Four Queens community leaders awarded with Senate Liberty Medal

By Tom Momberg

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) presented the Senate’s Liberty Medal to four community leaders from northeast Queens on Monday, each of whom he nominated for the recognition, which the legislature reserves as one of its highest civilian honors.

Civic leader Arlene Fleishman, community activists Mandingo Tshaka and Frank Skala and civic leader Richard Hellenbrecht were the first recipients of what Avella said he hopes to make an annual award in northeast Queens.

“There is no real recognition for the many people in our community who for decades have given unselfishly of their time and effort to help their community,” Avella said. “These individuals are the perfect examples of this.”

Fleishman, president of the Linden Towers 4 Cooperative in Flushing and president of the Mitchell-Linden Civic Association, has for 47 years fought publicly for the needs of her shareholders when it came to city redistricting, capital improvements and education issues, even after retiring in 2001.

“There is no real value. It’s just something you do, because you get involved and each thing takes you further and further,” Fleishman said when receiving her award. “Before you know it, you are so deeply involved that you don’t want to pull out of it because of the people that have supported you and the people that work with you.”

Tshaka was honored in 2011 as a historian by the state Board of Regents for his contributions to education about African culture. He has also fought tirelessly on and off Community Board 11 for such improvements to his Bayside neighborhood as new playgrounds, paved streets and sidewalks. He worked in various Bayside communities to lower drug use and remove it from public view.

“It’s with amazing grace I find that in my life, this is a calling from on high,” Tshaka said after being given his medal. Tshaka left Bayside for several years in his younger years and after he returned in 1971, he was struck by the issues he saw in an impoverished black community, which he said he vowed to fight for and help to improve the quality of life.

Skala, the founder of the New Bayside Alumni Association and the East Bayside Homeowners Association, is a retired teacher. Throughout his career and thereafter, he has advocated on behalf of Baysiders for preserving and improving the quality of life in the neighborhood.

“It is a surprise and an honor to be picked today … I used to do a lot more work than I can do now. It’s hard to type, it’s hard to use a pen, but I can still say no,” Skala said, referring to his time spent on Community Board 11.

Hellenbrecht, who was out of town during the award ceremony, is the current president of the Queens Civic Congress.

Recognized by the state Senate in its resolution to award him with the Liberty Medal, Hellenbrecht, in his capacity as QCC president “has managed approximately 100 civic associations throughout the borough, and has worked on numerous vital cross-cutting issues affecting the quality of life in Queens,” the resolution said.

He also served on Queens Community Board 13, the Bellerose Commonwealth Civic Association, the Joint Bellerose Business District, the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy, the Queens Quiet Skies Steering Committee and the Queens Airport Community Roundtable.

Each award recipient was reviewed by the Senate. Avella said 2015 is the inaugural year for what he hopes to make an annual round of nominations for the highest achievement awarded by the Senate. He said he would continue to host the awards ceremony near Independence Day because the award and its recipients so strongly embody what the country stands for.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.