By Benjamin Fang
What does a nonprofit leader, education executive, arts director, and real estate developer have in common?
According to Mayra DiRico, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, they all have the passion and ability to make a difference in people’s lives.
Last Wednesday night at Terrace on the Park, the Queens Chamber honored four leaders in the fields of business, nonprofit, education and arts. What they all share, in addition to deep roots in the borough, is the commitment to spurring prosperity for their community.
“They have contributed to winning over hearts and minds,” DiRico said. “All four are very clear on their purpose of changing lives. It is that purpose which will continue to propel their success and establish their legacy.”
Peter Tu, executive director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association (FCBA), organizes the annual Lunar New Year parade and local workforce development programs. The 35-year-old nonprofit institution, Tu noted, never accepts grants from city or state agencies.
That is Tu’s way of demonstrating his patriotism and devotion this country.
“Since we became American citizens, we swore to fight for freedom and justice,” he said. “This country gave us a lot of opportunities.”
Evan Jerome, senior vice president at Monroe College, also plays a role in Flushing. The college opened its graduate site, the Queens Extension Center, in the neighborhood three years ago. He helped develop a special course, offering a hybrid schedule of on-site and online classes, for adults seeking to take their career to the next level.
“That is a game changer for many people,” DiRico said.
Jerome noted that Queens boasts a “rich cultural diversity of individuals working together.”
“I always say to myself, ‘Why can’t the world be more like Queens?’” he said. “To me, we have this unprecedented harmony of cultures living and working together. It’s incredibly unique.
“All the residents of Queens are powered by this entrepreneurial spirit to make a better life for themselves and their families,” he added. “That’s what we really try to bring to our graduate school in Flushing.”
Fellow honoree Sheila Lewandowski is executive director of The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. The theater has supported more than 800 artists and 3,500 visitors since it launched in 2004.
Lewandowski also attested to the power of diversity and overcoming adversity in Queens. Her father was a Polish immigrant who went to St. John’s University and worked as a scientist.
“What I see when I look around here are people in business who understand the importance of for-profit, non-profit, arts, social services, humanity and cultures,” she said. “That’s what Queens is about.”
She noted that everyone has an artist in their lives, even if it’s their nieces, nephews or grandchildren arranging pictures on their refrigerator gallery.
“That’s curiosity, that’s innovation, that’s exchange of ideas,” Lewandowski said. “That’s Queens.”
The Queens Chamber Hall of Fame inductee was Joseph Mattone, Sr., chairman and CEO of the Mattone Group. The real estate firm currently manages 2 million square feet of property, and has transformed empty lots into commercial, residential and industrial developments.
Mattone said the success of the borough is because of everyone in the room who has contributed to make it a better place to live.
“It’s the quality of the life you have provided for the entire community,” he said. “It’s your generosity and spirit. It’s you setting an example to be different.”
He stressed the importance of letting everyone know that they are part of “one society.” He urged everyone to give more to those who are less fortunate.
“It’s important that those of us who have been gifted with more share that as we should share,” Mattone said. “It’s helping others in trying to even up the starting line.”
Mattone added that the quality of such an honor isn’t judged by the size of the gift, but rather by the people who are giving it. He said it’s a joy not just to receive an award, but also to give one to others.
“I was very poor, I’ll always remember that,” he added. “I also remember that people helped me along the way.”