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2018 Person of the Year

On October 19, 2018, Kathie O'Callagahn was recognized as one of two "Persons of the Year" by the Pelham Civic Association. At the gala, Kathie shared the following thoughts.

Kathie O’Callaghan Speech

Person of the Year

Pelham Civics Gala

October 19, 2018

Thank you and good evening everyone.

Yesterday, I drove past Rich’s house, there, in the front yard, toiling away with a bottle of weed killer in hand, was the other Pelham Person of the Year.  I told him I was surprised to see a Person of the Year working so hard. He said he was surprised too and that he had been waiting on his fellow civics to show up and give him a hand.  Now, we know the Civics members are good men. But lucky for us, Rich gave up waiting for his Civic friends to show up for yard assistance. Rich, I’m very happy to see you here so I can thank you in person for all that you do.  There is no one I would rather share this recognition with than you because you are the paragon of remarkable civility and humble civic-mindedness. And your yard looks very nice by the way.

It is so wonderful to be here this evening with so many friends and neighbors and my family who flew in from all over the country.  You honor me by being here.

It’s not always the case these days to find large gatherings where everyone is on the same page. But tonight we’ve come together for something bigger than me, bigger than Rich and bigger than any of the differences in this room. All of us here tonight share a core belief in civics – the obligations we have to one another and to our community.

In my 35 years living in Pelham, I have learned many things about the town and its people. (But don’t worry, I won’t spill your secrets tonight!).  No seriously, the most important thing I have learned, and what has kept this Kentucky girl here all these years, is that Pelham is an amazing community that seems to have limitless potential for goodwill.  

It’s this goodwill that I tapped into when I gathered a group of like-minded individuals around my kitchen table three years ago to start Hearts and Homes for Refugees. My hometown back in Kentucky co-sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family in the 1980s, and I was sure we could do something similar now, at a time when an unprecedented 25 million refugees have been forced from their homes. Yet I never imagined that those kitchen table conversations would turn into a non-profit supported by dozens of committed volunteers and hundreds of generous supporters from all corners of our own community, and beyond.  Some of them are here tonight. I would like to take a moment and ask each and every person who has volunteered, supported or advised in one way or another at some time, to please stand up. I want to say to all of you– HHR Board members, and all the volunteers, and especially to Anne Nixon who believed in and worked alongside me from the early days and without whom, HHR would not be where it is--THANK YOU.  Our achievements belong not to one person but to all the volunteers.

It is because of all of you and this community that we welcomed and resettled the first refugee family  --the Ali Dibs from Syria. I witnessed an outpouring of support and warm welcome from all corners of Pelham for our new neighbors whose experience as refugees, and whose culture and religion, was as unfamiliar and foreign as possible to all of us.

You all have lifted me and our work up in ways too numerous to mention. But there is one example that stands out.  Did you know that the Civics' fearless leader, Kenny Shirreffs, otherwise known as Donna’s husband, took 15-year-old Leen Ali Dib shopping for her middles school graduation dress?  Those of you who know Kenny…. Can you picture him waiting patiently while Leen sorted and sifted and hemmed and hawed her way through the clothing racks? This is just one example of how each person brought their special talents and expertise--and in this case extreme kindness, to the resettlement and befriending of the Ali Dibs.

Once the Ali Dibs launched into independence, we turned our attention to refugees and asylees across Westchester and in the Bronx.  Sparked by the mentoring and assistance we were lending to another refugee family in Pelham, we had an idea to look for ways we could help refugees already living nearby who need a boost from time to time as they forge their new lives.  We asked Catholic Charities to partner with us and created Helping Hands to offer short-term mentorship and assistance. Volunteers stepped up right away for the pilot program to undergo training for their short-term commitment as official Helping Hands. This is a wonderfully rewarding program and shows great promise with a pipeline full of more connections between new volunteers and those in need.

And because I always believe that we are better when we come together, HHR spearheaded the Westchester Refugee Initiative, connecting with more than two dozen like-minded civic, faith and refugee resettlement groups across the county, comprised of thousands of volunteers.  

To be honest, it’s been easy to be a 99% volunteer-driven organization. Well, easy to get the volunteers at least! Just look at the people of Pelham. Rich Davidian. Bob Tracy, who keeps stepping up, including as a board member of Hearts and Homes for Refugees. Bill Taubner. Luisa DeCicco, John DeCicco, Will Cavanaugh, Joe Nunz, Lori Gorman, Joe Solimine.  These past honorees are just the tip of the iceberg, and I feel humbled to be in such inspiring company. For almost 80 years, The Pelham Civics has been both a beacon of hope for the citizens of Pelham and a model of goodwill.

I used to think all communities were like Pelham. After 35 years here, I am just a little older, but a lot wiser,  and I know better.  There are few towns like Pelham. I hear this from family and friends who live all over and from those who move away.

Tonight, well, we’re not in Pelham. We’re in New Rochelle, a town founded by refugees fleeing religious persecution in France. One of this town’s most illustrious residents was Thomas Paine, Founding Father, and author, of course, of Common Sense.  An immigrant himself, Paine wrote, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

Many here are doing good as an expression of their faith. In September, HHR was proud to partner with St. John’s Lutheran Church to host a Refugee Sunday - a day of awareness-raising and action. Tonight, while we are here, synagogues in Westchester and across the country are holding Refugee Shabbats to remember the humanitarian needs of refugees.

We in this room do not all share the same religion,  but I am certain that everyone in this room shares a spirit of doing good. In fact, I venture to say that each one of you here tonight, nearly 300 people in this one gathering, has made a difference somewhere along the way.

Thank you, friends and neighbors, for so tirelessly and generously acting on your civic duty and helping build strong communities. Thank you, to my friends and family, and especially to my husband Bruno who patiently and big-heartedly support my endeavors because you believed in them with me. And thank you, to the Pelham Civics Association for this award tonight, because I think it helps bring attention to the refugees in our midst and the ways we can come together to help them.

Finally, I want to leave you with two thoughts.  First, as you have heard here tonight, we all have the power to change and improve lives when needed.   So I encourage you to step up. The need is there. Second, it is true that what divides us is not nearly as important as that which brings us together. I have seen it through my own work - when we come together in service to others, lines of division disappear and healing takes place. When we come together and offer the best of ourselves for others,  we also ensure that our neighborhoods, our communities small and large, our country and our world will continue to be great.