By Vanessa Stevens
A large crowd showed up Thursday at the Aqua Turf Club to support and honor four hometown heroes of Southington: Erin Gibney of the Giving Back Girls, Paula Knight, Steve Daniels and Walter Hushak.
The award, given by United Way of Southington, honors those who have made a difference in town. Strobe lights flashed and Reverend Vicki Triano, President of United Way, announced each hero to the stage and the eighties song “Holding Out for a Hero” blared in the background.
Before the event, folks could get a picture taken with Batman, Robin or in front of the Batmobile. Spiderman and Bat Girl perched on the stair well by the entry way to greet guests. Horror heroes like the original phantom from Phantom of the Opera were also supplied by Bristol’s Witch’s Dungeon.
The theme was all about legends and super heroes, but the true heroes and heroines were as humble as can be.
There are currently 18 middle school girls involved in the Giving Back Girls, founded by Erin Gibney. Each summer they work with Janet Mellon from Southington Community Services on the Smart Start Program, which provides backpacks for 350-400 Southington children returning to school each September. They also have raised supplies for the troop and make frequent trips to the Summit Nursing facility to hand out baked goods throughout the year, or to sing Christmas Carols during the holiday season.
While Erin said she will always be grateful to the people of Southington, her friends, family and supporters, she wanted to give the greatest thanks to her mom, and all the girls’ moms. “Without their guidance, enthusiasm, support, and direction we wouldn’t be here today accepting this award.
To her own mother, she said, “You’ve been my inspiration to keep expanding what the Giving Back Girls do.”
Paula Knight who said, “Volunteering has allowed me to challenge myself in my own way to be the change I want to see in the world,” has taught in the Southington Public Schools for 34 years, 28 of which have been dedicated to the Gifted and Talented program. Paula has been active at the Southington Community YMCA as a volunteer on many Committees, and now serves on her second term on the Board of Directors. She is a “cuddler” at UConn rocking babies in the NICU. Additionally, she has been a Girl Scout leader, a CCD instructor at Mary Our Queen, a Swim Team parent and a PTO mom, CPR and First Aid instructor and National Ski Patrol. In receiving her award, Paula thanked her whole family by name and especially her husband Rick for being her sounding board and biggest hero.
“We’re all so excited for her, but she’s more comfortable being on the other side of the award, being the one to support someone else,” said her daughter Cally. “That’s how she is.”
Steve Daniels, a life-long resident of Southington, is works as a bookkeeper in the finance department at the New Britain Board of Education. A treasurer of the school’s booster club in 1986-96, Daniels was asked if he would take on the stats job when Southington football coach Jude Kelly came aboard in 1988. He’s been doing it ever since.
“Steve has served on a volunteer basis as the statistician for football, basketball, and baseball,” said Southington Athletic Director Eric Swallow. “His commitment to the growth and development of the program and student athletes has exemplified his loyalty and character to the Southington community.”
Two long time supporters of Daniels, Bruce Vagts and George Matczyk, met as children playing softball together. Of Steve, Bruce said “He’s a great guy, and what a memory he has. I once met him at a game and when he learned my name he immediately said he remembered my son who played basketball for him, many years before. I was shocked.”
World War II veteran Walter Hushak doesn’t see himself as a hero, but continues to honor the men who died fighting for our freedom. Hushak, a member of the 7th Army Air Corp., flew B-24 airplanes from May 1944 – April 1946 in the Pacific Ocean region. As the World War II generation begins to pass away, Hushack says it’s even more important to share the experiences before it’s too late. He’s been sharing his experiences at Southington High School history classes for the past 17 years. Additionally, Hushak has also volunteered for the Southington Chamber of Commerce, Southington Community Chest (now known as the United Way), American Red Cross, Southington Rotary Club, Town Council and St Aloysius Church.