Donald J. Sykes, who died in 1991, was disabled only on paper. Sykes, affectionately known as "Donny," contracted the rare auto-immune disease dermato-myositis, which left him a quadriplegic, when he was 8 years old. Despite his handicap, Sykes was active in many community causes, organizing sports tournaments and several benefits and serving as chairman of the Atlantic County Disabled Citizens Advisory Board.
On Oct. 16, five members of the Atlantic County community who, like Sykes, refuse to be limited by their so-called disabilities, were honored at the 24th annual Donald J. Sykes Awards Ceremony.
"I'm honored," said Gladys Carney, of Absecon, who was one of the recipients of the award. "I never got an award before, and like I said, I don't need an award for doing what I love to do. I love doing it."
The ceremony was established in 1989 by the county to coincide with DisABILITY Awareness Month and was later renamed in memory of Sykes after his death. Each year, the Atlantic County Division of Intergenerational Services and the Atlantic County Disabled Citizens Advisory Board solicit and review nominations for the honor.
Joe Brown, of Galloway Township, Kathy Rawa, of Egg Harbor City, Jackie Henkel, of Pleasantville, and Anthony Lanzilotti, of Brigantine, also received awards at the ceremony, which was held at the Mays Landing Country Club.
Carney, who is 88 years old and legally blind, is a telephone reassurance volunteer at CONTACT Cape-Atlantic Inc., who provides reassurance calls to 44 elderly or disabled clients each week.
Carney said she gets as much benefit from her efforts as her clients do.
"I just love what I do. That's all," Carney said. "They cheer me up. If I'm down, there (are) certain people I call. They cheer me up."
Brown, who was a close personal friend of Sykes and worked with him on a variety of causes, said he was honored to be given the award.
Brown has been in a wheelchair since he was in a car accident while serving in the military in Germany in 1967. He has been an active volunteer for several organizations, including the Great Atlantic Bluefish Tournament and South Jersey Field of Dreams.
Sykes, and the award ceremony named for him, are a continuing source of inspiration for him and other disabled citizens of Atlantic County, Brown said.
"The disabled community isn't hidden now, like they used to be, years and years ago," Brown said. "They're out there in the forefront, and this way the county can show us some of the people that are and can make a difference."
Rawa began to lose her sight in 2008, she said, due to optical nerve neuritis and recurring detached retinas. Generous with her time even before her disability, she decided to become active in causes for the blind, helping form the South Jersey chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, of which she is president. She and her 3-year-old service dog, a yellow lab and golden retriever mix named Dorito, also volunteer at the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation.
Rawa said she is involved in these activities not for the personal recognition, but to show the disabled and nondisabled alike that if she can help others, they can, too.
"Many people do a lot of talking, but nobody does anything, so you go out there and you make a domino effect, but you don't have to be recognized for that," Rawa said. "It's the whole effect. You see all the dominos fall all different directions and you change everybody's life in all different ways."
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