Authors Posts by Kevin Redding

Kevin Redding

Kevin Redding
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A haven for Long Island’s injured wildlife

By Kevin Redding

Three weeks ago at a construction site in Elwood, a young red-tailed hawk was lying on the ground with its eyes closed. It had been hit by a car and its skull was fractured.

But today, that same bird of prey can be found perched inside a spacious flight aviary at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, gliding from one branch to another and darting its head in every direction in search of its next meal. Dan’s Bird, as it’s known on the property after it was rescued by Daniel DeFeo, a Sweetbriar volunteer since 2015, will eventually be released back into the wild as one of more than 1,000 injured animals the nonprofit will rehabilitate this year. 

“As a wildlife rehabilitation center, we are about 50 percent successful with what goes back into the wild, where most other centers are at about 30 percent,” said Janine Bendicksen, Sweetbriar’s curator and wildlife rehabilitation director. “We can do everything a vet hospital can do except surgeries, as far as medications and setting bones. We’re also the only center where people can just walk in and drop animals off. It’s a real service to the public.” Whatever the site can’t do on its own, she added, is handled by the staff at Best Friends Veterinary Care in Nesconset.

All in a day’s work

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, Bendicksen — who has been at Sweetbriar for 18 years, is at the site five days a week and is in charge of teaching educational programs, fundraising for big events and running the summer camp and wildlife rehabilitation camps — made her rounds throughout the property, making sure to greet every critter along the way, including permanent wildlife patients like Einstein the screech owl, who has suffered a broken wing and leg and takes shelter among piles of towels and blankets inside a laundry room; Jack, a kestrel with a missing eye and a crossed beak due to exposure to the pesticide DDT; an old turkey vulture that was hit by a car in Pennsylvania, broke its hock and sustained a wing fracture; and an opossum that was found starving to death and is expected to be released in the spring.

There are also box turtles, mallard ducks, rabbits and chipmunks. A groundhog and a deer too. The site is licensed to take in almost any animal, Bendicksen said, except rabies vector species like raccoons and skunks.

Squeezed into a tiny wooden habitat, Bendicksen summoned two flying squirrels from inside a nesting box. Although they are nocturnal, she said these animals only slip into semihibernation during the day and can be woken up to eat and play. “These guys came from somebody’s attic,” she said. “Every couple of weeks we get another one because somebody uses a Havahart trap to catch them.”

Even though the nonprofit, which officially opened in 1986, has been rehabilitating wildlife for more than 30 years, Bendicksen said the program has grown in “leaps and bounds” over the last decade and each year the site takes in more and more. This is due to both Sweetbriar’s growing popularity in the community and people and developments “encroaching on animal’s habitats,” Bendicksen said.

The goal of Sweetbriar, of course, is to bring every animal back into the wild, and specifically back to exactly where they were found, but in many cases, the outcome depends on the specific animal and its situation. For instance, some injured animals can’t live in captivity and these — as well as animals that don’t recover from their severe traumas — must be euthanized.

“It’s the humane thing to do,” Bendicksen said. “Seagulls come in all the time and they don’t do well in captivity. While in cages, they get what’s called bumblefoot [inflammation on the soles of the feet], which they eventually die from.”

Not long after she explained this, William and Mary Krumholz of Smithtown brought in a box containing a seagull they found hobbling in the Costco parking lot.

“It looks like the wing is broken,” William Krumholz said. “It could hardly run away from me. It was only a matter of time before it got run over.”

After wrapping the seagull in a towel and doing some quick detective work in the rehabilitation room, Bendicksen deduced more than likely it was struck by a car, and found that the last digit of its wing was separated and hanging on by a part of the bone. She assured the Krumholzs that it would be taken to the veterinarian to be checked out further and told them about the inflammation concern with seagulls.

“But, if that’s the case, what you did do was save him from starving to death or being eaten or run over,” she said to them. “We’ll do our best.”

Mary Krumholz nodded her head. “I mean, that’s nice, but … It was only a car ride over here and I already feel bad.”

Bendicksen later said one of the most challenging parts of the job was to resist the urge to become attached to the animals that come in.

“It’s why we try not to give names to any injured animals we release, just the permanent ones,” she said, “because you become too close to the animals and it makes it very, very hard if you have to make a difficult decision. We wish we could release everything back where we found them.”

The human touch

People have been bringing animals to Bendicksen to be patched up since she was a young girl growing up in Hauppauge.

“There are little kids here who just stick their hands into cages and that would’ve been me — I was always told to be a veterinarian,” Bendicksen said. “My mom’s friends would call and say, ‘The cat just grabbed a baby bunny and it survived.’ I would always build little habitats for them and make sure they had a comfortable bed, even if it was just, like, a frog.”

Bendicksen grew up to be the owner of a children’s clothing business called Janine, which employed stay-at-home moms. In the late 1990s, however, she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, which forced her to give up everything for a while.

“I went through two years of hell and then had to kind of start my life over again,” she said. When she became cancer free, she came to Sweetbriar with her children for one of its volunteer picnics. She struck up a conversation with the site’s director, who, after finding out more about her, asked if she’d be interested in helping them curate the site.

After some extensive training, a licensing process and testing from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Bendicksen was a teacher on the site. It didn’t take long before she became director of wildlife rehabilitation. “This place saved my life,” she said. “What makes you happy as a child should be what you do as an adult. I’m extremely lucky.”

Val Timmerman, a Stony Brook University student and one of Sweetbriar’s 14 volunteers, said everything she knows she learned from Bendicksen.

“She’s so awesome and knows everything,” said Timmerman, who stumbled across Sweetbriar almost two years ago while searching for animal rescue facilities close by. “Being able to make even a small difference in the patient’s lives, making things a little bit better for them, is what I love. And, of course, releasing them, finding out that a possum or something we didn’t think was going to make it is doing so well now. It’s great.”

Bendicksen said without her volunteers, the site wouldn’t survive. “These people are near and dear to my heart,” she said.

DeFeo, who studies biology at Suffolk County Community College and hopes to be a zookeeper one day, is at Sweetbriar every Saturday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. taking care of all the birds of prey on the property, preparing all their food, changing their water bowls and cleaning out their dirty cages.

“I’ve always loved animals,” DeFeo said. “Just going out there and saving an animal’s life — it’s such a beautiful feeling. And I always feel a sense that I will do anything to save that life.”

Before pursuing the animal field, DeFeo said he was an electrician. But he knew he had to call it quits after nearly suffering a severe injury.

“If I fell off a ladder and broke my back, I’d be miserable for the rest of my life,” he said. “But if I got my arm bitten off by an animal, I’d probably still be happy and go to work the next day. This is what I’m meant to do.”

How you can help

“The public needs to be better educated on what they need to be afraid of, what they shouldn’t be afraid of and what they should do when they find an animal,” Bendicksen said, adding that any and all residents who do come across an injured animal should call Sweetbriar before handling it or bringing it in.

Here are some helpful tips Sweetbriar staff members have assembled:

• Baby birds are often seen fully feathered but trying to fly, with the parents nearby. These are fledglings. If they look bright and alert, it is best to leave them alone. If possible, keep cats and dogs away from the area for a few days in which time the birds will learn to fly. The parents will continue to care for them even though they are on the ground. If you are not sure the parents are nearby and you are concerned, you may put the bird in a nearby bush or on a tree branch and observe from inside the house for a few hours. If the mother sees you in the yard she will not come near.

• If an adult bird can be caught, probably something is wrong and it needs help.

If you encounter any kind of turtle crossing the road, it is okay to help it along. However, please carry it to the side of the road in the direction it is heading. By putting it back on the side it is crossing from, it will start crossing the road all over again.

If an opossum is found smaller than 8 to 10 inches, it probably needs attention. Orphaned babies are often found looking for food near a dead mother, especially alongside roads. These animals rarely contract rabies because of their low body temperature.

• DO: Place the animal in a secure cardboard box with small holes placed on the side or lid. The box should be just big enough for the animal to stand and turn around, to prevent the animal from thrashing around and hurting itself. Place paper towels or a T-shirt on the bottom of the box.

• DON’T: Keep peeking at the animal or handling the animal. The more you look at an animal or handle it, the more you stress the animal and reduce its chance of survival. Resist the temptation to put an animal inside your shirt. Cute little squirrels are notorious for being covered with fleas.

Sweetbriar Nature Center is located at 62 Eckernkamp Drive in Smithtown. The center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call 631-979-6344 or visit www.sweetbriarnc.org.

Suffolk County Legislator Monica Martinez sponsored two bills regarding sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace for county employees. Photo from Suffolk County

All those in favor say #MeToo and #TimesUp. In a unanimous 18-0 vote, county lawmakers passed legislation last week that will set better standards and practices regarding sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace for county employees.

During its Feb. 6 meeting, members of the Suffolk County Legislature pushed forward two bills sponsored by Legislator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood).

“My hope with these laws is that we become a safer county, that it gives something to build a foundation on and that people can feel comfortable in the workforce here,” Martinez said. “To me, it was mind-boggling that we didn’t really have anything set in the county, especially being one of the biggest counties and employers, so I’m proud of it and I really thank my colleagues for supporting me.”

“My hope with these laws is that we become a safer county, that it gives something to build a foundation on and that people can feel comfortable in the workforce here.”

— Monica Martinez

The first bill mandates the director of the Office of Labor Relations provide county legislators statistics on “the number, type and disposition of employee disciplinary proceedings” involving sexual harassment or discrimination for 2015, 2016 and 2017 within 90 days; and submits this information by Feb. 28 of each year, starting in 2019. The bill also states that the county attorney must issue a report that contains a list of all sexual harassment and discrimination claims filed against Suffolk County in court, plus the settlement of any litigation claims, for 2015, 2016 and 2017 within 90 days; and, again, submit this annually starting in 2019.

“The way the resolution in the policy is designed is that it would be broken down between county departments and, within each department, the division within that department will have a more concise gathering of data,” Martinez said, adding that names will be redacted from the data to protect the privacy of those involved. “This will really help us hone in on what’s going on and who we need to focus on in each department.”

She added she hopes the bill can help prevent sexual harassment lawsuits and reduce costs for taxpayers in the future.

According to Martinez and the elected officials who co-sponsored and supported the bill — including Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Legislator
Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) — the legislative body as a whole has never been made aware of these kinds of settlements or given insight into how many active complaints there are or the nature of those complaints, until now.

“In the past, if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get it,” Anker said. “But basically, here, we’re not asking, we’re telling them.”

Gregory said this will help make things more transparent.

“This will give us information so that we can fully exercise our oversight function as a policy-making branch of government.”

— DuWayne Gregory

“If we see there are things going on and there’s a pattern, then we have to be sure that the proper training is being provided to the various departments, or [an] individual department,” Gregory said. “This will give us information so that we can fully exercise our oversight function as a policy-making branch of government.”

Hahn agreed, saying that all the women in the legislature are eager to crack down on this issue.

“We want to be sure that our voices are heard,” she said. “When we say ‘me too,’ we are protecting all the women that work for the county and work within the county, and we’re all looking for ways to do more.”

She said there’s no question there have been incidents at the county level.

“There’s clear understanding that there’s a pervasive problem in our society, and a clear recognition that those statistics are important for us to understand,” Hahn said. “The better question now is, do we know how many? Do we know how pervasive this is? Do we know if we need more training or better training?”

The other bill passed will create a county policy in which all employees hired will be given a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet, maintained by the Department of Civil Services and Human Resources and issued by the director of the Office of Labor Relations. All new employees will be required to sign a document acknowledging they have received the pamphlet.

This will inform new employees who to contact if an issue arises and provide accountability.

“We need to get people aware that there is information pertaining to protecting their rights and protecting them from sexual harassment or discrimination, or both,” Anker said. “It’s a proactive measure … we are taking.”

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The majority of Shoreham-Wading River residents at the Feb. 13 meeting leaned toward preserving the historic Briarcliff Elementary School building. File photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

During a second public forum held by Shoreham-Wading River’s board of education Tuesday night, a grieving mother pleaded with administrators to “be brave, step out of the box and take a chance” by turning the beloved-but-shuttered school on Tower Hill Road in Shoreham building into a refuge for students that need one.

“We can do something really big here,” said Grace Shea McCarthy, the mother of Remy Kallie Jeanne McCarthy, who, as a 15-year-old freshman at the high school, took her own life Nov. 2, 2016. “My daughter was a very capable, talented, skilled person who, over time, had lost connection with her school and her peers. We need to do more to help these kids sooner.”

McCarthy, an employee at Brookhaven National Lab, asked the board to support a joint proposal by North Shore Youth Council and Tesla Science Center for student-oriented programs and services in the portable units at Briarcliff Elementary School, which was built in 1907 and closed permanently in 2014 as part of the district’s restructuring plan.

She explained that North Shore Youth Council — a Rocky Point-based nonprofit active in communities and school districts throughout the area, including Shoreham-Wading River, Mount Sinai and Miller Place — would be able to host cost-efficient after-school tutoring, recreation, social skill development and summer programs in the space; and provide students of varying ages with professional counseling in the areas of substance abuse, social isolation and depression.

“As a parent watching my child go through this district, I can absolutely tell you this school needs more of these programs,” she said. “We are going through a suicide epidemic — our students need opportunities to build their confidence through buddy systems.”

McCarthy said partnering these students with science and technology programs at the Tesla Science Center would be “incredibly beneficial,” and serve to reignite the passion for science among youth in the community. She addressed the annual costs of $95,000, plus any additional unexpected costs, to operate the school. Board members and residents expressed concerns over the pricey upkeep during the first public discussion about the property last month. Some proposed that the property be sold off to eliminate the costs.

“When I look at that amount of money to maintain such a spectacular building, such a historical landmark in our backyard, I believe we need to fight to keep it,” she said. “It’s not something we should just give away. To have that knocked down to have condos put up or something, that would be a crime.”

Residents spoke up in favor of the proposal.

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member and a former Briarcliff student, urged the board last month to file covenants on the property so the building could never be taken down.

“This way, you can maintain the ownership of the building for future use and defray the costs,” Madigan said.

While Dennis Ryan, a Shoreham resident, said leasing the building was a good idea if the right group came along, he asked the district to not sell, but demolish the school, getting rid of all the extra upkeep costs and turn the 10-acre property into a park for the community.

“We talk about the budget and trying to get a nest egg — the value is in the land itself,” Ryan said. “Hold onto the property. We don’t need the money at this point. If something happens 10 to 15 years down the line and we need that money, then we know we’ll have it.”

At the top of the forum, Superintendent Gerard Poole presented the district’s evaluation and consideration of some of the ideas residents had during the first forum Jan. 9. These included selling the property, moving the two-floor North Shore Public Library that is attached to the high school to Briarcliff,
attaining historical landmark status and redeveloping the building as a residence for seniors.

Board president Robert Rose assured that the district will not be rushing into any
decision, continuing to weigh the options while promising to hold more public forums.

“We want to take our time and make the right decision,” Rose said.

Smithtown Superintendent James Grossane. File photo from Smithtown Central School District

Smithtown school administrators have unveiled their first draft of the 2018-19 budget, which calls for a larger increase than prior years.

Smithtown Central School District presented its preliminary 2018-19 budget of $244,526,399 at their Feb. 6 board of education meeting. The district’s projected budget is about 2.16 percent higher than the current school year, which was adopted at $239,567,205. Administrators anticipate asking taxpayers for  $5.52 million more this May.

The increase in preliminary 2018-19 budget comes mostly  a $3.4 million increase in district employee salaries due to state-mandated  contractual obligations to contribute to the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System and Education Resource Strategies, and a 3 percent increase in health premiums, anticipated to cost $700,000.

School officials also propose to cut five elementary classes due to declining enrollment across the district. Superintendent James Grossane said the district currently has 661 fifth-grade students but has seen a decrease in the number of incoming students in recent years. While Grossane said he
anticipates kindergarten enrollment to be close to 500 again this year, similar to last.

Budget highlights

Preliminary 2018-19 budget debuts at $245M,  a 2.16 percent increase

Officials suggest cutting 5 elementary classes, decreasing max class size

March 13, 7 p.m.: Presentation on district’s proposed instructional budget

The district’s declining enrollment allows school administrators to contemplate shrinking maximum number of students in each class. Last year, in the 2016-17 school year, the limits were set at: 25 students per kindergarten class, 26 students per class in grades 1 to 3, and 28 students per class in grades 4 to 5, according to Grossane. Under the proposed 2018-19 budget, school administrators are suggesting reducing the number to 25 students per class through fifth grade.

“This is the second year in a row of reducing class sizes in our elementary schools,” the superintendent said.

Unfortunately, the district expects to receive approximately $45.7 million total in state aid, roughly $1.5 million less than last year as the plans of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)  call for increased funding to “high-need” districts.

The district plans to reduce its assigned fund balance, which has been increased by $1.5 million in order to balance the 2018-19 budget and increase its year end fund balance to “build up reserves.”

“The district is currently in the preliminary stages of budget development for the 2018-19 school year, with an anticipated adoption date of April 10,” Grossane said in an emailed statement. “As we do every year, the board and administration are working collaboratively to develop and present a budget to the community that is clear, transparent and fiscally efficient while preserving or increasing opportunities for our students.”

The school district’s next budget workshop will be held March 13, at 7 p.m.  to discuss the instructional budget for the elementary and secondary schools. The superintendent’s final proposed budget will be presented March 20 for adoption by the board of education.

The district’s preliminary 2018-19 budget of a 2.16 percent increase falls within the state tax cap and, as such, will only require approval by the simple majority of voters.

“The district will likely go to the voters right at or slightly below the cap,” Grossane said.

The budget vote will be held May15.

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Rocky Point Middle School's Robo Eagles robotics team. Photo from Rocky Point school district

At Rocky Point Middle School, LEGO-building is serious business.

The school’s two robotics teams — Radical Robotix and Robo Eagles — will compete in the 14th annual FIRST LEGO League Long Island championship tournament in Longwood this March after taking home a total of three awards in the qualifying tournament Jan. 20.

Rocky Point Middle School’s Radical Robotic team. Photo from Rocky Point school district

“Both teams have worked very hard from the beginning of the school year and to be recognized for these efforts is outstanding,” club adviser Mark Moorman said. “I was thrilled that both teams qualified.”

During the high-stakes competition, held at Great Hollow Middle School in Nesconset, the Rocky Point students — grades 6 through 8 — squared off against 23 other robotics teams from across the region with programmable LEGO Mindstorm robots they started building in October.

Under this year’s theme of hydrodynamics, the students applied math, science and technology skills to build robots with the ability to complete water-related tasks, such as replacing water pipes and connecting water pumps, on a table-top playing field.

The teams had to present research projects identifying a problem and finding a solution related to the theme. During the tournament, judges evaluated the students based on teamwork and technical skills, as well as “gracious professionalism,” according to Moorman.

Robo Eagles:

Misha Zaslavsky

Leila Riedl

Zach Accetta

Alex Rosenberg

Marco Tanza

Felicity Monaghan

Oskar Chorzepa

As the results show, Rocky Point certainly made a splash.

The Robo Eagles received the Alliance Award for scoring the highest point total on the robot table and the Judges Award for “unique efforts, performance or dynamics.” The Radical Robotix took home a project research award for its desalination aviation life vest.

For the project, Radical Robotix determined that while each seat on an airplane is equipped with a life vest in case of emergency water landing, once a passenger is in the water, specifically seawater, he or she is left on their own to survive while waiting for rescue. The students developed a water bottle, attached to the vest, that would filter the salt and bacteria out of seawater and turn it into drinking water.

“We were so excited to win the project research award and qualify for the next tournament,” said Radical Robotix member seventh-grader Eve Hald. “It was fun getting to see our robot compete and to compete in the tasks that judges gave us.”

Radical Robotix:

Jake Bazata

C.J. McMillen

Sola Matsumoto

Eve Hald

Nick O’Shea

Maddy Knopke

Moorman said the two teams had a balanced mix of veteran robotics members and “newbies” — Radical Robotix has six members, Robo Eagles has seven. While he said members of the robotics club meet twice a week every other week and knew what to expect, it didn’t make the tournament any less chaotic.

“It seemed like when we were done with one aspect, like the Robot round, we had to move straight to another aspect, like the project presentation,” he said. “It was all happening very fast.”

Back at the middle school, Principal Scott O’Brien expressed his pride in the club’s performance.

“The students and advisers of the Rocky Point Middle School robotics teams work tirelessly throughout the year to compete in tournaments,” O’Brien said in a statement. “We are so proud of the robotics teams for qualifying for the championship tournament this March. Best of luck to both teams and their advisers.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon speaks during a media event Feb. 9 at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Photo by Kevin Redding

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon (D-Lake Grove) has only been in office for six weeks but he’s wasting no time working on the issues he campaigned on and bringing change to his new environment.

“Every single day since I’ve started, I wake up very enthused and energetic to get to work,” Toulon said during a media roundtable discussion he hosted Feb. 9 at Yaphank Correctional Facility. “I want to break down the barrier between law enforcement and our community — I want residents to know who their sheriff is.”

Since Jan. 1, Toulon, a former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain, has visited five school districts across the county, from Huntington to Bay Shore, to speak with students about bullying, vaping, opioid use and gangs as part of a long-term initiative to, in his own words, “get to the kids before they get to me.” A more thorough “listening tour” will be held across local high schools during which Toulon will meet with specific students who face drug- and gang-related problems.

“I told him, ‘You’ve done more in six weeks than I’ve ever seen anyone take office do.’”

— Steve Kuehhas

“I am going to be very tough on crime,” he said. “I will, as I did in New York City, go after gang members and those distributing drugs illegally and I encourage the community’s support.”

He said he is in the process of creating an intelligence-gathering system within the correctional facility similar to one established in the gang unit at Rikers Island to help outside law enforcement partners, including District Attorney Tim Sini (D), track down criminals and better prevent and solve crimes. As part of the system, information will be  gathered from inmates through interviews, phone calls, visits and social media interactions that occurred before incarceration, with a focus on targeting particular crimes in certain towns and jurisdictions.

He said he will also be implementing a re-entry program for inmates leaving the jail focused on rehabilitation and counseling.

“We’re all in this together and that individual that’s in his cell today may be in Target tomorrow buying something,” he said. “So I want to make sure we treat everyone with fairness and respect, and assist them in keeping their dignity. I feel confident that, after four years, we are going to make a big difference in a lot of people’s lives by deterring individuals from joining gangs, reducing this epidemic involving prescription drugs and [reduce] the high rate of recidivism.”

Toulon said he is adamant about taking politics out of the sheriff’s office, insisting he will not be accepting any political contributions and that all employees will be evaluated solely on attendance and work performance.

He has already met with various members of his staff, and inmates in the housing area, to address any issues they may have faced in the past. In light of the nationwide #MeToo movement, he said he will be meeting with female deputy sheriff’s, correctional officers and non-uniform staff members to create a more open environment when it comes to addressing issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Inside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. File photo by Kevin Redding

While he admits to having a different management style than his predecessor, former sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C), Toulon said he is pleased so far by the way Suffolk’s two jails operate and will be holding onto many of DeMarco’s implementations.

This includes a controversial policy change in December 2016 to detain undocumented immigrants who have been arrested in Suffolk County, and are eligible to be released pending a trial, at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents so they can begin the deportation process. Before DeMarco implemented the change, the county needed a judge’s order, or warrant, to hold onto someone wanted by federal immigration officials.

At the time, DeMarco expressed concerns about the impact on public safety that could come from releasing immigrants who committed crimes back into their communities.

“ICE will stay in this jail,” Toulon said. “It’s a hot button topic, but my number one job is to keep the community safe. Looking at local charges of all undocumented inmates, these are really horrific crimes — if done by anybody. We’re talking about sexual assault, robberies, burglaries.”

Current Undersheriff Steve Kuehhas, a former bureau chief for the district attorney’s office who became second in command to DeMarco in 2016, is the only past employee of the office who will be interviewed for undersheriff in the new administration as Toulon seeks “an infusion of new and objective ideas.”

Kuehhas said he’s beyond impressed with the job Toulon has done so far.

“I told him, ‘You’ve done more in six weeks than I’ve ever seen anyone take office do,’” he said. “I know because I’m at his side all the time and the work is constant, which I love. It’s always busy. And this is just the beginning. He’s very honest when he says he wants to be transparent and always available to the public.”

Plans for the new Rocky Point firehouse on King Road. Ground is scheduled to be broken in June. Rendering from Michael Russo/Hawkins Webb Jaeger

With an extra push from the town, Rocky Point Fire District is setting its sights on early June to begin construction of a more durable and up-to-date firehouse in the footprint of its existing one at 90 King Road. The $8.5 million project, approved by the public in a vote in August 2017, also includes the acquisition of a new aerial ladder truck.

During the Jan. 25 Town of Brookhaven board meeting, council members voted to waive the project’s site plan requirements and building fees, turning an administrative review over to its Department of Planning, Environment and Land Management instead of outside engineers. This reduces the overall cost to taxpayers and speeds up the “shovel in the ground” process, according to fire district officials.

“Every little bit helps,” said Rocky Point Fire District Vice Chairman Kirk Johnson, who was unable to provide the exact costs the fire district would be saving at this time. “It’s not astronomical, but there are significant costs, and those things add up.”

“The fire district is very fiscally conservative, but the first responders don’t have room, they respond to an enormous amount of calls and the building isn’t very energy-efficient. This needs to be done.”

— Jane Bonner

Fire district officials have been working alongside architect group Hawkins Webb Jaeger since last year to fine-tune the design of the new firehouse — which the project’s architect said will be made of natural stone as opposed to brick; consist of pitched roofs and a hidden flat roof for storage of mechanical equipment; and include a spacious meeting room as well as a “ready room” for responders, who currently have to put on their gear in the way of incoming and outgoing fire trucks.

The building will also be up to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, the most widely used green building rating system in the world; include energy-efficient LED lights; and be equipped with better, more cost-efficient heating and cooling systems.

It was designed to have a “more residential feel” than the existing, decades-old building, according to Michael Russo, an associate architect at Hawkins Webb Jaeger.

“We felt this would be the bookend to the north end of the Rocky Point business district and something that works well for the edge of a residential community and the end of a North Shore downtown center,” Russo said.

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) spoke of the benefits of the new design.

“It’s a very modest firehouse, very traditional looking, and it will blend in nicely in the community and downtown,” she said. “The fire district is very fiscally conservative, but the first responders don’t have room, they respond to an enormous amount of calls and the building isn’t very energy-efficient. This needs to be done.”

Russo and Johnson said upon breaking ground in June, they hope to complete construction of the new building’s apparatus bay by winter, so the fire vehicles can be stored and protected against freezing temperatures. During construction, fire district personnel will work out of portable trailers and possibly garages being offered up by community members.

Johnson said he estimates the project will take up to a year to complete. The fire district will be going out to bid for contractors in the coming months.

Town of Brookhaven submits grant application to pay for dredging

A grant would help pay for dredging of Miller Place Duck Pond. File photo by Giselle Barkley

A local ecosystem needs saving.

The Miller Place Duck Pond — located at the intersection of North Country Road and Rocky Point Landing Road — is too low, looks dirty in the summertime and appears to be invaded by destructive species.

Those are some of the complaints residents have made to Tom Carrano, Brookhaven’s assistant waterways management supervisor, who, along with his team, has been monitoring the pond in recent years, determining that the concerns are valid.

The small but vibrant pool of water, which sits across from Laddie A. Decker Sound Beach School and has long served as an educational tool for its teachers, has been found to be overrun with a multitude of plant species not native to Long Island, some identified and some not, which Carrano said have the potential to “wreak real havoc.”

“There aren’t that many areas left where local amphibians and reptiles can go on the North Shore, so these small systems are extremely important.”

— Tom Carrano

The pond currently contains water lilies, plants that thrive in areas of high nitrogen loading and sedimentation, and, possibly, Caboma and watermilfoils — plants whose root systems are known to threaten the quality of fresh waters, greatly affecting swimming and fishing.

Because of these findings, the town board recently submitted a grant application to the Suffolk County Water Quality Protection and Restoration Program as well as the Stewardship Initiative in hopes of acquiring funds to eradicate the invasive species and restore and maintain the health of the water.

“We’re just hoping to make this little ecosystem — which is very special to the community — better than it is today,” Carrano said. “There aren’t that many areas left where local amphibians and reptiles can go on the North Shore, so these small systems are extremely important.”

The restoration, of which the projected cost is $240,000 with a $120,000 town match, will include dredging the pond to remove excess sediments and all invasive plant matter and using the highway department’s Vortechs unit — a hydrodynamic separator that “combines swirl concentration and flow controls into a shallow treatment unit and retains trash, debris, sediment and hydrocarbons” — to reduce stormwater runoff and filter clean water from natural wetlands. If the grant is received, Carrano said he expects work would begin in the summer of 2019.

“We have a very comprehensive plan that we’ve worked on and we’d like to go after some grant funding to go and take care of it,” Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said. “We’re taking it piece by piece. We know we can do the dredging in-house, because we’ve done so in the past.”

Bonner said the pond was dredged and invasive species were taken out in the 1980s, but said the problem is, over time, people dump their own fish into the water.

Miller Place Duck Pond, which has been contaminated by nonnative fish and plants being dumped into it, warns against dumping on a sign by the pond. Photo by Kevin Redding

“[Dumping] what’s in their own fish tanks, such as plants, and they’re not native to the Island,” she said. “Birds drop seeds, animals drop seeds and then you have invasives. The grant funds will go toward bringing the pond back to where it was.”

Carrano said by installing the Vortechs unit and creating a cleaner water filter, he is confident it would stop all sediments from entering the water again, eliminating the need to have to worry about dredging the pond for a “very long time after this.”

Although the wetland is outside of his district, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) spoke highly of the plan to save it, calling the pond “a crown jewel” in the Miller Place community.

“This is a very important water body simply because it anchors one end of the historic district in Miller Place and is, visually, critically important to the sense of place for that whole area,” the assemblyman said, noting insects reproduce in the water, and it attracts birds, reptiles and local wildlife. “We don’t have many ponds on Long Island on an overall landscape basis and open freshwater bodies are extremely rare, so I would strongly support the idea of restoring it.”

He did, however, warn dredging too deep with a perched pond like this runs the risk of taking away the clay base that holds the water.

“That would not be good,” Englebright said. “So, while dredging makes sense, it also makes sense to try to restore the pond a shallow depth rather than gauging down deeper, which could be dangerous.”

A child takes Infant Swimming Resource steps during a lesson to prevent drowning. Photo from Kristine McCarren

For 10 minutes a day, five days a week, Kristine McCarren prevents tragedies.

As founder of the Long Island branch of Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) — a “self-rescuing” program that originated in Florida in 1966 — McCarren of Mount Sinai teaches children between 6 months and 6 years of age how to hold their breath underwater, wriggle onto their backs and float on the surface until help arrives in the event that they fall in water unsupervised. Since it began, she said, the technique has proven to be successful in saving more than 800 children from drowning — the leading cause of accidental death for children under the age of 4 in the United States.

Kristine McCarren. Photo from Kristine McCarres

“People worry about their children in car seats and preventing accidents there, but I don’t think they even think about how big of a problem drowning is,” said McCarren, who since 2013 has provided lessons, at ISR Seal Team Survival Swimming Inc. in Port Jefferson Station and Courtyard by Marriott in Ronkonkoma. She currently has 15 students of varying ages, who each go through a six-week program.

McCarren said unlike typical swim lessons, it’s best to teach the technique every day in small increments so the children are able to retain it.

“This program is about making swimming second nature,” she said. “If a child can learn how to crawl or walk, it’s the same thing — it’s a motor skill just like that. The repetition gets it into their muscle memory, so as soon as they hit the water, they know to flip back and float.”

McCarren said parents are encouraged to stay on the sidelines and not interfere as their child is learning, as hard as that might be initially. The children are tested in both winter and summer clothes, as most would be fully clothed in a drowning situation.

“Kristine is absolutely amazing and it’s insane what she’s able to do with them,” said Sarah Walters, who two years ago traveled every day from Babylon to Port Jefferson Station with her three children. “I know that’s absurd, but at the same token I don’t have to worry anymore. It’s the best investment I’ve ever made. We were at a party once and my daughter, [who was 2 at the time], fell into the pool. There were adults all over the place, but I didn’t have to panic. She just got herself to the surface and to the side. That peace of mind is worth every penny and hour spent driving.”

“After five weeks of the intense training and a little bit of tears, she can now save herself.”

— Nicole Delfino

McCarren got involved in early 2013 after seeing a picture of her then-18-month-old niece swimming underwater in Florida, where the program had been extremely popular for decades. A physical therapist at the time, with a doctorate from Stony Brook University, the lifelong lover of water quickly decided to travel down to Florida to get certified as an ISR instructor. She went through an intensive, eight-week training program that, on top of in-water, hands-on training, included education in physiology, anatomy and child psychology.

Melissa Larsen, who brought her 14-month-old son to McCarren for lessons in 2016, became so inspired by her and the program that she became an ISR instructor herself, training in New Jersey. She currently teaches ISR in Hauppauge and Garden City.

“Seeing what [McCarren] did with my own son was incredible,” Larsen said. “She has patience and she’s thoughtful in what she’s doing. We have a pool in our backyard, and even if we didn’t, I think it was a necessary skill for him to have.”

The program has been especially essential and therapeutic for those in the area who have suffered water-related tragedies like Nicole Delfino, a Centereach mother whose 15-month-old daughter Kyleigh died after falling into a pool at a family party Aug. 15, 2016. Delfino said Kyleigh was in a crowded living room while she was helping her 5-year-old daughter Liliana in the bathroom. Kyleigh found her way outside and into the pool.

A child floats to the surface during fully-clothed drown-prevention training. Photo from Kristine McCarren

“Kyleigh was bright,” Delfino said. “She had her whole life ahead of her, and it was taken away in an instant.”

Only a few months after Kyleigh’s passing, Delfino enrolled Liliana in the program to make sure something like what happened to Kyleigh never happened again. Her 6-month-old daughter will begin ISR lessons in a few weeks.

“After five weeks of the intense training and a little bit of tears, she can now save herself,” she said Liliana. “It means everything to me, and she’s phenomenal in the program. If my daughter [Kyleigh] would’ve taken ISR lessons, she could have fallen into the pool, gained her composure and floated on her back until she was able to literally swim to the side of the pool.”

She said she encourages any parent to enroll their child in the program.

“I would highly suggest it to anyone, because at the end of the day, who is responsible to save them are themselves,” Delfino said. “All the layers of protection — you should have a gate around your pool and you should have an alarm — can fail, and if they do, you and only you can save yourself.”

McCarren and Delfino are in the process of starting a nonprofit in Kyleigh’s name to provide ISR scholarships to children whose siblings have drowned. For more information on the ISR program, visit ww.isrnewyork.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ISRSealSchoolLI.

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Albert G. Prodell Middle School students study abroad with Madrid 2017 classmates. Photo from Marc Dinowitz

By Kevin Redding

A total 3,521 miles separates Shoreham-Wading River and Madrid, Spain, but thanks to a long-running school program, the two regions couldn’t be closer.

Every February since 1983, a pack of eighth-graders studying Spanish at Albert G. Prodell Middle School travel to Madrid for an immersive and unforgettable exchange program. Nineteen students will embark on the 35th annual trip Feb. 9, during which they will be matched with host families, attend school at IES Santamarca and tour the expansive city for two weeks — relying on and strengthening their foreign language skills along the way. In April, following tradition, the school will welcome students from the Madrid school, who stay with their corresponding host families in Shoreham and absorb American culture through the lens of Long Island. Although the program’s locations have remained the same for nearly four decades, the itineraries of the trips are always unique — being based on the parents and students involved.

Shoreham, the only public school district in the nation with this kind of program, has held onto it against several odds. Even in 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War when people were afraid to travel, enough support for the program existed to send four students abroad.

“It’s so deeply rooted in the community — I’m so proud,” said Barbara Gaias, who started the program after being hired as a Spanish teacher at the middle school in 1981, and maintains her involvement even in retirement. “Now we have students going whose parents went when they were younger. People say they want to take Spanish instead of French because they know they have the chance to go to Spain. Their Spanish skills are just unbelievable upon returning.”

Throughout the trip, Gaias said Shoreham students are expected to make orders while in restaurants and regularly communicate with strangers.

“We try to put them in uncomfortable situations — we want them to be able to use their language ability,” she said. “When they come back, the kids are so much better, particularly in listening skills. As a result of the trip, they really serve as leaders not just in Spanish class, but in the school. They’re junior ambassadors.”

Marc Dinowitz, whose daughter Jillian went on the trip in 2014, volunteered as coordinator of the exchange program in June 2017. Together, with a band of parents, he spearheaded fundraising efforts to pay for the events that take place during the two weeks in April. This year, 20 Madrid students will be visiting Shoreham. In past years, Shoreham’s fundraising efforts have gone toward providing the visiting students with a tour of the Montauk Lighthouse and museum, a ride on a water taxi around the Statue of Liberty and tickets to a New York Yankees baseball game.

The trip to Spain is paid for by each individual participant. Dinowitz and four chaperones will be joining the Shoreham students this year.

“It’s all worth it for me to watch the kids’ transformation by the end of the program,” Dinowitz said. “And getting to see them integrate into those families and then having the other kids come back and become part of our families — these are lifelong bonds and friendships.”

Kim DiPaola, a 1993 Shoreham graduate, said she had an incredible experience when she took part in the program, and was immediately supportive when her daughter, Isabella, expressed interest in going this year.

“I hope that she more or less experiences what I did,” DiPaola said. “I learned so much about Madrid’s culture, and just got to experience such a different way of life.”

Isabella said she’s been geared up to go to Madrid for a while now, between her mother’s experience there and seeing some friends’ pictures of their trip from previous years on social media.

“I’ve been looking forward to it since I was in sixth grade,” Isabella said. “I’ve honestly never been more excited for something in my life.”

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