Finding Your Voice: The Child Center of NY’s 65th Anniversary Gala

The Child Center of NY celebrated 65 years of service to some of the city’s most underprivileged children and families at our Annual Gala on May 14, 2018, at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers. The event featured entertainment by Broadway stars (along with students of The Child Center’s performing arts programs!), and the honoree was acclaimed restaurateur and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich. Emcee Sunny Hostin, co-host of The View and a correspondent for ABC News, led nearly 400 guests through the profoundly moving evening.

The event opened with two performances by the guitar group of the Quest-ExpandED afterschool program at P.S. 182. Joined on stage by their teacher, Jonathan Meyers, the team performed  lively renditions of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash and “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara.

Hostin then arrived on stage to welcome guests, and, recalling her South Bronx roots, said, “I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of community organizations like The Child Center in helping local youth begin to overcome the hurdles they face each day.” She continued, “This year’s gala not only celebrates The Child Center’s 65 years of service, but also the support of people like you in helping us help children and families ‘Find Their Voices.’”

CEO Traci Donnelly took to the podium to describe how some children, our clients, face a heartbreaking lack of opportunity to make their dreams come true—and how one of the most important things The Child Center does is help close the gap between the opportunity a child has, and his or her potential. Case in point: our work at August Martin High School in Jamaica, which had a dismal graduation rate of 24 percent in 2015. “I am so proud to share that in just two years, the graduation rate increased to 64 percent,” Donnelly announced to huge applause. She concluded her address by introducing this year’s gala video, through which guests learned more about what our incredible staff does “day in and day out.”

Calling staff “the heart and soul of this agency,” Donnelly then presented the Russell L. Carson Visionary Award to Asian Outreach Assistant Program Director Omar Kazi. Named after our dedicated and generous supporter Russ Carson, the award is annually bestowed upon an employee who regularly goes above and beyond. According to Donnelly, “Omar embodies the theme of building up young people to be able to achieve what’s been their potential all along.” Donnelly later shared, “We often say that The Child Center prioritizes hiring people from the neighborhoods we serve, who understand the challenges our children face. Omar is living proof of why this works.”

Accepting the honor, Kazi recounted his journey toward a career in psychotherapy, from his “immense curiosity about human behavior and cognition” as a child in Bangladesh to his immigration to the U.S. at the age of 15 “for a better education.” He credited The Child Center for helping him grow professionally and personally and especially thanked his supervisor Reshma Shah for “believing in me”; our “amazing management team” for their “true vision”; and his colleagues for their “continuous support.”

Donnelly then introduced musical theater students from our afterschool program at I.S. 237. The students had the awesome opportunity not only to perform in front of a crowd of hundreds, but also to do so with Broadway and film star Jessica Fontana. Together, they performed a heartwarming rendition of “Children Will Listen.” Guests were clearly touched by the beauty of the children’s voices, in concert with Fontana’s, and by the song’s meaning. Said Sunny Hostin as she returned to the stage, “That was profoundly moving — apt lyrics for this evening’s festivities: ‘Careful the words you say, Children will listen… Careful the things you do, Children will see.’”

But the emotions of the evening had only just begun. One of the most memorable moments of every Child Center gala is hearing from clients themselves. This year, our client speaker was 15-year-old Frantzcia, whose incredible journey with us began a few years ago in our Behavioral Health program. Frantzcia, a budding writer and motivational speaker, talked movingly of her journey through heartbreaking tragedies. Despite early apprehension about therapy, she said she has been able to reach balance in her life, thanks to The Child Center. “Before,” she poetically explained, “my traumatic past would walk with me every minute of the day. But I have learned that I am not my past, and it’s not me. I discovered that within myself I have a passion for life, and it fuels me to do better — and to be better. Everything comes in time, but therapy has elevated me to be someone I never believed I would become — and for that, I am forever grateful.” (You can read more about Frantzcia’s inspiring life story in our newsletter.)

It’s these stories that are the reason The Child Center is here, and it’s what inspires so much giving. As Board member Adam Schwartz explained, “My own journey with The Child Center began five years ago, sitting where you are now — as a guest at this event. … I was struck by the stories I heard … stories of children like Frantzcia.” He then led the audience through the pledge portion of the evening that included numerous raised hands to donate extraordinary figures, up to, and including, $25,000. (Note: Our text-to-pledge number — 646-762-0665 — will continue to be available for a few months!) Schwartz was then joined by Sunny Hostin, who, after letting the guests know it was his birthday, announced dinner.

The program picked up again with another extraordinary performance by Jessica Fontana, this time joined by her husband, Santino Fontana, the voice behind Prince Hans in the Disney movie Frozen. The duo’s playful performance of “Love Is An Open Door” ended delightfully with the substitution: “Can I say something crazy? Will you marry me?” — “Can I say something even crazier? We’re already married!

Admitting that she’s sung this song with her own kids too many times to count, Sunny Hostin returned to the stage to introduce Tanya Bastianich Manuali, daughter of the event’s honoree, internationally renowned chef Lidia Bastianich.

Manuali, a successful cookbook author in her own right, partners with her mother Lidia in Felidia and owns Lidia’s Kansas City and Lidia’s Pittsburgh. She also oversees the development of the Lidia’s Kitchen tabletop and cookware line and, with her husband Corrado, owns Nonna Foods.

Speaking of her mother’s “passion, warmth, and drive,” Manuali described Bastianich as an inspirational role model and shared that some of her most cherished moments are when the four generations of females in her family — her grandmother, mother, herself, and her daughter and niece — come to the kitchen to prepare a meal together. “I am my mother’s daughter,” she said, “and I couldn’t be more honored, or more proud, to welcome the exceptional Lidia Matticchio Bastianich to the stage.”

Bastianich spoke passionately to the event’s theme of “Finding Your Voice.” She recounted her recent visits with The Child Center’s Head Start students at the Ficalora Family Foundation to read from her children’s book series, Nonna Tell Me a Story, and with the culinary students at August Martin High School to prepare two tasty appetizers, one of which was selected — by one vote from the kids! — to be featured as a passed hors d’oeuvres that evening. “In these two instances,” Bastianich said, “food is what brought us together, and I’m a lifelong believer in the power of food as the tie that binds us. It is a beautiful way of touching people. That’s my voice.”

Bastianich also recalled her own journey to the States as a child: “My father, mother, brother, and I came to the U.S. as refugees when I was 12 years old — with no family or friends — only the help of the Italian community and Catholic relief charities, who found us a home, and a job for my father,” she recalled. “So I understand the huge importance of community organizations like The Child Center of NY.” Bastianich concluded her address with sentiments such as, “My single greatest wish is for every child to find his or her own voice — whether it be through cooking, or drawing pictures, or writing, or whatever it is, it honestly doesn’t matter — just that each child finds it and has success and happiness in life.”

Traci Donnelly then announced our newly renovated South Jamaica Clinic, named the “Richard and Patricia Jay Family Multi-Service Center,” in honor of our board president, Dick Jay, and his family’s extraordinary generosity. In taking the stage with his 12-year-old grandson, Lucas Stein, Jay lauded Donnelly: “In my 50 years of broad business experience, Traci is by far the most accomplished, visionary, ethical, decisive, and well-respected executive I have ever worked with.” In keeping with the evening’s theme, Jay then introduced Lucas, who told the crowd, “My grandfather inspires me to share what I have, and what I know, so that more and more kids will have the chance to succeed in life.” He continued, most articulately, “Everybody tries to find their own way to help, and no one is too young or too old to make a difference — and we have to try to help kids so that everyone of them has an equal chance to succeed.”

Jay rounded out their address with the heartfelt line, which drew ‘Awwws’ from the audience, “Thank you so much, Lucas. You truly make your grandfather proud.”

The last of the evening’s many memorable performances was next: Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel, who sang a medley of songs and, to the delight of the audience, invited the children —including Frantzcia and Toni, who was featured in our gala video — to join her on stage for a group-sing of “Let It Go.”

We are grateful to our board members and major sponsors, including Pat and Dick Jay, New York Community Foundation Bank, Greenberg Traurig, LLP, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, Jennifer Milacci & Marc Scher, Garrett D’Alessandro & Amy Rappaport, Flushing Bank, Pond Family Trust, Chasity & Peter Santoro, TDBank, Anne & Benjamin Bahr, Katie & Jim Brennan, Barbara Deli, MD & Neeraj Bewtra, Farrell Fritz, P.C., Jackson Lewis, P.C., The New York Mets Foundation, The Nicolosi Law Firm, P.C., Nell & Adam Schwartz, Gelvina Rodriguez Stevenson, and Aliana & David Spungen.

We also thank our gala host committee members for their time, talents, and commitment: co-chairs Katie Brennan and Jennifer Milacci, Paula Barnes, Gelvina Rodriquez Stevenson, Chastity Santoro, and Sher Sparano.

Don’t miss The Child Center’s 2018 Agency Video, celebrating our 65th Anniversary and the theme of “Finding Your Voice.”

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