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Outstanding Citizens of 2014

We should all know by now that Buffalo is home to many generous, selfless, even heroic citizens. Nevertheless, it is an eye-opener when The News offers its awards for Outstanding Citizens. Amid the difficulties, stresses and disputes, they offer a bracing reminder of the kind of people who live in this corner of the world. These are the people who make a difference in how life is lived. Their efforts make communities better. They offer proof that the efforts of individuals really can influence the course of events.

The honorees for 2014 are Phebian Abdulai, a nurse who fled Sierra Leone before settling in Buffalo in 2001 and then returned to open a community health center; auto dealer Scott Bieler, who has a notable record of community giving; Marylou Borowiak, president of the Food Bank of Western New York; Murray Holman, executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition; Gregory D. Mott, principal of the Grabiarz School of Excellence; and Jim and Mary Sandoro, owners of the Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum.

This year’s recipients were chosen from 16 nominees, any of whom could have been selected. That’s what we mean. We are happy to acknowledge the seven in today’s Buffalo News, but happier still to know that this community is home to many, many others whose work helps to make this a special place.

Gregory D. Mott

As a Buffalo native and educator, Gregory D. Mott knows a thing or two about the city’s schools and the challenges facing young people. His personal experience and deep understanding of these issues is one of the things that has helped his school, Grabiarz School of Excellence, go from one of the worst in the district to one of the best.

“I have been there,” Mott said. “I know with self-motivation and high expectations, you can raise your status.”

Except for the district’s Discovery School, which performed better in reading, the percentage of Grabiarz students deemed proficient in both reading and math lagged behind only a few charter schools and those with special admissions criteria. And that success comes at a school where 94 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and about 27 percent have disabilities.

Raised in a single-parent home on Buffalo’s East Side, Mott attended Buffalo Public Schools. By the time he was a freshman at Kensington High School, he had made one key choice – he wanted better for himself and his family.

After graduation from college, he started as a sub in the Buffalo schools. His first permanent job was as a part-time social studies teacher. Years away from a more stable post, he left the classroom for a full-time job as an attendance officer, working with some of the district’s most troubled students – those who were habitually truant. Over the years, the district moved him from building to building, oftentimes to calm brewing troubles, including racial tensions. His first principal job was at the district’s alternative high school.

After years of working with some of the district’s most at-risk students, Mott turned his attention to a more preventative approach – working at an elementary school.

“When you talk about students who were in the juvenile system and the criminal system, let’s reach them while they’re impressionable in their primary years,” Mott said. “I wanted to go back and put all my energy into reaching them earlier.”

– Tiffany Lankes

James and Mary Ann Sandoro

James and Mary Ann Sandoro, owners of the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum, were in the driver’s seat last June. That’s when the site at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Seneca Street presented the Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station exhibit in a new 40,000-square-foot glass-and-steel atrium to a room full of well-wishers.

The project was 12 years in the making, and is expected to attract tourists in this country and beyond. But the couple have already moved on to their next goal: With the purchase last November of a building east of the Pierce-Arrow, they are planning to create the largest automobile museum in the world.

With more than a quarter-million artifacts in storage, the Sandoros won’t need to purchase anything to fill the anticipated 300,000 square feet of exhibit space. Their collectibles range from vintage Pierce-Arrow automobiles, carriages and bicycles to historic motorcycles, trucks, signs, postcards and Pan-American Exposition artifacts.

“We hope it will become very valuable as far as tourism, and that’s what we’re all about – tourism,” James Sandoro said.

The couple care passionately about their remarkable collections – and the community they share them with. James, who is from the East Side, and Mary Ann, who grew up in Dunkirk, have been married for 44 years, and have lived in a home a short distance from the museum.

To maintain the museum after they’re gone, the Sandoros have willed that, upon their deaths, everything they own will go to the not-for-profit museum.

“It’s exciting to see people enjoy all the stuff we have collected, and that we love so much, and that means so much to us,” said Mary Ann Sandoro, a former curator of exhibits at the Buffalo History Museum.

“We want to keep this intact for generations to come,” added James Sandoro. “This isn’t about our legacy. It’s about the heritage of all those families who came here from Europe, and other places, to make Buffalo the fantastic industrial powerhouse that it was.”

– Mark Sommer

Murray Holman

Murray Holman knows the pain of losing a loved one to violence.

His father-in-law was fatally shot in 2010. His brother was killed when a car he was hanging onto crashed in a drug-infested neighborhood.

Holman came precariously close to going down a similar road himself, when in the 1980s he considered joining what would become one of the city’s most notorious gangs.

But he had a peacemaker in his life. Pastor James Giles showed Holman another path.

“The same stuff he taught me, I’m using now,” he said in a previous interview.

Holman serves as executive director of the city’s Stop the Violence Coalition, which runs programs to mediate disputes and prevent violence in the community. His group works with others in the city as part of a broader Peacemaker initiative.

That includes walking the Walden Galleria on weekend nights, looking for groups of teens who might be looking for trouble. The group patrols Chippewa Street, and maintains a presence at events such as the Gus Macker basketball tournament and Juneteenth Festival.

Most recently the group took to street corners all over the city, trying to curtail drug activity in the hours when hundreds of students are trying to make it safely home from school.

Holman and others in the group aren’t just looking for trouble. They try to forge relationships with the city’s young people, serve as mentors and inspire them to finish their education and make a better life for their futures.

Just like Giles did for Holman.

“Our main concern is stopping the drug activity and violence that is ruining this community,” he said.

– Jane Kwiatkowski and Tiffany Lankes

Marylou Borowiak

Staff members and volunteers at the Food Bank of Western New York don’t have to look far to find a role model for hard work, dedication and honest-to-goodness inspiration. That commitment starts right at the top with Marylou Borowiak, the Food Bank’s president and CEO.

“I’ve never met someone with so much passion. She bleeds Food Bank colors, green and white,” said Tom Berical, CPA, chairman of the Food Bank’s board of directors. “She is looked up to by the staff and the management there, and she has developed a great team to carry the Food Bank through the growth of these past few years.”

Borowiak has held the top job with the Food Bank since 2008, taking charge just as the Great Recession began tightening its grip on the national economy. Before becoming president and CEO, she was a Food Bank board member and chairwoman, its volunteer of the year and a top executive with Greater Buffalo Savings Bank.

The huge nonprofit supplies food to a total of 330 member agencies to help feed the hungry in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. Together, they provide 15.3 million pounds of food to feed 106,000 individuals every month.

Leading by example, Borowiak has kept the focus of her organization solidly on the people who need it most: the individuals whose financial challenges threaten to overwhelm them. The working poor. The recently unemployed. Seniors. People with disabilities. Children. She understands that the Food Bank’s mission goes much deeper than filling empty stomachs. She will tell you that it also fills an emotional need for people who are struggling to make ends meet, to maintain their dignity and to get on their feet. Many recipients need only a little help through the tough times, and that is when Borowiak, her staff and hundreds of volunteers make all the difference.

“She has that personal touch that takes time and dedication. She does a great job getting the right people in the right place, and reaching people who can make a difference,” Berical said. “She is an amazing person.”

– Melinda Miller

Phebian Abdulai

Phebian Abdulai did not have to go back to Sierra Leone. She was lucky enough to be resettled in the United States after she fled her native country as it was torn apart by a bloody civil war. Abdulai spent years in a Gambian refugee camp with her husband and children before they were selected to move to Buffalo in 2001. She became a nurse and came to work at the Jericho Road Community Health Center on the West Side.

But she felt a calling – to return to Sierra Leone to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Her late mother had been a midwife and had always implored her to come back to her hometown of Koidu to help her people. Abdulai shared her dream with Dr. Myron Glick, the founder of Jericho Road. After years of planning, construction began on a clinic. It would provide primary care and would assist women in births in a region that desperately lacks even the most basic medical care.

Then last spring, Sierra Leone was among the worst hit by the deadly Ebola virus. The clinic was never intended to be a place that could deal with such a contagious disease. Abdulai could have left, but instead she insisted on going forward with the plans for the Adama Martha Memorial Community Health Center. Earlier this year, the clinic, built by local townspeople, finally opened its doors. It is not an Ebola treatment center, but strict protocols and equipment were put in place in case someone with Ebola symptoms comes in for care.

Glick reported that the clinic is now averaging 50 people per day and two healthy babies have been born there already.

“Phebian – she’s a really courageous person,” Glick said. “She survived the civil war, which was a horrible time. … She barely escaped with her life. I think she really felt God saved her for a reason.”

Abdulai, 50, told The News that her inspiration all along was her mother. “What is driving me to actually do that is the value that was instilled in me by my mother,” she said. “My mother was a lady who had passion to help in the face of trouble, in the face of hard times.”

– Maki Becker

Scott Bieler

As president of West Herr Automotive Group, Scott Bieler leads one of the largest auto dealer groups in the nation, familiar for its high-volume car and truck sales throughout Western New York.

Bieler joined West Herr as a salesman in 1975 and climbed the ranks, becoming president in 1997, and majority owner in 2000.

While he leads a high-profile dealer group, the extensive scope of his charitable work is less well-known.

Bieler spearheaded a campaign that raised $25 million for Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Clinical Sciences Center. He also joined the “Circle of 10” families that each contributed $1 million to the campaign. He is a past winner of Roswell Park’s Katherine Anne Gioia Award for volunteer leadership.

“As someone who cares deeply about my business, my employees and about Western New York, I am proud to support Roswell Park,” Bieler said a few years ago.

Last year, Bieler committed a $300,000 donation to Erie Community College under a naming-rights agreement for West Herr. ECC will put the donation toward plans to build a $30 million science and technology building on its North Campus. Bieler is a 1974 ECC alumnus.

He has also played a role in the annual Ford Friendship Express program, which donates vans to local non-profits. Since launching in 1996, the program has donated more than 70 vans and attracts numerous applications each year.

Bieler also serves on the boards of the Buffalo Zoo, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Daemen College Community Advisory Board. In May, the Canisius College Board of Regents will honor him with its 2015 Distinguished Citizen award.

“We take our community role very seriously and we are committed to giving back to the community that has supported us,” Bieler said when he received a dealer award from Ford Motor Co. a few years ago.

– Matt Glynn