National Awards
Welcome to the UNICO Foundation Scholarship Program page.

The UNICO National mission is to promote the image of Italian Americans along with Italian heritage and culture by supporting charitable, scientific, cultural, educational, and literary projects.

2021-2022 Award Recipients

2021 Cavaliere Joseph Coccia, Jr. Heritage, Language and Culture Award: Cav. Josephine A. Maietta

Cav. Josephine Maietta has spent her life “Passing the Torch” in exceptional service and outstanding commitment to preserving and promoting the Italian heritage through education and involvement. Cav. Maietta is the President of AIAE (the Association of Italian American Educators) affiliated with Hofstra University. She is a Board Member of IACE (Italian American Committee on Education), the Italian Heritage & Culture Month Committee in New York, I Giullari di Piazza, the Josephine Foundation, ItaliAmerica Foundation, Consultant of the Region Sicilia USEF, and ARPA Foundation of Pisa of which Andrea Bocelli is the Honorary President. Cav. Maietta is also the producer and host of radio talk show “Sabato Italiano” on 88.7 FM WRHU Hofstra University. The student run station was rate #1 University Station in the country. Cav. Maietta’s story is the quintessential Italian American story of determination, hard work and commitment to help preserve and promote the best of her native culture. She was born in Castelvetrano/Selinunte, Sicily. Arriving in the US at the age of fifteen she applied herself to all that an American education has to offer. She earned her graduate degrees from Hunter College Graduate School, Fordham University and others in the areas of Comparitive Literature, Foreign Language Teaching, Bilingual Education and Supervision & School Administration. Her numerous awards, proclamations, citations and certificates of appreciation could fill many lifetimes. It is understandable why she was the obvious choice for the 2021 Cav. Joseph Coccia, Jr. Heritage, Language and Culture Award.

2022 Marconi Award Winner: Domenico Praticò, MD, FCPP

Domenico Praticò was born in 1962 in Brancaleone, a small town in Calabria by the Ionian Sea. He attended the ”Liceo Classico Tommaso Campanella” in Reggio Calabria, from which he graduated in 1980. Even though he received a high school education focused on the classics, including Latin and ancient Greek, he was always interested in Biology and Medicine.
He enrolled in the School of Medicine of the “Sapienza University” in Rome where he graduated first in his class and magna cum laude. Immediately after, as required by the law, he served in the Italian Army as a Lieutenant Doctor for 12 months. While serving in the Army, he started his residency in Internal Medicine at the “Policlinico Umberto I” Hospital in Rome.

During these years, because of his interest in biomedical research he worked in a laboratory testing new drugs against stroke. Once he finished his medical training, he applied for a European post-doctoral fellowship to pursue his research interests. Selected as one of 20 participants, in 1992 he left Italy for the University of Dublin, Ireland, where he worked at the Mater Misericordia Hospital. Two years later, he arrived in Philadelphia as post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. During this time he published several important scientific articles and developed a new technique for measuring brain damage using biological samples (i.e., blood). At the end of his fellowship, Penn offered him an Assistant Professorship and Green Card status.
In Philadelphia he met Barbara, the love of his live for the last 25 years and counting. They were married in Reggio Calabria and later blessed with two children: Alfredo and Anna.

In 2007, he joined Temple University, as Associate Professor of Pharmacology and leader of the research program on Alzheimer’s disease. Four years later, he was promoted to full Professor with tenure. In 2017, he was appointed as Director of the Alzheimer’s Center and named the Scott Richards North Star Chair for Alzheimer’s research. During this time, Domenico has gained international reputation for his work on Alzheimer’s disease. So far, he has published 285 articles and authored more than 30 chapters in thematic books. His work has been cited by other scientists around the world more than 44,000 times.

During his career, Domenico has trained more than 50 undergraduate and graduate students and has been invited to give more than 100 lectures at national and international venues. He is an elected Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a Faculty Member of the F1000-Prime for Alzheimer’s, Dementia & Cognitive Neurology, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Most recently, because of his publishing record, he was nominated as “World Expert in Alzheimer’s Disease research” by Expertscape, the global physician directory, putting him among the top 0.1 percent of Alzheimer’s scholars.

After all these years, Domenico still enjoys very much his daily interactions with young scientists in the lab who have a keen curiosity for making discoveries that can help in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

2022 Americanism Award: Thomas Estler

Thomas Estler spends countless hours in promoting the seriousness of human trafficking in our country in order to protect those most vulnerable and at risk-mainly-our children. Human traffickers rob our most precious commodity of their freedom to live their lives as children should.

Thomas spreads the word of combatting this problem which plaques our country through education measures for the public good, to help the public become aware of what is happening in their communities and by cooperating with other organizations, law enforcement, political leaders and those who hold a sense of common welfare for the lives of others. He provides them with facts and data to highlight the problem. He has a desire to provide knowledge and a better understanding of this most serious problem to protect and advocate for human dignity and that freedom for our children must be safeguarded with the help of the law.

Thomas serves as the Director of Education and Creative Projects for the Saving Jane organizat ion . For the past 8 years he has been developing and writing comic books and leading workshops that educate kids about human trafficking to empower them to protect themselves.

His ABOLmONISTA! Comic book series was created with the help of the FBI, child psychologists and human trafficking survivors to equip kids with the tools they need to be at the front lines of their own protection. By using comic books, music, and social media as delivery vehicles, Thomas empowers children all over the world with survival tools specific to the exploitation they face in the individual regions where they live. Trafficking of humans is a serious problem in our country and hits every area where our chapters exist. He has harnessed the natural power of popular culture to engage young people to inspire them to live with safety, courage and inspiration.

2022 Basilone Freedom Award: Sgt. Cory James Lewis (retired)

Born and raised in Southwest Kansas, Lewis graduated from St. John’s Military High School and joined the Marines in 2001. He served several tours overseas between 2001 and 2005 including two combat deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2004. It was during an assignment in Iraq that he and his unit were making their way to Baghdad and were pinned down by an enemy heavy weapon firefight. When the lead AAV suddenly brook down, Lewis ran to the disabled vehicle and fixed the problem all the while taking on enemy fire. For his meritorious service, Sergeant Lewis was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, the Navy Meritorious Commendation, Two Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Sgt. Cory Lewis is actively involved with the VFW and the Freedom Alliance “Helping Wounded Military Heroes”. One of his children recently decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the Marine Corp.

2022 Joseph P. Cianci Humanitarian Award: Brian Guarco

A native of the small town of Granby Connecticut, Brian Vincent Guarco, after graduating from Granby High School, enrolled at Springfield Technical College and graduated in 1982. After college Brian joined his father’s business, the State Line Oil Company. He rapidly moved up to a position managing the design and installation of heating and air conditioning systems for domestic and commercial users. His extensive experience and foresight enabled him to see into the future of the energy market. With his father’s blessing Brian purchased a propane delivery truck and established the State Line Propane Company. With hard work and the support of his wife Anne the propane business has grown to be the largest independent propane company in Hartford County and the Farmington Valley of Connecticut. Upon his father’s retirement, he brought State Line Oil under his wing to insure the continued service to their customers.

On a recent weekend a large, propane powered delivery truck ran out of fuel in the center of Granby. The local police called Brian because they knew he would respond. Brian went to his business and personally drove one of his propane trucks to fill the stranded delivery truck. He did this with a smile, a handshake and while saying “no charge”.

Just before the 2020 end of year holidays, a local family’s car was accidentally damaged. The cost to repair would more than wipe out their holiday budget. For Christmas Brian simply paid the repair bill.

In another instance one of the UNICO chapter members was having a problem with his home heating system just after the warranty expired. He asked Brian for advice about contacting the manufacturer because a new replacement boiler would be a hardship. Brian had a new system delivered to him at no charge. Another chapter member was about to purchase a propane fire pit from Brian’s company. When asked where it was to be delivered, the member told him that it was a donation to another organization. The fire pit was provided at no charge with the understanding that he was to remain anonymous.

Brian provides relief for some of his propane and oil customer that are unable to pay for fuel in the coldest part of the winter. For the past 23 years he consults with his employees to determine the families that are not receiving enough financial assistance to stay warm. For those families he simply forgives their fuel bills. This practice has allowed him to help hundreds of families directly.

2022 Rizzuto Award: Stephen X. Solfanelli, DMD

Stephen X. Solfanelli was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on October 7, 1952 to first generation Italian Americans, Catherine Orlando and Americo Solfanelli. His mother passed away in 1970 after suffering from breast cancer. He graduated from Wilkes University with a degree in Biology in 1975 and lat er received his DMD from the University of Pittsburgh, School of Dental Medicine in 1977. The next five years were spent in Residency at the University of Pittsburgh’s Presbyterian Hospital where he specialized in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

From the day he opened his practice in 1982, Dr. Solfanelli has been giving back to his fellowman. As is the norm throughout this country, when someone calls a medical office in need of an emergency procedure, the first question a receptionist usually asks is “do you have medical insurance or the ability to pay?” If the answer is “no” then most practices simply refer the patient to a public clinic. That was never the operating procedure when you contacted Dr. Solfanelli. One of Steve’s friend and colleague told the writer of this application that he doesn’t know how Steve managed to have such a successful business for all these years from all the donated services Steve provided to so many.

It was in 2002 when Steve Solfanelli’s life changed and is where we find a great resemblance to the qualifications of Antonio Rizzuto and the contribution of services outlined in this award applicat ion. Active in local Rotary, Steve learned of a need to help individuals in a foreign land. Honduras is the second-poorest country in Latin America and one ofthe poorest in the world with one in five living below the poverty line. As one can imagine, levels of crime are high especially on foreigners and these attacks take place anywhere and at any time of the day. It is one thing to help those in need in your hometown community but helping citizens in a

foreign land is a life changing experience. But that’s just what Dr. Solfanelli sought to do.

A few of his friends in Rotary were planning a trip to construct cinder block walls and make roof repairs to a few medical clinics operating in San Pedro Sula, the capital city of Honduras. Steve was all ready to help Jim Davenport and Alan Scheatzle with their project until he found out that there was a need for scientific and medical services at a dental clinic located on the outskirts of the city. Just as in the United States, residents in Central America have to have tooth extractions, dental implants, corrective jaw surgery, etc. The Clinic provided these services but were in need of modern science techniques and individuals willing to operate and train others. So, for a little over a week each year, Steve and his wife (and nurse) Beverly would pack 6 to 7 suitcases filled with dental and surgical supplies needed for the week and for months to follow in an effort to help the clinic. Some of the items were donated by companies willing to help and some were paid for by Steve himself such as anesthesia and Tylenol.

Ask Steve and he’ll tell you it was hard work but that he felt fulfilled doing this service that most of us wouldn’t even dream of doing. Knowing that the clinic was in need of a dental chair, Steve purchased and carried the item on the aircraft. He laughs when he tells the story that each piece was fragile and he had to hold the heavy base between his knees to fit in the seat on the plane. Assembling that chair took someone who spoke little English an entire week … and it sadly went missing months later.

Dr. Solfanelli’s work ethic was actually greater than the clinic’s staff. Central Americans are used to taking a “siesta” during the day while Steve wanted to take care of patients. It was common for Steve and Beverly to train the workers as well. They provided hands-on experiences of proper health and dental procedures which will benefit the individuals for years to come. Most of the patients were not able to pay for the Solfanelli’s services but if they could, the funds were always donated directly to the Clinic.

It’s difficult to plan, pack and leave for another country- but it’s a sacrifice to travel to a place known for natural beauty to tourists worldwide and NOT have the ability to relax and enjoy a vacation. The Solfanelli’s would instead plan as if they were going to work for many months in a foreign land. Upon arrival they were greeted by people speaking a different language so they would need translators. When they left they were given hugs and smiles mostly by children they helped. For over 15 years, only stopped by an international pandemic, did they provide comfort and dental care to the poor and needy.

2022 Dr. Anthony P. Vastola Award: Rev. Robert Wolfee

Rev. Robert Wolfee’s life story is one of the most “unique” in UNICO. Bob Wolfee joined UNICO in 1980. At that time, he was a young accountant, climbing the ladder to corporate success while also climbing the ladder as a volunteer with UNICO National serving in leadership capacities on both the local, district and national levels. That was until he reflected on his life and realized that he was also being called to serve God and to help with people’s spiritual needs. At the age of thirty-seven he opened a new chapter in his life and entered the seminary to start his priestly formation and at age fort y-two was ordained a Roman Catholic Priest. He presently serves the people in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

His actions certainly inspired many who know him as he ultimately brought a new meaning to “service”. Most notably is that he continues to be an important figure in UNICO National and consummates service not only on the altar but behind the registration desk. Even though he has enormous responsibilities in his parish; as busy as his weekends are, he still finds time for UNICO. His life truly reflects Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity, and Opportunity to serve; the principles upon which UNICO was founded.

According to the UNICO guidelines, the Anthony P. Vastola Award is to be given to a person who has been a member of UNICO for at least 10 years; and has performed exceptional service above and beyond the call of duty, exhibiting initiative, originality and dedication. Such a person must have demonstrated the belief in and practiced the ideals of UNICO. Such a person is Robert Wolfee. Today, members see Father Bob as our Chaplain, a title he doesn’t take lightly and has served in for well over a decade; but they forget that, as a lay person, he served as National Secretary, Treasurer, and continues to serve as Chair of the important Credentials Committee, a position he has held for many years.

Beyond all that, Father Bob Wolfee is an ardent Italian American. He clearly exemplifies the values and traditions representative of the true and positive image of his illustrious heritage and he is seriously committed to selflessly assisting others. For these reasons we wish to joyfully celebrate the life of Father Bob and his service to UNICO and award him its highest and most meritorious honor, that of the “Dr. Anthony P. Vastola Award .”