The way we were: On a visit to Stormont in 2009, the inimitable Christine Quinn found a unique way to bring together then First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinnessThomas McMullan/Befast Media Group

Homelessness campaigner Christine Quinn — a former Speaker of New York City Council and a frequent CNN political commentator — will spotlight the crucial role of volunteers across the USA when she addresses the annual Irish Community Champions Awards in New York next month.

Now CEO of homeless charity WIN (formerly Women in Need), Christine Quinn has brought a fresh focus to the debate over housing need in the nation's wealthiest city, stressing that fully 70 percent of those in the city's shelters are families with children. Challenging popular perception, over half (51 percent) of WIN's homeless clients are in employment.

“I knew we had to do something to reframe the larger discussion,” Quinn told the New York Times, “because the framework was villainizing, racist and wrong.”

A prominent Irish American and the first openly gay City Council Speaker, Quinn championed transatlantic connections and the Irish peace process while in office. The WIN CEO surprised many by departing the world of politics after her defeat by Bill de Blasio in New York's 2013 mayoral race. However, her interest in driving political change remains undimmed — as proven by her stint as special advisor on women's issue to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Recently, she joined other female leaders to spearhead the 21 in 21 campaign which aims to return 21 women to New York City Council in 2021.

Slated for Rosie O'Grady's in New York on Friday 27 April, the fourth annual Irish Community Awards will recognize the unsung heroes making a difference in their communities every day. Among the nominees are Harold Qualters of the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, Valerie Mulgrew, Librarian at the United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco, dance teacher Susan Stanek of the Ridgewood Irish Dance School in New Jersey, and Diane Byrnes, producer and presenter of the Echoes of Erin radio show in Pittsburgh, now in its fourth decade. 

"These are people who go the extra mile for their communities," says Tracey Quilligan of award hosts the Irish Echo. "Their efforts are often unsung but they are the real heroes not just of Irish America but of the communities in which they live." Nominations for the Irish Community Awards can be made online.