Guardian Angel Dinner Dance honorees named for 31st annual gala


From a farmer to a golf association to a man who beat drug addiction and now advocates for others, the people who Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton will honor at its 31th Annual Guardian Angel Dinner Dance this fall are symbols of hope for people in need.

The gala, set for Sept. 26 at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton, is a salute to the special people who have positively impacted Catholic Charities’ ability to meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable. It also is Catholic Charities’ signature fundraiser, raising much-needed funds to support the 100,000 people the organization serves annually, regardless of religious affiliation or ability to pay.

Last year, the gala raised over $300,000, a record for the event. But the pandemic and resulting social distancing have impacted fundraisers, at the same time that the need for services has risen. Consequently, many nonprofits, including Catholic Charities, fear losses this year.

An unusual year

“Today, we are in uncharted waters, as we collectively face a pandemic that has upended our lives,”  said Marlene Laó-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton (pictured, left).

“That’s why I am ever so grateful for the continued support of our donors and volunteers,” she added. “Last year, as we developed our long-term strategic initiative, we could not have predicted the crisis we face today – widespread business and school closures and indefinite quarantines of the public, mandated by all levels of our government. Yet here we are. Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, as an essential service, continues to operate. This agency is a beacon of light in the midst of this madness for those who truly need us.”

Laó-Collins continued: “Sadly, we anticipate the need for our life-saving services will grow, as the coronavirus crisis persists. This year, our appreciation for the volunteers and donors who journey with us is deeper than ever. We simply cannot do this without you. Perhaps this global experience will open our hearts even wider to those who face adversity even during good times. Our amazing honorees always restore my hope and optimism. They shine the light on what is truly important – to help people overcome poverty, homelessness, hunger, domestic violence, childhood trauma, mental health disorders, drug addiction, and so many other hardships.”

Compassion and achievement honored

Several people and organizations will be honored for their tireless work on behalf of the region’s most vulnerable citizens. The Client Achievement Award honors a Catholic Charities client who has shown great courage, persistence, and hard work in overcoming hardship. The Richard J. Hughes, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton Humanitarian Award will be presented to an outstanding leader who is committed to humanitarian causes, is a devoted advocate of Catholic Charities and the betterment of humanity in general, and compassionately strives to improve the quality of life of people across all economic and social lines.

The Light of Hope Award honors a person or organization in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties for their support and commitment to the work of Catholic Charities in their community. The Corporate Citizen of the Year Award recognizes a business that partners and supports Catholic Charities’ goals and mission.

“In this difficult and often frightening time of illness, job loss, and shuttered businesses, it is comforting to know that Catholic Charities is there. Throughout the hardships caused by this pandemic, Catholic Charities remains steadfast in their ministry to the most vulnerable in our society by providing food pantries, shelters, group homes, crisis counseling, and more,” said Mary Ann Saville (pictured, left), co-chair along with Caroline Taylor of the Guardian Angel Dinner Dance Planning Committee.

“That is why now, more than ever before, I believe we must all come together to support Catholic Charities in every way we can,” she continued. “I am especially asking for your support of the Guardian Angel Dinner Dance. Not only is this event an important fundraiser, it is a great opportunity for us to honor those people who empower Catholic Charities to continue their very important work throughout this unusually trying time and beyond. I am confident that we can count on everyone’s love, prayers, and support.”

The honorees are …

Thomas J. Keefe and Judithann C. Keefe of Spring Lake – the Humanitarian Award. The Keefes have supported Catholic Charities since 1998 and served on the Guardian Angel Dinner Dance Planning Committee for several years, including as chairs in 2017. The couple is involved in the St. Catharine-St. Margaret parish in Spring Lake, where they served on the parish Faith to Move Mountains committee. Tom is a sacristan for St.Catharine-St. Margaret Parish and St. Rose in Belmar. Judi is a lector and Eucharistic minister in her parish and has chaired the St. Catharine School Advisory Board. Tom’s extensive corporate career has been at Johnson & Johnson, Jockey International as vice president and member of the Board of Directors, a Wall Street investment firm where he managed IPOs, Oxford Furniture, a Division of Esselte Limited Managing Director, and lastly, as president of Ideal Office Systems. Judi spent 32 years in New Jersey public education, retiring as assistant superintendent of Moorestown Township Public Schools. She also was an adjunct professor in The Schools of Education at Monmouth University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. The high school sweethearts have been married 55 years and have two grown children and four grandchildren.

Deacon James L. Casa of Mount Holly – Light of Hope, Burlington County. Deacon Casa has been a member of Catholic Charities’ Burlington County board for nearly 10 years and sits on Catholic Charities’ Social Policy Committee. He has promoted collections through the Sacred Heart Church in Mount Holly for Catholic Charities’ Burlington County programs. He serves as president of the Rancocas Valley Clergy Association, a police chaplain for the Mount Holly Township Police Department and a chaplain at the Hampton Hospital in Westampton, where he is a spiritual counselor to patients recovering from drug addictions and alcoholism. He is retired from the Burlington County Freeholders, where he worked for 24 years as a transportation advocate for senior citizens and people with disabilities and created a free transportation program that served the clients of Delaware House. He and Emmy, his wife of 45 years, have two grown children.

Mary Jo Herbert of Titusville Light of Hope, Mercer County. Mary Jo has supported Catholic Charities since 1991. A hay farmer and thoroughbred horse breeder, she was president of the New Jersey Board of Agriculture, president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, and a member of the National Breeders’ Cup Board and the New Jersey Farm Service Agency Committee. Mary Jo’s late husband, Michael Herbert Sr., received the Light of Hope, Mercer County award in 2004 and served on Catholic Charities’ Board of Trustees. Their son, Michael Herbert Jr., now serves on Catholic Charities’ Board of Trustees. Mary Jo is a parishioner at St. James Church in Pennington, where she is active on their gardening committee. She has five grown children and eight grandchildren.

Dr. Jack V. Kirnan of Spring Lake – Light of Hope, Monmouth County. Jack has supported Catholic Charities for many years and served on its Board of Trustees since 2014, chairing its Strategic Planning Board and serving on its Finance Committee. He previously served two years on Catholic Charities’ Monmouth County Board. After a successful career in senior leadership positions in the financial services sector and in higher education, Jack is now the president of the firm Kirnan Coaching Associates, LLC, a firm providing executive, career, and life coaching. Jack and Jean, his wife of 40 years, have three adult children, a granddaughter, and a second grandchild on the way. They are parishioners at St. Catharine – St. Margaret Parish in Spring Lake, where Jack is a trustee, a member of the Finance Committee, and former President of the Parish Pastoral Council. He also is a Eucharistic minister focused on bringing Holy Communion to the homebound and those in assisted living and nursing homes and helps run the Parish Bereavement Group. Jack has been heavily involved in the Diocese of Trenton’s Diocesan Faith in Our Future Planning Initiative since 2016 as the Secretary for Cohort 19, as well as an active member of the Diocesan Planning Commission.

Oceanaire Women’s Golf Association of Waretown – Light of Hope, Ocean County. The Oceanaire Women’s Golf Association has raised more than $100,000 for Providence House Domestic Violence Services of Ocean County through an annual Partner in Peace event for the past six years. The event is a luncheon and golf outing that typically draws close to 150 people each June. Organizers solicit support from area businesses and residents and also donate raffle proceeds to Providence House. The association is part of the Greenbriar Oceanaire Golf and Country Club. Members also support area youth through scholarships.

Robert Brooks of Trenton – Client Achievement Award. Robert broke a longtime cycle of drug addiction and incarceration after he reached out to Catholic Charities for help in 2017 and began counseling in Partners in Recovery. There, he also learned to manage symptoms related to his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He inspired the creation of a new men’s trauma support group at Catholic Charities and wrote a book about his journey. He has become an advocate who works to destigmatize mental illness. He now works as a peer mentor at Catholic Charities’ Early Intervention Support Services program in Hamilton and serves on the agency’s Behavioral Health Consumer Advisory Council. He is pursuing a college degree with the goal of working professionally as a counselor.

Stark & Stark of Lawrenceville – Corporate Citizen of the Year. Stark & Stark has been a significant donor since 2001. As one of the oldest law practices in New Jersey, Stark & Stark offers a full range of legal services for businesses and individuals. Since its founding in 1933, Stark & Stark has been committed to active participation in and support of the community. Many of the firm’s attorneys and staff volunteer in their communities. Stark & Stark understands the importance of both client and community relationships. Between financial contributions, donations, and employee involvement, Stark & Stark has forged alliances with more than 200 different local, regional and national community organizations, associations, nonprofits and charitable organizations.

What’s next

The honorees normally are formally announced at a kickoff event at the Hyatt Regency Princeton held each May. This year, it has been postponed to July 9, due to the coronavirus.

Get involved

Anyone interested in attending the festivities, sponsoring a table, advertising in the event program, buying raffle tickets, donating auction items, or otherwise supporting Catholic Charities, click here or contact events coordinator Barbara Yuson at [email protected] or (609) 394-5181, ext. 1159.

Subscribe for more news

For more information, contact Dana DiFilippo, Catholic Charities communications, at [email protected] or (215) 756-6277 (cell).

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