Monthly Archives: December 2016

Tom Manuel leads the Jazz Loft Big Band on a bandstand at the loft, constructed from pieces of the original dance floor of New York’s famed Roseland Ballroom. Photo from The Jazz Loft

By John Broven

On May 21, Stony Brook Village reverberated to the sounds of a New Orleans-style street parade to mark the opening of The Jazz Loft at 275 Christian Ave. That happy day brought to reality the dreams of president and founder Tom Manuel.

“In the brief seven months the Jazz Loft has been open we’ve been able to accomplish the goals of our mission well ahead of schedule,” Manuel said. “Our performance calendar has presented some of the finest local, national and international artists; our educational programming has established our pre-college Jazz Institute in collaboration with Stony Brook University; and Our Young at Heart program has introduced wonderful music therapy events to people with memory loss.

“In addition to all of this our lecture series, family concerts, sponsored concert series and acquisitions and installations of jazz memorabilia, art, photography and more are ongoing and ever growing.”

Tom Manuel with children during The Creole Love Song: Operation Haiti! mission. Photo from The Jazz Loft

For establishing The Jazz Loft so quickly and effectively as a community resource, Manuel, a 37-year-old educator, historian and trumpet player, from St. James, is recognized by TBR News Media as a Person of the Year.

“Tom Manuel is a well-deserving nominee for Person of the Year,” Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said. “The Jazz Loft is an incredible gift to the 1st Council District. Tom’s passion for jazz has been transformed into a vivid, vibrant, collection of jazz history and a home for local talent, musicians and performances. In a short time, The Jazz Loft has become an incredible community space for art, history, culture and music.”

Visitors are able to view the loft’s museum exhibits featuring greats such as saxophonist Louis Jordan, the biggest African-American star of the 1940s and a massive influence on the ensuing rock ’n’ roll era; heartthrob blues and jazz crooner Arthur Prysock; upright bassist Lloyd Trotman, a prolific session musician who provided the bass line on Ben E. King’s anthem, “Stand by Me”; society bandleader Lester Lanin; and the seafaring vibraphonist and composer Teddy Charles.

Jean Prysock, of Searingtown, donated the memorabilia of her late husband Arthur Prysock, who played the top theaters and clubs from the 1940s onward and recorded for labels such as Decca, Mercury, Old Town and MGM-Verve. Why did she feel Manuel was worthy of support?

“He was young, he was enthusiastic, he was dedicated, he was sincere,” she said. “I first met him at a jazz bar in Patchogue. He led an 11-piece band, which sounded as if it could have played at New York’s Paramount Theatre.”

Apart from conducting bands, Manuel is an expert trumpet player, who credits among his inspirations Chet Baker, Warren Vache, Bobby Hackett, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Roy Eldridge. As an indication of the Jazz Loft’s authentic atmosphere, Manuel said the impressive three-tier bandstand was constructed from the original dance floor of the famed Roseland Ballroom on New York’s 52nd Street, adding, “It was an extreme labor of love, but certainly worth the effort.”

Manuel has directed a full program at The Jazz Loft while holding an adjunct post at Suffolk County Community College and a faculty position with Stony Brook University directing the jazz program of the Pre-College Music Division. If that’s not all, he has recently completed his doctorate, a DMA in jazz performance, at SBU and carried out charity work in Haiti.

“Tom is fully deserving of this award, not only for creating The Jazz Loft and making jazz available in our area, but also because of his remarkable spirit in bettering every community with which he engages,” Perry Goldstein, professor and chair at SBU’s Department of Music, said.

Tom Manuel (white hat at center) on opening day at The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook, on May 21 of this year. Photo by John Broven

“He motivated seven volunteers to go to Haiti with him after the recent hurricane, where they distributed 200 pairs of sneakers, clothing and school supplies purchased through donations. Tom radiates positive energy in everything he does,” Goldstein said.

Manuel readily acknowledges the help of others in giving liftoff to The Jazz Loft, including board members Laura Vogelsberg and Laura Stiegelmaier, many musicians and sponsors Harlan and Olivia Fischer who “donated our sound system, which is quite outstanding.” Manuel’s philosophy is summarized by the title of his well-received talk at the Three Village Community Trust’s annual celebration, held at The Jazz Loft in November: “Collaboration: The Art of Possibility.”

The jazz facility is housed in a historic building, comprising the old Stone Jug tavern and the former firehouse station, which accommodated the first museum in Stony Brook, founded in 1935 by real estate broker and insurance agent O.C. Lempfert. With the backing of Ward and Dorothy Melville, the museum was formally incorporated as the Suffolk Museum in 1939 before evolving into today’s The Long Island Museum. The renovated building, which was accorded landmark status by the Town of Brookhaven in September, is leased long term to The Jazz Loft by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization.

“Tom Manuel is a unique individual who was born into a generation of musicians steeped in rock ’n’ roll, rap and new wave,” Gloria Rocchio, president of WMHO, said. “I got to know Tom because of a[n] … article about a ‘young man’ with a house full of artifacts and memorabilia relating to the jazz era. The Ward Melville Heritage Organization owned a vacant building … and Tom had a collection in need of a home. A year later The Jazz Loft opened in Stony Brook, where Tom shares his love of jazz with like-minded musicians and fans. Tom is truly a role model for the concept of accomplishing your dream through passion and dedication. We are proud to welcome The Jazz Loft and Dr. Tom Manuel into our community.”

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien, was named Administrator of the Year earlier this year. He is seen with assistant principal James Moeller, on left, during an award ceremony. File photo from Scott O'Brien

By Desirée Keegan

Walking into Rocky Point Middle School, you’re greeted with smiles and hellos everywhere you turn. The hallways are filled with Eagles pride, whether it’s the large painting of the school’s mascot on the wall or children’s classwork lining the hallways.

Students are laughing, working diligently in classrooms or holding raffles for clubs with good causes.

The Middle School was one of just five middle and high schools in New York to receive the 2016 Inviting Award from the International Alliance for Invitational Education.

The feat wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Principal Scott O’Brien, who was also named Administrator of the Year by the Council of Administrators and Supervisors.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien plays air hockey with a student inside the school’s recently-added recreation room. Photo by Desirée Keegan

O’Brien wanders about the hallways, as students smile, wave or greet him, he stops to help a student who is having trouble opening her locker. Rounding the corner he enters several classrooms to see how the teachers’ days are progressing, or to let the home economics teacher know he loved her homemade cookies.

Social studies teacher Dawn Callahan has noticed the improvements O’Brien has made first hand, being in the district for 21 years.

“It was a big change; a 150 percent turnaround of what we were experiencing,” she said, adding that she takes a lot of pride in what goes on in the district, because she grew up in Rocky Point. “Things used to be so close-minded years ago, and he made it that you had a voice. You could run ideas by him and he does the same back — you feel included in what’s going on in the building. I think all the positive change is a reflection of how hard everyone works together, and for the students.”

Because of O’Brien’s dedication to the district, and change in culture he’s created at the helm of the school, he and the rest of the staff at Rocky Point Middle School are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

To O’Brien, 2016 was one of the most productive and exciting years to date.

“We had many new initiatives that yielded incredible results beyond our expectation and imagination,” he said. “Getting to a place where you can be recognized and acknowledged for that high-level atmosphere takes time. I don’t think it’s something that happens overnight and it certainly isn’t something that just has to do with me as a principal.”

As part of the inviting school application process, the staff learned about what they do well, while also learning what areas to improve. Over 60 educators from all around the world came to visit the school, talk to students and observe classrooms.

“It was a proud moment for me,” O’Brien said. “We took the things we needed to work on, and we starting working on them right away.”

A survey to students was created to see what they thought was missing. An overwhelming majority wanted different ways to occupy their free time. So O’Brien partnered with the Parent-Teacher Association to use Box Top funds and create a recreation room where the kids can play during lunchtime. Inside the rec room is a basketball shoot, pingpong table, foosball table, air hockey table, an old school video arcade system, a television with a Nintendo Wii and video games, a stereo system and bean bag chairs.

“It’s really been a big hit with our kids,” O’Brien said. “They love it.”

The school also hosts club fairs at various times throughout the year to show students that there’s no one-time signup. He said he’s seen marked improvement in enrollment.

“You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

— Kristen LaBianca

“This is the age where they’re learning who they are, and they start forming their identity here, so the more opportunities we give kids at the middle school age to participate in activities, the better the end result will be,” O’Brien said. “There’s been a noteworthy increase in student achievement and graduation rate, and I feel very proud to be a significant part of that. I feel that we have such a strong culture and climate for kids and parents and staff.”

English teacher Joseph Settepani, who was named a Teacher of the Year in 2016, runs the Natural Helpers club. The group raised more than $2,000 in November for its Dimes for Diabetes cause and is currently raising money for Dogs for Dylan, after a seventh-grade student lost his three dogs in a house fire.

“I’ve had many experiences in different school environments and this is an amazing building,” he said. “Everyone comes together as a team to do everything they can. These are very, very altruistic, caring kids. They feel they can’t do enough.”

Assistant Principal James Moeller added that other changes he and O’Brien made were mixing the grade levels during lunch.

“You’d think that was a great way to keep things separate so there would be less problems, but we integrated the grades, and we found the kids interacted more with others and there was less influence of clicks,” he said. “They sort of self police one another.”

Since the school doesn’t have a playground, being that the building shares space with the high school next door, it’s tough to have recess, but a system has been worked out where during warmer months, kids can go outside and run around. Moeller said the staff loves it as teachers have noticed when the kids can burn off some energy, they’re more focused during the rest of the school day.

Pride cards were also established as a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Students are awarded pride cards when a faculty member sees someone displaying positive behavior, whether it be holding the door open for someone or picking up a classmate’s books after they’ve fallen on the floor.

This year, the Rocky Point Middle School was named a 2016 Inviting School, recognizing the building, one of five in New York, to for going above and beyond to display a positive and friendly learning environment for students. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“The idea behind it is to reward kids for doing the right thing, as opposed to being reactive and giving them a consequence when they make a mistake,” Moeller said.

Being a part of the school since it opened in 2002, Settepani, like Callahan, has also seen the changes O’Brien made for himself.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” he said. “It’s evolved light years. We’re finally all on the same page. We speak about how fortunate we are to work in this type of environment — to feel supported, respected and validated. No one cares about taking credit for anything, and everyone just thinks about what they can do to help.”

Art teacher Kristen LaBianca, who has been in the district for 23 years, came over to the school the same time as O’Brien and said the positive atmosphere he has created isn’t confined within the school walls — it gets out in the community.

“Ideas are never turned away,” she said. “You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

Spanish teacher Bruce Wolper, who has been at the school for five years, said he’s enjoyed the changes during faculty meetings. He said O’Brien always starts with something positive, asking who has good news whether it be personal or in the classroom, and there’s always a laugh.

“I would walk through fire for him, and for Jim Moeller, too, who is just as good,” the 30-year teacher said. “They’re a great team. They play off each other fantastically.”

O’Brien thinks it’s a great age to feed into the kid’s self-esteem and is constantly seeing students come back wishing they were still a part of the school. Because of that, he takes tremendous pride in the work the school does.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, standing in front of an Eagle Pride wall with students of the month, has been at the helm of the school for seven years. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“Other people brag about where they teach, but I feel like I really mean it,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always been able to get out of bed and say I love what I do, I can’t wait to go in and I look forward to another 20 years.”

While academic rigor and programs that challenge kids are also right up there, he said he thinks that without the right environment, the rest falls by the wayside. Although his plate may already seem full, the principal also teaches an administrative program at St. John’s University and The College of St. Rose, to instill these ideas in other future leaders.

“I know I made the right choice,” he said of choosing to become a special education teacher at the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School 20 years ago, before becoming an assistant principal and principal at the building before making the move to the middle school. “I’ve had the opportunity to impact the lives of thousands of kids for the better and there’s nothing more meaningful than to hear from a parent years later telling me all I did for their children and appreciating the impact we’ve had on them. Not many jobs get to do that.”

He said that while garnering recognition and accolades is appreciated, he feels there’s something almost wrong with the notoriety, and said despite that, the school will continue work on improving.

“We have to challenge ourselves to do more — something bigger, something better — that drive needs to continue,” he said. “I’m so appreciative of the accolades but I feel that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. To get the recognition sometimes feels weird because this is how it’s supposed to be. And I don’t feel like my work is ever done.”

Keith Buehler is hoisted in the air by a Port Jefferson football player after a game in 2014. FIle photo by Bill Landon

By Alex Petroski

In a day and age when heading down the wrong path can happen easily, Port Jefferson students have a counselor, coach, role model and friend who makes drifting much tougher.

Keith Buehler is in the midst of his 20th year in the Port Jefferson School District, where he has served as a varsity coach, an assistant coach and Middle School guidance counselor. He has children of his own but refers to the countless students he has interacted with during his time in the district as part of his family, too.

The feeling is mutual.

For his selfless service to the Port Jefferson School District and relentless dedication to improving the lives of students, Times Beacon Record News Media names Buehler a Person of the Year for 2016.

The Rocky Point resident said his secret to earning the trust of so many kids has been to be there for them at a young age, and that approach has allowed him to keep a close relationship with them beyond middle school years. The counselor said he spends time trying to learn a little something about every student as a way to establish a bond. Buehler said after students move on to Port Jefferson high school, they often come back to visit and seek additional guidance.

Keith Buehler is hoisted in the air by a Port Jefferson football player after a game in 2014. FIle photo by Bill Landon

“I think that Keith has kind of established himself in Port Jeff as a go-to person for the kids,” said Jesse Rosen, Buehler’s colleague and friend. Rosen, who coaches varsity baseball in addition to teaching global history at the high school, needed some help coaching the team last season. Buehler stepped up despite previously retiring from coaching to be able to spend more time with his own kids.

He has become famous for stepping up to the plate and filling multiple roles when called upon for the district.

“I’m ready to give it up, but it’s hard when the kids keep telling you to come back,” Buehler said, referring to the numerous times he’s thought it was time to step away from coaching, only to be pulled back for one reason or another. For the time being, he’s still at the helm for the varsity boys’ basketball team and is an assistant on the varsity football team. In his two decades at Port Jefferson, he coached middle school football and baseball and middle school track and field.

Success in the world of athletics is measured in wins and losses in most cases, but Buehler isn’t like most coaches. He said one year the varsity basketball team was 0-18, and it was one of the most enjoyable seasons he’d ever had. That’s not to say Buehler hasn’t been successful on the scoreboard as well. He has been a part of four Suffolk County championship-winning basketball teams.

The district’s former athletic director Deb Ferry, who was with the district for nine years, remembered her time alongside Buehler fondly.

“Keith is one of the finest assets to the Port Jefferson School District,” Ferry said in an email. “Keith has time and time again been there for all of the students and athletes. During my tenure there at Port Jefferson we always referred to Keith as the assistant athletic director. He truly did know the ins and outs of the athletic program there.”

Buehler has another unofficial title that he picked out for himself. He said he feels like the “mini mayor of Port Jefferson.”

Being the go-to guy for most problems, Buehler found himself helping others cope with some pretty substantial problems and tragedies.

Max Golub, who graduated from the district in 2012, lost his brother in 2001, when he was just 8 years old. His brother had played football for Buehler.

Keith Buehler rides a Jet Ski during a family vacation. Photo from Keith Buehler

“He was pretty vital in my healing process,” Golub said, adding that on certain occasions Buehler would take him out of classes when he wasn’t feeling great and helped him stay out of trouble.

Golub called Buehler his “protector.” He added that although Buehler wasn’t biologically a member of the family, he became like a second father.

It would seem Buehler’s plate is full enough with his own children. His son Hunter is a freshman at Stony Brook University, daughter Asha is a junior at Port Jefferson high school and his 8-year-old son Kougar and 9-year-old daughter Cessarina, from a second marriage, are currently in the Rocky Point school district. Still, Port Jefferson students who know Buehler said he’s always available in times of need.

Buehler recalled a story that has stuck with him during his tenure in the district. One of his students had asked to take him to a baseball game, when that student’s father said he could bring a friend. Confused by his son asking to bring along his guidance counselor, the father asked if he would prefer to bring one of his peers. The boy told his father that Buehler was his best friend and was who he wanted to take. So he did. Buehler said he remains close with the father and son.

“I try to be a true role model for the kids,” Buehler said. “I try to do the best I can to show them how to do the right thing.”

The spelling of Max Golub’s name was corrected in this version Jan. 3.

Young members of the Northport-East Northport Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force smile with their flag as they prepare to walk in a parade. Photo from Anthony Ferrandino

By Victoria Espinoza

The Northport-East Northport Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force took 2016 by storm.

The organization raised $19,000 for a local youth group, organized its sixth annual Recovery Awareness and Prevention educational week districtwide and secured a $625,000 federal grant — not a bad way to commemorate its 10th year in existence.

The local organization works to eliminate drug use and substance abuse in the Northport-East Northport community as well as promote prevention, offer educational resources for parents and community members and more.

For the work the task force does for the community, Times Beacon Record News Media has chosen the members of the Northport-East Northport Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force as People of the Year.

Anthony Ferrandino, co-chair of the task force, said he’s pleased with the work the group was able to accomplish this year.

“It’s definitely a good feeling,” he said in a phone interview. “We’ve grown so much, it’s nice to break through certain thresholds.”

Sean Boylan, Ferrandino’s co-chair, agreed the task force accomplished a lot in 2016.

“We’ve come a long way as a task force,” he said in a phone interview. “This year was a tremendous amount of work.”

Anthony Ferrandino, co-chair of the task force, back left, and Sean Boylan, back right, stand with members of the task force at a board of education meeting. Photo from Sean Boylan

Ferrandino said the mission of the task force is to educate as many students, parents and community members as possible about the dangers of drugs — and it’s safe to say they exceeded their goal this year.

In June, the task force worked with the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport to host the premiere of a short film “Grace,” created by Marisa Vitali, a former heroin addict. The film depicted the struggles and triumphs of living life in recovery, and after the film Vitali answered audience questions and discussed her own personal experience with drug addiction. At the event, Ferrandino said he was thrilled to see how many community members they were able to educate that night.

Boylan echoed the sentiment, saying the success of the fundraiser was great but the real achievement was the conversations had.

“The tremendous event was the question and answer portion after the show,” he said. “We had many different subgroups talk about recovery and have real conversations with our community members. It was awesome.”

The premiere raised $19,000 in ticket and raffle sales, which was donated to the Youth Directions and Alternatives, a nonprofit with a new establishment in Northport that hosts free programs and events for the Northport youth. The YDA recently started offering a prevention program for kids as well.

Ferrandino said organizations like the YDA are key to reducing the amount of kids who turn to drugs.

“We collaborate with everybody,” he said. “It really takes an entire community to be on the same page to create change. We create partnerships and try to change the culture of a community.”

“It really takes an entire community to be on the same page to create change. We create partnerships and try to change the culture of a community.”

— Anthony Ferrandino

The task force is committed to branch out into the community as much as possible. They have organized countless Narcan training programs, prescription take-back events and most recently town hall events to try and collaborate with leaders with their new federal grant.

Late this September, the task force received more than half-a-million dollars in a grant that is part of the Drug Free Communities Support Program, a White House project that works to reduce youth substance abuse by promoting communitywide participation and evidence-based practices.

For winning this nationally competitive grant, the task force will receive $125,000 per year for the next five years. It enables the hiring of a full-time task force coalition leader and supports a range of coordinated practices and evidence-supported activities aimed at prevention. The programs include parent education, social media initiatives, pharmacist/youth collaboration and stricter law enforcement practices.

This is where the group wants as much community input and support as possible.

“We’re trying to create partnerships with local doctors, business owners and more,” Ferrandino said. They hope to use their grant as effectively as possible and educate as many residents as they can.

This past October, the task force successfully hosted its sixth-annual RAP Week — a five-day event in every school in the district that featured special guest speakers, activities and assemblies dedicated to raising awareness of prescription drugs, alcohol and other unhealthy habits in an effort to highlight the dangerous impact they can have on a person’s life.

Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer praised the work the task force does within the schools.

“We are very pleased The Drug & Alcohol Task Force is being recognized for their continued efforts to confront a pervasive problem facing the youth of our community,” he said in an email.  “The Task Force, under the leadership of Anthony Ferrandino and Sean Boylan, is made up of a diverse group of community members who all share the same resolve: bringing an end to drug and alcohol abuse and providing resources, awareness and opportunities for healthy decision-making, free of addiction.”

Boylan said he is thankful for all the support the district gives the task force to allow them to dedicate an entire week to teaching the students.

He said one memory from this year that sticks out for him was walking in the Cow Harbor Day Parade down Main Street.

“We’ve done it for many years, in the past we’ve had ten kids walking with us,” he said. “But this year we had more than 70 kids and parents, holding banners and wearing shirts. It was so symbolic; to me that is the impact we’re having. It’s showing we’re making an impact on a lot of different levels.”

But the work is far from over, both co-chairs said.

“We have a long way to go,” Boylan said. The task force holds open meetings on the second Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the superintendent’s conference room at the William Brosnan Administration Building, and Boylan said new members are always welcome.

“What’s great about us is we’re made up of volunteers that bring their own passions to this,” he said. “They are dedicated to this community.”

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle, at center, is honored by Centereach VFW Post 4927 at its annual Gold Chevron Ball last month. File photo from Town of Brookhaven

By Daniel Dunaief

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) has worked on big projects in the 3rd Council District, although it is his ability to hone in on some of the smaller quality-of-life details that impressed Bram Weber, a partner with the Weber Law Group in Melville.

Weber worked with Kimco Realty, the owners of Independence Plaza mall in Selden, which recently brought in new tenants and renovated the property.

LaValle has “noticed things I may not have noticed the last time I was at the property,” Weber said. “He digs deep into the details of his job.”

Indeed, LaValle, whose last name has become synonymous with public service on Long Island, is earning his own admirers as he focuses on everything from rebuilding roads, to continuing construction on a new park in Selden, to improving the aesthetics and ease of shopping in his district, to searching for businesses to bring into the area and create jobs.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle, on right, welcomes paralyzed U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. William Ventura to his newly renovated and handicap-accessible home in Selden. File photo from Town of Brookhaven

For LaValle’s dedication to his work on behalf of his constituents, while maintaining a job as a mortgage loan originator at Lynx Mortgage Bank in Westbury, Times Beacon Record News Media names the councilman a 2016 Person of the Year.

“The fact that he can balance [his roles] is quite tremendous,” said Zahra Jafri, president of Lynx Mortgage Bank, who described LaValle as “honest, ethical and service-oriented.” LaValle “does what he says he’s going to do.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), who has known LaValle for 12 years, said he dug in from the moment he was elected.

“It’s impressive what he’s been able to accomplish so quickly,” Bonner said.

Indeed, Bonner cited the work the third-year councilman did to help bring businesses to Selden’s Independence Plaza.

“We were able to work with the property owner and redevelop that site,” which now has a Rite Aid and a Guitar Center, LaValle said. Five Guys Burgers and Fries is expected to move in within the next six months. “I am always looking to work with property owners who have vacant stores to bring in new businesses, whether they be big-name companies or new businesses just getting started.”

LaValle, whose district includes Lake Grove, Centereach, Selden and parts of Lake Ronkonkoma, Farmingville and Coram, said it is a challenge to fill large sites, and is excited that Ocean State Job Lot moved into the former Pathmark site in Centereach and Best Market took over the former Waldbaums site in Selden.

He sees his role as creating a way to share the community’s perspective with business.

At town board meetings, LaValle honors a business of the month. He instituted that process when he first entered office. He chooses a business that is recommended by a community organization, such as the chamber of commerce, for supporting the community through charitable acts.

Bonner said the spotlight on these businesses also helps deliver the message to residents to shop locally, work with fellow business owners and the Chamber of Commerce.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle, on left, celebrated the Selden Dog Park festival in October with the unveiling of a memorial bench in honor of deceased police dog, Ace. File photo from Town of Brookhaven

“You can tell he knows these businesses and has visited them,” town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said. “He has taken a personal interest in knocking on doors and asking what’s going on, how can we help, and what is bothering you?”

Romaine has worked with LaValle on a sport complex in Selden that currently has what Romaine describes as two “world class” turf baseball fields, with dugouts, fencing and lights behind Grace Presbyterian Church.

LaValle was the “chief motivator and instigator in getting things moving” with this park, which sits behind Hawkins Path Elementary School, Romaine said. “He made sure everything stayed on the timetable we set.”

The park will be breaking ground soon on redeveloping a baseball field to a multipurpose field, which LaValle hopes will be done by the summer. In 2017, engineers will design the remaining part of the park as well as roadway improvements along Boyle Road and Hawkins Road to handle the additional traffic.

LaValle worked to redesign a planned dog park. He said he met with residents to talk about the park, which is divided into areas for large and small dogs, and hosted a public meeting.

LaValle worked with the owners of a batting cage site in Selden that was the regular target of graffiti. He put the property owner in touch with a security company in California that uses wireless, motion-activated cameras to take a video whenever someone walks on the property. This should reduce the number of false alarms police responded to with the other types of security systems, LaValle said. It will also help law enforcement catch those who are defacing the property.

LaValle said working as a councilman and a mortgage loan originator puts pressure on his schedule, which can require him to work 17 days in a row without a break.

“My family is understanding about my commitment,” he said. “If I show up late for a party, they get it. They understand what’s going on.”

His family has been down this road before. His cousin, Ken LaValle, has been a state senator (R-Port Jefferson) since 1976. Kevin’s brother, John Jay LaValle, is a former town supervisor and is the Suffolk County Republican Committee chairman.

“Invariably, someone comes to meetings and calls him Ken or John,” Bonner said. “He handles it really well. He has a good sense of humor about it.”

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle honors Centereach High School Student of the Month, Troy Lee, in October.

The councilman said each of the politicians in his family has his own style. He’s taken to the notion that working hard will bring good results.

Those who have seen LaValle in action believe he practices what he preaches.

“He’s a hard worker,” said Donna Lent, Brookhaven town clerk. “I don’t think it has anything to do with his name. I judge people by what they do.”

A resident of Selden, LaValle graduated from Centereach High School. He earned a bachelor of arts from Salisbury University in Maryland. Before running for office, he worked for then-county Legislator Dan Losquadro (R) as his chief of staff.

Bonner, who also worked for Losquadro before becoming a councilwoman seven years ago, described how LaValle’s high energy benefits everyone in the office.

“I can hear him when he’s on the phone with residents and constituents, while he’s trying to solve their problems, he’s so high energy that he’s bouncing a ball against the wall,” Bonner said.

Having LaValle as a member of the council has put a “spring in the step” of other council members. “It’s impossible not to have that [energy] affect you.”

As the liaison with the highway department, LaValle collaborated with Losquadro, who is now highway superintendent, to complete a 23-road paving project near Centereach High School and Dawnwood Middle School.

As LaValle learned from watching his brother and cousin, he knows that he’ll hear from members of his constituency wherever he goes.

LaValle is “deeply engaged with the community,” Romaine said. “It’s been a joy to work with him. He has no reticence to take the initiative.”

Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen speaks at a meeting. File photo
Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen. File photo.

In two years, Superintendent Timothy Eagen has become the king of Kings Park’s school district.

Under his leadership, the district has created robotics clubs and educational programs for children from kindergarten up, started work on about $41 million in improvements to the district’s facilities, brought back old clubs and worked tirelessly to make sure the level of education students receive is up to par.

For these reasons, Times Beacon Record News Media has selected Eagen as a Person of the Year for 2016.

A North Shore native, the superintendent grew up in South Huntington and graduated from Walt Whitman High School. His undergraduate degree from Alfred University was in ceramic engineering, a specific education he said still helps him today.

“As an engineer you’re trained to solve problems, and that is essentially what I do for a living,” he said. “It’s not necessarily science problems, but whatever the problem of the day might be.”

He said after college he switched over to the “family business” of education. His mother and father are both retired teachers, and his sister is a high school English teacher.

Eagen worked in the South Huntington school district for 15 years, starting as a substitute teacher and working his way to assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

In 2014, he arrived at Kings Park — a community he has great respect for.

“One of the things I really like about Kings Park is the things that are important to the community and the school district,” he said. “Over the two years that I’ve been here and in my research when I was applying for the job, there were three things that stood out: Kings Park pride, family and service. Pride you hear about all the time — it’s a very proud community. And then family and service, it’s a very close-knit, family-type community. When somebody has an issue or a problem everybody comes out and helps. They really value service, whether it’s in the armed forces, police, fire, rescue or just typical service to the community. All of those things are part of what I believe in.”

Rudy Massimo, principal at RJO Intermediate School, said Eagen has had a tremendous impact on the morale at Kings Park.

“I’ve never seen teachers more impressed with a superintendent before,” he said. “He really turned around the entire district. To watch it happen is absolutely amazing. He has made [Kings Park] an amazing place to work.”

Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen speaks at a meeting. File photo

When Eagen got to work, one of the first jobs he said he wanted to tackle was facility upgrades throughout the district.

“Every time we turned the corner it was another area that needed attention,” he said. “So the bond was big.” The capital project bond referendum was approved by voters in December 2015, and came in at about $41 million. Improvements like roof replacements, bathroom renovations, hardware replacements and asphalt and pavement upgrades are planned at every school in the district. Kings Park High School has some big-ticket items including auditorium upgrades, gymnasium renovations and the creation of a multipurpose athletic field and accompanying concession stand. The plan was divided into certain projects being carried out each year. This past summer the new track was installed and about $8 million in other improvements were carried out.

Eagen said he is proud of the improvements done thus far, and is eager to continue working to improve student experiences at facilities within the district.

In terms of curriculum, Eagen has assured Kings Park students are getting the most up-to-date education possible.

“Robotics has been pretty big,” Eagen said. “As well as classes focusing on programming, logic, research — things of that nature. We hear a lot about college and career readiness … there’s a lot of truth to that in concern to how competitive it is to get into college right now.”

Eagen said in his first year at Kings Park, students and parents approached him with the desire to create a robotics club, and he hit the ground running.

Through help from local legislators and school staff, the team was formed and was even able to compete at an annual competition hosted at Hofstra University in the spring.

“Under the heading of family, we all came together and made it happen,” Eagen said.

After the club was formed, Eagen began working to create a robotics program for all grades in the district. Students now work with programmable robots, that they can move, and make sing and dance. The district also offers a summer robotics camp.

“It’s just really cool,” Eagen said. “It’s the whole coding logic, it’s 21st century lessons. Really what we are trying to do is ensure every student graduates with a general understanding and some skills of programming, robotics, logic and code. It’s good stuff. Kids pick it up so quickly.”

Massimo said Eagen has created an environment for teachers and students to excel.

“He allows us to really run with our ideas,” he said. “You take pride in what you’re teaching your students. This initiative has encouraged us to return to creative academic freedom — sometimes you get lost in the testing world. He’s inspiring to everyone in the administration.”

The Kings Park school board agreed, Eagen has done wonders for the district.

“The board continues to be impressed with Dr. Eagen’s leadership and vision for the Kings Park Central School District as well as the Kings Park community at large,” members said in a joint email statement. “He is a constant advocate for our children — whether it be striving for advancements in our curriculum, our facilities and our programs or leading advocacy groups at the regional and state level on behalf of public education. Dr. Eagen is also a constant presence at community events — whether it be school concerts, plays and sporting events, or local events like parades or group meetings. We are fortunate to have him leading our school district.”

The first section of the greenway opens in 2009. Charlie McAteer (red shirt) watches as Herb Mones and Steve Englebright (holding scissors) cut the ribbon. Photo from Nick Koridis

By Susan Risoli

What could have been a highway nobody wanted became a nature trail everyone loves. The nearly-3.5-mile Setauket to Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail is maintained by hometown people, with a little help from members of local and state governments.

Charles McAteer of Friends of the Greenway helps with a clean up. File photo by Alex Petroski

The volunteer organization Friends of the Greenway, and civic groups that support its work, are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for the attention paid to a place enjoyed by many.

Community activism for the trail started in the 1980s, with a task force formed by state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). The group wanted to stop the proposed construction of a four-lane Route 25A bypass highway, on New York State Department of Transportation land stretching from East Setauket to Port Jefferson Station. Englebright secured $2.1 million in state funds for design and construction of a greenway. The first section of the trail opened in 2009, and the project was completed with $5 million in federal transportation funds obtained by U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).

Friends of the Greenway, a group affiliated with the Three Village Community Trust, grew out of the concern of those who wanted to watch over and improve the trail. Chairman Charlie McAteer said that through the friends’ trail stewardship program, people can “adopt” a section of the greenway. By taking ownership, volunteers agree to walk the path, removing litter and debris.

Stewards prune and mow vegetation, and supervise cleanups in their section. Any problems the trail stewards can’t resolve on their own — a fallen tree or broken lights — are referred to the community trust, to the Town of Brookhaven or to the DOT.

“Ultimately, government can only do so much,” McAteer said. “You always need people looking after things and helping maintain. You need those eyes and ears.”

Englebright said that just as the Setauket-Port Jefferson Station greenway connects communities, the Friends of the Greenway is the group that works to bring people together and engages them.

“Through scheduled cleanups and community programing, the Friends of the Greenway work step-by-step to encourage a culture of caring and connection that results in making the greenway a better place,” he said. “The friends should also be applauded for bringing local Scout troops into the mix, through volunteer days and being a prime location for Eagle Scout community service projects.”

Herb Mones, a member of the Three Village Community Trust’s board, said at first, some didn’t understand what a greenway could bring to their lives.

“There are many greenways around the country, but not many in Suffolk County,” he said, adding he feels that once the trail became a reality people embraced it. “A lot of people use it every single day because now they can see, feel and touch it.”

Trail steward Susan Colatosti keeps a close eye on the trail from her own property bordering the greenway. If she sees a sign knocked down or garbage cans overflowing, she reports the issue. When she sees litter clutter on the landscape while walking, she picks it up. Colatosti and other volunteers planted daffodils along the trail.

Eagle Scout Nick Brigantino (in uniform), from Boy Scout Troop 229 in Selden, leads an effort to install a bat house. Photo by Nick Koridis

“The trail has preserved this open space for posterity,” Colatosti said. “It’s a wonderful way for people to walk safely and see their neighbors.”

Boy Scout unit commissioner Nick Koridis spreads the word to local Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops, who have held car washes to raise funds to buy recycled plastic lumber for benches along the trail, and have donated labor to install the benches. Other projects have included installing mile markers, birdhouses, bat houses and street crossing signs. Younger kids clean up the trail with their parents.

“It’s all for the community,” Koridis said. “For the Scouts themselves, taking care of the greenway lets them have fun outdoors while learning the skills of working together.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) also has been involved with the trail since its beginning.

The greenway is “sustained by the labor of devoted volunteers, and because of their care the trail binds the hearts of two communities,” Hahn said. “The partnership of government and community has become the foundation of a recreational space that not only unites these hamlets to one another, but also to all people from across Long Island.”

John Cunniffe in his Stony Brook Avenue office. Photo by Donna Newman

To John Cunniffe, a person who lacks a knowledge of history is like a tree without roots.

So to make sure the history of the Three Village community is alive and vibrant, he’s spent the last decade offering his considerable architectural acuity to various organizations dedicated to doing just that.

Cunniffe sees the value in preserving heritage. He pays attention to the smallest of details, striving for historical accuracy while providing renovations that work in today’s world.

“There are many professionals in our community who give generously of their services to our local nonprofit organizations, often pro bono or for reduced fees, but none quite like John Cunniffe,” said Robert Reuter, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation. “He has helped jump-start and advance more important historic building projects throughout the Three Villages than I can count.”   

For his considerable contributions to the work being done by courageous nonprofits in preserving local historical edifices, for his unflagging willingness to lend his expertise to important local architecture projects and for his extreme generosity of time and spirit, John Cunniffe is one of Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“When someone essentially does ‘pro-bono’ work in their area of expertise — that made John’s involvement just that much more selfless.”

— David Sterne

Raised on Long Island, the 45-year-old Stony Brook resident received his architectural degree from the New York Institute of Technology. He has worked for the Weiss/Manfredi firm where he honed his design pedigree.

The Cunniffes decided to return to Long Island from Virginia 10 years ago and settled not far from the Soundview area of East Setauket, from which his wife Colleen Cunniffe hails. There they are raising their two daughters.

Now known for prestigious residential projects that value historic preservation, while creating contemporary architecture for his clients, he has also become the go-to architect for important restoration and preservation projects throughout the Three Village area, Reuter said.

Cunniffe donated his services to create the documents and secure the permits necessary to relocate and restore the historic Rubber Factory Worker Houses for the Three Village Community Trust. Soon he was handling work for the Setauket Neighborhood House, the Three Village Historical Society, the Frank Melville Memorial Park, The Long Island Museum, projects in the Bethel–Christian Avenue–Laurel Hill Historic District as well as the Caroline Church, Reuter added.

“They all needed an architect,” Reuter said. “They got more than they asked for — they got thorough project planning and exceptionally good design, as well as the necessary documents and permits.”

Along the way, Cunniffe represented the Stony Brook Historic District as a volunteer on the Town of Brookhaven’s Historic District Advisory Committee and advised the Setauket Fire Department on planning and design for the new headquarters building on Route 25A in Setauket.

Setauket Fire District Manager David Sterne said he feels grateful to have had Cunniffe’s participation in the planning for the new fire department structure.

“John was an integral part of the community committee for the planning and design of the new firehouse,” he said. “He attended most meetings and his insights, especially from his architect’s point of view, were invaluable. It’s one thing for a person to take part as a volunteer, but when someone essentially does ‘pro-bono’ work in their area of expertise — that made John’s involvement just that much more selfless.”

Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell remembers where and when she first encountered Cunniffe. 

John Cunniffe constructed plans for the new Setauket Fire Department Headquarters on Route 25A in Setauket. Phto by Desirée Keegan

“I first met John when he was the representative from the Stony Brook Historic District to the Town’s Historic District Advisory Committee,” she said. “He always brought sound knowledge of architecture, a willingness to hear out the applicants and helpful suggestions to the meetings. Beyond his education in architecture, he has a sense of the importance of historical structures and how they fit into our community today.”

Russell said it is unique how Cunnife considers style, materials, location and history of a structure as well as how it has to conform to fit in today’s world.

“Whether it be its location in the community or the owner’s lifestyle, balancing all those variables takes a keen eye, and a heart for the type of work he does,” she said.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the Three Village area is a special place because of people like Cunniffe.

“Our extraordinary community is defined by caring people like John Cunniffe, whose professional architectural vision and personal commitment to volunteerism is a gift that enhances our sense of place,” he said. “We are indeed fortunate that John has chosen to invest his considerable talent and energies here.”

Reuter compared the architect’s work to another famous designer who worked in the area: Ward Melville’s architect.

“Richard Haviland Smythe did these sorts of community projects for his patron who generously funded them,” he said. “John Cunniffe is our modern day Smythe — if only we had modern day major patrons to move these many projects forward. John has been a wise, good-humored and essential partner.”

SCPD branch involves the community to help with tips for investigations and arrests

Drugs recovered thanks to tips from Crime Stoppers. File photo from SCPD

By Rebecca Anzel

During its 22-year partnership with the Suffolk County Police Department, Crime Stoppers has served as a way for residents to share tips about crime anonymously in their neighborhoods without fear of punishment, and has helped cut crime and aid myriad criminal investigations

The not-for-profit organization expanded its repertoire of resources to include a general tip line, 800-220-TIPS (8477); another tip hotline for information about drugs, 631-852-NARC (6272); a website and a number for text messaging. Since 1994, its 22,287 tips generated by community members helped solve 42 homicides, closed 1,688 active warrants and led to 2,154 arrests, as at October.

Crime Stoppers president Nick Amarr. Photo from Nick Amarr

For the organization’s work fighting crime and the heroin epidemic in Suffolk County, Crime Stoppers is one of Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said the organization is indispensable to the community.

“Crime Stoppers is a valuable asset and has created a great partnership with our police department to reduce crime in Suffolk County,” she said in an email. “They work diligently to coordinate information from the public and the media to solve crime and make arrests. I am proud to support Crime Stoppers and appreciate the dedication of the police officers and volunteers who keep our communities safe.”

The organization is staffed by unpaid volunteers, most of whom are former law enforcement or veterans. President Nick Amarr, a Marine and Crime Stoppers volunteer for 14 years, said the organization’s real value is in providing residents with a safe way to help law enforcement protect their communities.

“It gives the public a voice and an understanding of how important law enforcement is in keeping our freedom and protecting our children,” Amarr said. “That’s very important to me and everyone on our board.”

Amarr also said Crime Stoppers’ employees would not be able to continue the work they have been doing without the support of Police Commissioner Tim Sini, First Deputy Commissioner John Barry and Police Chief Stuart Cameron. Amarr has worked with four administrations and said this one strategically embraces Crime Stoppers as a partner and has done more in less than 12 months than he has seen accomplished in the past 10 years.

Members at a Patchogue benefit concert present Crime Stoppers with a large check representing donations received. File photo from SCPD

“We have reinvested in our partnership with Suffolk Crime Stoppers,” Sini said. “It’s a great, great, great way we’re able to engage with the public and we’ve done a lot of good for the communities.”

The 8-month-old narcotics tip line alone had led to a 140 percent increase in the amount of search warrants issued by August; hundreds of drug dealers have been arrested; the police department has seized a substantial amount of money; and is on pace to confiscate more illegal firearms than ever before, according to Sini.

For Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue founder and president, Dori Scofield, whose son Daniel died in 2011 from a heroin overdose, the work Crime Stoppers is doing to combat the county’s heroin epidemic is invaluable.

“The only way we’re going to combat this epidemic is by working together in different forces and stopping the drugs in Suffolk County and helping our youth that are already addicted and educating children and parents,” Scofield said. “This epidemic takes a village to combat and our police and the Crime Stoppers are an important part of that village.”

Crime Stoppers is funded completely by donations, which it uses exclusively for rewards for tips leading to an arrest. In July, the organization hosted a benefit concert at The Emporium in Patchogue, raising $58,000 in one night. Amarr said it will host another fundraiser at the same venue next year.

Mike DelGuidice at a concert fundraiser. File photo from Rebecca Anzel

Teri Kroll, chairperson of People United to Stop Heroin, part of Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, spoke at the event in support of Crime Stoppers five months ago. Since then, she said she has heard that parents across Suffolk County call in information they hear from their children about drug dealers and unsavory activities in their communities.

“They’ve made a huge difference,” Kroll said. “The police department can’t fight all crime without any help and the Crime Stoppers being a liaison between the public and them is only a plus.”

Tracey Farrell, formerly Budd, a Rocky Point mother who lost her son Kevin to a heroin overdose in 2012, agrees the service Crime Stoppers provides is life saving to many kids.

“In the few months that it [NARC line] has been out, it has made a huge difference,” she said. “It’s nice that people see when they make a phone call, something is happening. I can’t say enough about how great this is.”

Farrell also said she thinks residents are less interested in the cash reward that comes after a reporting.

“I think they’re happy they have some place to report things going on in their own neighborhood,” she said. “[And Crime Stoppers] needs to keep getting information out there wherever they can.”

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch team up to build the homes for returning veterans. File photos

By Desirée Keegan

Receiving keys can be a magical moment for anyone, but for Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch, they’re more excited about handing them over.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 commander and the developer and owner of Landmark Properties, respectively, have been building and giving homes to veterans for the last four years. They’ve created 11 homes so far, and this year, the duo amped up the intensity to build three homes, with a fourth in the works.

For their work in the community and for dedicating their time and efforts to honoring and helping those who served our country, Cognitore and Baisch are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“It’s bittersweet,” Cognitore said. “There’s many candidates that we come across and every one of them deserves the home. Just to hear their stories is amazing.”

Veteran Deborah Bonacasa receives keys from Mark Baisch, developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, to her new home in Sound Beach. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Cognitore first met Baisch at a fundraiser Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) was hosting. Not knowing anyone at the event, the two found themselves sitting at the same table, and Cognitore began talking about the possibility of building a home for a disabled veteran.

“I thought it’d be one and done,” Baisch said, laughing, while thinking about the first home. “I never thought it would get to this level, but what we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this.”

The two recently unveiled the 11th home for returning veterans to the Cote family, who now own a home in Miller Place. The Bonacasas and Johnsons also received homes this year.

“I’m at a loss with words for everything they did for me and my family,” Deborah Bonacasa said. She is an Air Force veteran whose husband, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa from Coram, died after a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan. “They’re professional and thoughtful. I think it’s great what they’re doing for veterans and recognizing and advocating and stepping up to do things for those who do so much for our country. This house is, and they are, a constant reminder that there are great people still out there willing to help people.”

Rocky Point social studies teacher Rich Acritelli said no one cares more about veterans — and the entire hamlet — than Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” he said. “He personifies everything that a citizen should be, in terms of national and local service, between being in the military and always working for the betterment of his community.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was proud to see how the two stepped up for the Cote family, who were kicked out of their home when the landlord let the Sound Beach property fall into foreclosure. The family has also struggled with illness. Mother Renée Cote has acute intermittent porphyria, a rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

Mark Baisch, at left sitting at table, has new homeowner Deborah Bonacasa, right, sign papers for her new home made possible by himself and VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore, standing on right. File photo from VFW Post 6249

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue. Talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

Cote’s husband Glen was a U.S. Army combat medic in the Gulf War, before coming home and suffering an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

“Anyone that met them couldn’t believe what a great family,” Cognitore said. “Especially Zachary, what a little gentleman.”

But Renée Cote said she can’t believe what a great group Cognitore, Baisch and the rest of the developers and donators are.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

Baisch said his contractors and the community showed more support for the Cotes’ new home in Miller Place than on any other house. There were over 30 volunteers, some of whom have been helping Baisch since the first home. Many of them donate windows, garage doors, bathtubs and furniture. Local supermarkets and civic associations also give gift cards to help the new family acclimate to the area.

“They just continue to give and give and give every time we do one of these homes, and they never let me down,” Baisch said of his contractors. “It’s really the only way these homes could come together. We’re not a charity; we consider these homes a hand up, not a hand out. They do the best they can and it’s amazing how much they keep giving. It shocks me after 11 houses that they’re like ‘Mark, let’s do more.’”

Cognitore said he enjoys creating a community of veterans.

“Once they get into these homes, they’re a great neighbor, a great citizen, they keep up their homes, they pay their taxes, so everything works out,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The veterans appreciate that as well.

The Cote family’s new home in Miller Place as part of the local homes for returning veterans program. File photo by Kevin Redding

“It makes me feel at home knowing there are veterans out there like me,” Bonacasa said. “If we ever needed each other, we’re right there.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she’s thankful that most of the homes have been built in her district.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said of the welcome-home ceremonies. “It’s impossible to not get choked up. Especially the most recent one with the Cote family — they’ve had some significant challenges. They were struggling, and Joe and Mark saved them.”

Baisch said that the real tragedy of it all is the fact that without his help, the families wouldn’t be able to remain on Long Island.

“They had no real chance of having a family here and living here if it weren’t for these homes, so that’s the all-encompassing enjoyment out of it,” he said. “These people would have been long gone, and they’re not the types of people we’d like to see leave Long Island. They served their country and they’re Long Islanders, each and every one of them. For them to have to leave because they can’t afford to live here, there’s something wrong with that.”

Bonner said what the “dynamic duo” does shows their true character.

“Mark is very altruistic, and he’s never looking for a pat on the back about it, he just feels passionately about it and does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “And Joe is a tremendous advocate for veterans and a true Patriot. Their hearts are bigger than their wallets. It’s more about doing the right thing than it is about making money.”

Baisch said as long as Landmark Properties is around, he’ll continue to do something like this.

“It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” Baisch said. “I can’t explain it. I can’t come up with words enough to tell how wonderful it feels. The thought of not continuing doing this doesn’t even enter my mind.”

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