The 9th Annual Toys for Tots Golf Tournament

Top 5ive award winners are community changemakers

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GHENT – 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, TheUpStater.com, 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.

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

YOUTH:

Fathima Chowdhury

FATHIMA CHOWDHURY is a junior at Hudson High 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.”

ALIVIA ORTIZ

Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School junior Alivia Ortiz is involved in a diverse range of extracurriculars at school, from sports to music and more.

“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.’”

OLIVIA RUSO

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

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

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

HUNTER SMIGEL

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….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.

LANIJA WILLIAMS

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.

BIPOC:

Claire Cousin

CLAIRE COUSIN is the executive director of the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition.

The 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.

“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

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 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.”

Mayor Kamal Johnson

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.”

Elena Mosley

ELENA MOSLEYof 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.”

REV. VICTOR HARRIS

The Rev. 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.

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.

WOMEN:

DR. ELIZABETH BOOMHOWER

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

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

TINA DIPPER

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

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.

MARILYN PETERS HOUGHTALING

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 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.

JENNIFER MOORE-WARREN

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.”

BUSINESS:

COLUMBIA COUNTY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY

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.”

Plaza Diner

PLAZA DINER

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. On Thanksgiving, 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.

SHOP ‘N’ SAVE

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.

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

TCI OF NEW YORK

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.

UNBRIDLED THOROUGHBRED FOUNDATION

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.”

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