thinking about how he can serve others, and finding ways to do that.

“Probably one of the biggest things I have done throughout high school is an extracurricular program called FFA,” Smigel said. “It is a youth leadership organization based in agriculture. Through that, I have done numerous community service activities. FFA is big on leadership development — there are leadership development contests and competitions that I have participated in for many years.”

This year, Smigel was elected the state FFA vice president. “That has been a big way that I have been able to serve others this year,” he said.

He also works at the McDonald’s restaurant in Cairo, and this year was selected to be the Greenville Board of Education’s first-ever student representative.

“One of the things that I have been trying to focus on this year is the idea of servant leadership, the idea that when you are in any sort of position, especially a leadership position, you are not serving yourself or putting yourself first, it’s the idea of how can I use my position to serve others in some capacity,” Smigel said. “That’s a big topic I have been thinking about this year and it’s my motivation. It comes down to serving others.”


Lanija Williams, a junior at Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School, has a special interest in art and working with children.

She is also a member of the school’s new Superintendent’s Council aimed at representing student interests in the district. She has been a member of the Diversity Club since her freshman year and the National Art Honor Society, where she has worked on art with students from A.W. Becker Elementary School.

“Outside of school, during the summer I worked with CHOICES and I was part of the summer camp,” Williams added. “I volunteered my first year and the following year I was a counselor. My little sister does Girl Scouts and I was fortunate enough to be able to help them paint — I do a lot with art.”

Her artwork garnered Williams a win in a national art competition hosted by her dream college, Howard University. “I submitted a piece that showed the struggle of Black women in America and I ended up winning,” Williams said.

She is working toward a career in the health care field.

“I want to be an EMT or a nurse,” Williams said, adding that her mother is a director of nursing and works with children with disabilities. “I have seen my mom helping kids and it showed me that is what I want to do. My mom is my hero… I go to such a small school and I want to show people there is a lot that you can do in the world and there’s a lot of diversity — I try to show how everyone is beautiful.”



Claire Cousin is the executive director of the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition.

The Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition is a Black-led tenants’ rights and racial justice organization that empowers low-income and public-housing tenants in Columbia, Greene and Albany counties.

In 2021, she was elected 1st Ward Supervisor for the City of Hudson. She is the first African- American woman and, at 29, the youngest woman to serve on the Columbia County Board of Supervisors.

Cousin, a mother of three, is also vice chair of the Hudson Housing Authority, a board member of Re-Entry Columbia, treasurer of Hudson Pop Warner and a full-time dance mom. She is a lifelong Hudson resident.

She has received the Operation Unite Community Service Award and the Northstar Fund Fredrick Douglass award. She was also part of the first group of recipients of the Columbia County “40 under 40” award.

“I am honored to be acknowledged by my community,” Cousin said. “Though there are titles attached to my name, the work is not work to me. I love my community and I love to be of service. Women of color are underappreciated and often we prefer to avoid the spotlight because we are just doing what needs to be done. My biggest hope in winning this [Top 5] award is that my children see all of the possibilities of how to be a changemaker in greater ways than I.”


Vern Cross has been a leader in the community for over 20 years. He hosted a popular radio show in the area (Hudson’s WGXC), shining a light on topics like suicide, mental health, domestic violence and many others.

In 2022, he became a coach of the Hudson City School District’s high school girls’ varsity team.

Also in 2022, Cross was the first community member honored by the school district with the Hudson Has A Heart Award, acknowledging the selfless contributions and passionate members that make the Hudson City School District community what it is.

School Superintendent Lisamarie Spindler said Cross “has taken the initiative to support and share the positive actions by our scholars and staff and the events that take place in our school district any chance he has to do so.”


Kamal Johnson was elected mayor of Hudson in 2019. He made history as the first African-American mayor of the city and, at 34 years old, the youngest. He was re-elected in 2021.

“I grew up in Hudson. As a child, my family was directly impacted by poverty, addiction and incarceration. These experiences informed my work as a community and youth advocate, and helped create a vision for a city that is safe and equitable for all,” Johnson said.

As mayor, Johnson helped form a Police Reconciliation & Advisory Commission (PARC), which has resulted in a ban on no-knock warrants through executive order; established the Transitions to Treatment Committee, bringing together mental health professionals and government officials; and worked with local organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic on the Shared Streets program, which opened Warren Street to residents and visitors in new ways, curbing traffic and helping businesses adapt.

“I have dedicated my life to my community through my work with mental health, youth and politics,” Johnson said. “I pride myself on partnerships and out of the box thinking.”

Johnson added that he is “proud to be a part of so many successful initiatives like our universal basic-income initiative, housing and health care.”

Johnson is a father of two, a volunteer basketball coach and the creator of the Columbia County “40 under 40” awards.


Elena Mosley, of Claverack, is a founding member of Operation Unite New York in Hudson. The organization’s mission is to produce well-rounded, progressive youth who will enter adulthood with a sense of direction, self-esteem and social consciousness, and subsequently reinvest themselves into the community from which they came.

“God, family, community are my areas of focus. Putting these three first has helped to guide me along the way while doing for others,” Mosley said.

She has served on many boards and worked with several organizations including the CREATE Arts Council, Columbia County Women’s Association, African Daughters of the Diaspora, Hudson Rotary District 7210 and NYS DanceForce.

She is a trustee at the State Street AME Zion Church and has been the artistic director of Kuumba Dance and Drum since 1992.

“Serving youth and families is necessary to the health of all communities,” Mosley said. “However, providing knowledge and access to services meant for all communities is paramount to the survival of communities of color.”


Pastor Victor Harris has been working with Albany Adult & Teen Challenge, an organization that helps adults and young people recover from addiction in a faith-based program, for more than a decade.

Harris grew up on Long Island and struggled with alcohol and drug addiction until he found help in recovery.

“I came into the ministry of Long Island Teen Challenge, which is a Christ-centered drug and alcohol program,” Harris said. “It was there that I heard the call of God to serve.”

Harris attended Bible college and was ordained as a minister in 2012, one year after he became director of Albany Adult & Teen Challenge in Ravena.

“I knew and understood that there was a call for me to help others who found themselves under addiction and to share with them how to walk in freedom from addiction,” Harris said.

Over the years, Harris has worked with hundreds of people to aid them in their recovery “by introducing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ,” he said.

He offers straightforward advice for young people on the cusp of addiction.

“The greatest advice is don’t start, and then you don’t have to stop,” Harris said. “If you find yourself in a place where you do find yourself in addiction, seek help.”



Dr. Elizabeth Boomhower opened Catskill Valley Chiropractic in Greenville in 2022, bringing her special brand of care and wellness to the community.

“I first opened my chiropractic practice in June of last year and shortly after opening, my vision for a center for wellness really started to come to life as other practitioners jumped on board,” Boomhower said. “Since opening, we have included massage, yoga, group fitness classes, aesthetics services, reiki and infrared sauna, so it has really come to life.”

Boomhower grew up in Greenville and after finishing her chiropractic education and training, decided to return to open her practice.

“I have found that the community has been so supportive and accepting of my practice and this space because it really fills a need in the community, which is partly why I decided to open in Greenville, which is my hometown,” she said. “With the support of my parents and family and the community, it has really been a great success.”

Providing healing services and relief from pain is a passion for her.

“I absolutely love coming to work every day because I am helping people believe in their power to live without pain and I think that is a new thing for people to think about,” Boomhower said. “When you are suffering from physical pain you don’t really see a way out, but we have created such a supportive environment and we work every day to help people think differently about what they are experiencing. Sometimes all you need is someone who is willing to support you and listen to you.”


Tina Dipper, of Hudson, is the executive director of Perfect Ten Afterschool, an out-of-school program for girls in the city. Programs offered at Perfect Ten include aerial yoga, jewelry making, horseback riding and outdoor nature classes, among many others.

“Growing up in Hudson, I’ve seen first-hand the need for out-of-school programs and their benefit to both youth and families,” Dipper said.

She worked at Perfect Ten during its infancy and returned to the organization in June 2019. Watching the girls succeed is the most rewarding aspect of her work, she said.

“I’ve had varied and interesting jobs in my life, including Walt Disney World Entertainment, a special education crisis intervention worker and as vice president and grievance chair of the Association of Flight Attendants while working with United Airlines,” Dipper said. “These jobs fostered my understanding and compassion for the youth. It has taught me to be supportive and able to make a positive connection with the younger population.”


Rebecca Flach is raising three kids while working in leadership positions at three not-for-profit organizations in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk area.

She is currently vice chair for both the RCS Community Business Association and Justice for Orphans, and executive director of the HopeFull Life Center. Helping small businesses thrive has long been a passion for her.

“For more than a decade, I worked for the Retail Council of New York State, I was vice president there. I have this love of business and small business in particular, and I love my community,” Flach said. “I just get drawn into any sort of service project to help the community, and I am especially driven by economic development work, I think because of my work with the Retail Council and seeing the struggles of small- and medium-sized businesses.”

She wants to see businesses grow and succeed in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk area, she said.

“I think there is so much potential there for growth and to make a great community even better,” Flach said.

HopeFull Life Center is geared to providing food to low-income families at affordable prices.

“We run a low-cost grocery center called Helping Harvest that allows low-income families to shop at drastically reduced prices to help them stretch their food dollars,” Flach said.

Her involvement with the group Justice for Orphans, which aids foster and adoptive families, began when her sister-in-law started the organization back in 2012, where she utilizes her experience in not-for-profit management.


Marilyn Peters Houghtaling moved to Ravena about 13 years ago and has spent much of that time volunteering in the community, particularly with groups geared to children, such as Pop Warner, the RCS Sports Association, the PTO at RCS Middle School and the PTA at A.W. Becker Elementary School.

“When we moved here I wanted to be involved,” Peters Houghtaling said. “Because it was a new district I didn’t know anybody and I wanted to be involved in the sports and things that my kids were into.”

When Peters Houghtaling was volunteering with the RCS Sports Association, the organization undertook a major project — construction of a new concession stand. She also works the concession stand during RCS wrestling competitions and eventually joined the board of directors at Ravena Pop Warner. She has since begun volunteering with Capital District Pop Warner. She is also a member at the VFW Post Auxiliary in East Greenbush, where her mother used to volunteer as well.

“That’s the way we were raised,” Peters Houghtaling said. “Helping just feels right.”

She has a hair salon at Albany Medical Center, where she sometimes donates her time to shampoo patients’ hair.

In addition to learning the value of volunteering from her parents, Peters Houghtaling learned about the importance of community service in a very personal way.

“When my oldest child was 3, we had a house fire and so many people were so generous helping us because we lost everything,” she said. “You just feel like you should give back. It feels like the right thing to do.”


Jennifer Moore-Warren has lived in Coxsackie her entire life and has spent much of her time volunteering in her community. She has been a first responder in Coxsackie, and neighboring communities, for more than three decades.

“I have been a volunteer firefighter with D.M. Hamilton for 31 years,” Moore-Warren said. “I’m a paid EMT at Coxsackie, Greenville and Ravena, and I run the junior program here in Coxsackie, which teaches kids ages 14-18 how to do EMT work — we let them ride along, they have to be CPR certified, and we train them to do some of the things that we do.”

In addition to her work as a firefighter, Moore-Warren is also a longtime member of the D.M. Hamilton Steamer Co. No. 2 Ladies Auxiliary.

“My grandparents were volunteer firefighters and my children are volunteer firefighters, so my children are fourth-generation firefighters — it’s in our blood,” she said.

She also operates an outreach program at Christ Church Coxsackie to provide donated clothing and other items free of charge to individuals and families in need.

“We have it set up like a little shop — people can come in on the days that we are open and pick out whatever they need. Everything is absolutely free,” Moore-Warren said. “We also do a coat drive every October and help people who are doing emergency foster placements.”



Columbia County Habitat for Humanity works to rehabilitate and build homes for low-income families in the county.

“We are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year,” said Executive Director and CEO Al Bellenchia. “We build affordable homes for working families in Columbia County. We have built or rehabilitated 26 homes in 29 years, and we will be building two new homes in the village of Philmont.”

The organization receives funding from donations, grants and other sources, and relies heavily on volunteers.

“We have a full team of our own, but most of the work we do is what we call ‘community-supported construction,’” Bellenchia said. “Volunteers have historically made up a huge portion of our building team.”

There has long been a need for affordable housing, Bellenchia said.

“There is an affordable housing crisis not only in Columbia County but in the Hudson Valley,” he said. “This year we have rededicated ourselves to increasing the number of homes we can build and repair in the county, so in the next number of years we are going to be greatly increasing the number of families that we can impact with affordable housing.”


Under the ownership of Leonardo Martinez since 2014, the Plaza Diner has become a staple in the Hudson area and the community has become their family.

Under the direction of manager Ally Alesi, the diner is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with a diverse cuisine of breakfast, lunch and dinner. In fact, it’s a 10-page menu with everything from basic comfort foods to elegant entrees.

The only day the diner closes is Christmas. What about Thanksgiving, when many have elaborate home meals? Alesi said they are busy, perhaps not so much in the dining room, but carrying on their own tradition.

“We send out a multitude of free turkey dinners to seniors and their families. It’s the right thing to do,” Alesi said.

St. Patrick’s Day sees corned beef and cabbage handed out to members of the community who are in need. And when other community situations rise, Alesi said, “We are glad to do whatever we can.”

Like all businesses, the pandemic was a challenging time. With their dining area shut down, Alesi said they had to get a little creative.

“We have always offered pick up but developed a delivery service as well. That helped carry us through,” according to Alesi.

The diner continued the delivery service when things re-opened, and Alesi said, “It has become a very important component of our operation,” helping to bring the level of business back not only to pre-pandemic levels but recently climbing to even new heights.


The Shop ‘N’ Save Supermarket took over a vacant storefront on Route 9W in Ravena in 2005 and has become an integral part of the community since that time.

“This was our second store,” said store manager Kyle Smith. “We owned another store in West Sand Lake. We eventually had four, but we sold two — we still have this store and a store in Schaghticoke. We were always in the supermarket business — my dad came from Hannaford and broke out and bought his own store.”

In addition to providing a hometown supermarket for the RCS community, Shop ‘N’ Save has been involved in numerous local fundraisers and community initiatives.

“We try to be very involved in the community because we wouldn’t be anything without their support, so we need to support them back,” Smith said. “Anytime anything comes up and we can be involved, we try to be.”

The store works with St. Patrick’s Church Food Pantry to provide meals during the holidays to families in need and has worked with Capital Region Independent Media’s Feed Your Mind program, providing 100 holiday meals to area residents.

“We are just incredibly grateful for the town and everyone who supports us, our regular customers and any new customers that we get,” Smith said. “I don’t live in Ravena but I feel like I do — everywhere I go, I see someone I know from the store. I have been working in Ravena for 17 years and I’m just happy to be a part of the community.”


Created some 60 years ago and located in Coeymans, TCI of New York has evolved into the leading firm for the one-stop management solution for recycling, disposal and repair of transformers and other oil-filled electrical equipment.

The company’s specialized process ensures obsolete transformers are transported, dismantled and recycled safely and efficiently. More than 99% of the equipment they process is salvaged for beneficial reuse, minimizing the customers’ carbon footprints.

“Years ago we used to send a complete transformer to the landfill; now, about all that is buried in the ground are a few bushings,” plant manager Sam Kostue said.

Each year, TCI supports Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School and local not-for-profit organizations. TCI awards scholarships to RCS High School seniors and provides paid internship opportunities, as well as supporting the school’s drama and athletic programs.

TCI is involved with Helping Harvest, holding a companywide food drive. Every year the company assists the Riverview Missionary Baptist Church with the annual block party, youth programs and summer camp. TCI and its employees support the VFW Post 9594, RCS Community Library, Ravena Rescue Squad, Ravena Coeymans Historical Society and the Ravena Friendship Festival.


Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation, a 30-acre facility in Westerlo on the border of Greenville, is an advocacy and rescue organization for Thoroughbred horses.

“Since our founding in 2004, we have had the privilege of rescuing hundreds of horses, primarily Thoroughbreds. We saved them from the slaughter pipeline in the United States,” founder Susan Kayne said. “We have also received many who were injured racing and needed a place to recover, a safe haven to relax and heal outside the race track.”

Some of the horses are placed into loving adoptive homes, while others — many of them older or with injuries or medical conditions — are permanent residents in the facility’s sanctuary. The sanctuary horses serve a role of their own at Unbridled.

“Those horses are very loving participants in our education programs,” Kayne said. “They are a big part of ‘Read to the Rescues’ because there is not much they can do physically, but they are great emotional study buddies, friends and companions for learners of all ages.”

Kayne grew up on a farm and has loved horses for as long as she can remember, and was involved with horses in many capacities.

“When I realized the amount of carnage coming out of the racing industry, specifically horses who were being abused by overdrugging, overracing, overbreeding, and then seeing the large number of Thoroughbreds relegated to the slaughter pipeline, I decided that it was time for me to become an advocate for those horses and not a participant in the activities that I saw that were hurting horses,” she said.

Unbridled houses an average 55 horses at any given time and works with a dedicated volunteer force of between 24 and 36 people weekly.

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