WESTERLY — When Maria Gabrielle Allen heard that she’d received a phone call from Dr. Dan Gaccione, she panicked.
“I thought something must be wrong with my health,” said Allen, the proprietor of Bella Vita Salon on High Street. She returned the doctor’s call as soon as she got the message. But when Gaccione said he was calling to tell her that she had been chosen as The Dante Society’s 2013 Person of the Year, Allen began to cry.
“It didn’t even dawn on me that I wasn’t his patient,” Allen said, laughing as she recounted the tale. “I just cried and asked him, ‘Why me?’”
The answer to that question, said Gaccione, a Westerly native who chairs the society’s nominating committee, is simple.
Allen was chosen for her extraordinary volunteerism, her generosity and philanthropy, and her knack for supporting people of all ages, said Gaccione. And for exemplifying the society’s goals to “preserve and foster the Italian culture.”
“She’s compiled an impressive record for such a young woman,” said Gaccione, an orthopedic surgeon. “From her involvement with youth soccer to her commitment to the adult day center, she serves the young and the old.”
Allen, a board member for the Adult Day Center of Westerly, helped raise more than $25,000 for its Share the Care capital campaign and has served as chairwoman for two of the organization’s major benefits, which raised more than $40,000. She also established a salon at the center that provides free services for clients.
She serves on the board of the Westerly Youth Soccer Association, and runs the concession stand at the soccer field.
A professional hair stylist and cosmetologist who has practiced her craft for more than 15 years, Allen recently opened an annex to her salon at the Ocean House in Watch Hill.
She has developed a reputation for her eagerness to help people in need and for her dedication to local charitable community causes, said Lou Toscano, past president of he society.
In 2010, when the great floods took the region by surprise, devastating riverside businesses, Allen rescued a competitor’s business. She welcomed Elaina Antonino and the staff at Beauty Hut into her own shop after the flood destroyed Antonino’s salon.
“This selfless gesture kept seven women employed and helped a business sustain itself through a crisis,” said Toscano.
She also volunteers for the local Relay for Life’s Locks of Love program and has volunteered for the Bradford School’s “Dancing With the Stars” benefit for a number of years, as both celebrity contestant and judge.
When she heard that a local woman was undergoing costly cancer treatments, Allen created a benefit Pamper Day at her salon to help with the cost. In 2011, she received the Outstanding Volunteer award from LeadingAge RI, a long-term care association.
Bella Vita has twice won first place in the Paint the Town Purple business decorating contest in support of the Relay for Life. In 2012, she was named to the Southern Rhode Island 40 Under 40 Award list selected by SO Rhode Island magazine and the United Chambers of Southern Rhode Island. In 2010 she was nominated for the the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Athena Award.
In 2012, The Dante Society honored two people, the late Joseph Terranova, a longtime Latin teacher at Westerly High School and founding member and past president of The Dante Society, and educator and coach John Stellitano.
“I am proud to be included with such amazing public figures,” Allen said.
Allen, a 1993 Westerly High School graduate, has two sons, Brian, a student at Westerly Middle School, and David, who attends the Dunn’s Corners School. Allen’s sister, Rosanna Gabrielle Arnold, said Maria always puts others first.
“Ever since I was a little girl she’s been that way,” said Arnold, “the world would be a better place if we had more people like her. We’re all so very proud of her.”
Allen will be honored at The Dante Society’s annual banquet to be held at The Haversham Inn on Saturday, Nov. 22, at 6:30 pm. Tickets can be purchased by calling 401-377-4660 or 401-829-6727.