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TBR Staff

TBR Staff
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TBR News Media covers everything happening on the North Shore of Suffolk County from Cold Spring Harbor to Wading River.

Singer/songwriter Sophie Hintze. Photo by Michael Rosengard, North Island Photography

By Sue Wahlert

2014 was a fabulous year for 17-year-old Setauket resident Sophie Hintze. After a culmination of artistic sufferings and successes, the Ward Melville High School senior was recently courted and signed as a singer/songwriter by BMG Chrysalis, an international company focusing on the management of music publishing and recording rights.

“Sophie is the youngest person that I have committed to. This girl has it!” said Kris Muñoz, senior director, business & legal affairs for BMG Chrysalis. Muñoz continued, “We need to have folks with drive, energy and work ethic. Sophie has all of this and more!” Through a journey that began at home in Setauket, continued at school, and branched out into the world of theater and jazz performances in New York City, Hintze has reached a place most 17-year- olds only dream of.

With the loving support of her parents, sister and others, she began her job with BMG, a company that will nurture her full potential as a songwriter and singer. Dina LaPolt, of LaPolt Law in Los Angeles, who represents Hintze and artists such as Steven Tyler, Mick Fleetwood and Deadmau5, brought Hintze to the attention of music companies after hearing her song, “Better Off Alone.” LaPolt remarked upon meeting Hintze, “She has a star quality that is not something that comes lightly. It has only happened a few times in my career,” similar to when she met Stacy Ann Ferguson, better known as Fergie.

Lise Hintze, Sophie’s mother, recollects, “Being a singer was her dream since she was a little girl.” Sophie talked about her early beginnings with music, “When I was in elementary school, I would secretly write songs in a book, which I still have. I would sing these songs to my dog, Maybelle and my family. I wouldn’t tell them it was mine, and if they reacted, I knew it was something good. To this day, I still do this. Great songs demand attention.”

With her passion for writing, she was already laying the path for her future successes. However, the beginning did not go smoothly for Hintze. In junior high, she was rejected from a school play and it was devastating, albeit a blessing in disguise. Hintze said, “I felt like a failure, but I believed I had the talent and I wasn’t going to let anyone stop me.”

So with the support of her mom and dad, she turned to theater workshops in New York City to keep her dream alive. Her first stop was Broadway Workshop, a company that develops and produces educational workshops and full-scale productions.

Her first audition with Broadway Workshop, for “Legally Blonde,” was met with immediate success. Hintze recalls, “It was insane. They asked if I was free the next day for a callback!” This encouraged Hintze and she continued with Broadway Workshop into 10th and 11th grades, playing Calliope in the musical comedy “Xanadu” and Miss Gardner in “Carrie.” With a dedicated spirit, Hintze’s mother drove her to New York City every Saturday and Sunday. “Being around the caliber of talent in New York City fueled me. Their support has been overwhelming,” said a grateful Hintze.

During her time with Broadway Workshop, Hintze cemented her desire to become a performer. She also began singing with the Matt Baker Trio at Le Cirque, Somethin’ Jazz Club and the Metropolitan Room, starting at the age of 15. Additionally, she took on the role of Rapunzel in “Into the Woods” at her high school.

Then, in the summer of 2013, she was singing at Frank Melville Memorial Park during one of its Wind Down Sundays concerts, and songwriter/producer Anthony D’Erasmo approached Hintze and asked if she would be interested in recording some of her music. It was during this time she wrote and recorded “Better Off Alone,” a song that became the catalyst for her new career.

This valuable song, which Hintze copyrighted, became the center of a dispute with a music library. The Hintzes reached out to LaPolt for guidance. LaPolt gave them advice, and as an aside, Sophie e-mailed her the recording of “Better Off Alone.” That was the spark that ignited all that was to follow. LaPolt said, “I was like, this is an amazing song!” After sending the song to a few colleagues in the business, it landed in the hands of Kris Muñoz, who said to LaPolt, “Don’t send that song to anyone else!” While LaPolt had other offers for Hintze, a choice was made and Thomas Scherer, executive vice president of writer services at BMG, flew out to the BMG offices in New York City to meet with Hintze.

Scherer echoed the thoughts of both LaPolt and Muñoz, “She has tremendous star quality!” BMG was ready to make a commitment to this young songwriter, to work with her to develop her talents. In August of 2014, Hintze found herself at the offices of BMG in Los Angeles overlooking the Hollywood Hills, where she signed her contract as both a songwriter and an artist.

“We want Sophie to develop into a normal human being,” said Muñoz, referring to Hintze finishing high school and attending college in September at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

BMG’s Muñoz said, “We want to take Sophie’s existing talent and see how she blossoms.” The process involves introducing her to writers and producers to see what kind of music she can produce for other artists. Hintze reiterated BMG’s support, saying, “They are very supportive of me, and I couldn’t ask for a better team.

They are home to some of my biggest inspirations in the industry and I feel honored to be a part of the BMG family. My goal isn’t to be famous — it is to be successful.”

2015 holds great promise for Hintze, with amazing opportunities for learning, creating, and making her mark in the music industry. Check her out at www.sophiehintze.com.

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Linda Ventura memorializes her late son Thomas by putting her face at the forefront of the ongoing battle to curb illegal drug use and its unintended consequences. Photo from Linda Ventura
Linda Ventura memorializes her late son Thomas by putting her face at the forefront of the ongoing battle to curb illegal drug use and its unintended consequences. Photo from Linda Ventura

By Chris Mellides

The legislative office building in Albany hums with activity as concerned Long Island parents and members of the addiction treatment community prepare to convene with state assemblymen and insurance company executives for a roundtable discussion.

King’s Park residents Linda Ventura and Maureen Rossi, who both endured the long drive to the state capital the previous night, break away from their group moments before the meeting and casually walk to the nearest bathroom.

Inside the brightly lit lavatory, where toilet paper lines the old tiled floor, Ventura reaches into her purse and retrieves a piece of Tupperware, like she has many times before, and together with Rossi the two of them pray.

Ventura, a mother of three, watched helplessly as her eldest son Thomas succumbed to his heroin addiction two years ago. And now his ashes, tucked neatly inside that plastic container, serve as a reminder of why she tirelessly works toward spreading opiate awareness and tirelessly lobbies for political change. For such efforts Linda Ventura has been selected as one of the People of the Year by this paper.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association, was among those concerned parents and addiction treatment advocates who joined the dozens of insurance executives at the round table meeting.

He recalls the tension choking the room and the moment a state legislator asked Ventura to make her case for why she thinks insurance companies are handling treatment coverage poorly.

“Linda opened her purse, took out a Tupperware, put it on the table and said, ‘This is my son Thomas. This is what outpatient treatment looks like.’ And the room was stunned,” said Reynolds. “You know I’ve seen it all and done it all and heard it all, and it left me and everybody else in the room speechless.”

Reynolds says that he met Ventura roughly two years ago through a mutual contact and that his work with her became much more focused when they started their legislative push.

“She has been at the forefront of our push for a number of bills in Albany. The thing about Linda is that addiction messed with the wrong mom,” Reynolds said.

Ventura, 54, was born and raised in Oceanside and moved to Kings Park in 1993, where she’s continued her work as a financial advisor.

In March 2012, her son Thomas died from a heroin overdose. He was 21. In the years leading up to his death, Ventura says that a tumultuous family life had put stress on her children.

“My mom and dad passed and my ex-husband’s mom passed. Every year we lost one of them and him and I were going through a divorce,” Ventura said. “So there was a lot of loss, tremendous loss in the family and Thomas was especially sensitive.”

At 15 years old, Thomas began smoking marijuana and drinking beer, and by his senior year of high school Ventura recognized that her son had a problem with prescription painkillers. During the fall after his graduation, Thomas went to his first rehab.

That’s when Ventura said she realized how difficult it was to get insurance coverage for her son’s treatment.

“While he was covered under his dad’s policy, the family as a whole was entitled to one stay at a rehab. So we used that the first time that he went. It was then covered under me,” Ventura said. “We heard things through the next few years and [were told] that he’s not high enough for treatment, which still boggles my mind.”

In order to receive continued coverage for treatment services, Thomas had to continually fail at outpatient services before he could be approved for more comprehensive residential treatment, according to Ventura, who claims that this rule was “insane.”

After her son’s fatal overdose, Ventura said she knew that she needed to bring awareness to the opiate problem affecting Long Islanders, and help to change how insurance providers offer coverage to families seeking help for their sons and daughters struggling with addiction.

On the one-year anniversary of her son’s death, she launched Thomas’ Hope, a nonprofit foundation that promotes drug awareness, prevention and advocacy. Through this effort, Ventura has spoken at numerous events to raise awareness and has raised money to assist families battling with substance abuse.

During a Thomas’ Hope fundraiser Ventura met Maureen Rossi, chairperson of Kings Park in the kNOw (KPITK), a grassroots nonprofit designed to help eradicate illegal drugs from the Kings
Park Community.

“From the first time I heard Linda speak, I knew she had the gift — she has an outstanding ability to reach people,” Rossi said. “I was impressed with her work and shortly after I hired her to speak at our annual Preventing Destructive Decisions event. Linda’s actions and words move mountains.”

Together, Ventura and Rossi joined parents and community leaders in what would be several legislative visits to Albany.

Late this spring, they pushed for passage of Senate Bill S4623, which would reign in the insurance companies and force them to pay for treatment when it’s warranted. That bill and a number of others passed the state Senate and will go into effect April 1, 2015.

County Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) represents Suffolk’s 13th District, has followed Ventura’s work with KPITK and has recognized the impact she’s made on the local community and on New York state as a whole.

“She went up to Albany and she got 13 different pieces of legislation passed, and the most important one is that insurance companies will be paying for treatment programs,” Trotta. “She’s driven, she’s smart, capable and she knows what’s going on. She’s really led the charge.”

Ventura said she hopes to see a sober high school brought to Long Island this year that would serve as “a place kids can come back to and be treated differently when they come out of rehab.” She also said she plans to discuss prescription protocol and the need for better education among medical professionals who prescribe controlled substances when she returns to Albany.

When it comes to stomping out the heroin and opiate epidemic on Long Island Ventura said it’ll have to be done as a group effort.

“New York and Long Island is the epicenter of the epidemic, which is something we should not be proud of,” Ventura said. “We can’t legislate ourselves out of it and we can’t police our way out of it. Those things are important measures to take, but everybody’s got to step up to the plate.”

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Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta holds a copy of a troubling letter sent to over 200 recipients operating home furnishing businesses in Suffolk County. Left to right: Ralph Mondrone, Natalie Weinstein, Robert Trotta and Charlie Gardner. Photo by Chris Mellides

By Chris Mellides

Housed in a building that was originally a vaudeville theater built in the early 1900s, Uniquely Natalie is a St. James-based consignment store catering to shoppers looking for affordable home and office furnishing.

Its owner, Natalie Weinstein, launched this space last year as a designer-driven shop adjoining the headquarters of Natalie Weinstein Design Associates — a full-service interior design firm.

Aside from contending with the challenges of owning her own business, Weinstein was recently served with some bad news from the county.

In a letter dated Oct. 27, Weinstein and several other small business owners with storefronts operating in Suffolk County were introduced to county code Chapter 563-106-A, which among other things states it is unlawful for any person to engage in the selling of furniture or carpets without obtaining a license.

“When I received the letter my first inclination was to say, since I’m a good law-abiding citizen, we’ve got to pay this, [but] how are we going to do this now?” said Weinstein. “This is my first retail operation … I felt it would be helpful to people who really couldn’t go to the big box stores or pay for expensive furniture and still get quality things.”

The code makes no distinction between “new, used or antique furniture,” and there are no exemptions that exist for “antique furniture dealers, churches or other nonprofit organizations.”

This means that Weinstein and others specializing in the sale of home furnishings in Suffolk County are required to apply for licensing at the initial cost of $200 with $400 needed to be paid every two years for relicensing.

Frustrated and looking for outside assistance, Weinstein reached out to Legislator Rob Trotta, who admitted his outrage over the county mandate.

“This is strictly an attack on small business,” said Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). “Over 200 letters were sent out right before the Christmas season. Downtowns are struggling, small businesses are struggling and this [code] said that you need to get a license.”

Trotta said the foundation of this law had shifted from its original intent and that this mandate was just “another attempt to hurt small business and to raise revenue.”

Aligning himself with Trotta is former Commissioner of Consumer Affairs Charlie Gardner. Gardner believes that this mandate aimed at small-business owners subverts the original intent of its legislation, which was to safeguard consumers from unlawful business practices.

“This legislation was aimed at regulating those businesses that would routinely go out of business, would take consumers’ deposits for money, fail to deliver furniture, deliver damaged furniture, and many times consumers had no recourse,” said Gardner. “Since the inception of this legislation the number of complaints dramatically decreased, but it was certainly not aimed at antique stores, antique dealers [or] roadside vendors.”

Gardner, who is now chair of the Government Relations Committee for the Kings Park Chamber of Commerce, said if any of his town members were burdened with the mandate, he would suggest they appear before the Legislature to vent and demand that the legislation revert to its original intent.

In an attempt to resolve this issue, Trotta asked legislative counsel to draft legislation that would clarify the definition of “antique dealer” and “seller” and save Weinstein and others from additional hardship.

“I believe that the original intent of the law was to protect consumers when primarily furniture and carpet retailers failed to deliver the merchandise promised,” said Trotta. “Now it appears that the county is going after the small-business person who sells a few pieces of furniture and [the consumer] takes the merchandise with him or her.”

County Executive Steve Bellone outlines plans to kill a potential speed camera program near schools throughout Suffolk. Photo from Bellone’s office

By Chris Mellides

Suffolk County is putting the brakes on its speed
camera project.

County Executive Steve Bellone announced at a press conference Monday that he would terminate the county’s school speed camera program amid strong opposition of the plan’s rollout from county legislators.

The program called for the installation of speed cameras in a number of school zones across Suffolk County, which while being in the interest of public safety, would have
admittedly generated additional revenue for the county, officials said.

Supporters of the program on Long Island sought and received approval for its implementation from New York State following the state approval for a rollout in New York City earlier this year.

In Nassau, officials said the program’s initial implementation in July was problematic and resulted in the dismissal of thousands of citations by County Executive Ed Mangano, who admitted to there being faults in
the system.

Having analyzed the negative experiences endured by Nassau County, and finding bitter disapproval from local residents over the possibility of a school speed zone camera rollout in Suffolk, Bellone admitted to there being further impediments to the program’s implementation.

“We looked at what was happening and what we saw is similar to what’s been happening in Nassau County [where] you’ve seen a lot of issues with implementation,” Bellone said. “A lot of the programs [are] having problems, in terms of accuracy, and a lot of the programs [are] actually being rolled back in certain jurisdictions.”

Bellone continued by stating that in working through the different issues associated with installing speed cameras here in Suffolk, the job has proven to be “complex,” and “not easy to do.”

Coinciding with Bellone’s announcement on Monday, five Suffolk County legislators including Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory filed for legislation that would halt the county’s move to install school speed
zone cameras.

“The more we saw the problems Nassau County has had with its school speed zone cameras it became obvious we were not going to install the cameras in Suffolk County,” Gregory said. “It is unclear if the safety improvements for our children would occur if we installed the cameras, and without clear evidence that they would improve safety we are not going to proceed.”

Of the three Suffolk lawmakers who voted against the original speed camera legislation, Legislator Robert Trotta has been firm and unflinching in his opposition.

“As I have said from the start and when I voted against this legislation, speed zone cameras are nothing more than a money grab,” Trotta said. “When the county executive gets caught trying to put his hands in the taxpayer’s pocket, there is little choice but to pull the plug.

“This is no different from the overwhelming majority of red light tickets, which is simply taxation by citation,” he continued.

Feeling confident in his decision to kill the anticipated speed camera program in Suffolk County, Bellone maintains that the entire process leading to this week’s announcement had been a bipartisan initiative from the very beginning.

“I consulted with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle and we came to this decision jointly as what makes sense for Suffolk County,” Bellone said. “And that’s why I made the decision to, at the end of the day, terminate the speed camera program.”

Determined to keep moving forward, Bellone also said that there’s still a lot that the county can do to enhance school zone safety and is willing to explore other alternatives.

“It can be anything from additional signage, increased enforcement, education, different types of partnerships like that and that’ll be unfolding over the next several months,” he said.

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28-year-old skeleton racer will go to Sochi, Russia

John Daly competes in the World Cup in Lake Placid in December. Photo by Pat Hendrick

By Daniel Dunaief

Four years ago, he was just happy to be there. Weeks before the world turned its attention to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Smithtown’s John Daly had no idea whether he’d be watching the games from home or representing the country in the high-speed sport of skeleton racing.

Now, Daly, 28, is preparing for his second winter games in Sochi, Russia. He finished 17th in Vancouver and is approaching the competition, which is scheduled for Feb. 14 and 15, with a different attitude.

“I’m confident, I think I could do really well,” Daly said via Skype while in St. Moritz, Switzerland for one of the pre-Olympic qualifying races. “In the last game, I was a long shot. In this one, I’m truly prepared. If ever there was a race to win, it’s this one coming up.”

Daly competes in skeleton racing, where he digs his spiked shoes into an ice track, extends his arm and dives headfirst onto the sled. He races at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour, his chin inches above the frozen track. He steers by shifting his weight slightly, as spectators hear something akin to a freight train seconds before he becomes a bullet blazing down the bluff.

Daly said the four years of training and living have helped him maintain his focus in a race where the difference between a medal and fourth place is measured in hundredths of a second.

Thoughts about the action, the crowd and “how crazy would it be if I medal” may have hurt him in Vancouver.

“That’s when you start to put yourself days and hours ahead. I’m staying in the moment. I will take it one day at a time, one curve at a time.”

Tuffy Latour, the coach of the men’s and women’s skeleton team for the United States, suggested that the focus shouldn’t be on winning medals. Instead, his team needs to have “good starts and good drives” while “believing in themselves.”

As the number of days dwindle until he takes those last deep breaths before diving down the mountain, Daly and his family are preparing for a trip that’s more than 5,200 miles from their home.

His mother, Bennarda, a nurse at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, is thinking about “all the silly little things,” including making sure her husband, James, son, James, daughter, Kristen and sister, Sabina Rezza of Kew Gardens, make their flights.

The designers of the Sochi track originally wanted to make the course among the fastest in the world. A fatal accident in Vancouver, however, caused them to redesign their course, which now includes uphill sections that cut down on a slider’s speed.

“They wanted [the racers] to go to 100 miles per hour,” Daly said. “But they slowed it down to 83 miles per hour.” It makes the track especially unforgiving of any mistakes.

“With those uphill sections, you can’t mess up, or it’ll mess up the race,” Daly said. ‘You don’t want to teach perfection, but you need to be pretty close.”

Still, Daly has a short, but encouraging, history with this track. He placed fourth last February in a test run, a mere seven hundredths of a second behind third place. He also finished ahead of Latvian Tomass Dukurs, one of the two brothers who have been the dominant force in skeleton racing.

This year, Daly said, everyone on Team USA, including his friends Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress, has beaten at least one of the powerful tandem.

“It shows they are human,” Daly said. “It’s anyone’s game.”

Latour is encouraged by the way his competitors have performed.

“The Dukurs are beatable,” he said through an emailed statement. “Our team has had some fantastic races despite some small mistakes. If we’re going to beat those guys, we have to be at our best. I think we can get there.”

Daly said the only one of his entourage who might want a medal more than he does is his father James, a retired EMS worker for the FDNY.

The elder Daly said he’s so eager to see his son succeed because “when his dreams come true, so do mine.”
In addition to safety, Bennarda Daly has another goal for her son.

“If he knows he did his best, that’s all that matters,” she said.

James Daly said the agony of standing near the track, watching his son prepare for a race, is almost unbearable.

“You almost don’t know how to act,” he said. “There’s so much I want to do. Clapping my hands is all I can do.”

Daly’s mom plans to bring a cowbell to the other side of the world. Lining the track like pieces of metal drawn to a magnet, spectators shout encouragement and clang their cowbells, amplifying their sound and warming up their arms on mountains where icy winds seem intent on defeating wool sweaters, socks and hats.

Daly’s family and friends have been instrumental in getting him to Sochi, he said. When he needed money or he had to change a plane ticket, no matter what the hour, his father would get it done. Daly said he hopes he’s as helpful to his children some day.

James Daly said he learned how to support his family from his father, the late Joe Daly, a police officer in New York City.

As for what Daly will do after the Olympics, he’s considering a career in advertising.

“That’ll be my first actual job,” he said.

The trail from frozen tracks all over the world to the white-hot lights of the Winter Olympics has included its share of financial, physical and emotional sacrifices. He said he still has unaffordable college loans from Plattsburgh State University, where he was an All-American in the decathlon in 2007.

He has also bumped into walls during competitions and finished the races with bruises or blood dripping down his ankle.

Each year, he missed important personal events, including his mother’s birthday early in January, Thanksgiving and weddings. He couldn’t attend seven weddings in recent years.

Still, the opportunity to race down a mountain and represent the country is worth the trade-off.

“I get to be a kid and ride a sleigh,” he said. “How many other 28-year-olds can say that?”

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The Russian Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Cross on Main Street. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

By Mallika Mitra

A Boy Scout at Ward Melville High School has completed an Eagle service project that beautifies and benefits the Russian Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Cross on Main Street in East Setauket. Justin Russo, 15, got a gazebo donated by John T. Mather Memorial Hospital installed at the church.

Justin said he was on his way home from searching for possible projects when he decided to see if the church could find something for him to work on. Father John, a priest at the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, explained to Justin that the church used to baptize under a tree that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and that they were looking for a gazebo for baptisms.

The 10th-grade Boy Scout of Troop 117 began searching for a gazebo for the church.

When he called Gera Gardens in Mount Sinai, he was told that they had sold a gazebo to the hospital and that the hospital was now getting rid of it. With the help of his father, the assistant Scoutmaster of the troop who knew a Mather Hospital board member, Justin was able to get the gazebo donated to the church.

They hired East Setauket-based Hurricane Tree Experts Inc. to remove the stump of the tree that had been there since the tree was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy and a local roofing company to restore the gazebo’s roofing.

Justin was able to raise money by collecting donations from friends and family.

“Thankfully I had a lot of support,” he said.

He worked after school and on the weekends doing paperwork and completing business transactions for the service project, with the help of his father.

At the end of November, the Boy Scout organized younger members of his troop to help put in and power wash the gazebo, and put in new banisters and railings, which were destroyed when they got the gazebo from Mather Hospital.

“To teach, you’ve got to be a good leader,” Justin said about organizing the younger Scouts to help him with his project, and added that working with the younger boys was a great experience.

The original plan was to stain the gazebo as well, but they ended up not doing so because “The people at the church said it was perfect the way it was,” Justin said.

Now that the project is completed, Justin, who has been a Boy Scout for about six years, still keeps in touch with Father John at the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross. He said that because he still has some funds left over from the project, he will be able to help Father John with future projects related to the gazebo, if they come up.

The Boy Scout still has a few tasks to finish before he officially becomes an Eagle Scout, but his service project is now complete.

“It was a really good experience,” he said. “I’ve never been involved in anything like it.”

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Betty Bezas celebrated her birthday on Christmas

Betty Bezas photo by Mallika Mitra

By Mallika Mitra

In her 101 years of life, Betty Bezas has seen a lot of the world. Bezas, who just celebrated her birthday on Christmas Day, was born on Dec. 25, 1912, in Greece, where she lived until she was 15 years old.

After her father died in a fire when she was only 1 month old, Bezas lived with her mother, grandmother and uncle.

On Oct. 20, 1929, she had an arranged marriage to Zachary Bezas in Salonika, a city in northern Greece. After honeymooning in Paris, the couple moved to the United States, where Bezas knew no one but her husband’s family.

On Oct. 28, 1930, Bezas gave birth to her first of three daughters. Her daughters Catherine Krusos, Irene Usher and Loretta Janelis currently live in Huntington, Setauket and South Carolina, respectively.

With five grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and twin great-great-grandchildren expected any day now, Bezas is excited to have five generations in the family.

When she first came to the United States, Bezas lived in Brooklyn where her husband worked in a bank until he lost his job during the Great Depression. The couple then moved to Dix Hills, where Bezas worked as an assistant district manager in food services at the Half Hollow Hills school district for 25 years, and her husband ran a chicken farm. His business of selling eggs and chickens lasted until the beginning of World War II, when he went to work at Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, an aircraft manufacturing company that is now Republic Airport.

When her husband died of leukemia, Bezas moved to North Babylon and now lives at Sunrise Senior Living in East Setauket.

Bezas loves to travel and has done quite a bit of it, including trips to Italy, France, Spain and Canada.

“You see all different cultures. You learn a lot,” Bezas said. “People who live in every country have something to offer.”

In her spare time, Bezas likes to crochet and knit. For much of her life she has made hats and blankets for premature babies, which she donates to hospitals, and blankets for senior citizens.

Bezas celebrated her 101st birthday with fellow Sunrise residents and friends from the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption in Port Jefferson, where she is a member. She has also been a member of Saint Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Greenlawn for more than 50 years.

Of the Sunrise staff members who organized her birthday party with decorations, good food and many friends — “They went out of their way,” Bezas said.

By Mallika Mitra

Three eighth-grade girls in the Huntington school district have made a difference this holiday season by raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Suffolk County.

Maggie Giles, Erica Vazquez, and Gaia D’Anna, who attend J. Taylor Finley Middle School, have spent the past several weeks selling holiday cards at the school. The girls raised more than $1,000, which has been sent to Make-A-Wish, an organization that grants the wishes of children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions.

Finley PTA President Julie LaBella said Vazquez was watching a television show a little over a year ago in which a Make-A-Wish child had her wish granted, according to a school press release. The story inspired her to start this fundraiser with her two friends. This is the second year the girls have sold the holiday cards, which exhibit original work by Patrick Giles, Maggie Giles’s father.

Finley students Gaia D’Anna, Maggie Giles and Erica Vazquez. Photo from Jim Hoops
Finley students Gaia D’Anna, Maggie Giles and Erica Vazquez. Photo from Jim Hoops

Last year, the girls raised $350. This year the girls’ original goal was $700, but they surpassed that and made more than $1,000, LaBella said.

“They are an amazing group of girls,” LaBella said in the press release. “It’s so refreshing to see young kids put so much effort into such a wonderful cause.”

The girls have received help from their parents, Finley Middle School Principal John Amato and Sharon Holly, a family and consumer science teacher at the school.

According to LaBella, the cards that the girls have been selling are popular with kids, teachers and parents. The eighth-graders sold so many cards that a second printing was required.

Jim Polansky, the Huntington school district superintendent, bought a package of cards from the girls.

“When listening to Gaia, Maggie and Erica describe their efforts, their caring, compassion, and selflessness simply jumped off the page,” Polansky said in a phone interview. “It was easy to discern how much they wish to make a difference. I was beyond pleased to purchase a package of cards and help contribute to their initiative, which was to do what they could to brighten the lives of others through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.”

Jim Hoops, the Huntington school district public information coordinator, said he believes the girls plan to make this fundraiser an annual event during the holiday season.

“This is an account of three incredible young people who are destined to make a difference,” Polansky said in a statement. “It is refreshing and energizing to speak with them about the initiative, to learn how much it means to them, and how readily they will place the needs of others before their own.”

The Make-A-Wish Foundation relies on donations from fundraisers, such as the one Maggie, Erica and Gaia hosted, to grant wishes and change lives.

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Members of UNICO Islip/Smithtown with the Good Samaritan Hospital staff at an Easter event. Photo from Joan Alpers

By Mallika Mitra

While educating their communities on Italian culture and heritage, UNICO members participate in civic engagement to help those in need. And last month, the Islip/Smithtown chapter of UNICO celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Dr. Anthony P. Vastola, who was discriminated against in the United States because he was Italian, founded UNICO  — meaning “unique” in Italian — in 1922. The nationwide organization is focused on funding education of Italian heritage and language, research for cancer and Cooley’s anemia — a type of anemia that occurs in people of predominantly Mediterranean descent — and grants for people with mental challenges, said Pat Pelonero, the office manger of UNICO national and editor of the organization’s publication.

The group also promotes positive images and opposes negative stereotypes of Italian Americans.

According to Pelonero, the 128 chapters of UNICO hold their own events, which range from pasta dinners to gala balls, but all donate to national causes.

Members of the North Shore chapter and Islip/Smithtown chapter, which are within the same district, attend one another’s events, said Ellen Leone, president of the North Shore chapter.

The Islip/Smithtown chapter, chartered in 2003, holds fundraisers and events throughout the year for the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, the Bay Shore United Methodist Church’s soup kitchen, the Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center Pediatric Unit, among others, said Elizabeth Hansen, president of the UNICO Islip/Smithtown chapter.

The chapter also funds six scholarships for high school students of Italian descent.

According to Hansen, some of the fundraising events throughout the year include wine tasting and raffles, but their main fundraising event is an annual golf outing that takes place in July. The UNICO Islip/Smithtown chapter meets once a month at La Famiglia Italian Restaurant in Smithtown, where the members welcome Italian language lessons and speakers who discuss Italian heritage.

Hansen said her family members in Pennsylvania have been UNICO members for generations and convinced her to join her local chapter.

Pat Westlake, the executive coordinator of the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, said of UNICO, “They’re very caring people. They always ask what we need help with.”

The chapter’s members also visit the pediatric unit at Good Samaritan Hospital at Easter, when a member of the chapter dresses up as a bunny and passes out stuffed bunnies to all the children.

“It is even more stressful for children and their families when children are hospitalized [during the holidays]” said Joan Alpers, the director of the Child Life Program at the hospital, and UNICO members recognized that and wanted to help out.

It is “a group that loves to give back to the community,” Alpers said.

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John Trodden, above, with previous grand marshals Gerry Creighton, Buster Toner and Mattie O’Reilly, at the grand marshal’s ball in November. Photo by Denise Creighton

By Mallika Mitra

The annual Kings Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade will include a tribute to John Trodden, this year’s grand marshal.

Trodden, 67, was born in Copiague and moved to Kings Park with his family when he was 1 month old.

He was educated at St. Joseph’s elementary school, St. Anthony’s High School and Kings Park school of nursing.

He met his wife, Ellen, in Kings Park and moved to Pennsylvania where he began his career as an anesthetist but moved back to Kings Park where he and Ellen raised their five children, four of whom still live in Kings Park.

“I have traveled all over the world and I will never leave Kings Park,” Trodden said.

His mother, father, aunts, uncles and cousins, live in Ireland and he is very involved in the Irish community of Kings Park.

John Trodden photo from Cathy Cotter
John Trodden photo from Cathy Cotter

“American first, Irish always and Catholic forever,” said Trodden, a deacon at St. Joseph’s Church in Kings Park. “That’s my involvement in the Irish community.”

Receiving the most number of votes from the Kings Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade committee, Trodden will be the fourth grand marshal on March 1 at noon, starting at the corner of Lou Avenue and Pulaski Road and continuing down Main Street.

“John Trodden is a beautiful person,” said Kevin Denis, president of the Kings Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade and owner of Professors Diner on Indian Head Road.

He has known Trodden for 38 years and had the deacon renew his wedding vows.

This year the deacon was chosen because “he has done a lot of good for the people of Kings Park,” said Randy Shaw, a member of the committee parade who organizes all the bands.

Trodden has served in several administrative positions at the Kings Park, Pilgrim and Central Islip psychiatric centers and St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, which at the time was St. John’s hospital.

“He is very involved in the state hospital system on Long Island,” said Councilman Bob Creighton, one of the parade organizers. “He is a progressive and enthusiastic administrator.”

Trodden was an altar boy at the councilman’s wedding 54 years ago, Creighton said. They now see each other often because Creighton is active at the church where Trodden is a deacon.

“He is a very community-oriented fellow who comes from a great family and is really a nice, decent, good man,” Creighton said.

Trodden also did administrative counseling at the Diocese of Rockville Centre after being asked by the bishop for his help, he said. He is a chaplain for the Kings Park Fire Department and the Suffolk County Police Department, where he provides pastoral counseling.

Trodden said he has also served as a deacon for Teams of Our Lady, which strengthens and provides support groups for marriage. Trodden is a member of Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal benefits organization.

“I am honored,” Trodden said about being selected as this year’s grand marshal. “It is a tribute to my mother and father, a tribute to my wife, Ellen, a tribute to my children and to my grandchildren.”

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