By Colleen Siuzdak
STATEN ISLAND — Growing up, Eleanor Conforti was given instructions on her role as an Italian woman in the family — cook, clean, and take care of the children.
Conforti, a board member of the Italian American Women of Staten Island, said the man of the family was expected to be the breadwinner and make the decisions. Although she admits that stereotype is dated, she wants to develop more pride in women through the efforts of the Italian American Women of Staten Island.
“We need to … reinvent a sense of pride in ourselves [as women],” Conforti said. “[The organization] have women who are in law, education, nursing, and … I am proud of them.”
The Italian American Women of Staten Island strive to highlight positive images of Italians and Italian-Americans throughout the borough, city and country, encouraging people of Italian heritage to embrace the culture and continue its traditions. Eager to help all people in need on the local level regardless of their heritage background, this organization hosts fundraisers and contribute donations to support local programs.
Conforti, who pioneered the Italian American Women of Staten Island in 2009, was first a member of the Staten Island chapter of the American Committee on Italian Migration (ACIM) based in Manhattan.
This parent organization supported Italian immigrants throughout the city and state but Conforti felt the break-away from the umbrella organization was necessary. She said the money being raised was not helping Staten Island as much as it should have been, adding other board members of the local chapter felt the same.
After the move to focus solely on Staten Island, the group only seemed to get bigger with programs being added for Staten Islanders and events highlighting inspirational speakers who have made a difference, including the very first one featuring Matilda Cuomo, the wife of the former New York State governor Mario Cuomo.
The organization’s events run throughout the year with lunches held to honor the members, money given to needy families during the holidays, and items given to Toys for Tots. October brings Italian History Month which the group will have Monsignor Edmund Whalen speak to the members because of his Italian heritage (and did you know he speaks fluent Italian?).
Paula Caglianone, former president of the IAW and also a board member, said it is important for the IAW to exist since some cultural traditions are at stake because younger couples do not implement them into the family as much as previous generations.
She added the group gives people a chance to talk about the culture, educate other people, and figure out ways to make it more prominent in the lives of Italian-Americans. Some of these traditions include going to dinner every Sunday at 2 p.m., celebrating “La Befana” (an Italian folk tale that tells story of an old woman who delivers gifts to children while looking for the Baby Jesus) and keeping recipe books with dishes made from past “nonnas” (Italian grandmothers).
Although keeping the culture strong among Italians takes priority, Caglianone said, what sets the IAW apart is that they are women-based.
One of their biggest contributions include a $4,000 scholarship awarded in June to an Italian-American young woman who is a high school senior. Most of that money is raised from their March event — the Women in History lunch. (This year, Catherine Tantillo who runs “Diva for a Day” was honored at this event, receiving the 2017 Community Service Award. Tantillo’s program supports women with cancer by giving them a day of pampering.)
This year Abigail Petrassi, a recent graduate of Curtis High School from the International Baccalaureate program, received this scholarship and will be going to SUNY Oneonta in the Fall in hopes of pursuing education with a concentration in biology.
Petrassi said she was honored to receive the award especially from a group that focuses solely on Italian heritage.
“I always appreciated my Italian culture, but it was always hard for me to find a way to express that,” Petrassi said, adding she immersed herself in Italian culture through her dad, the full-fledged Italian of the family.
“Being able to meet the people behind this organization, and express my gratitude, it was truly amazing.”
In addition to the scholarships and luncheons, the IAW also supports cultural organizations on Staten Island including the Garibaldi-Meucci Mueseum, which preserves the history of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Antonio Meucci.
Garibaldi was once a refuge in the home before becoming a man deemed heroic for his success in the unification of Italy. The home, located in Rosebank, was a residence to Meucci, the “true inventor” of the telephone.
Stephanie Lundegard, administrator of the museum, said the IAW has supported the museum in many ways, adding the museum has a similar mission to the organization — creating a better community for those in the future.
“Basically their mission is the same as ours,” Lundegard said, adding how grateful the museum is for the support from the IAW. ” [That is] acknowledging people in the community that have gone above and beyond.”
The IAW have donated funds to keep programs at the museum including its Italian Language program for adults, its school educational program, and the Mommy and Me program.
This particular program educates toddlers about the Italian culture since Lundegard said she sees a need for the younger Italian-American generation to learn about their culture since the newer generation is not as interested.
“We don’t want them to lose it, we want them to understand it’s important to hold on to your heritage, to your family,” Lundegard said. “That’s important with any heritage.”
While heritage is important to this all Italian group, Conforti and Caglianone stress they want to make sure Staten Islanders in need are taken care of; one of the biggest aspects of their organization.
“We try our best to do for the community,” Caglianone said. “That’s our goal [which is] to take care of our community.”
(Find the Italian American Women of Staten Island on their Facebook page to learn more about the organization.)