Najlah Feanny Hicks won $50,000 last year for making a difference in the lives of foster children in New Jersey.
ALDO MARTINEZ JR./SPECIAL TO THE RECORD
Now she’s using much of that money trying to make a similar difference in the lives of homeless youths across the country.
Hicks, of Clifton, won the 2008 Russell Berrie Award for Making a Difference for her work creating the Heart Gallery — which uses professional photographers to shoot portraits of children in New Jersey’s foster-care system to help them get adopted.
Now she’s put together a project called Do1Thing.org.
“It’s a nationwide effort using photographers, writers and Web designers to portray the face of teenage homelessness,” Hicks explained.
The Web site, formally launched on Valentine’s Day, links to a number of partner charities that provide service to homeless teens.
Visitors to Do1Thing can click on the links and find various ways they can help, from donating clothes and toiletries to holding bake sales to raise funds for the organizations.
“The reason I chose teenage homelessness is that there are 1.3 million homeless who are youths under the age of 21,” Hicks said.
“Homelessness is a huge topic, and people become homeless for a multitude of reasons. And there are a multitude of answers to homelessness. I thought, what if everybody did just one thing to help? A great change will come if everybody does one thing.”
The money from the Berrie Award allowed her to get the new project off the ground.
“Some of the money seeded the development of the project,” Hicks said. “Part of the money allowed me not to have to focus on other things to make a living while putting it together. Without the Berrie money, this would never have happened.”
The Berrie Awards committee is accepting nominations for this year’s winners through Feb. 27. The awards are funded by the Russell Berrie Foundation and administered by Ramapo College. Three top prizes are given — of $50,000, $35,000 and $25,000 — and 16 other finalists received $2,500 apiece.
“We’re looking for people who do things that are clearly out of the ordinary,” said Josh. S. Weston of Montclair, the former CEO of Automatic Data Processing who is co-chairman of the awards committee with Ramapo College President Peter Mercer. “Last year we gave one to a nice little old lady who’s been running a soup kitchen for 20-odd years. Another went to a 17 year-old who was with another kid who fell into a lake and he pulled him out.”
The awards come no strings attached, although Weston said that in many cases the committee knows winners will put the money back into any organizations they run. “Very few put the money in their own pocket,” he said. “We don’t ask ahead of time but, especially with the big awards, more than half the time the story comes back to us that they’ve spent it to keep doing what they were doing.”
To nominate someone for a Berrie Award, visit russellberriefoundation.org and click on the link that says “2009 Russell Berrie Making a Difference Award”.
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