By Eve M. Ferguson

The 2016 Caribbean American Heritage (CARAH) Awards celebrated the unparalleled achievements of seven people of Caribbean descent who have made a marked difference in their communities, and the world at large. The annual gala, held last November at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill in Washington, DC began as a festive event as the locally-based PAN LARA Steel Band welcomed V.I.P. guests and the honorees for a pre-ceremony chance to mix and mingle.

Talent Diversity

Each of the honorees excelled in a particular area; whether in dance as did Trinidadian David Hochoy, who received the Excellence in the Arts Award for his contribution to modern dance, a student of the legendary Martha Graham and founder of Indianapolis-based Dance Kaleidoscope; or in the fight against HIV/AIDs which saw two awardees, Goulda Downer who received the Outstanding Contribution to Health Care Award for her work, along with other partners, to create the National Clinicians’ HIV/AIDS Testing and Awareness Day which Congress approved in 2007. She was joined in recognition by Ambassador Dr. John Edward Greene, who received the Outstanding Public Service Award for his current work as the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in the Caribbean.

The accomplishments of the awardees took on new enthusiasm as they described, either in person or via video, what they truly achieved recognition of excellence for.

The 60-patent holder & Inventor Haitian

Dr. Gerald Alphonse, a native of Haiti, recalled his father’s determination to indulge his son’s interest in science by sending him abroad for his education. It paid off as Alphonse became the holder of more than 60 patents and the inventor of several groundbreaking instruments. As the recipient of the Marcus Garvey Lifetime Achievement Award, Alphonse was credited with the invention of holographic storage, and the technology that led to the treatment of both glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Alphonse spoke emotionally as he recognized his wife of over three decades and his daughter, an editor for U.S. News and World Report, who joined him for the honors.

Awarded for Chasing your Dream

The youngest recipient of the night, 29-year-old Gabriel Abed, who received the Vanguard Award, has revolutionized currency exchange by launching the first digitized version of the Barbadian currency through his company BittEdge, now considered to be the leading authority in digital currency and security in the Caribbean.

“Who would have thought you could get an award for chasing a dream?” Abed asked the audience. “What we are going to do is going to change the Caribbean. Imagine money as a manufacturing project, we issue money digitally and transparently. The region really needs these solutions (like mobile wallet). We need to have global financial solutions. Traditionally remittances have been subject to 8 to 15% fees. Remittances can now drop to as low as 1% (with digital currency).” Abed is in the process of working with the Central Bank of Barbados to digitize its currency.

Caribbean Entertainers

The final two awards went to people whose faces were more familiar as entertainers.

Actress Victoria Rowell, who is of Jamaican descent but grew up in foster care in Maine, received the Trailblazer Award for her work on behalf of children in foster care and adoption.
“I was raised in child welfare,” Rowell recalled. “ in foster care for 18 years. I think of the 5,000 children in Jamaica living in homes. I marry my art to them because someone married their art to me. I’ve had the island of Jamaica open its arms to me to make my film, a drama-dy. I accept this award for all people of color who are passed over and over again.”

Rowell, who started her career as a prima ballerina, is also a celebrated children’s book author, actress and producer, but is best known for her roles as Drucilla Winters on “The Young and the Restless,” and Dr. Amanda Bentley on “Diagnosis Murder,” which she played in with the late Dick van Dyke. She was also the love interest of Eddie Murphy in the 1992 film “The Distinguished Gentleman.”

Soca Man, Machel Montano

The final award, the Luminary Award, went to the “Undisputed King of Soca,” Machel Montano who started his career as a little boy with the song “Too Young to Soca.” His career has continued to blossom throughout the years and now at age 43, he has filmmaking credits for the recently released “Bazodee” and a White House performance under his belt.

“I try to inspire people,” the charismatic Montano said while people clicked photos of him on their phones. “I truly identify as a Caribbean man. 30 years ago I sang in front of the Washington Monument, and I saw a group called New Edition and said ‘I want to do this’,” he recalled. “My peers turned their backs on me when I started to sing my Calypso. I was 11 years old. I wondered if I should sing R&B or Reggae, but I heard a voice tell me to stick with it. The last time I was in Washington, I sang at the White House.”

Those who Make a Difference

The Institute for Caribbean Studies (ICS), under the leadership of Dr. Claire Nelson, issues the awards annually. Past recipients, as Emcee for the evening and native of Guyana and past recipient herself, newscaster Maureen Bunyan pointed out, have ranged from former Attorney General Eric Holder, the late historian Ivan van Sertima, politician C. Delores Clarke, actress CCH Pounder, Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat and Geoffrey Holder among others.

“Each year, we seek nominations and do a diligent search for individuals who are making a difference and raising the profile of the Caribbean American community,” Nelson said.  “This year’s group of honorees are a true testament to the many ways that Caribbean American people continue to contribute and leave their mark on the American landscape.

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