Vasiliki “Betty” Kapetanakis, executive director of the North Star Fund, died on Monday, July 29, after a garbage truck hit her as she crossed the intersection of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. She was 50 years old.
During her seven years at the helm of North Star, Kapetanakis raised millions of dollars for thousands of small nonprofit organizations throughout the city. The foundation, started in 1979 to promote social change, awards grants to new grassroots groups that otherwise struggle for funding. Kapetanakis’ colleagues credit her with expanding North Star’s mission. “She nurtured a lot of organizations that someone who had a narrower vision wouldn’t have been able to help,” says Lucy Grugett, a former board member.
Under her watch, the foundation supported the Center for Anti-Violence Education, which teaches self-defense to women and children, and the Association for Union Democracy, Educators for Social Responsibility, and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. North Star has also contributed money to City Limits.
“Betty had activism in her blood,” says Tonya Gonnella Frichner, president of the American Indian Law Alliance, a legal advocacy organization and North Star grantee.
Kapetanakis planted her roots in social justice long before getting to North Star. Born in Greece, she moved with her family to New Jersey in 1955. While studying literature and communications at Antioch College in Ohio, she spent time in Oakland, California, organizing field hands with the United Farm Workers Union.
After graduating, she moved to Dayton, where she joined the local chapter of the New American Movement. There, she pushed for the public ownership of utilities as well as for equal employment for women and minorities with Dayton Women’s Liberation.
In the mid-1980s, she moved to New York and in 1987 started as a program associate at North Star. Her friends and colleagues say her efforts will never end. “Betty was such an extraordinary executive director that the work of North Star will continue,” says Barbara Winslow, a friend and coworker. “If she has to leave, one way or another, the organization will go on. It can, and it will.”
Kapetanakis is survived by her sisters Georgia and Natalia, her brother, Dino, and her mother, Constantina.