The Secaucus chapter of UNICO was chartered in 2002. Translated from Italian, the name means "only one of its kind." It also stands for Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity and Opportunity. It is a national, non-political, organization dedicated to national and community projects.
"We are a non-profit organization made up of people with Italian-American heritage," said Sal Barone, the Secaucus chapter president. "Our motto is 'service above self.' Through donations, fundraisers and events like the Citizen of the Year dinner, we raise thousands of dollars each year with which we help those in need, the food pantry, and contributions to many other worthy causes. This past year alone, we have given six $1,000 scholarships to local graduating high school students."
Citizen of the Year
This year, members of the Secaucus chapter unanimously voted to present its Citizen of the Year award to Gonnelli.
The group will present the award at a sold out Citizen of the Year dinner, which includes dinner and dancing, to be held Friday, Nov. 12, 2004 at La Reggia in Secaucus.
"The citizen of the year award is our biggest event," said Barone. "Last year we drew 250 people. This year we are almost 330."
Last year, the award was presented to Secaucus Public Library Director Katherine Steffens.
UNICO's ultimate goal is to raise funds in the name of the citizen of the year so members can do more charitable work in the course of the year. Funds are raised through tickets sold for the dinner and through advertisements in the chapter's ad book.
The award is presented to a person who has been passionately involved in the community out of the goodness of his or her heart.
"It's how you conduct yourself within the community," said Barone. "It's how you change the lives of a lot of people because of your influence as a human being, not as an official."
Gonnelli was chosen to receive this honor because of his commitment to the community and its people. "There is no one he will say no to," Barone said. "It could be 3 a.m. in the morning and if you call him, he will get out of bed and help you. That's how he is. That's the essence of what a citizen is about in the community and that's what we look at."
Gonnelli served as a member of the Department of Public Works since the age of 17. In 1986, he was appointed as superintendent of the department.
Gonnelli has been actively involved in the community as a volunteer fireman for more than 30 years. During this time, he was credited with risking his life to save an infant from a burning building. In his role as a current commissioner on the board of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, he has helped to obtain assistance for the town and its people. He was also responsible for the building of the River Walk and Mill Creek Point projects and has been instrumental in acquiring state funding through the writing of grants totaling $5 million during the year 2003.
Gonnelli was instrumental in organizing the town's first tree lighting ceremony, the fishing derby, and he continued the tradition of the Halloween Ragamuffin Parade when the Plaza Central Business Association could no longer handle the size of the events.
UNICO is also presenting the award to Gonnelli because of his commitment to education. Gonnelli developed a program that enlists students from the school district to help keep the town's riverfronts, parks, and playgrounds clean and usable.
Gonnelli attended Cook College at Rutgers University where he received certifications in Public Works Management, road specialist, recycling, urban forestry, park maintenance, and athletic field construction. He is also a master gardener.
"What he does for the community really helps the quality of life," Barone said
Barone believes that everyone should be involved with a community organization in some way. "Get involved in any charitable organization within your community," Barone said. "It'll make you feel great for what you do and you will be contributing to the community as well. Don't let it be something for your resume. Do the work."
This year, UNICO's Secaucus chapter has spent close to $10,000 on charitable causes.
The organization donated money to Kevin Williams, the president of the local People-to-People student chapter, so he could go to Europe on a sports ambassador program. UNICO also worked with the organization when they hosted students from different countries.
The chapter also supports the local food pantry, and contributes to the Hackensack Riverkeeper.
"We help the Riverkeeper," said Barone. "We feel that what he is doing is good for the ecology. He's the watchdog for the Hackensack River here and the wetlands. That's an important thing. Ecology is an important part of life."
The chapter has also donated funds to local residents who have been the victims of house fires. Barone said, "There was a case where two fires happened one year. Both families needed some help."
Barone has asked honorary member and last year's citizen of the year Steffens, to try to find a speaker to come in on behalf of juvenile diabetes awareness and speak to UNICO members. The chapter hopes to do something in the name of juvenile diabetes research.
The chapter also presents the Brian Piccolo award every year to one male and one female athlete. "It's given out on behalf of Brian Piccolo because of what he stood for," said Barone. "He stood for academics. He stood for sportsmanship and he was a good athlete."
Barone said he believes local charitable organizations should work together in the name of charitable causes. He said, "We interact with each other from time to time."