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Changing Lives Celebration honors champions of community, education, business

Dec. 18, 2013

Changing Lives Celebration honorees are pictured. Pictured at the seventh annual Changing Lives Celebration are (from left): Jeff Gardner, CEO of the Business Champion Carousel Industries; Community Champions Sondra V. Ahlijian Pitts ’66 and husband Thomas E. Pitts Jr., Honorary Alumnus ’07; and Education Champions Sen. Hanna M. Gallo ’76, ’81 and Rep. Joseph M. McNamara. View a gallery of event photos online.

Gaining access to a college education can be a life-changing experience for students across all backgrounds and income levels. But as the audience at the Community College of Rhode Island Foundation’s annual Changing Lives celebration watched a moving video with testimonials from three current CCRI students, it was easy to see why making that experience an affordable one truly can be the most life changing experience of all.

On Dec. 12, 285 Rhode Islanders attended the event at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston, all coming together with the common goal of raising funds to support students who depend on the college’s affordable tuition and scholarship opportunities to build a brighter future for themselves and their families. Nearly $67,000 was raised through ticket sales, donations and various raffles to benefit students like Alisa Choquette, a single mother who told her story through the video.

Choquette found that CCRI was a supportive environment to earn her degree and help her achieve her dream of working as a substance abuse counselor. Likewise, Alexander Gonzalez spoke of how he relies on scholarships granted by the CCRI Foundation to help him along on the path toward becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. “When I found out that I was granted the Edward J. Liston Scholarship this year, I was filled with joy. I started to cry,” he said.

“There are countless more stories of triumph, support and student success that explain why we do what we do,” President Ray Di Pasquale told the audience that evening. “We are inspired by stories like these because they are personal, they matter to our community and they make Rhode Island stronger. Without supporters like you, who are leaving a legacy of support for higher education, we could not tell these stories.”

In addition to raising funds for this valuable cause, the attendees gathered for Changing Lives were also on hand to honor the work of four remarkable Rhode Islanders and one local business, all of whom work to help champion the college’s mission in their own deeds and in their larger community. This year’s honorees were Community Champions Sondra V. Ahlijian Pitts ’66 and husband Thomas E. Pitts Jr., Honorary Alumnus ’07; Business Champion Carousel Industries; and Education Champions Sen. Hanna M. Gallo ’76, ’81 and Rep. Joseph M. McNamara.

Tom and Sondra Pitts ’66, Cranston natives and high school sweethearts, have spent their lives in service to the college that they both call home. In fact, it was Sondra’s experience at CCRI that inspired Tom to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Yale University, and he has joined her in nearly half a century of dedication to the college. Sondra is a member and past president of the CCRI Alumni Association, and the two gave a donation that enabled the creation of the Alumni Association Student Development Center at the Knight Campus. Tom assists the college as an adviser to the president.

“This is an honor we struggle to believe we deserve and accept it on behalf of the staff and faculty who enhance the lives of the college’s students,” said Tom. “There are still thousands of lives to change.”

“The college prepared me for the career I’d have for the rest of my life,” added Sondra, a member of the first graduating class at the college, “and I could not be more grateful.”

Jeff Gardner, CEO of Carousel Industries, accepted the Business Champion award on behalf of his company. He called the experience “a great honor,” noting that he was proud to be involved with a college that allowed students to emerge from school with less debt and ready for employment.

Di Pasquale described Carousel, headquartered in Exeter, as a growing local business “often looking for new employees with strong technical skills,” and noted that many of Carousel’s recent hires have come from the college. “Carousel has worked with CCRI on several executive education programs … as the technology industry continues to change, Carousel has vowed to continue its partnership with the college to create a pipeline for graduates to become new employees,” said Di Pasquale.

Education Champion Hanna M. Gallo ’76, ’81 knows what it’s like to blaze new trails. She was the first member of her family to attend college, discovering her passions at the college in an experience she labeled “transformational.” She returned to the college in 1981 for a career change to business. Another transformation took shape in her life when her daughter developed a hearing deficit, inspiring her to research speech pathology, ultimately earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field. In addition to serving as a state senator, she works as a speech language pathologist for the Cranston School Department.

“For thousands of Rhode Islanders, the advantages of higher education wouldn’t be there without the accessibility of a community college,” she said. “[It’s wonderful] to celebrate the life-changing capacity of an institution that opens doors for so many Rhode Islanders.”

Di Pasquale lauded Gallo’s colleague on Smith Hill, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, as one of the college’s “staunch supporters.” McNamara is a retired educator, previously serving as director of the Pawtucket School Department’s Alternative Learning Program, and serves on the House’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee as well as on the New England Board of Higher Education. He has sponsored successful legislation requiring background checks for mentoring programs as well as promoting the use of virtual courses in public education, keeping him on the forefront of higher education today.

To close his acceptance remarks, McNamara referenced the doors opened for many students just like his colleague Gallo, quoting first lady Michelle Obama: “[W]hen you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

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Last Updated: 8/25/16