TEANECK — For many in New Jersey and elsewhere, the name Russ Berrie still rings a bell: the once-ubiquitous company that popularized plastic Troll dolls, plush toys, and other gifts for kids and adults alike.

Its namesake died in 2002, but Russell Berrie's footprint is still felt throughout the Garden State, as the Russell Berrie Foundation, which he founded in 1985, continues to advocate for the "unsung heroes" in New Jersey communities.

Berrie's widow Angelica is now the president of the Russell Berrie Foundation, and said much of the nonprofit's work is focused in three areas — the North Jersey region, the local Jewish population, and people with diabetes. (The Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, named for Russell's mother, is located at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.)

Angelica said Russell Berrie exemplified the standard of "What's So Great About the Garden State."

"He felt that media was so focused on only negative news, and he felt that one way to uplift the culture of New Jersey was really to focus on everyday heroes," she said.

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For the 25th consecutive year in 2021, those heroes will be officially recognized with the Russell Berrie Making a Difference Awards.

Angelica Berrie said past recipients include people whose everyday work might not have been otherwise recognized at all. There have been over 350 honorees, from all 21 New Jersey counties, forming what Mrs. Berrie calls a statewide "resiliency network."

"We really are looking for people who are innovators, people who are pioneers and problem solvers, and social entrepreneurs," she said.

In particular, she mentioned 2016 recipient Adam Lowy, the executive director of Move for Hunger in Monmouth County, and Eric Fuchs-Stengel, honored in 2012, the founder of MEVO, an environmental community service organization.

There is no one trait typical of all Making a Difference Award winners, but their collective impacts on New Jersey in the last quarter-century have been immeasurable.

Ramapo College of New Jersey is in charge of the selection process. This year's nomination deadline is Feb. 12, and nominations can be made at berrieawards.ramapo.edu.

One winner receives $50,000, two others get $25,000 each, and several others receive $7,500 prizes.

For more on the year-round mission of the Russell Berrie Foundation, visit their website.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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