Restaurateurs, a former gang member-turned-nonprofit leader, and a serial volunteer were honored at the 15th annual Leadership Greater Hartford gala this week for their dedication to the capital region’s well-being, an event the organization said raised more than $130,000.
Windsor residents Cheryl and Jamie “Bear” McDonald, Iran Nazario of East Hartford and Ronit Shoham of West Hartford each received the Polaris Award at the Bushnell on Wednesday evening, a formal affair also attended by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.
The McDonalds, who own three locations of Bear’s Smokehouse in greater Hartford and three additional restaurants in the area, were recognized for their community involvement, including a commitment to hiring people with criminal records and paying employees who don’t receive tips above the minimum wage. Jamie McDonald also recently organized “BBQ Relief” efforts through a nonprofit bringing freshly cooked barbecue meals to people in areas stricken by natural disasters, such as Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Hurricane Irma. He had also been in talks with local officials to bring the initiative to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria walloped the island.
"Even if it's just 30 minutes that a family can sit down and enjoy a meal together while they're going through this, it's at least a little bit of a respite for them,” McDonald said last month explaining the initiative.
Nazario, now president of the Peace Center of Connecticut, started his life as a high school dropout and gang member. He spent time in jail for his activities but has since dedicated himself to preventing gang violence and creating a space for youth to connect with opportunities outside of gang life. Leadership Greater Hartford called him an “inspirational nonprofit leader in Hartford.”
Shoham, a native of Israel and a West Hartford resident, was described as a “whirlwind of activity,” pushing for community-enhancing projects on behalf of the community’s children and those in need. Her work involved creating the Miracle League of Connecticut, allowing children with physical and mental challenges to play baseball; the $1.2 million reconstruction of one of America’s first inclusive and accessible play places, called Jonathan’s Dream Re-imagined; and The Underground in West Hartford, a safe hangout spot for teenagers.
"I really believe when you live in a community, you have to contribute to the community and be part of the community because that's what makes it better and thriving," Shoham said in August. "Community is not just buildings and stores, it's the people that live there."
“We especially look for the unsung heroes — those who don’t look for the attention or recognition,” said Ted Carroll, the president of Leadership Greater Hartford. “This is what we mean by real leaders. Leadership really is a relationship. It’s about service; leadership is not about making yourself big, it’s about making those you serve big.”