April 01, 2022

Awards and Honors: Representative Assembly 2022

Source:  NYSUT Representative Assembly 2022
ra honorees

Many NYSUT members have achieved special recognition for their work, both professionally and in their communities. The RA will recognize the following members with awards.


Debra Penny
United Federation of Teachers

debra pennyFor 28 years at Staten Island’s PS 32, Debra Penny was a passionate elementary school teacher, beloved by students, parents and colleagues. Penny, who is the treasurer of the United Federation of Teachers, has put that same kind of dedication into her union work — serving in many positions with the UFT and as a NYSUT Board member.

Penny cares deeply about safeguarding the retirement benefits for today’s and tomorrow’s union members. Using the expertise she gained after years as a UFT pension specialist, Penny was elected in 2016 to serve as a trustee of the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System Board. She is now chair of the TRS Board.

On the national front, Penny serves as the co-chair of the American Federation of Teachers Trustee Council, the National Council on Teacher Retirement, and serves as a member of the National Council of Public Employee Pensions. In recognition of her fiduciary achievements, Penny has been named to the National Association of Securities Professionals Wall Street Hall of Fame.

Penny began her union work as a UFT chapter leader. She rose through the ranks as a UFT educational liaison, a special representative and political action coordinator on Staten Island, rising to become the borough representative in 2012.

Dawn Sherwood
Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association

Dawn SherwoodWith a career spanning four decades, former Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association President Dawn Sherwood is known as a great collaborator, educator and unionist.

As a high school history teacher, Sherwood collaborated with colleagues to bring relevant, real-world opportunities beyond the classroom. She was well known for imparting not only her knowledge of historical events, but also personal narratives and thought-provoking sayings many in HCTA called “Dawnisms.”

Sherwood has worked tirelessly to build community coalitions to support students and families on Long Island. She organized monthly dinner meetings with parents and educators to share priorities and common ground. She spearheaded Immigrant Law sessions to assist undocumented community members; annual health fairs; dance classes; book distributions and clothing drives. When charter schools first applied to open locally, Sherwood quickly mobilized HCTA and the community to demand equality and accountability.

Sherwood’s union service began as a building representative, then she quickly moved up to grievance chair, first vice president and president. She also guided her local through NYSUT’s Local Action Project and groundbreaking work on an educator evaluation system. Since retiring in 2013, Sherwood is the vice president of the Hempstead Educator Retiree Association.


Carly Santangelo
Cuba-Rushford Teachers Association

CarlySantangeloCarly Santangelo, a middle and high school agriculture teacher at Cuba-Rushford Central School in Western New York, is the 2022 New York State Teacher of the Year. Santangelo, a member of the Cuba-Rushford Teachers Association, received this year’s prestigious State Education Department honor not only for her work teaching environmental stewardship and agricultural sustainability, but also her efforts to prepare students in her rural community for the workforce and community building.

A nine-year classroom veteran, Santangelo studied agriculture in high school and was an active 4-H and Future Farmers of America member. She aims to develop in her students a sense of community through initiatives such as volunteering at the local food bank and teaching elementary school students and area businesses about the value of composting. She wants her students to realize the impact they can make on the greater good.

Described by fellow teachers and administrators as knowledgeable, enthusiastic and authentic, Santangelo is a teacher whose impact extends well beyond the classroom. For an example, look no further than the World Foods and Diversity program she founded with Joseph Franzen, a Cuba-Rushford history teacher. The course helps students understand how gender, race, history and other global issues relate to the food we eat.

“Food’s something we all connect with,” Santangelo said. “Giving kids the opportunity to have their hands in the soil and produce their own food empowers them. It gives them a point of connection to people who they might not have had a connection to before.”

Santangelo also works to expose all students to fields traditionally viewed as male-oriented, such as welding. Doing so, she said, helps break down gender-based barriers and stereotypes. Prior to teaching at Cuba-Rushford, Santangelo taught at the Belmont Career and Technical Center, first in Animal Science and then as the integrated academic science teacher. She continues to teach informally as a volunteer with Allegany County 4-H.


Lois Emerick
North Babylon Paraprofessional/Cafeteria Aide Chapter

LoisEmerickLois Emerick, longtime president of the North Babylon Paraprofessional/Cafeteria Aide chapter, knows that knowledge is power. So, in her three decades as a union leader, she has worked tirelessly to provide meaningful training for members.

Emerick, a high school special education paraprofessional, has attended numerous NYSUT and AFT trainings and brought them back to her members. During a union-planned district conference day, she coordinated all the training for her 145-member unit. She also negotiated specialized training for her members who work with students with severe behavioral needs.

In the last round of negotiations, Emerick started open bargaining for her chapter to increase transparency and get more members involved. She also serves as an action representative for her building, spearheading community service activities.

“During the pandemic shutdown, Lois reported to work every day to hand out groceries, school supplies and meals to hundreds of families every day,” said Kathryn Dein, president of the North Babylon Teachers Organization, who nominated Emerick for the statewide award. “Lois is a tremendous asset to the NBTO and to the children and community of North Babylon.”

Rosemarie Thompson
United Federation of Teachers

RosemarieThompsonRosemarie Thompson grew up in Jamaica and migrated to New York City as a child.

“I had great teachers who supported me. I met a good (school) counselor, and I wanted to become a school counselor through him,” she recalled.

And true to her word, that’s just what she became.

Thompson has worked as a school counselor for 24 years — the last 19 at Belmont Preparatory High School in the Bronx, where she works with students to navigate challenges.

A member of the United Federation of Teachers, she has been an active union member throughout her career, serving as a chapter delegate and eventually rising to the citywide position of chapter leader for school counselors.

“A union is one big family. We try to always be on the same page so that there is strength in numbers and we are informed when we have to advocate for an issue that will benefit workers,” she said. “That type of activism draws to my personality because as a school counselor you try to teach right from wrong, and I believe in doing right by people.”


Norma Chrisman
Mohawk Valley Community College Professional Association

NormaChrismanNorma Chrisman has been a member of NYSUT for 20 years, and she has been the president of the Mohawk Valley Community College Professional Association since 2013, representing faculty and non-teaching professionals.

Active in the union from the day she was hired, Chrisman has stepped up to serve many roles including on the Grievance Committee and the Executive Board. She has worked as the web developer and webmaster, and the database manager for the union and the PA Benefits Fund. A longtime member of NYSUT’s Higher Education Policy Council, Chrisman is also on the Community College Conference Planning Committee.

When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, Chrisman, as manager of educational technologies, had to ensure that all MVCC courses were available online. She and a handful of faculty worked to train any who had limited knowledge of the technology as they made the rapid transition.

Jean Grassman
Professional Staff Congress

JeanGrassmanA member of NYSUT and the Professional Staff Congress for two decades, Jean Grassman has been a health and safety coordinator since 2009. In that role, she helped build and maintain a robust infrastructure of campus-based Health and Safety representatives on all of our campuses.

Since the winter of 2020 when news of COVID–19 began to emerge, Grassman tirelessly led the PSC efforts to keep campuses safe in the face of the pandemic. Her informed guidance helped win union representation on all campus reopening committees and the right to walkthroughs, which undoubtedly contributed to CUNY’s own measured approach to reopening.

She has given confidence to thousands of PSC members who know, whether they are working on campus or remotely, that the union has been active and vigilant in holding CUNY accountable to its obligation to keep the workplace safe.


Mary Brooks
Alliance of School Based Health Professionals

MaryBrooksHonored here in memoriam, Mary Brooks was a person you could always count on to work tirelessly and unselfishly to help better the professional lives of her colleagues. She managed her union and her professional responsibilities as a physical therapy assistant at Western Suffolk BOCES with diligence, grace and humor. Brooks passed away last October.

As president of her local union for 31 years, Brooks was known as a patient, considerate and thorough chief negotiator who always sought to represent and resolve her members’ concerns with the employer. Brooks co-chaired blood drives and coordinated the union’s annual participation in NYSUT Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walks.

After the tragic death of her adult son Johnny, Brooks became involved in organizing walks to benefit “Shatterproof,” an organization dedicated to ending the addiction crisis in the U.S.

Sandra Nin
United Federation of Teachers

SandraNinTalk to Sandra Nin about her distinguished career as a nurse and unionist and she immediately credits two guiding forces in her life: United Federation of Teachers Vice President Anne Goldman, and Nin’s father, a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

Nin started her career at Lutheran Medical Center in 1984, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Despite all her years in health care, what she experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic she calls unprecedented.” The death toll was staggering. Nurses worked endless hours. Uncertainty, stress and exhaustion were constant.

Yet, through it all, her union was there, with protective equipment, food and much-needed support.

“We never felt alone,” said Nin, a Federation of Nurses, UFT member.

The support a union provides is something Nin learned early in her career when nurses went on strike at Lutheran Medical. That’s when she met Goldman, whom she credits with her development as an informed unionist.

Nin has fought for better wages, nurse/patient ratios, and ending mandatory overtime.

“I’m very passionate about nursing. … I found through the union, and having a voice, we’re able to really help communities, and the patients in hospitals, for better outcomes.”


Veronica O’Connor
Retiree Council 15/16

VeronicaOConnorVeronica O’Connor is the definition of NYSUT’s “daytime army” of union retirees. The Retiree Council 15/16 president participates in Committee of 100, serves on NYSUT’s statewide Retiree Advisory Committee, and is the retiree representative for the Pelham Teachers Association, which keeps Pelham retirees informed and involved. She is also a delegate to the Westchester-Putnam Central AFL-CIO Labor Council, and to the COPE Convention for the Pelham TA.

O’Connor was instrumental in amending RC 15/16’s constitution and by-laws and, during the COVID-19 shutdown, transitioned smoothly from in-person to virtual meetings and programs, creating an extensive database of retiree contact information through virtual registrations. A longtime Making Strides walks participant, O’Connor also encourages member contributions to NYSUT’s Disaster Relief Fund.

She has received NYSUT’s Community Service Award and the American Federation of Teachers’ Living the Legacy Award in recognition of 50 years of leadership and advocacy.

Barbara Waldmann
United Federation of Teachers

BarbaraWaldmanWhen Barbara Waldmann was growing up, she took a job at a factory along with her sister to earn money for college. It wasn’t long before she knew something wasn’t right. Conditions were deplorable.

Though just a teenager, Waldmann took it upon herself to look at the contract that covered the union employees and then met with the shop steward, telling him something had to be done. And so, they stopped the factory’s knitting machines until working conditions improved.

It took just 48 hours before their demands were met.

“That was the beginning of my activism I guess you could say,” said Waldmann, a member of the United Federation of Teachers who taught for 38 years in New York City public schools.

During her retirement, Waldmann has campaigned in numerous states for pro-labor candidates, fought back against anti-union threats, advocated for pro-labor causes, and rallied for the right for workers to organize.

“Being retired, the union has given me an opportunity to develop parts of myself that I don’t even think I knew I had,” she said. “Working collectively, we can do so much.”


Matthew “Dezy” DiStefano
Sachem Central Teachers Association

MattDiStefanoMatthew “Dezy” DiStefano, a member of the Sachem Central Teachers Association who passed away in January 2020 from a rare form of kidney cancer, is the winner of NYSUT’s inaugural Humanitarian Award.

A special education teacher and volleyball coach at his alma mater, Sachem North High School, DiStefano is being honored for his inspiring work in creating the DezyStrong Foundation which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help defray the cost of cancer treatments for patients and to make families as comfortable as possible in their time of need.

The impetus for the Humanitarian Award came from a resolution passed by the SCTA, led by President Philip Barbera, which asked NYSUT to consider recognizing members who make significant humanitarian contributions to their communities.

DiStefano’s work galvanized not only the Sachem community, but also attracted the support of professional sports teams such as the New York Islanders, and numerous collegiate and high school athletic programs throughout the country. Recently, the DezyStrong Foundation Infusion Suite was opened at Huntington Hospital on Long Island to help make patients more comfortable while undergoing treatments.