Susan Merrill-Constance Kozel Award

The Susan Merrill-Constance Kozel Award is presented to an individual whose contribution to society reflects the principles of justice and peace. The Susan Merrill-Constance Kozel Award was established in 1995. It is dedicated to recognizing the work of Peace and Justice Center founding members Susan Merrill and Sr. Constance Kozel. The first director of the Center for Peace and Justice, Kozel said  “The ultimate vision is world peace. . . . There can’t be any peace without justice.” 

2023 Honorees: Rev. Dr. Robert Zanicky and Rabbi Larry Kaplan 

Rabbi Larry Kaplan has been serving Temple Israel in Wilkes-Barre since 1998. He has engaged in extensive interfaith work to break down barriers and has served on the boards of several community organizations. A native of Philadelphia, Kaplan is married to Gerri, who is the Assistant Principal of Midrasha, our shared Hebrew school with Temple B’nai B’rith. They came to the Wyoming Valley in 1998 with five children and have since fostered over 100 children and have adopted seven bringing their total to 12 plus two granddaughters. Rabbi Kaplan has served on the boards of many local organizations, including the Interfaith Council, The Downtown Ministerium, the Luzerne Foundation, Children’s Service Center, Ruth’s Place, Step By Step, the Jewish Community Alliance, and is past chair of the advisory board of Luzerne County Children and Youth Services. He has taught Jewish History at Wyoming Seminary, Old Testament at Kings College, and World Religions at Misericordia University. He serves as the Jewish Chaplain at the Wilkes-Barre VA Hospital and is an instructor for the Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program there. He has served as a chaplain at the Dallas State Correctional Institution. He leads an interfaith trip to Israel every few years and teaches adult education programs at the Jewish Community Center, and often lectures at community venues including the Elder Issues Coalition and Leadership Northeast.

Rev. Robert Zanicky has supported the establishment of Gather Community Space on the campus of First Presbyterian Church in Wilkes-Barre and has welcomed Peace Camp to the church for many years prior to the establishment of Gather. 

Past Honorees:2022 Honoree: Jimel Calliste

Jimel Calliste, NAACP, 2022 Awardee

Jimel Calliste serves as President of the Wilkes Barre NAACP, a title he has held since November 2020, as well as Advisor of the Pennsylvania NAACP State Conference Youth and College Division, the youngest in history for both positions. He is a nationally certified NAACP civic engagement trainer and used those skills to organize over 10 universities across the commonwealth for a unified voter registration, engagement, and turnout initiative in 2018. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Calliste attended High School for Civil Rights and Law in Brooklyn. He is a young activist who has dedicated the majority of his life to defending the rights and improving the lives of the under-served. As President of the Bloomsburg University NAACP, whose founding he spearheaded in 2015, Jimel led critical campaigns for voter registration and diversity amongst campus students and staff. He supported the formation of the Bloomsburg University Beyond the Fountain Event, a dialogue about racism in Bloomsburg between students of color and the community. In 2019 he joined the NAACP’s NextGen Program, which provides comprehensive leadership and advocacy training for the next generation of civil rights leaders. Successful graduates become boots on the ground in their communities and local NAACP branches, sustaining the fight for equality for all. Mr. Calliste is helping guide the Wilkes Barre branch through a period of re-envisioning and reinvigoration. Under President Calliste’s leadership, the branch has under-taken such efforts as the reinstatement of the Youth Council (Unit 29 AM) and establishing new committees such as Housing, Young Adult, Entertainment, Grants, and the Covid-19 Strikeforce. The 2021 Freedom Fund Banquet was the best attended in branch history. The branch’s social media footprint has grown with the launch of YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn profiles. President Cal-liste is frequently featured on PALIVE, WBRE/WYOU, CBS, ABC, and others, advocating on behalf of the Black community and all those who are affected by systemic oppression and prejudice. 

2021 Honoree: William Eck 

To sustain safe living conditions for residents, each municipality must enforce its zoning, building, and land use codes. For the last twenty years, Kingston Township Zoning and Code Enforcement Officer William Eck, or “Bill” as he is best known, has been tasked with administering fair zoning ordinances as well as reporting and resolving situations that violate township codes. During his career, Bill has been involved with the demolition of seventy-three dilapidated structures at no cost to the township and the disposal of over five hundred junk vehicles throughout the area. Along with cleaning the environment of these hazards, he has saved vulnerable people from unsanitary residences. He aided in removing a 12-year-old girl from a home with no functioning bathroom and an 87-year-old woman who lived amongst one hundred cats. Whenever he is faced with these challenging situations or a heated neighborhood dispute, Bill uses a calm, straightforward approach with de-escalating but empathetic language. In fact, his abilities to communicate and mediate are so effective that he is often recruited by the Kingston Township Police Department to help diffuse difficult situations. He has even been given his own protective vest to safely reach peaceful resolutions with angered individuals. Bill has also been an EMT since 1974 and previously served as Chief of the Trucksville Volunteer Fire Company during his decades of living in Kingston Township. Next April, he and his wife, with whom he shares a daughter, will celebrate 44 years of marriage. 

2021 Honoree: Gary Barnes 

At Barnes Martial Arts in Forty Fort, students train not only their bodies, but also their minds under the philosophy that kindness is the ultimate self-defense. Master Gary Barnes instills this belief through charity fundraisers, group “Kindness Missions,” and anti-bullying education. Master Barnes’ students have been able to directly combine their martial arts skills with community service such as through a Kick-a-Thon event that raised over $1,000 for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. The studio also holds periodic free self-defense seminars and works extensively with the local Domestic Violence Service Center. To support another avenue that offers protection for vulnerable individuals, Master Barnes and his students run food and clothing collections for residents at the Catherine McAuley Center, a shelter for women experiencing homelessness. However, Master Barnes’ Kindness Missions do not only serve the local community. In 2015, for instance, he had his students mail letters of encouragement to Blake Kitchen, a child in Michigan who was hospitalized due to injuries from a bully attack at school. Nearly thirty-nine years ago, Master Barnes, who also experienced bullying first as a child and later as a young adult in the workplace, turned to martial arts to protect himself. Now with his own studio and certification in anti-bullying speaking, he teaches his students to avoid violence and instead manifest inner peace. This guidance is further exemplified in the studio’s motto, “Out of the Dojo, Into the World.” The students are to take their lessons off the mat and apply them to society by making things better than how they were found. Rather than measuring the success of his studio through tournaments, Master Barnes focuses on giving his students the mindset necessary to treat others with dignity and seek justice wherever possible. 

2020 Honoree: Jennifer Judge Yonkoski 

Jennifer Judge Yonkoski is a poet and professor who has taught creative writing and composition at King’s College for more than 20 years. She designed a service-learning based composition course that brought King’s students in contact with residents of Ruth’s Place and The Gardens at Wyoming Valley. Her students have also completed many service hours at the McGlynn Center, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the Back Mountain Memorial Library, and Manna House. To fully put their volunteer experience into perspective, the class begins with a Social Justice Walking Tour of Wilkes-Barre that shows a former homeless camp and sparks dialogue between the relationship of poverty and substance abuse. Prof. Yonkoski feels it is crucial for students to understand the needs of a place they will call home for four years and tries to stress the importance of lifelong civic engagement with her students. In a final essay, students are tasked to identify a pressing issue their community partner faces, such as homelessness, and propose a solution. Additionally, Prof. Yonkoski is a faculty advisor to the Scop, the King’s College literary magazine, and to the Campion Literary Society. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Back Mountain Memorial Library, is chair of the Dallas Post Archiving Project Committee, and chairs a booth each year at the Back Mountain Memorial Library Auction. She is coordinator of the Luzerne County Poetry in Transit program, which brings poetry and art to LCTA buses. 

2020 Honoree: Joan Blewitt 

For nearly 40 years, Dr. Joan Blewitt has been preparing future professionals at King’s College. During her first 25 years there, she developed an award-winning academically oriented Career Planning and Placement Program. A recipient of the PNC Distinguished Service Professorship Award, Dr. Blewitt can now often be found in the McGowan School of Business where she has taught “Business Communications and Mentoring” as a service-learning course for eight years. In the class, students develop teamwork, writing, and presentation skills that culminate into a huge end-of-the-semester two-day bake sale that benefits a charitable organization. Through generous donations from the King’s community and the efforts of the students promoting the sale in their classes, baking the goods, and working the table, approximately $20,000 has been raised in total for various groups since 2013. While students brainstorm where the funds should go, sometimes a student personally inspires the project. For instance, the 2013 fundraiser raised $3,000 for village children in Kenya who needed shoes. One of Dr. Blewitt’s students at the time had spoken to the class of how he rarely had shoes as a child in Kenya. Recently, focus has been directed to aiding local groups including the United Way’s Nurses’ Pantry and Veterans Administration Transition Program for veterans transitioning from homelessness into housing. Dr. Blewitt hopes that students carry forth this passion of bettering others’ lives as they become professionals in the field. 

2019 Honoree: Bernadine Baluta
Bernadine Baluta has worked as an advocate for justice for the underserved and homeless for over 50 years. She is kind and compassionate and continues to serve this population in her retirement. After graduating from the Geisinger School of Nursing, she held positions in hospitals in Connecticut and Berwick, as a private duty nurse, and as an instructor for adult nursing assistant programs.Ms. Baluta served as Captain in the Air Force Nurse Corps for 2 ½ years in Vietnam and San Antonio and as Captain in the Air Force Reserves for 5 years at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. She worked in an orphanage in San Antonio, then worked with the Navajo National Health Foundation as a staff nurse. Ms. Baluta retired in August 2018 after 35 years of caring for patients living in the Salvation Army, Ruth’s Place, and many other local shelters. Bernie Baluta facilitated extraordinary student experiences for 18 years at Wilkes University, Nesbitt School of Pharmacy. There, her colleagues and students witnessed how wonderfully she treated and cared for the homeless, fighting for justice and peace in this population. Each Christmas, Ms. Baluta encouraged students to fill 250 backpacks for the underserved and homeless. Ms. Baluta has given her time, her money, and her love in caring for these patients who are somehow forgotten in our society. She recognizes that everyone is a human being first, deserving of love, compassion, and justice. 

2019 Honorees: Gary and Denise Williams
Gary and Denise have been married for five years and between them are the proud parents of five children and five grandchildren—Cameron, Maya, Natalie, Ryder and Jacob. Denise currently works full-time for St. Therese’s Church in Shavertown as the Coordinator of Religious Education.  She has a certification in Lay Ministry and is a Mercy Associate.  Denise has helped coordinate the Commission on Economic Opportunity’s “Penny Wars for the Poor” for over twenty years. Denise is very actively involved with Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan citizens group working to stop gerrymandering in our state, serving  as the coordinator of the Luzerne County chapter, and as a team member for accumulating municipal resolutions in favor of an independent citizens commission to draw fair election districts statewide. Until his retirement from the banking industry, Gary had little involvement in volunteer activities.  However, that gradually changed as he took on more and more roles in the community. Gary currently serves on the boards of The Back Mountain Memorial Library, Dinners for Kids, Luzerne County Head Start, Meals on Wheels, The McGlynn Center, and Pocono Northeast Resource Conservation & Development Council.  He also drives for Meals on Wheels, Dinners for Kids, and the American Cancer Society. In addition, he is a volunteer tax preparer for CEO, a tutor at the McGlynn Center, a member of St. Therese’s Social Justice Committee, and a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in Luzerne County. In their spare time, Denise and Gary enjoy  golfing, reading and most importantly watching their five grandkids grow up healthy and happy!  

2018: Sarah Khan 
Sarah Khan is a teacher and community organizer, both online and in her hometown of Stroudsburg. She attained her Honors BA in English and Linguistics and Language Studies from York University, Toronto, and her M.Ed. in Professional and Secondary Education from East Stroudsburg University. The first Fulbright Fellow in the university’s history, she spent a year in Turkey teaching English, learning Turkish, and serving as a cultural ambassador and capacity developer for the emerging English language program. Sarah has run allyship workshops, organized demonstrations and marches, and has served in various capacities as a volunteer locally and internationally. She is a crisis hotline volunteer and sexual assault and domestic violence counselor-advocate at Women’s Resources of Monroe County and works as a pro-bono English curriculum director at Paper Air-planes, a non-profit dedicated to providing language skills training to Syrian refugees by connecting them in peer-to-peer mentoring with fluent speakers of English. Her peace and justice advocacy was inspired by the examples of educators in her family and their stories of bravery. At sixteen, she picked up a book that spoke to the survivors of war and decided that she would dedicate her life to opening an all-girls school in rural Pakistan with a vocational training center for women. She believes that books, not bombs, can drive out ignorance and that every parent wants a safe future for their child, free from militarism and fear. She is continuing to work on a culturally-sensitive, trauma-informed, and adult-skills focused curriculum. She has created over 600 pages of learning materials and presented her mixed-methods research at a conference in Mexico. Sarah believes that the most pressing issue of our time is to stop to listen and think. She thinks that we should leave our preconceptions at the door and humanize the person across the threshold, whether imagined or physical. She believes we were put on this planet to help each other. 

2018 Honorees: Dr. Chris Somers, Sean Farry, and Lindsey Riddell Misericordia University Campus Ministry 
Campus Ministry at Misericordia University is led by Dr. Chris Somers, Sean Farry, and Lindsey Riddell. The office carries out the mission of the University by serving in the community and by making visible and effective the Mercy Charisms of Mercy, Service, Justice, and Hospitality. Campus Ministry seeks to respond to the Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy through advocacy, education, and action, and to reach out with love and respect to persons of all faiths and backgrounds. Based on Catholic Social Teaching, their approach to social justice welcomes all people and strives to make sure everyone has a voice. The members of Misericordia’s Campus Ministry live out their mission by serving at Ruth’s Place, St. Vincent DePaul Kitchen, and Mother Theresa’s Haven, They have also hosted Spring Break service trips throughout the U.S. and internationally. 

2017 Honoree: Tim Maloney 
Tim Maloney is a Muslim from Northeast Pennsylvania. A graduate of Keystone College, he is currently a member of the ACLU of NEPA and the Scranton-Area Ministerium. Over time, Tim has worked to be an advocate for interfaith dialogue, community service, and peace. He has a blog and Facebook page, which can be seen at Tim finds inspiration in the works of Fred Rogers, Linda Sarsour, and Malala Yousafzai. He believes anybody can make a difference, even with small acts of kindness (like opening the door for a stranger). Tim has sponsored various events promoting peace in Northeastern Pennsylvania, from promoting positivity on Public Square during Random Acts of Kindness Week by giving out flowers,positive notes, handmade cards, cupcakes, candy, and other fun stuff to random strangers, to sponsoring the Yellow Roses Interfaith Service and Peace Dinners. Tim was named Man of the Week by The Weekender magazine and is an ardent supporter of Muslim and LGBTQI communities. 

2016: Hon. Mayor Christopher Concert

2015: Peggy A. Felton and Tony Mathis

2014: Representative Phyllis Mundy

2013: Esau Foster, VA Medical Center, and  Ned Smith, St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker House

2012: Rev. Marcelle Dotson

2011: Rita Boyle and Sister Nancy Lee Lydon, RSM

2010: Kimberly Biggs-Kiel, memorial 2009: Robert Makar, North Penn Legal Services

2008: Rick Evans, Jewish Community Center 2007: Linda Kohut, Director, Senior Services, Area Agency on Aging, Luzerne/Wyoming counties.

2006: Samuel Bosch, 1 Human Family 2005: Lois Myers, W-B Free Medical Clinic 2004: Ron Felton, president, NAACP


2002: Jean Warrington, Blankets – Afghanistan, 1600 blankets via American Friends Service 2001: Marie “Nikki” Ambrose 2000: The Rev. William Pickard

1999: Marguerite (Maggie) Ritz

1998: Patrick Rushton, for his contributions to the community reflecting principles of peace and justice.

1997: Jim Bresky

1996: Attorney Joseph Cosgrove, for his representation of marginalized members of society

1995: First Constance Kozel award to family of the late S. Keene Mitchell, instrumental in securing our office in the Kirby Health Center.