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Truly fine citizens made a mark

Ordinary people, doing extraordinary things.

That is whom yours truly has annually recognized at this time of year, for more years than I can count (math having never been a strong point). An Esmonde Award, aka Ezzy, comes with no plaque, no cash, no certificate. It is merely a public pat on the back to deserving folks for helping to make our community a better place. Without further ado, this year’s recipients:

David Edwards – He didn’t just save Karen Rossi’s life. The Good Samaritan behind the wheel of the four-wheel drive pickup epitomized all of the everyday heroes of the November storm. It dumped up to 7 feet of snow from South Buffalo through the Southtowns, prompting countless acts of kindness.

Rossi, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, got stuck in a snowbank on William Street in Lancaster on the way home after a night shift. Stranded for 13 hours, encased in a snow cocoon, her cellphone dead, gas tank on fumes and with no blankets, she penned farewell notes to her daughters. She also, in desperation, climbed out the car window, burrowed up through the snow and – standing on the window frame – sporadically waved a red snow brush through the top of the hole. Edwards, headed home from his railroad job, spotted the makeshift flag, stopped, and dug her out. He took the wet, shivering Rossi back to his house, stopping to help several people on the way. The fierce storm exacted a heavy toll, but – if not for Edwards and everyone like him – it would have been far worse.

Ibrahim Cisse – Being part of an ongoing neighborhood resurrection is one thing. Trying to jump-start the revival of a no-buzz neighborhood is another. The twin revivals of downtown and the West Side are about many hands and much momentum. The resurrection Cisse is spearheading on Bailey Avenue is a heavier lift.

The entrepreneur and urban warrior is transforming the Uptown Theater, a former porn palace, into a community anchor, with offices, a Subway sandwich shop and performance/reception space. A transplant from Africa’s Ivory Coast, Cisse is part of the wave of immigrants who are re-shaping Buffalo. From a storefront tech consulting business, he is building a mini-empire – while leading the neighborhood business association and enlisting UB and the Urban League in showing others the way. Opportunities abound on the East Side. With more reinforcements, Cisse’s one-man effort might transform into a movement.

Danielle Coogan – It started with a 30th birthday celebration at a Tonawanda Island restaurant. It morphed into a crusade to save stray cats. Coogan noticed the wild cat population in and around the marina restaurant last summer. She had stumbled upon an open secret – the 84-acre island, home mostly to warehouses and factories, has for years been a dumping ground for unwanted cats. Estimates of the population of strays, many of them feral, range from dozens to hundreds.

Coogan got national attention after setting up an Operation: Island Cats account on She raised about $10,000, hooked up with the local Humane Society on a trap/neuter/release program and worked to change an archaic town law preventing people from helping strays.

Gail McCarthy – The co-founder, with late husband Marvin Lunenfeld, of the annual Garden Walk returned from Florida to her Buffalo roots last summer to behold a transformation. Coming back for the Garden Walk for the first time in 10 years confirmed her belief that the plantings bestow a restorative power on neighborhoods. It is what the couple anticipated when they began the event 20 years ago, with a front-yard garden and “welcome” bench at the corner of Utica and Norwood. There are plenty of reasons for the West Side’s ongoing revival. But the power – understood by McCarthy and Lunenfeld – of homeowners planting gardens, thus spurring neighbors to upgrade their properties, has been a driving force.