Two Southern Tier elementary students were among the many honorees at GALA 22:6, the 20th annual Catholic education dinner on Jan. 23. Proceeds from the dinner will be used to fund needs-based tuition assistance for students attending Catholic elementary schools throughout the eight counties of Western New York.
Madelyn Muurisepp, a seventh-grader at Immaculate Conception School of Allegany County in Wellsville, received the fourth-annual Natalie Mattimore Lewis Kindness Counts Award. Maria Richert, an eighth-grade student at Southern Tier Catholic School/Archbishop Walsh Academy in Olean, received the inaugural Tim Russert Scholarship for Creative Writing.
The Kindness Counts award recognizes a seventh-grader who exemplifies a spirit reflective of Natalie Mattimore Lewis, who has been described as an "ambassador of kindness." It includes a $1,000 tuition voucher and a $100 cash award given directly to the student.
"Our honoree tonight, is known in her school for being a very serious student, but also one with a kind heart and an extremely gentle soul. She has a beautiful sense of faith and has shared with her parents that she couldn't imagine going to a school where they weren't allowed to speak openly about God," said event MC, Father Joseph Rogliano.
Madelyn thanked her family and principal, Nora Burdick, who nominated her, when receiving the award.
"I'm very grateful to be a part of the caring community that Immaculate Conception School is. I have learned trust honesty, discipline, faith and kindness by being part of that community. With Mrs. Burdick's leadership, structure and continuous focus on respecting others, I feel as though I have become a better person," she said, adding, "In a world where you can be anything, be kind."
The Tim Russert Scholarship for Creative Writing was set up by Russert's widow, Maureen Orth, and is given to a faculty-nominated eighth-grade Catholic student who exemplifies strong writing skills, classroom leadership, critical thinking, and who embodies the charism of the late "Meet the Press" host. The award includes a one-year $1,500 tuition voucher to local Catholic high school.
Maria was nominated by Maryanne Cole, Ph.D., her seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, who praised Maria as a remarkable young woman with enormous talent and great enthusiasm.
"Maria's writing skills go far beyond typical eighth-graders, and in fact, she often helps her classmates with writing when they struggle," said Cole. "Maria can write beautifully both in a formal, academic essay or a fictional narrative. Whatever she writes is always clear and engaging. In fact, she is gifted," she added.
Ironically, the creative writer had little to say at the podium.
"I don't have a speech, so I'd just like to say thank you to my family, friends and school. They support me through everything I do, so thanks," Maria said in gratitude.
Russert, a Buffalo native and Catholic school alum, created an award to honor the teachers who take extra care of their students just as two very special teachers did for him. The Sister Lucille Socciarelli/Father John Sturm Making a Difference Award recognizes an educator who is impassioned beyond the call of duty, committed to making a difference in the lives of students under their tutelage.
"Tim Russert knew that behind every successful student was an equally dedicated teacher, akin to those who helped recognize and cultivate untapped potential in him," said Richard Suchan, executive director of The Foundation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which presented the Gala.
Tim Russert's Sister Lucille Socciarelli and Father John Sturm 2020 Making a Difference Award went to Elaine Nuwer, an exceptionally talented and extraordinarily dedicated third-grade teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Alden.
Too modest to speak for herself, St. John's principal, Jonna Johnson, who nominated Nuwer, spoke on her behalf.
"I first met Elaine three years ago when I began my principalship at St. John the Baptist School," Johnson said. "I could tell right away, she is an extraordinary woman. As an administrator, she is exactly what you would want to find in a teacher. She's knowledgeable. She's compassionate. She's dedicated. She's flexible. She has an amazing sense of humor. In fact, her humor is what can get us all through a very difficult day. Over her 30 plus years of teaching, she has been involved in so many children's lives. She has had the opportunity to inspire, to be there, not just for children, but for their parents, for her co-workers, for her community, for her parish. She has the ability to inspire everyone around her."
The Christopher Mazurkiewicz Educational Scholarship Fund, created in 2002 by an anonymous donor in honor of an exceptional student who lost his life in an airplane accident went to Immaculate Conception School in Allegany County.
Also receiving awards were longtime supporters of Catholic school known as "Champions of Education." The 2020 honorees include Sister Mary McCarrick, OSF, who has long served as an ambassador to Catholic education and social justice initiatives; and Buffalo Dental Group founders Drs. Bernard Kolber and Ellen Vossler, who have been fierce advocates for Catholic education, as well as a fervent supporter of Gala 22:6 since its inception.
Although unable to attend, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo, recorded a message for those in attendance.
"I'm with you in spirit," he said. "You are people who are so dedicated to Catholic education because you see what it's all about. It is about bringing our life and our faith and our love to our children. Catholic education is more than just about good academic standards and safe environments and all of those wonderful things that we are noted for in our history, but it is also because we see every single child as the whole child - body, soul and spirit - as a child of God. The mission of our education is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, who loves us all. In a world that is experiencing so many forms of disconnect, and so many ways people feel rejected and literally unloved, unappreciated, unnoticed, we are here ... we do this for one another."
Susan Santandreu, president of Mary, Mother of Vocations Ministry (formerly the Serra Club), served as this year's dinner chairperson.
Formerly known as the Making a Difference Dinner, the event debuted as GALA 22:6 in 2015. The dinner title is rooted in Proverbs 22:6 - "Train up children in a way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart it," - which references the importance of educational formation in the lives of our young children. The dinner has raised $5.8 million over the past 20 years, 100 percent has gone to Catholic education tuition assistance, allowing thousands of children with an education.