It was a night to recognize the unsung heroes of Monmouth County, while raising money to support the students who may one day carry on their legacy.
The 32nd annual Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner, held March 10 at the Sheraton Eatontown hotel, honored nine local professionals, community leaders, volunteers and activists for their often unheralded work in towns such as Asbury Park, Freehold, Hazlet, Howell, Red Bank and Neptune Township.
This year’s honorees were: Wanda Brauner, Howell; Ronald Dukes, Red Bank; Gerald Eugene Glisson, Paterson; Diteko Hammary, Cliffwood; Jordan and Joelle Hernandez, Hazlet; Yesenia Madas, Brick; Mychal Mills, Neptune; and Lamont Repollet, superintendent of the Asbury Park School District. View full bios for all of this year’s honorees here.
Nearly 120 attended the annual dinner, with proceeds supporting the Wilbur Ray Scholarship Program, which supports students of color at Brookdale. The scholarship program and the gala are named in honor of the late Wilbur Ray, former Brookdale police sergeant and an active volunteer in the Long Branch community.
Ray’s daughter Catherine Hamlin joined his son-in-law Jerome to kick off the dinner and recognize the guests of honor for their selfless acts of service and leadership.
“To the honorees, and to everyone who has come out to give their support, my family and I thank you,” said Hamlin.
The evening was filled with moving tales of struggle, adversity, triumph and impact, of local residents who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of their communities. Brauner, a community relations representative for Amerigroup RealSolutions, a NJ FamilyCare HMO for the state of New Jersey, detailed her experiences growing up in a single-parent household and how she came to understand the power of community advocacy.
Hammary, founder of the Sportz Farm Foundation in Asbury Park and long-time supporter of youth enrichment programs, remarked on his own experience as a young student in the city and as a 2005 graduate of Brookdale. Introduced by former Brookdale mentor Lisa Savage, Hammary described the power of education and thanked his fellow honorees for helping local students “bridge the gap.”
“I’m not talking about a generation gap or a racial gap or anything like that. I’m speaking about a gap that exists between today and tomorrow,” said Hammary. “It’s a real life struggle, and you are helping to make that transition. You aren’t doing it for the awards; you’re doing it for the passion.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Brookdale’s own Yesenia Madas, former executive director of the Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges and recently appointed Freehold Campus dean.
Madas, introduced by longtime Brookdale colleague Beth Boylan, described her experience as a first-generation college student, and the impact education had made on her own life and the lives of her students.
“That is why I came back to Brookdale,” said Madas, who previously served as a counselor in Brookdale’s Educational Opportunity Fund program. “I built an incredible connection to this institution, because I know that, for me, education was the economic mobility story. It is what helped me close that achievement gap and helped me to further my life.”
The power of education, and of comprehensive support for local students, was highlighted again by Asbury Park School District Superintendent Dr. Lamont Repollet, who accepted the final Wilbur Ray Award of the evening. Joined on stage by a group of school district representatives – known affectionately as “hard hat nation” – Repollet thanked his fellow honorees for carrying on the legacy of the evening’s namesake.
“I am proud to be sharing the stage with community members and organizational leaders who have exemplified the high ideals and principals set for by the late Wilbur Ray,” said Repollet, who was honored for spearheading a host of new district initiatives including two new partnerships with Brookdale.
“As Nelson Mandela said, education is the most powerful weapon, which we can use to change the world. A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination, but when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
The evening also featured speeches by two recipients of the Wilbur Ray Memorial Scholarship: Jae’ Vani Prince, a criminal justice major and Brookdale graduate from Tinton Falls, and Salvador Valdez, a Brookdale nursing student from Red Bank.
“Financially, it was a big help for me and for my family,” said Valdez, who received a $500 scholarship funded by proceeds from last year’s dinner. “But it was more than that. People at the college saw something in me. The scholarship showed me that my work meant something, that people believe in me, and it has inspired me to work even harder.”
The evening also featured addresses by Brookdale President Maureen Murphy, Monmouth County Freeholder John Curley and assistant Brookdale professor Fidel Wilson, who last month co-hosted the third annual Minority Male Initiative conference at Brookdale in partnership with the Monmouth/Ocean County Pan Hellenic Council. The conference, like the Wilbur Ray Dinner, was designed to increase support for students of color at Brookdale.
The evening also featured dinner, a cocktail hour and prize drawings.
The Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner was hosted by Mary Scott, chair of the Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner Committee, with an invocation by Rev. Henry P. Davis Jr. The Wilbur Ray committee also included Louis Rodriguez, Phil Smith, Bessie Wade, Nancy Washington, JayShaun Nicholson-Scott, Michelle Stathum, Avis McMillon, Lisa Savage, Ernestine Austin, Peggy Austin, Fidel Wilson, and Timothy Zeiss.
The Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner provides up to $2,500 in annual Brookdale scholarships to local high school graduates and current students. To learn more or to apply visit the Brookdale Foundation webpage.
Check out more photos of the 32nd annual Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner here.