Scholarships and keynote speakers were the themes of Port Chester’s Anti-Bullying Committee benefit dinner
This story originally appeared in the 6/11/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.
By John Donegan
Despite a teeming storm outside, the upper crust of Port Chester society met on the fifth floor of T&J Italian Restaurant Thursday night, June 3, to attend the Anti-Bullying Scholarship Fundraiser Dinner. Over mozzarella sticks and oven-baked meals served buffet-style, the benefit highlighted the caustic nature of bullying and the anecdotes of those personally affected by it.
The evening opened on a light note, with the Port Chester Anti-Bullying Committee, who organized the event, honoring Westchester County Executive George Latimer as the Gil Gordon “Gentle Giant” man of the year. Latimer was recognized for his work with Westchester youth and for keeping the public informed and the county transparent during the heat of the pandemic.
“(Latimer) was on TV all the time, he was keeping everything open and informing everybody of where to go and what to do,” said Anti-Bullying Committee co-founder Tom Corbia, who also works under Latimer as a community work assistant for the Westchester Department of Community Mental Health. “He stayed on top of it and worked endlessly.”
The Gil Gordon “Gentle Giant” award is named posthumously after a Port Chester High School head custodian, Gil Gordon, who died in 2019. Latimer, in his acceptance speech, honored Gordon’s time in the district.
Committee members and Westchester County Legislator Nancy Barr also presented Latimer with a proclamation for his dedicated service.
The dinner saw 110 attendees, among them Port Chester Mayor Luis Marino, former Mayor Richard “Fritz” Falanka, Port Chester School Trustee Anne Capeci, Westchester County Police Commissioner Thomas Gleeson, Port Chester Schools Assistant Superintendent Philip Silano, and former Port Chester school board candidate Richard Cirulli, among others.
The $60 cost for a seat included a three-course meal and open bar. The benefit also offered several raffle items, including for two leather wallets, a foot massager, a pressure cooker, gift cards and a 55-inch flat screen TV. Raffles were priced at $5 for the smaller prizes and $10 for the TV. According to the committee, proceeds go to Port Chester High School senior scholarships awarded by the group.
The committee began fundraising after their inception in 2013, when founders James Carriere, Steve Carroll and Corbia resolved to respond to reports of bullying at Port Chester High School in the local papers.
They held a golf tournament in 2015 and have since hosted annual dinners, except last year when it was canceled due to COVID-19. Corbia estimated the committee, since its start, has raised $10,000 in scholarships for Port Chester High School students, divvyed into $1,000 amounts for each recipient.
“It would be nice if someone could sponsor our dinners and then we could give out more scholarships, but that’s part of the goal,” Corbia said. “We’re hoping to strike lightning in a bottle and maybe someone recognizes us after this and wants to help out.”
This year’s two scholarship recipients, Esmerelda Ochoa and Matthew Marini, spoke at the dinner before announcing the colleges they plan to attend in the fall: Manhattan College and Mitchell College, respectively.
The night then shifted to its underlying theme: bullying. Three pivotal women were invited to speak, though one speaker, Jenna Larizza, was not able to attend.
Victoria “Viki” Caputo, the night’s keynote speaker, is the published author of “Trust Me: Through the Eyes of a Survivor,” an expose that challenges the stigmas and myths of mental illness. She’s also a victim of bullying, which she chronicles in the book and rehashed that night from her experiences in middle school that led to her eventual suicide attempt on Jan. 14, 2013.
“I’ve been through a series of mental health issues—depression, anxiety, personality disorders, self-harm, addiction, as well as suicide attempts,” she said. “All of that stems from bullying in the seventh grade.”
Caputo now works as a motivational speaker. Though, as a Port Chester native, she traces some of her success back to the first Anti-Bullying benefit dinner in 2019 where she gave a similar talk on her experiences.
“It was a wonderful night, I met a lot of wonderful people and really felt like I made an impact on the community,” she said. “I am very at home here and it is especially important to me that I’m allowed the opportunity to tell my story.”
Also speaking at the event was Casey Sorbara, a Port Chester resident who spoke about her experiences being bullied at a Catholic school and later feeling the lack of appreciation on her high school basketball team. It was Sorbara’s first time at the benefit dinner, and despite some apparent anxieties, the crowd responded well to her story. Sorbara politely refused later requests for comment on her speech.
Since 2019, legislation has allowed the New York State Division of Human Rights to investigate and crack down on any claims of bullying, harassment and other types of discrimination in New York public schools. Before this extension, the Division had to dismiss over 70 open complaints filed against public schools, according to a press release from the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“A lot of people obviously know about bullying,” Corbia said. “But people don’t know the effects of it. Confronting your enemy or your fears is one way to reduce it.”