Several in area honored with YWCA’s Women of Distinction awards


Sue Schuler has long believed in the annual Day of Caring motto that “many hands make light work.”

In fact, she and dozens of other Tompkins Bank of Castile employees have fulfilled that phrase by pitching in where necessary for many local projects over the years.

“It’s a great opportunity for many people to get together and do a lot in the community,” Schuler said Wednesday.

That is largely why Tompkins Bank of Castile was chosen for one of YWCA’s Women of Distinction awards this year.

The company was chosen not only for subscribing to that policy of hands-on service, but for allowing employees at the several branches in five counties to volunteer their special skills.

Whether it is by weeding gardens, coaching Little League, lugging out old toilets from rehabbed homes or “pulling nails” all day, as Schuler recalled, the company believes in using those many hands to help anyone in need.

Sure, Tompkins wants to provide financial success to individuals and organizations, Vice President of Marketing Communications Gregg McAllister said. But there’s a much bigger picture for the company’s role.

“We want to see this community where we are grow and thrive,” he said. “As an employee, that was one of the things important to me. This is a company that encourages me to do what I love to do to support our community.”

The financial institution’s award was for Corporate Social Responsibility. Other recipients this year are Genesee County Mental Health Services for Peace; Batavia High School teacher Courtney Turcer for Racial Justice; Officer James DeFreze for Advocacy/Civic Engagement; attorney Jennifer Nunnery for Military/Veteran and Genesee Valley Educational Partnership’s Culinary Arts program for Economic Empowerment.

They will be honored during the second annual Women of Distinction Awards Gala at 5:30 p.m. June 18 at Genesee Community College, 1 College Rd. An awards ceremony will begin at Stuart Steiner Theatre, to be followed by dinner and an art auction at 6:30 p.m. in the forum.

Some people have been kind of puzzled about why groups and men have also received a Women of Distinction Award, but it’s really not that complicated, YW Executive Director Jeanne Walton said. The award is to recognize those people and organizations in the community that have contributed to YW’s mission to eliminate racism, empower women, offer equal opportunities and create a safe and better community.

So it’s not so much about strictly honoring women but about acknowledging the good works of people here in Genesee County, she said.

Other recipients:

It’s fair to say that Genesee County Mental Health Services has grown up a bit since its humble beginnings in the 1960s.

The agency began in a house on North Street. Within the first decade, services mushroomed, staff increased and client need grew, Director of Clinical Services Augusta Welch said.

“As awareness comes up, more needs are presented,” she said at the agency’s current site on East Main Street. “It’s the best-kept secret until you need it. The stellar difference between us and private care is that we’re community mental health; we do it for the betterment of the community.”

What can create a more peaceful existence than an agency that helps those with mental health issues, Walton said. That’s how an agency fits in perfectly with YWCA’s vision, she said.

Genesee Valley Educational Partnership is another example of how a large entity serves individual needs. Formerly known as BOCES, the Partnership has offered a culinary arts program for several years.

Chef Nathan Koscielski, otherwise known as Chef K, has led the program for the past seven years. He has maintained such an interest that he is thankful for his wife’s understanding when he continuously brought work home with him.

“I think in any good classroom you need a combination of passion and education,” he said. “We are entrusted to teach those things that we feel are important to our trade industries.”

Those lessons have more recently included a farm-to-table concept by working with the animal science department to obtain home-grown ingredients. Students have learned how to save money by starting with a whole bird, for example, and butcher it versus buying items already processed.

It also teaches them to respect the foods they are using and understand the connection between quality ingredients and a delicious and successful end result, he said.

It seemed obvious to the award committee that the culinary program was a good candidate for the Economic Empowerment award, Walton said. Students are getting an education about more than how to cook an egg. They will also know almost every aspect of the field, from calculating expenses and planning a menu, to food presentation and interacting with the public at culinary competitions.

Alyssa Wilson, a Cal-Mum High School senior, has taken the culinary program for two years. She hopes to one day open her own bakery, though she has gained knowledge about many other things, such as how to grill, saute and cut up various whole meats.

Lessons aren’t always about becoming a world-class chef, but also about those little details that can help students in life, Koscielski said.

“As long as they can learn something, I’m happy,” he said.

Jennifer Nunnery initially wanted to be a police officer, but some injuries from active Army duty kept her from that field. Always having been interested in law, she then wanted to go into environmental law or become a prosecutor. After school and internships, she changed her mind with a goal to defend her military peers and other individuals.

“I think you get to become a little more personal with the vets. That’s a driving force for me,” she said at her downtown office.

She gradually learned the simple truth that clients are people with issues and problems and struggles. Vets often also suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, which she can relate to.

As the attorney and client swap war stories — Nunnery served two stints in Iraq while in the Army — the tension seems to lessen, she said. She has settled onto their playing field as a fellow veteran, and that builds trust.

“I could understand where they were coming from,” she said. “I could be their support and help them to get back on the right track.”

Tapping her for the Military/Veteran award was a no-brainer, committee members said. Nunnery was chosen for her dedication to fellow veterans and willingness to share her legal expertise and personal experience with the community.

Batavia High School teacher Courtney Turcer and Batavia Police Officer James DeFreze were chosen for the Racial Justice and Advocacy/Civic Engagement awards, respectively. Turcer teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages. She has encountered families from various geographic areas including Russia, France, Puerto Rico and Columbia and has found that it’s not only the students in need of some extra help. Many parents also want to improve their English to better assist their children. So Turcer volunteered to give a free class for parents once a week at Richmond Memorial Library.

“The parents of my students feel like they want to be involved in their children’s education, but a language barrier can be a scary thing,” she said. “Batavia has been a great district to work for. There’s a lot of negative talk about immigrants not wanting to speak English, but it’s scary to be confronted with a new language.”

It was for her commitment and passion to open up a world of opportunities through English that Turcer was chosen for the Racial Justice Award, committee members said.

This has been quite the year for DeFreze, who has already received awards from Batavia’s Kiwanis Club and his own police department.

He figured there would be some ribbing about his Women of Distinction Award, but he’s ready for it. He was nominated by a domestic violence victim who isn’t sure where she’d be today if it weren’t for the officer’s compassion and ongoing communication with her after she was assaulted.

YWCA’s domestic violence and crisis Helpline staff backed it up with unwavering support for his demeanor and treatment of this — and other — victims.

She has come to the realization that DeFreze is far more than just an officer of the law, the victim said in her nomination letter.

“You are a true and genuine individual,” she said. “I pray for your safety so that you can continue to provide justice for other women that have experienced the same situation. There are not enough words to praise you or thank you for what you have done.”

There has been no truer advocate to help victims become survivors than Officer DeFreze, Walton said.

Tickets for the Women of Distinction event are $40 each or $350 for a table of 10. Also during the event, there will also be a presentation to the Women in Business honorees by The Daily News.

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