It was an evening to remember. On January 17th the National Organization of Italian American Women’s New York Chapter gathered to honor Three Wise Women: Elissa Montanti, Founder and Executive Director of Global Medical Relief Fund, Judith D. Grimaldi, Partner of Grimaldi & Yeung, LLP, and Hon. Saliann Scarpulla, Justice of the Supreme Court, NY County Commercial Division.
The event took place at the Columbus Citizens Foundation, in a charming old world setting so beautifully adorned that it was fit for a queen – three, in fact.
NOIAW’s Epiphany Celebrations began in 1984. Since then, 162 women have been honored as ‘Wise Women’. “[These women] are deep thinkers, they possess commitment, passion, and gravitas,” said MaryRose Barranco Morris, President of NOIAW’s Greater New York Region, and Coordinator of the Staten Island Network, in her introductory statement.
Twenty years ago Elissa Montanti founded The Global Medical Relief Fund, a charity that helps children who have lost limbs or eyes or have been burned as the results of war, natural disaster, or illness.
It started when Montanti was asked to write a song for a fundraiser in Staten Island, which aimed to raise money for school supplies for children in Bosnia, a war-torn country. After speaking with the Ambassador of Bosnia, Montanti understood that they needed more than just pencil cases. “[The Ambassador] handed me a letter from this boy who had written to him,” she says. “He had lost two arms and a leg from a landmine he stepped on. I totally became enveloped and wanted to help him, so I brought him here on a wing and a prayer. I put up a daybed and he stayed in my one bedroom townhouse for four months, and went back with two new arms and a leg.”
Today, Montanti runs her charity from a four-bedroom house (donated to the organization by celebrity Tyler Perry) that can fit up to 8 kids at any one time.
“We have a child here now who is in ICU. She had life-saving surgery. She’s from Gambia and will be coming back to the house soon. We have three kids coming from Nicaragua, and then we’ll have the Tanzanian kids coming back. Those kids were terribly mutilated when, in the villages, they had their limbs hacked off because they’re Albino. It’s terrible,” she says.
Committed to helping them until their twenty-first birthday, Montanti’s charity has helped 200 children from over 40 countries, and has hosted over 1,000 follow-up visits.
While one Wise Woman has dedicated her career to helping children, Judith Grimaldi instead notably devotes her time and efforts to helping the elderly and those with special needs in the last stages of their lives. “Sadly, and happily, our life expectancy has extended,” she says. “Our goal as elder law and special needs planners is to try and get people to think ahead and see how they can make their golden age as comfortable, as successful, and as independent as possible.”
Through her work, Grimaldi helps people answer important, nerve-racking questions like: Should I retire? Do I need life insurance? Should I apply for social security? Should I have a will?
Incredibly, Grimaldi did not attend law school until she was in her forties. Prior to that she worked for ten years in the fashion industry, and then for ten years as a social worker. “I find that in this practice I can blend [both social work and law],” she says. “I do family counseling as well as legal counseling… When people come into a consultation, they walk out feeling like, ‘I kind of have a handle on my life.’”
Grimaldi was one of 7 siblings and her father could not afford to send all his children to college. “For me, the way that I was able to change myself is education,” she says. “I paid for all my schooling myself, and I know how hard it was. So when I recognized that [NOIAW] helps women achieve their goals at the college and graduate level, that attracted me.”
The third Wise Woman is Hon. Saliann Scarpulla, who has built a career as a state wide trial judge, handling complex commercial or business cases where the amount and dispute between the parties is $500,000 and above.
When asked if it was always her dream to become a lawyer she says, “I wanted to save the world, or part of the world. I thought this would be a good way of helping people, using skills I knew I had. I do believe that I have a unique opportunity in where I am as a judge to do good, to do justice,” she says.
Scarpulla also notes that her experience growing up in the Italian American community had a direct impact on her noteworthy career. “We were taught that every body works, and everybody works hard,” she says. “That work ethic helped me enormously. Being part of a family of people who don’t always agree and see eye to eye, and being expected to sit and enjoy a meal and be civil to each other has been a very helpful skill that I obtained. It was not permissible to cut someone out of your life; you have to deal with them. As a lawyer that has been useful for me.”
While building her career Scarpulla found strong advisers in the NOIAW community who helped guide and support her. To any woman pursuing a career in law, she says, “Be confident in your heritage and life experience. Find mentors like I did, who can relate to you and give you information that you may not otherwise get. You don’t get [struck by] a bolt of lighting; someone has to tell you this stuff.”