Queens takes great pride in its rich ethnic diversity. People flock here from all over the globe to put down roots, joining other family members who have established a beachhead in one neighborhood or even striking out on their own to start their own community. The borough president likes to say - actually it's a boast - that Queens has residents from more than 120 countries who speak over 135 languages. We are known as the "World's Borough."
What better way to acknowledge the invaluable contributions these immigrants have made to Queens than to honor 25 of them for their vision, perseverance and willingness to share their unique cultures with all of us. Our honorees hail from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. One is a highly celebrated framer in Long Island City, another is an exiled newspaper editor who is helping immigrants adjust to New York life, and still another is a violinist who runs the Children's Orchestra Society her father founded.
These newcomers have already left an indelible mark on Queens, achieving success despite some major obstacles along the way. At the same time, they have never forgotten their roots and are committed to giving back to the communities where they now live. It is a gift to have them living and working among us in the most diverse county in the United States - and probably the world.
Dominican pro brings taekwondo to Queens
Sandy Arias was born in the Dominican Republic and arrived in the United States almost 13 years ago. His only relative, his uncle, took him under his wing. He met his wife a year later.
"On my arrival, I worked two part-time jobs, mornings doing carpentry and odd jobs, and evenings as an instructor in a taekwondo academy, continuing those jobs after I married and moved to Queens," he said.
"I have practiced martial arts since the age of 6," said Arias. "Taekwondo is in my blood. I was a member of the Taekwondo National Team for the Dominican Republic before I came and represented the country at many international events." At the taekwondo school where he worked he learned about running a business from marketing to instruction. With the help of his wife Norma Hernandez, Arias opened a tiny taekwondo academy in a shuttered former 99-cent store on 48th Avenue in Woodside in 2012.
Slowly he transformed a neglected pocket of that neighborhood. "I've had many parents come to me asking to help their kids with discipline issues. Other kids need help losing weight," he said.
He began to teach young children the martial arts while keeping them to a strict code. Their membership was tied to school grades and attendance.
"I work with my students on discipline, self-confidence, mental and physical well-being," Arias said. He is like a second father to some of the children, teaching them much-needed discipline since their fathers work two and three jobs.
Aria also gives adult evening classes to the parents focusing on aerobic and cardio workouts. The storefront soon could not hold all the students who showed interest in Edge Academy's programs, Arias said. "There wasn't enough room to land kicks properly."
When the adjoining market went out of business, the landlord offered Arias the chance to expand. For him, these were the best tenants he had in 30-plus years of building ownership, landlord Chris Vrettos said.
The community rallied to help improve the doubled space, and Hernandez credits the parents. "It would have been impossible to do it without them," his wife said.
The landlord sees a great benefit for the neighborhood by helping so many kids.
"I am now a proud American," Arias said. "I travel with my students representing the U.S., New York state and New York City. They participate in local, state, national, and international competitions and the school has received countless recognitions."
At national competitions in Detroit this summer, 21 students participated, winning six gold, six silver and five bronze medals. They have also won medals in Montreal and Las Vegas competitions.
Arias mused, "My biggest dream is to have one of my students representing the U.S. as a member of the United States Olympic Taekwondo Team."
Carlos Humberto Cardona
Immigrant fled violence in Colombia only to sacrifice health for 9/11 clean-up
Carlos Humberto Cardona immigrated to the United States at the age of 21, escaping the violence in Colombia where gangs murdered his two brothers.
Now he is a father and the husband of an American citizen living in Jackson Heights, but he faces deportation. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Cardona was one of the 1,000 to 2,000 undocumented workers who helped clean up the wreckage at Ground Zero.
"It was something I had to do for this great nation," Cardona said about his four months volunteering as a hazmat and clean-up worker, sifting and clearing out debris in Lower Manhattan.
As the result of removing the waste and his extended exposure to the hazardous materials and toxic air at Ground Zero, Cardona suffers from acute respiratory problems as well as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
"I take six or seven medicines a day for my breathing, stomach, sinus and anxiety," Cardona said. Because of his conviction in a non-violent drug case 27 years ago and the Trump administration's quota directive to deport two to three million undocumented immigrants, Cardona is targeted for deportation. He was detained for almost six months this year in a New Jersey jail in preparation to be deported.
"There is a ramping up and they're trying to justify their deportations," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC, an interfaith organization fighting the expulsions.
But his selfless work as a 9/11 responder stands out and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to his defense. In late June, Cuomo pardoned Cardona. The clemency pardon wipes Cardona's criminal record from the books. The legal rationale for his deportation has disappeared, yet his immigration status is still in limbo. Cardona has a lawyer and is appealing his status. He still must check in at Federal Plaza.
In the meantime, Cardona, a construction worker, said his health issues hamper his work ability. "My health condition doesn't allow me to work steadily," he said.
He is not alone among undocumented responders who were immersed in the poisonous air.
"There are approximately 2,000 with bad health," Cardona said. "I've attended three funerals."
Cardona said that among a group of 60 who meet often - sometimes at Elmhurst Hospital - to get information and give support, "five have cancer. It's depressing. I want to help others in the group. Our health is so bad."
He pointed out how they have been targeted to be sent back to places with no health care.
"It's not fair, we're really sick," Cardona said. "We want to know who will help us be heard."
Nonprofit director promotes human rights for Nepalese women at Woodside center
Before Narbada Chhetri moved to the United States in 2006, she had already gained experience as a human rights activist in her home country of Nepal, including working to fight human trafficking. She uses her own story and experience of struggle as a tool to educate and empower others.
Chhetri is the director of organizing and advocacy at Adhikaar, a Woodside-based nonprofit in its 12th year of galvanizing the Nepali-speaking community to promote human rights and social justice for all.
Along with those in the Nepalese community, Chhetri works on behalf of low-income and marginalized women regardless of their home country, young immigrant women who are funneled into low-wage, vulnerable jobs as domestic workers, nannies, housekeepers and nail salon technicians. She personally knows the humiliation some face in these lines of work from her first year in the United States. From then on, she vowed that if she could, she would fight this injustice.
When Chhetri found her way to Adhikaar, she picked up where she left off in Nepal leading the workers' rights program. For 10 years, she has been advocating for the rights of the community and assists with access to services.
Chhetri oversees a range of programs, campaigns and services that help members to develop the skills needed to secure better jobs and live in this country with dignity. In her current role, she works to empower Nepalese people to speak up about the injustices they face and to learn about and assert their legal rights. Her campaign focus includes organizing beauty technicians for awareness about health and safety at the workplace. With her guidance, nine trafficking survivors recovered over $300,000 in lost or stolen wages.
In 2010, she led Adhikaar in successfully campaigning for the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. It became law in November that year. New York became the first state to pass a domestic workers' bill of rights.
Two years ago, Chhetri was at the helm of the New York State Nail Salon Workers Bill of Rights negotiations. She currently represents Adhikaar on the National Domestic Workers Alliance board of directors. Chhetri emphatically believes in her mission.
"If we speak collectively, we can reach our goal," she said.
Chhetri completed the 2012-13 Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University and the 2014 Coro Immigrant Leadership Program.
She is known to comfort a member going through a dangerous situation. She welcomes people into her home who have no place to sleep, and she tries to bring joy into people's lives. She responds to strangers from across the country who get her name from a friend.
Chhetri does this with utmost humility, determination, kindness and equity," said Adhikaar's Anupa Gewali. "And after more than a decade of work, there are hundreds who can speak to how she has changed their life."
Rev. Fr. Dr. Theodor Damian
Thelogian helps Romanians find Queens
Father Theodor Damian was already a theology scholar when he came to the United States from Romania in 1988. He received scholarships from the Presbyterian Church for a master's degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, which he completed in 1990, and he earned a Ph.D at Fordham University in 1993.
For a lifetime, Damian has been a theologian, an academic and educator, and builder of community. He founded the Romanian Institute of Orthodox Theology and Spirituality with the Romanian Orthodox Parish "St. Peter and Paul" in Astoria.
From its establishment, the church in Astoria has become a center of Romanian community life. Services were and still are held in Romanian. Fellowship follows every Sunday service and there are social and cultural programs.
Damian said the Sunday events became a sort of "little Romania" where people reassume their Romanian values, heritage, and strengthen that identity, which in turn gives them inner stability, peace, and joy.
"When you have this," he said, "you become a more productive citizen in the society you chose to live in." Countless numbers of people receive all kinds of help through the church, from finding a job to housing to physical and mental health issues.
For almost 25 years, Damian has been instrumental in helping Romanian immigrants make Queens their home-a better place for those already here and for those who keep coming from Romania.
He also has initiated annual theological, ecumenical and later interdisciplinary conferences inviting priests, pastors and professors from all backgrounds to come together to share their ideas and experiences.
In 1993, Damian founded and is still presiding over the Literary Society "M. Eminescu Literary Cenacle,"where book launchings, poetry readings and round table discussions, take place along with the exchange of information about contemporary literary life and events in Romania.
His weekly publication, which in 1996 became the quarterly cultural magazine Lumina Lina Gracious Light, is a review of spirituality and culture, publishing academic studies, articles on literary issues, reports from community events and much more.
Damian also founded and is director of two more academic publications, Symposium, which publishes the best papers from the Symposium, and Romanian Medievalia, which has papers from the Congress of Medieval Studies. Through these publications, intellectuals are stimulated to present their findings, share values and make academic connections.
In 1992, he started teaching philosophy and ethics at the Metropolitan College of New York (then College for Human Services). One year later, he was appointed a full-time professor and he continues to teach students as well as train adjunct professors to learn and teach in the unique system developed by the college's founder, Audrey Cohen.
Cross-cultural background has served Serbian-born executive director of Queens Historical Society well
Branka Duknic grew up in Belgrade, Serbia. After pursuing her B.A. and M.A. in Archaeology at the University of Belgrade, she served as the executive assistant to the director of the Belgrade Jewish Museum, gaining insight in museum studies for the first time.
Eight years ago she came to New York to pursue a Ph.D program in Anthropology and Archaeology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. It was quite a challenge to adapt from a European model of education to an American one where students are expected to be active and provide valid counterarguments to theories.
After graduation, Duknic went on to teach part time at Brooklyn College and City College of New York. She has supervised multiple U.S. and international teams on projects based at various European, Balkan and eastern Caribbean locations.
It is this varied and cross-cultural background that Duknic brings to her role as executive director of the Queens Historical Society, located in Flushing in the Kingsland Homestead, the first designated New York City landmark in Queens County.
Its rotating exhibits, lectures and workshops extend the public's understanding of the history of Queens. The society is also expanding as a local research center.
Duknic hopes to continue the path of improving the multi-cultural presence of the borough's more than 50 distinct immigrant communities by engaging the general public in a plethora of youth and adult programs, as well as distinct new exhibitions organized under the Queens Historical Society auspices.
"Historical societies like ours need to evolve and grow, adjust and absorb the perpetual changes occurring in our immediate surrounding," Djuknic said. "Avoiding a single-minded perception of Queens Historical Society as being conservative and impervious to change has been my utmost goal. Practicing my craft as an anthropologist and an archaeologist in the diverse array of work settings covered by the umbrella term of ‘public history' is a constant set of trials and tribulations."
She believes that historical societies need to become more relevant to their communities.
"Boroughwide historical societies play an important role in protecting and preserving the socio-cultural and economic records and also interpret the various past historical perspectives to the public," she said. "Many of us stand on the shoulders of giants."
Who was her greatest influence? Duknic cites her grandmother Branislava, who believed that you can reach high if you only had the drive. Her grandmother, who was a prominent pharmaceutical scientist, led the way for other career women in what was then socialist Yugoslavia.
"She brought me up, believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams," Duknic said. "Her sense of intellectual advancement and hard work helped me cope with many obstacles in life."
Immigration lawyer knows hurdles firsthand
Naresh Gehi arrived in the United States during midsummer 1993 on a student visa from Mumbai, India. Having attending law school there, he enrolled at the University of Georgia to pursue a Master of Law degree.
With limited resources and the need to earn money, he traveled to Gary, Ind., during a break and pumped gas in freezing weather for low wages to save money for school. He persevered, graduating from law school with honors.
"I was going to return to India," he said, but one of his professors told him of the importance of international law and how the prospects for practice in this specialty were greatest in this country. He decided to stay. After law school, Gehi came to New York to pursue his legal career and landed a job as an administrative law clerk for former immigration Judge Jeffrey M. Gottlieb. He worked for him for six years, gaining experience before starting his own practice.
Gehi is the principle attorney in his law firm, which has three offices - Forest Hills, Richmond Hill and Jamaica - Gehi and Associates specializes in complex federal immigration litigation and deportation cases, working to help families resolve their immigration cases.
With a gift for languages: three Indian languages-Gujarati, Punjabi, Hindi - as well as Urdu, Bengali, basic Spanish, French and English, he assists with translation for clients from various backgrounds. He is licensed to practice law in the Eastern and Southern District of New York and in Connecticut. He is also admitted to the Court of Appeals.
The firm's practice includes asylum cases, employment-based immigration, entertainers' and performers' visas, investors visas, E visas, L visas, F-1 student visas, M-1 visas, religious workers, battered spouses, Temporary Protected Status, work visas, and request for evidence (RFEs) from the immigration service.
He works with immigrants trying to obtain green cards, and many with deportation orders.
"My goal is to keep families together," he said, citing success in helping one client get his green card after trying for 17 years.
Gehi has appeared as an immigration expert on WPIX 11 News one time when he verbally challenged the presence of a federal immigration agent looking for a fourth grade student at PS 58. He has appeared on New York 1 TV, ABC News, and Fox 5 and has been quoted in major local print media outlets.
He is a member of the AILA Military Assistance Program, a collaboration between immigration lawyers and the military to offer free assistance to active duty service-members and their families. Pro bono, he took on the case of a woman whose daughter would have been subjected to female genital mutilation had she been returned to her home country. He is the author of "Emigration for Everyone."
Passion for early childhood development drives Caribbean-born pioneer for boro daycare networks
At the age of 16, Nadine Grigsby relocated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago, preceding her family by five years.
Grigsby studied business at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, completing her degree at York College. She then began working in corporate America for a non-profit.
At the age of 30, she had two children, 11 months apart, and early childhood education came into her picture.
"I decided to stay at home and start a home day-care service in St. Albans that would meet the needs of my children as well as those in the community," said Grigsby, who incorporated her service as the Great Start Early Learning Program in March 2010. It also involved parents' training, "so what they learn (in the program) could be reinforced with what is learned at home."
"I am passionate about early childhood development and know that early childhood education impacts children's entire future," she said.
In 2016, Grigsby began her Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics Summer Program. Thirteen students, academically high achievers from 5 to 10 years old, participated in the seven-week enrichment program that included visits to 13 New York City sites and STEAM experiments conducted by Grigsby and volunteers.
"The program was a beta project to the launch of the first of its kind S.T.E.A.M. daycare services in the southeast Queens community," Grigsby said.
For the second year, the program collaborated with other programs serving a total of 60 children.
Having observed the many challenges mothers of her child-care program faced, she also established another organization: Essential Living International, specializing in holistic support and development for families. The group is geared toward women in their child-bearing years, pregnant women and young mothers. The support group she began for women who gained a lot of weight during pregnancy led to her developing a weight management program.
As an experienced day-care provider, Grigsby understands providers' challenges and saw a need to organize them.
In August 2015, she formed the Southeast Queens Daycare Association, a local network of day-care resources to make sure that providers and parents are aware of techniques important for young children's growth and well-being.
"Our vision is to raise the standards and perception of home day-care and emphasize the importance of its role in the intellectual development of our infants and toddlers," she said.
Recruited by the Mrs. Queens Pageant to represent Queens in the New York State Mrs. Queens America pageant, Grigsby is Mrs. Queens 2016-2017, and placed No. 7 in the state pageant. Those in the top 10 compete again and she is looking forward to the 2017-2018 pageant.
"This is a family-oriented pageant in New York state, and I made early childhood development my pageantry platform," Grigsby said.
Annette M. Hurd-Runcie
Determination joined Jamaican family to inspire founder of Pa-Nash Restaurant
Annette M. Hurd-Runcie was born in Kingston, Jamaica, into a large family of seven children. She immigrated with her family to the Bronx at the age of 11.
Hurd-Runcie had an early successful career as a computer system analyst and later a plant IT manager at Proctor and Gamble. She earned an MBA, and started a family that includes two sons.
Runcie eventually felt the need to become an entrepreneur. After some research and with the full support of her husband, she left Procter and Gamble in February 2005 to open her Golden Krust franchise in Queens Village, incorporating her business skills with her drive and motivation for success.
Then in November 2013, along with her husband Noel Runcie, she opened Pa-Nash Restaurant and Lounge, an upscale restaurant serving a unique fusion cuisine. Launching the establishment was no easy task: it took three years to navigate Building Department obstacles.
With Pa-Nash, Runcie brings the style of Manhattan to southeast Queens, serving a mouth-watering "EuroSoul," Mediterranean and Moroccan cuisine with Caribbean and soul food influences.
The restaurant has received many awards, including one for commercial design from the Queens Chamber of Commerce.
"Ever since I was a child it's been discussions at our dinner table about one day having a family restaurant," she said. "My dad passed away last year November, but I am happy that I was able to fulfill the family legacy before his passing."
Hurd-Runcie reaches out to her community. She organizes yearly health fairs where residents of Queens Village can get free consultations. During the holiday season, she donates food daily to the City Harvest program to feed the homeless.
She also sponsors two primary schoolchildren attending the same school she attended in Jamaica. Hurd-Runcie founded the Alexander Youth Etiquette Success (Y.E.S.) community organization, a non-profit that provides business, professional and social etiquette workshops, internships, mentorship, and scholarships for youth in the community.
"We have begun the work of recruiting 12 first-year high school students from Rosedale, Laurelton and Springfield Gardens to take them through a 12-month program," Hurd-Runcie said, with the intention of following them through their four years of high school. Each year they will add more first-year students. "Changing our communities 12 youth at a time" is the organization's mantra.
Hurd-Runcie is also the chairwoman of the first Merchant Association for Rosedale, Laurelton and Springfield Gardens.
"When small businesses in these communities are thriving, then they are able to give back to the community," she said.
Hurd-Runcie works with the board to bring the businesses in these communities together, access their needs, provide business development workshops as well as develop with them a small business success road map.
Flushing marketer sells beauty to Koreans but gives free advice on happy marriages
Elaine Kim emigrated from Korea to Texas in 1980, where she opened up a marketing and consulting firm catering to the Korean community. Finding that New York was offering more opportunities for her family and business, she moved to Queens in 1987.
That same year she married and this Halloween she celebrated her 30th anniversary.
Her secret to a happy marriage in her words is patience, God and love. Neighbors in Flushing began turning to her after observing her strong partnership with her husband and she has been giving free advice to young married couples ever since.
After living in Flushing for many years, she started Oskar Consulting Network, which is a business based on exporting and importing beauty and health products from around the world. Her older son Robert knows Korean and American culture and for that reason she named him the chief executive officer.
Her second child, a daughter Ester, teaches yoga and is now working with her mother to promote beauty and health. Her younger son, Albert, is a professor at a local college.
She said she is very proud of her children and happy that she made the decision to come to America to see them succeed because she faced major challenges when she was growing up. Her dream is to help young people overcome their personal struggles and have them thrive in their marriages and businesses.
In the last two years, Kim has been a proud supporter of Dollface of New York, a Queens company which specializes in event planning and fund-raising. She personally goes to fund-raisers and events such as the Prayer Conference of June 2017 in East Elmhurst, honoring Pastor Ruth from the Bahamas, which was a prayer and networking event attended by people not only from the United States but other countries as well.
Kim represented the Asian community by networking at the 2017 Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, an annual Flushing event that draws thousands of people from many cultures.
She sponsored and got the word out about the July 2017 Prayer Summit in Cambria Heights, which brought many religions and races together to encourage harmony in disparate communities.
Kim enjoys supporting all cultures and religions and learning about them.
She is a member of the Queens Village Republican Club and in her free time educates Korean and American people on Republican politics.
Exiled Togo editor advises other refugees
Back at home in Togo, West Africa, Pap Koudjo founded and ran a newspaper that published political commentary and satire that ran afoul of the authorities. In a country with limited freedom of speech, this took guts.
Koudjo also started a screen printing company, training the community's young people with useful, marketable skills.
Two years ago, as a result of his political opinions, Koudjo was forced to flee Togo. His life was in danger. The challenges on arrival to New York were monumental. There was little support available to asylum seekers: no housing, and for months no legal means of making a living.
He reached out to three organizations. One, in particular, responded and made a difference: the Refugee and Immigration Fund. It connected him with Safe Horizons, a group that helped him apply for asylum as well as obtain a work permit and Social Security number so that during this process he could work. With their help and his determination, he landed a job planting and maintaining the urban farm at Gotham Greens, an American urban agriculture company.
After four months he moved on to a men's clothing store, where he still works as a salesman. And, at times, he works construction, but returns to his room in Queens on the weekends. When Koudjo got his first tax return, he gave a portion of it to RIF, forever grateful for their immense help when he was in such need as a new arrival.
Koudjo is also active in his church and works with youth.
"Sometimes, when things looked like they were falling apart, I got hope and trust from God, by prayers," he said.
Because of his positive attitude, Koudjo is called upon to advise refugees from time to time, sharing job-searching experiences and advice on "how to look for a life." He disabuses them of the notion that they will be taken care of.
"You have to do everything yourselves," he said.
Koudjo's basic advice is "live the right way" and "do not get involved with trouble."
Informally he advises immigrants he casually meets along the way.
Koudjo never thought one day he would be a refugee.
"I never understood their suffering," he said. "When you're a refugee, you start at the bottom."
Nonetheless, the idiom "no problem" became Koudjo's mantra, and he adopted the "no problem" attitude of New Yorkers around him. He has named his newly started on-line business, which initially is selling customized caps, "No Problem."
"Koudjo is working really hard in his two jobs in order to have enough money to invest in his new company," said RIF director Maria Blacque Belair, a former Queens Ambassador honoree. "He is extremely focused, he never self-pities. He really embodies the essence of the immigrant experience: Work hard and you will realize your dream."
Elsie Saint Louis
Executive director of Haitian nonprofit provides critical support for community
Elsie Saint Louis came to the United States from Haiti in 1980 at the age of 14. While she has a foot in both worlds, she admits she led a very sheltered life in Haiti.
For a number of years after college she alternated between working in non-profit development and in finance.
In 2000, the oldest Haitian service agency in New York, Haitian Americans United for Progress recruited her to write fund-raising grants for one year that stretched into four. She stayed on as the organization looked for a new executive director and that position became hers.
"I cannot imagine a better life and line of work," she beamed. She has been executive director of HAUP, based in Cambria Heights, for 13 years.
"This was not in my plans, but it was THE plan for me," she said.
Before her appointment, Saint Louis also served on the board as well as organizing a youth board.
HAUP is open to the whole community in need of its services, which include adult education, legal services, health programs, services for the mentally disabled, youth services, a universal pre-K, and immigrant/refugee assistance.
"It's been a privilege working with the staff," she said. The executive director is also in awe of the founding board members who have been totally committed to serving the community during the 40-plus years of the organization. Saint Louis is also grateful for the opportunity to mentor young people, many who give back by working with the organization.
"We have always also been involved with schools, the community, and handicapped children in Haiti," Saint Louis said. "And like everyone, we joined in the earthquake relief effort."
However, after the 2010 earthquake Saint Louis wanted to attract and engage young adults and professionals for long-term efforts in remote communities affected by the earthquake.
To this end, Saint Louis founded Love and Serve Haiti to help small communities. LASH started repairing and supporting two damaged schools in the hills high above Port-au-Prince. LASH provides the supplies and teachers' salaries to these schools that offer a low-tuition education for 600 children. The school in Sarazin goes to the sixth grade, in Masson to the ninth grade.
In a country where access to education is not universal, supporting schools, particularly in distant regions, is monumental.
"More than half continue on, and some of the first graduates are in college," Saint Louis proudly said.
LASH also supports a small loans project to help bolster the livelihoods of about 25 farmers and small businesswomen in this rural area.
"These projects are close to my heart," Saint Louis said. "They have so much impact."
She has served on many boards, but at this time she is on only one as treasurer of the New York Immigration Coalition.
Israeli-born Table tennis guru overcame disability
Tahl Leibovitz was born in Haifa, Israel, 41 years ago and moved to New York when he was 3 years old along with his twin sister and an older sibling.
Leibovitz endured rough and tumble teenage years. From the age of 14 - and for seven years - he lived on the streets. He and his buddies discovered table tennis at the South Queens Boys and Girls Club in Richmond Hill.
Competing with his friends on a makeshift table, Leibovitz worked on his technique on a very basic set-up. His group learned about USA Table Tennis and began playing sanctioned tournaments frequently, moving up in the rankings.
Leibovitz suffers from a condition known as osteochondroma, which limits his range of motion and keeps his wrist in a fixed position, but he has learned to adapt his technique. At the Westfield, N.J., table tennis club, Leibovitz learned from Chris Lehman about para-table tennis - the third largest paralympic sport in terms of participants.
At 19, he joined the 1996 para team that played in Atlanta, returning home with a bronze team medal and a gold singles medal, and he was hooked into competing at every opportunity. Nationally and internationally from 2003-2015, he brought home a slew of medals.
With inherited money, he briefly opened a table tennis academy in Astoria in 2005, but closed it due to skyrocketing rents and participants' reluctance to pay to play.
In 2014, Tahl took his 20 years of competing and put it into a book "Ping Pong for Fighters," which is basically "a philosophy for the thinking and feeling player."
Leibovitz started a number of coaching videos by Howcast, which have received over two million views.
In addition to competing in about 50 countries, he has been to the White House five times and met Al Gore, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
With a supportive wife, Dawn, and without ever attending high school, Tahl earned two undergraduate (Philosophy & Sociology) degrees and two master's (Urban Affairs), and most recently, a master's in Social Work from NYU. He is now a licensed social worker. Leibovitz is working on his second book, an autobiography.
Leibovitz has started Project Table Tennis, a team-oriented company which operates nationally throughout the United States, implementing, managing and supporting ongoing family and community programs. Projects utilize table tennis as a vehicle to create meaningful relationships between people.
His company works with all ages and conditions, those with Alzheimer's, dementia, drug and alcohol abuse as well as obesity. Among other groups, he has worked with the city Parks Department, vets in Queens and the Bristal Assisted Living Centers in Long Island.
Violinist runs Children's Orchestra Society
Violinist Yeou-Cheng Ma and her brother, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, started music lessons at a young age in France, studying hard and showing extraordinary talent. After the two children played a concert in 1961 on a visit to the United States, an audience member recruited their father, Dr. H.T. Ma, to teach in America and the family emigrated.
The next year, they played at a fund-raiser to build the Kennedy Center. She was 11, and her brother was 7.
Having previously been home-schooled, Ma's first experience in school was in the United States.
"I was in the sixth grade, and, it was in a foreign language," she recalled.
Ma is a developmental pediatrician. She is also the executive director of the Queens-based Children's Orchestra Society that her father founded in 1962. The orchestra was disbanded during the seven years when Ma was studying medicine at Harvard.
She and her husband, Michael Dadap, a Philipines-born guitarist and conductor, relaunched the orchestra in 1984, starting in their Fresh Meadows basement. Dadap is the musical director and conductor.
Ma said of those early years, "I worked five days a week as a doctor and seven days with the orchestra. That's 12 days a week!"
After her second child was born, she cut down practicing medicine to four days a week. Now, while running the orchestra full time, she works one day a week at Albert Einstein Developmental Clinic and one day as the interim medical director in the Mt. Vernon School District.
In Paris, Ma and her brother received many lessons for free from teachers who believed in them. That is why the Children's Orchestra Society charges very little to its students, and nothing for those who cannot pay. Ma sees teaching music as a community service. Students audition, but the desire to learn is the only true requirement.
The orchestra's mission is to cultivate and nurture children in the spirit of teamwork and to provide skills that are useful in life through music learning and performing in orchestral and chamber music settings.
The orchestra has 92 students, ages 6-18, and seven instructors. Ma teaches violin and viola. "At this moment, my youngest student is 4 and should be ready to perform next year," she said. She has taught students as young as almost 3-years-old.
The orchestra plays at least three concerts a year. In July, they played a three-city tour in China.
The organization has a unique child-centered teaching approach to train students in "the language of music." It believes in a child's innate capacity to learn, encouraged in a friendly environment.
In addition to excellent classical music training and performing opportunities, the orchestra reaches out to the community to play concerts benefiting victims of natural disasters. Alumni go on to prestigious colleges and universities, and many of them continue to play.
Perseverance made her a realtor, empathy forged in Italy shaped volunteer
Rita Maruca came to the United States from Italy as a young bride to join her husband. She worked hard to help support her family, but with limited education and a language barrier, it was no easy task.
She had three children and worked sometimes as a home attendant. Once they were all in school 29 years ago, she got her real estate license.
In 1997 after working for real estate companies for nine years, she started Parkview Realty LLC, which is still at the original 108th Street location in Corona. It has been going strong ever since.
"Those early years were hard," said Maruca, ticking off a list of learning a new language, taking care of the kids and starting her own business. She worked weekends - "Whatever I had to do to make things happen."
Maruca never forgot the obstacles she faced and that's what has inspired her empathy.
To this end, she manages to take on a number of community-oriented responsibilities in between her real estate hours. Her list of giving to the community is long.
She helps raise money with the Lions Club to buy food for the St. Leo Church's food pantry, sometimes personally delivering the food. She raises money from her agents and nearby businesses to buy Christmas gifts for children in the neighborhood. She anonymously drops off collected toys for children at St. Mary's Hospital in Bayside.
Maruca also assists with crisis support. She is concerned about women and children finding safe havens when leaving abusive relationships.
"If they have to leave their apartment, I help them find help," she said.
Maruca is knowledgeable about and connected with the many city programs available for women who need this kind of support.
"I can help in getting them to a shelter or relocate," she said, heeding the privacy issues.
In addition, the nonprofit Queens Community House, which serves 30,000 people in the borough, sends interns to Maruca. In her office, they learn how to present themselves in public as well as develop office and real estate skills. "It's a pleasure," she said. "I do it with pleasure. I remember those days when I was a shy girl. I've been there."
Among her friends, Ree Brinn helps out in many of her community endeavors, including the fund-raiser for Loving Touch Animal Shelter, Autism Speaks and the holiday Christmas drive.
"She makes people feel that they can be totally honest, so they open up to her and expose what they're going through," Brinn said. "She just helps them figure it out."