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Story and photo by Alice Gerard
The annual Citizen of the Year Awards dinner, held Oct. 13 at the DoubleTree by Hilton at Niagara Falls, was a success, said Grand Island Chamber of Commerce President Eric Fiebelkorn. “The dinner was well attended and was very successful. The honorees this year were fantastic and made the program worthwhile and the success it was.”
Vienna Laurendi, Citizen of the Year committee chairperson, echoed Fiebelkorn’s comments: “This was our 55th anniversary year. We didn’t even skip over COVID, because we were able to do it by Zoom. It’s super-exciting. To really pull this off, year after year, it takes a village.”
Laurendi said that there are three elements necessary for a Citizen of the Year dinner to succeed. “The first thing that is very important for us to express is that we could not have an event like this without our membership and community participation and support. The chamber is so thankful for the business members, the community members, and the sponsors for supporting what has been a very important event for half a century in our community.
“The second thing that I’d really like to emphasize is that the nominations are crucial. Clearly, we can’t have our winners unless somebody nominates them. Some of our winners have multiple nominations. The nomination form is on our website year-round. The website is gichamber.org. On the website, you would go to events. Go to Citizen of the Year tab, and the nomination form should be there. Without those nominations, we don’t have the event.”
According to Laurendi, nominees could fit one of approximately 40 categories designated for Citizen of the Year. In past years, awardees have included Presidential Award, educator, environmental steward, athletic achievement, lifetime service, businessperson, science and medicine, agricultural achievement, leadership, outstanding youth and Civic Person of the Year.
Jon Roth, who was given the Lifetime Achievement Award, is one of only a few Islanders who have received such an award. Lifetime Achievement award recipients in the past 10 years include the late Justice Sybil Kennedy in 2019, Jim Sharpe in 2018, and Linda Tufillaro in 2013.
“There are some years where we will retrofit a category to a winner,” Laurendi said. “Even though we have all these categories to choose from, sometimes, the winner or whomever the nomination committee chooses: this person, this business owner, this organization has really made an impact on the community. For whatever reason, the categories that we already have do not fit that person or that honoree. We will actually create a brand-new category for that person.”
The third element for a successful Citizen of the Year awards dinner is the nominees. Laurendi cited the nominees’ “participation in their community and, quite honestly, their willingness to humbly accept these awards and their agreement in being honored. You do not have to accept an award. Some of us are taught not to accept a round of applause. It’s just what you do. You’re a human. You go out there. You do good things, and you don’t ask for anything in return. That’s not a bad way to think. Let’s face it. You’re not going to do a lot of selfless things if you are expecting something in return. If you expect something in return, you’ll never do anything.”
According to Laurendi, all the awardees were surprised when they were given the news: “I think that they were all equally and genuinely surprised and appreciative of the acknowledgement. You don’t usually expect a phone call from President Eric Fiebelkorn telling you that you have been chosen out of a community of 25,000 people and several hundred businesses and organizations.
“It is a great honor, and the surprise ultimately gets overshadowed by the appreciation. They appreciate being appreciated. Their friends and families are overjoyed to be a part of that. Definitely, spouses, children, parents and siblings are going to be very proudly sitting next to their honorees. Then there are other friends and neighbors and community members are either familiar with the honoree or have been directly impacted by their acts.”
Laurendi mentioned several former Grand Island athletes who came to the dinner to honor their former coach and athletic director, Roth. Included were Anthony and Clifford Scott, both members of the Viking football team who played for SUNY at Buffalo in the early 1990s (Clifford as quarterback and Anthony as linebacker); as well as Carlin Hartman, a 1990 graduate who played on the Viking basketball team. After graduation, he played basketball for Tulane University. He has worked as a basketball coach for a number of years and now he serves as assistant head coach at the University of Florida.
“Carlin Hartman has grown up to be a very successful leader in sports, coaching at a university in Florida. He traveled all the way from Florida, just to recognize Mr. Roth,” Laurendi said. “Clifford Scott currently is employed by the Niagara Falls Housing Authority as its executive director.”
One question that frequently comes up about the event, Laurendi said, is why is it held in Niagara Falls and not Grand Island. She explained the Chamber of Commerce is always hopeful the event will get a large turnout, between 200 and 300 attendees.
“The venues on Grand Island typically cannot accommodate the expected attendance, as well as the audio-visual needs for a successful event,” she said. “The DoubleTree by Hilton in Niagara Falls only checks all those boxes. Scott Swagler, general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton in Niagara Falls, is an Island resident who is very close to the Chamber of Commerce, and the DoubleTree by Hilton in Niagara Falls is a member of the Chamber of Commerce.”
Laurendi said she also thanks the event sponsors for their support of the Citizen of the Year dinner: “The event was sponsored by the members of the Chamber of Commerce. Toshiba Business Solutions, Fuccillo Automotive Group on Grand Island, and DoubleTree by Hilton – Niagara Falls, including affording us the space to hold the event.”
The event, however, needs an increase in sponsorships. According to Fiebelkorn, “Sponsorships were down this year, making it hard to financially put on the event. It’s important for everyone to know that the Chamber is 100% funded by membership and local business and individual supporters. No government money is used in our operations, so the financial support via sponsorships of events like Citizen of the Year, KidBiz, ‘Light Up the Boulevard,’ the community and visitors guide, and others is the only way they can continue to be held.”
Upcoming Chamber of Commerce events include:
√ “Light Up the Boulevard,” scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 3. Fiebelkorn said people should expect to see updates about this event.
√ Small Business Saturday will feature five to seven Facebook Life video visits on Nov. 26, Fiebelkorn said. “We do these with local small businesses to highlight them, including any SBS specials they are running, where they are physically located, what they do/sell, any improvements they’ve made to their facilities, etc.”
√ Annual board elections and holiday networking party, scheduled for Dec. 14. This event is open to members and prospective members.