Photo courtesy of Ramapo College
Richard Pompelio (center) with Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation and Peter P. Mercer , president of Ramapo College.
By Fran Hardy
SPARTA — The golden rule and the Biblical commandment to love thy neighbor express a widely accepted philosophy. But for some, these words are not just platitudes, but clear blueprints for their lives.Two of these people are Suzanne Stigers of Andover and Sparta resident Richard Pompelio, who were among 12 finalists honored last week with a 2013 Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference.The award ceremony was held last Thursday at Ramapo College of New Jersey. This was the 17th consecutive year that the college and the Berrie Foundation have honored outstanding New Jersey residents for giving back to their communities.The awards were created in 1997 by the late Russell Berrie to recognize the unsung heroes who work for the benefit of others. Finalists were chosen by a committee of New Jersey business, non-profit, and civic leaders and professionals.Along with the recognition, Pompelio ans Stigers each received $5,000.Suzanne Stigers: Coupons for the CommunityThree years ago, Stigers, a busy working mom, was disheartened by news that local food pantries were running low on inventory because donations had slowed after the economic downturn. She knew budgets were tight for many, but she also had faith people help if they could. So instead of seeking food donations, she came up with the idea of asking people to donate unwanted manufacturer’s coupons.With these, she began buying badly needed items at a fraction of their cost. She named the project, Coupons for the Community, and gathered a few volunteers to help collect and clip coupons, shop for goods, and make deliveries to local food pantries.Stigers also began fundraising and proved she and her volunteers really know how to stretch a dollar. She calls the organization, “the little engine that could”, because they’ve kept chugging along without slowing, their small resources fueled by big goals.Since their beginning in 2009, Coupons for the Community has purchased $300,000 worth of food and toiletries for food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and local service agencies, but have spent only $60,000 dollars by using coupons. Stigers and her band of dedicated volunteers now support 30 locations across five counties in northern New Jersey.In 2010, CFC adapted the 100th Day of School penny program to have students bring in toiletry items not covered by food stamps.They also run a Children’s Summer Lunch program through Sparta’s First Presbyterian Church. The program distributes over 1,000 bags of food to school aged children in Sussex County who usually receive subsidized lunches during the school year, but not during the summer.CFC receives donations of surplus fresh produce from local farmers on a weekly basis through the Harvest Hope program and they deliver these to shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries.Last year Stigers and her volunteers began holding ‘Cooking with Coupons’ classes for homeless shelter residents to show them how to shop with coupons, budget their money, and cook healthy meals. Their goal is to teach a family of four living on food stamps to eat well for $50 a week.Of her award, Stigers said, “It was an incredible day and I was so humbled to be included in such an amazing group of people. But I couldn’t do any of this without my little army of volunteers who show up every week and work tirelessly.” She said after the Independent ran the first story on CFC in 2009, six women called and volunteered to join her efforts. Stigers said those same six are still with her today, but the group has grown to 25.Stigers said her philosophy is, “I want to bring the sexy back to love thy neighbor.” She said people have an incredible ability to rally together to help one another in a crisis, citing the way strangers came together to help after the Sept. 11 and the Boston terror attacks. She said, “But it shouldn’t take the towers coming down or bombs going off for us to help and get involved. This isn’t about politics or religion or government. People should have the basic things they need. We can work together and help.”Richard Pompelio: New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law CenterPompelio, a Sparta attorney, was devastated in 1989 when his son, Anthony, was killed coming to the aid of a friend who was being held at knife point. Tony was a 17-year-old high school senior at the time.Throughout the ordeal, Pompelio and his family saw first-hand the harsh treatment victims of violent crime encounter in the criminal justice system and vowed he would dedicate the rest of his life to making sure victims were given a voice.In 1992, Pompelio left his law practice and established the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center in Whippany, the first pro-bono law center of its kind in the nation. The center is supported by grants, donations, and fund raising events.So far, the center has represented 10,000 victims and has been a model for 11 similar operations in the nation.Pompelio also wrote a book, for which he does not charge, for use as a reference tool by judges, prosecutors, attorneys, advocates and victims service providers. Pompelio’s work is devoted to empowering victims by helping them regain confidence and lose the anger and bitterness they feel because of the crime.Pompelio also helped draft New Jersey’s Victim’s Bill of Rights.At the Russ Berrie Award ceremony last week, Pompelio was seated next to Stigers. The two had never met. Stigers said he congratulated her and commented that they were neighbors because they live in neighboring towns.Stigers responded, “We’re closer than you think.” She explained that she knew his son Tony in high school and actually rode the bus with him. She said, “Then we both just cried. It was quite a day.”