Growing up in East Harlem, my mother Mary Elizabeth was so afraid of letting my sisters and I outside to play and I never understood why until I was much older. In a family of 11 siblings (7 sisters and 3 brothers), I never knew about family outside of our tiny 3-bedroom apartment in East Harlem, New York.
It wasn’t until Christmas of 1994 that I understood the true meaning of family, life, love and happiness. This was the first time we went to visit “family”. We jumped into my dad’s 1989 black Dodge Colt Turbo “lapping up” like sardines. As we crossed over the FDR Bridge, I remember seeing homes of all sizes and colors with driveways decorated with Christmas lights. I felt like I was watching TV live and in living color. When we pulled up to this big beautiful home in Queens, there were three cars in the driveway with a huge bay window out front and there stood a beautifully lit, colorful Christmas tree. As a little girl opened the door, the smell of cinnamon, pine and sweet potato hit my nostrils. My senses tingled and my face lit up. As we entered this beautiful home, my siblings and I stayed close to each other holding and pulling each other’s hands. A woman came over and introduced herself as our aunt, followed by a man who said, “Hi I’m your Uncle”. My father had brothers and other family I never knew existed. We sat next to the beautiful tree and it seemed as if there were hundreds of gifts under the tree. This was also something I have only seen on TV. As my aunt called the names of my siblings, I anxiously awaited while crossing my fingers and praying there was a gift for me. When she finally called my name, butterflies started to flutter in my tummy and my aunt handed me not only one, but THREE gifts. As I slowly unwrapped my gifts one-by-one, I was overcome by the feeling of excitement and gratitude that someone thought of me. The feelings of being acknowledged for the very first time have always stayed with me.
Since then, all I have ever wanted to do was to give back and allow someone to experience what I felt that day when I got older and now I am grateful to be able to do so.
As one of eleven children, I have devoted my life to giving back and improving the lives of others. Through my foundation, Gift of Giving, I have been able to serve over 800 children in Nassau County over the last three years through scholarships and other initiatives. In addition to providing educational opportunities for local youth, we are also piloting the Student Ambassadors program in partnership with local businesses. My six amazing sons serve as an inspiration for the work I do, and my commitment to making a difference in our community remains strong. Together we strive to be a beacon of hope and opportunity for those around us.