10 Winners Selected at Great Oak Awards Dinner

The event honored businesses large and small for their exemplary contributions to various non-profits and to their communities at large.

The winners of the second annual Great Oak Awards. From left, standing: Shaun Mickus of Johnson & Johnson, Robert Zajac of Investors Savings Bank, Michael Steffaro of Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes, Gary Fisch of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, Michael Smith of president of Berkeley College, an event sponsor, Tom Hayes of New Jersey Natural Gas, Scott Kobler of McCarter & English, Mark Avondoglio of Perona Farms, Sam Della Fera Jr., of Trenk DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono. From left, sitting: Jacqueline Pena of Investors Savings Bank, Ellen Lambert of PSEG, Diana Blankman of Novo Nordisk, Shoshana Schiff of Trenk, DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono.
The winners of the second annual Great Oak Awards. From left, standing: Shaun Mickus of Johnson & Johnson, Robert Zajac of Investors Bank, Michael Steffaro of Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes, Gary Fisch of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, Michael Smith of president of Berkeley College, an event sponsor, Tom Hayes of New Jersey Natural Gas, Scott Kobler of McCarter & English, Mark Avondoglio of Perona Farms, Sam Della Fera Jr., of Trenk DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono. From left, sitting: Jacqueline Pena of Investors Savings Bank, Ellen Lambert of PSEG, Diana Blankman of Novo Nordisk, Shoshana Schiff of Trenk, DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono.

When the judges for this year’s Great Oak Awards met in June, they were confronted with a major dilemma: How do you choose 10 New Jersey companies to honor for their philanthropy from a field of 64 exceptional—and deserving—finalists?

It was a challenge, but after careful consideration and much debate, the members of the expert panel made their picks. The 10 Great Oak Awards honorees for 2015 were revealed September 29 at a reception and dinner at the Palace at Somerset Park. New Jersey Monthly launched the Great Oak Awards in 2014 to honor Garden State companies of all sizes for their charitable giving programs and policies that support nonprofits in our state.

Honorees were chosen in three categories, based on number of New Jersey employees. Wayne-based retailer Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, Perona Farms in Andover, and West Orange-based law firm Trenk, DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono took home honors in the small-business category. Dignity Memorial Funeral Providers of New Jersey in Toms River, the law firm McCarter & English in Newark, New Jersey Natural Gas in Wall, and pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk in Plainsboro were the winners among the medium businesses. Investors Bank, based in Short Hills, Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick and PSEG in Newark topped the large-business category. To see photos of each of the winners, click here.

The Great Oak Awards are open to any for-profit company with a facility or location and employees in the state of New Jersey. The Awards are based on charitable activities within the state, including direct financial support, in-kind donations of goods and services, volunteer hours, matching funds for employee contributions, and programs to encourage employee volunteerism. (Nominations for the 2016 Great Oak Awards are now open.)

The evening’s keynote speaker, Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset and former secretary of state of New Jersey, emphasized the importance of philanthropy. “After we earn the money we earn,” said Soaries, “the fundamental question we must ask is, are we doing any good?”

The honorees themselves described the many ways and means of giving. “We like to diversify our donations,” said Gary Fisch, owner of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace. “We give back to the arts community, the medical community, wherever we can.” For example, Gary’s hosts an annual Grand Tasting event; in 2014, the gathering raised $25,000 for Interfaith Food Pantry, the Morris Museum, Gagnon Cardiovascular Institute of Morristown Medical Center, and Atlantic Home Care and Hospice.

Perona Farms, a wedding and special-events venue in Sussex County, supports community organizations in the areas where its employees live and work, allowing them to do volunteer work and participate in nonprofit events in lieu of scheduled shifts.

“We’ve been in existence for almost 100 years,” said Mark Avondoglio, the company’s vice president, “largely because we continue to give back to the community that has given so much to us.”

Trenk, DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono, P.C. supports an array of notable causes, including March of Dimes Walk for Babies and the Township of West Orange Holiday Sunshine Fund. The firm also does substantial pro bono work. “I’m proud of the firm-wide commitment to community service,” said managing partner Sam Della Fera Jr. “It’s not just the attorneys, the whole staff gets involved.”

Della Fera was impressed by the good works of all the  Great Oak finalists. “I was struck by Pope Francis’s recent call to treat each other better, and I think all the finalists do just that by demonstrating their commitment to the community,” he said.

Dignity Memorial works with the NJ Sharing Network and is part of the Donate Life campaign for organ, eye and tissue donations.
“As funeral directors, we’ve always been part of our community,” said community relations director Steve Dranow. “There’s a lot of misconception about what it means to be an organ donor, and we want to make sure there’s awareness of how to give to others.”

McCarter & English participates in the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge and has advocated for Hurricane Sandy victims, asylum seekers, wounded veterans and service members. It also runs a Domestic Violence Project with Partners for Women and Justice.
New Jersey Natural Gas hosts a Volunteers Inspiring Service in Our Neighborhoods program to support local nonprofits such as the Ronald McDonald House and Lunch Break. Additionally, the energy utility has helped provide homes for 88 first-time homeowners in Monmouth, Ocean and Morris counties.

“Seeing families crying from joy after becoming homeowners for the first time is so rewarding,” said director of corporate communications Mike Kinney.

Novo Nordisk’s new Community Health Collaborative supports and expands healthy lifestyles throughout Trenton. “Every employee really understands that giving back of their time and of their service is who we are as a company,” said Diana Blankman, the company’s senior director, U.S. Corporate Giving & Social Impact. “It’s one of many reasons people want to work with us.”

Investors Bank has a long-standing relationship with St. John’s Soup Kitchen in Newark, where employees serve breakfast and prepare lunch twice a month. Robert Jordan, assistant vice president and branch manager of the East Brunswick office, said the company is committed to discovering the needs of the communities they serve and meeting those needs to the best of its ability.

“The platform we stand on is, ‘Community, commitment, character,’” he said. “We try to look at initiatives that will help the community we are in. When we build new branches, we reach out to find out how we can help.”

Johnson & Johnson provided more than 4,000 students and teachers with supplemental STEM-focused programs in 2014 through partnerships with Liberty Science Center and Rutgers University.

PSEG supports public service with the Recognizing Excellence in Volunteerism awards. Over the past five years, the company has given $500,000 to employee-chosen nonprofits.

Great Oak Awards finalists and honorees are chosen through a multistep process. First, New Jersey Monthly invites nominations of companies that should be considered for recognition. Eligible companies are asked to provide detailed information about their philanthropic activities via an online submission form. The editors of New Jersey Monthly choose the finalists based on these applications. An expert panel of judges then selects the winners from each of the three categories (small, medium and large) on the basis of the following criteria: extent and quality of resources and services provided; level and duration of company commitment; impact of company support; program innovation; and size of business relative to level of giving.

For 2015, the judges were Hans Dekker, president, Community Foundation of New Jersey; Dennis C. Miller, president and CEO, Revitalizing Your Nonprofit Board; and Abby O’Neill, principal, Abby O’Neill Consulting, LLC.

Read about all the 2015 finalists here.

Nominate a company for our 2016 Great Oak Awards here.

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