Youth Activity Center founder and director Ellen Vahab didn’t know anyone in the room when she and an associate showed up for the Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County’s annual Giraffe Awards luncheon.
Sixteen prominent women were nominated for the honor for “women who stick their neck out” for the community.
Then chairwoman Margarita Pardo Abrishami read Vahab’s name. She won.
“They talked about each person and I was third to last,” Vahab said. “They called my name and I thought I was hearing things. Shocked is putting it mildly.
“I’m still on a high,” she said. “There were such prominent people and incredible human beings that did so much.”
“She was speechless and the tears were coming out. We’re so happy,” Abrishami said. “It’s these heroes among us that no one knows about. We’re thrilled.”
Vahab started the center in 1995 in Veterans Park in West Boca on a shoestring and has run it through good times and bad ever since.
Jill Kaplan, a consultant there with Nonprofits First through the Children’s Services Council, went to the luncheon with Vahab, not knowing what to expect.
“Ellen is the epitome of what the award stands for,” she said.
“It was like getting an Emmy,” Vahab said. “I said, ‘You’re all winners here; you’re strong women who have made in the difference in the community and you’re all a part of it.’ ”
She received an etched vase and “beautiful flowers,” she said.
Toby Chabon Berger, of Boynton Beach, the first award recipient 21 years ago and a chamber member, nominated Vahab. She hardly knows her and just started to get involved in the center’s after-school programs and summer camp.
A child advocate with her own firm, Career Decision Institute, Berger read about Vahab, then met her at the center’s 20th anniversary celebration recently.
“I was so inspired when I read about her and what she has done,” she said. “I thought she really deserved nominating.”
“It’s a big honor,” said Abrishami. Nominations were “whittled down and we had five judges and they’re prominent people. The process is completely anonymous and we have nothing to do with it.”
Vahab was among the few honorees from south county, Abrishami added.
The chamber’s event for Women’s History Month drew 232 people on March 26 in the Cohen Pavilion, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.
“It was our largest gathering for many years…and the energy in the room was phenomenal,” Abrishami said.
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