Community’s ‘unsung heroes’ helped make Aurora safer

It’s nothing short of inspiring the people you see at a community event like the one held Thursday in remembrance of the 20th anniversary of the murder of Moshe Rogers.

Many I’ve met before, of course. You don’t work as a journalist as long as I have in the Fox Valley without getting to know lots of names and faces.

But it’s also humbling – and yes, embarrassing – when I realize how many I don’t know that well, those who have worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, trying to make this community a safer more peaceful place to raise families.

One in particular, Diane Picciuolo, is a Facebook friend who messaged me last month when I wrote about the 20th anniversary of Moshe’s murder. And when I called her last week, she had to remind me we’d spoken several times over the last couple of decades.

I should have known her name. She’s the woman behind Aurora’s Back to School Fair, which is likely the only initiative still going strong from the Project Unity movement that began in the wake of Rogers’ murder.

Picciuolo was determined to use her experience as a community organizer to get involved after the 17-year-old Aurora Central Catholic star athlete was shot Feb. 17, 1995, while driving home from a basketball game. And she also wanted to use her own experiences as a low-income single mom when making her push at those early Project Unity meetings for a Back to School Fair.

Living in DuPage County while struggling to raise her kids, Picciuolo talked to officials there about organizing such a fair because she knew first-hand the astronomical cost of getting ready for another year in school.

Handing out pencils and book bags may not seem like a way to combat violence. But poor families often can’t afford immunizations or dental work, let alone school supplies, clothes, new haircuts and other necessities.

These are the sort of things that “make kids feel good about school,” she insisted. “It makes them feel like there’s a connection there so they don’t have to go looking for it on the streets.”

That first Back to School Fair, also founded in memory of murder victim Armando Mendez, kicked off in 1996. Two years later it received Aurora’s first ever Hometown Governor Award. Now funded through Communities in Schools, this one-stop school shopping event has not only survived, it’s bigger than ever.

To give you an idea, in August of 2014 the fair featured a food pantry, bookmobile, health clinics, free dental work and lots of information booths providing handouts and face-to-face visits with agency staff. More than 900 families and close to 2,600 children attended, with an additional 1,500 supply kits distributed through other community events.

But goodwill can’t be measured. When parents and kids see that a community cares, they begin to care, as well.

Which brings me back to Picciuolo.

Although the project is now run by Communities in Schools, she continues to volunteer each August, even after struggling with medical issues that make her partially dependent on a wheelchair.

She moved to Montgomery a few years ago to take care of her ailing mother, but Picciuolo, who told me she once lived in “the heart of gang territory” still continues to be Aurora’s greatest cheerleader.

“I still wish I lived there,” she said. “I feel such a connection to the community.”

Communities in Schools Executive Director Theresa Shoemaker describes her as “such a driving force” behind the Back to School Fair. The event, by the way, was lauded repeatedly Thursday evening at the Moshe reembrace, not only by the Rogers’ family, who continue to volunteer at the fair each year, but by just about every speaker who addressed the crowd of 400 people.

But as Shoemaker also rightly points out, Picciuolo is but one of “many unsung heroes” in the Fox Valley.

Many were mingling among the crowd in that auditorium at Aurora Central Catholic High School Thursday evening. Some of their names and faces I recognize. Unfortunately, there were many more I have no clue who they are. Is it because I’m not paying attention enough? Is it because they desire no publicity or praise? Or is it a little of both?

Some, I’ve been told, have lost family or friends to violence. Some have felt the touch of helping hands and want to pay it forward. Some simply love their city too much not to get involved. And I’m sure there are those who can’t come up with a concrete reason why they donate their time.

As Picciuolo told me, “It just seems like the right thing to do.”
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