Community

COPE Officer Angela Ferrara smiles with students in Huntington. Photo from SCPD.

By Rebecca Anzel

Suffolk County Police Department Officers Angela Ferrara and Jamie Wendt are no strangers to Huntington residents.

The 2nd Precinct’s two community-oriented police enforcement officers, otherwise known as COPE officers, are dedicated to working with and getting to know their community. Instead of focusing on enforcement and policing, Ferrara and Wendt attend community meetings to hear residents’ concerns, host events to connect with members of their community and even spend afternoons helping local kids with their homework.

“We want to help residents,” Ferrara said in a phone interview. “We want to make them safer, make their lives better. We love what we do. The COPE unit is here for the community and we’re always available for anyone that needs us.”

For their work connecting with residents in Huntington and bringing together the community with the Suffolk County Police Department Times Beacon Record News Media has named Officers Ferrara and Wendt as People of the Year.

“The COPE officers are phenomenally effective and popular in the community,” Police Commissioner Tim Sini said in a phone interview. “We want to make sure we break those barriers and always enhance the relationships that we have with the communities we’re tasked to protect. They are very much a part of the fabric of our community.”

The unit has been in existence for a long time, but it was redefined in 2014 as part of SCPD’s community policing model. COPE officers are tasked with building a trusting relationship with the communities the police protect. Sini said community partnership is a key aspect of SCPD’s mission and this unit is an integral part of that.

COPE Officer Jamie Wendt skates during an event. Photo from SCPD.

Ferrara has been a COPE officer since 1998. She left the 2nd Precinct between 2007 and 2010 to become an academy instructor but has been in her current position since she returned. Ferrara also leads the Police Explorers program, for kids ages 14 to 21 who show an interest in law enforcement careers.

Wendt is a Dix Hills native. She has been a COPE officer for about a year and also volunteers with local fire departments. Between the two of them, Ferrara and Wendt attend community meetings and events, and they plan their own as well.

Wendt organized a successful one in April — an ice skating event at the Dix Hills Park Ice Rink for children from the Tri Community and Youth Agency to teach them how to skate. She is a United States Figure Skating Association double gold medalist and has been coaching various skating disciplines for 19 years, so she said it was a fun way for her to share her expertise.

Tri CYA Regional Director Debbie Rimler said Wendt and Ferrara spend time with the kids whenever they can and always attend the organization’s events. The ice skating event attracted children ages 8 through 17, and they left asking when they could skate with the officers again.

Ferrara said events such as that one are her favorite because she gets to interact with the younger generation.

“I just love being around the children because they’re the future,” she said. “It’s rewarding to see the kids grow up and become adults too. If any of our guidance is helpful, that’s a great thing.”

Most recently, the officers participated in the SCPD’s Shop with a Cop event at Target. The department gives $50 gift cards to kids in the community who may not have the resources to purchase Christmas gifts, and officers take them shopping, helping them pick out toys and other presents.

“The faces on these children when they’re able to pick out gifts with a uniformed police officer is something special,” Sini said. “The event is such a great way to have our officers interact with and serve as role models for children while bringing holiday cheer to them.”

It is events like these that Jim McGoldrick, a Huntington Station resident, said is what makes the COPE officers so invaluable.

“Without Angela and Jaime, I don’t know where Huntington Station would be,” he said. “They’re so involved with our community, our kids — everything. They’ve become part of our family.”

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

One of America’s fastest mile runners has a habit of shattering not just records but expectations both on and off the track.

Mikey Brannigan is coming off a monumental year at just 20 years old. Diagnosed with autism at a young age, he said the odds were stacked against him, forcing him to work twice as hard as anybody else. But in 2016, the odds didn’t stand a chance as Brannigan continuously knocked them down on his way to the finish line.

For his athletic achievements and for inspiring so many people, Mikey Brannigan is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

In August, Brannigan ran a 3:57 mile at the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, North Carolina — becoming the first person with an intellectual disability to break the 4:00 record —and a month later, competed in the Special Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, under the T20 Paralympic classification, where he took home the gold after a dominating 3:51 mile in the 1500 meters.

“He’s Mozart on the track,” Sonja Robinson, his coach at the New York Athletic Club, said in a phone interview. “When it comes to running, he’s a genius, and it’s mind-boggling what he’s accomplished and how far he’s come. He does not let the autism define him. I say to him all the time ‘you have autism, autism doesn’t have you.’”

Mike Brannigan smiles and holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

He came home from Rio not just a hero in Northport, where he’s always been celebrated, but around the country, serving as inspiration for any kid with special needs. Brannigan even participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year with his fellow New York Olympians.

“It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” Brannigan said in a phone interview. “I accomplished a lot of my goals and achievements.”

When he’s not running, Brannigan and his mother, Edie Brannigan, speak to parents and educators in Northport about autism, bullying and accepting people with disabilities.

According to Edie Brannigan, his message to students is to “follow your dream, give it your all, and do well in school.”

“He’s doing autism awareness through the sports world,” his mother said. “People with autism see they can be elite athletes because somebody’s done it now. They have autism in their lives and see Mikey … he’s doing it for them. It’s incredible. He moves people.”

She said her son has had to work through a lot of disappointment and rejection, but he’s come out on top.

Brannigan was just 12 months old when his parents knew there was something different about him. At 2 years, he was diagnosed with autism, and when he turned 3, his parents were advised to start looking at group homes for him, as she said he wasn’t able to speak in a communicative way until he was 5, and struggled to keep up academically.

“He does everything he can to engage and he’s got the best outlook … but to have a conversation, unless you’re talking about running, is difficult for him,” his mother said.

When he was in fourth grade, his parents signed him up for Rolling Thunder, a not-for-profit running club aimed at kids with special needs. The club gave him structure and provided an outlet for his natural ability to run fast. He’s been hooked on the sport ever since.

It was the running that helped him become a better student, Edie Brannigan said. By sixth grade, he was capable of doing age-appropriate work in the classroom.

“The autism serves the running and the running serves the autism,” she said. “He can focus like nobody else can in running. It’s not just about feet and legs, it’s about your head. He has that intense focus and that serves him well. [From there] he was able to absorb information and process it in a way that he never had before. He just kept amazing everyone and excelling.”

So much so that Brannigan was running for the Northport High School cross country team when he was still in eighth grade.

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Under Jason Strom’s coaching, Mikey would become the two-mile record holder in the state with a time of 8:45, and by senior year he was recognized as one of the 10 best high school runners in the country.

“It’s been tremendous to see everything he’s gotten to do and experience over the last year,” Strom said in a phone interview. “[I] root for him every step of the way. He’s always been a really good kid and always been very focused and hard working toward his goals, so it’s nice to see that come to fruition.”

Strom said when Brannigan was on the team and went to meets, students from other schools would come up and ask to take pictures with him.

“Mikey transcended the ranks and was a rock star among high school track kids,” he said.

Even though dozens of colleges were interested in scooping him up, Brannigan was unable to attend any of them because his autism makes taking standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs near impossible.

Instead, Brannigan’s been training professionally with the New York Athletic Club under Robinson and going to Suffolk County Community College part-time.

In the last year, he’s trained all over the world, from Berlin to Saudi Arabia to Doha to Toronto and, of course, Rio.

“He’ll have a long career,” Robinson said. “This is what he wants to do. It’s his chosen career. When he has a passion for something he’s going to master it … and he loves the sport of track and field.”

His mother said everything the family was afraid of when Brannigan was a kid — that he wouldn’t be independent or have a job — has been put to rest, but she can’t take any credit for that.

“People say ‘oh you did such a good job [with him]’ to me and I think ‘yeah I don’t think I did that,’” Edie Brannigan said. “I think his success is his alone. He’s so dedicated and gives his all every single day.”

Rob Gitto and his son Ryan ride The Gitto Group’s float during Port Jefferson Village’s 2016 Santa Parade. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

A prominent Port Jefferson-based real estate development company opened a 38-unit apartment building in upper Port Jefferson earlier in 2016, but the father-son team behind the project is about much more than turning a profit.

Port Jefferson native Tony Gitto, who now lives in Belle Terre, and his son Rob have been in the business of developing communities together since 2002, when Rob joined the family business.

Their apartment building on Texaco Avenue, which opened in July in upper Port, is not only a business venture for Rail Realty LLC, a division of The Gitto Group, but also a major step in a villagewide effort to revitalize uptown and turn it into a suitable gateway for Port Jefferson’s downtown, waterfront community.

For their impact on the Port Jefferson community and dedication to making it a great place in which to live, Times Beacon Record News Media names The Gitto Group as People of the Year for 2016.

Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group. Photo from Gitto

When the company decided to build The Hills at Port Jefferson on Texaco Avenue, the plan was to develop in two stages because they weren’t sure if there would be enough demand to fill the units. A month ahead of the designated opening of the first phase, which housed 38 units, a waiting list already existed for phase two. Thirty-six more apartments will be filled in the summer of 2017 when the building is estimated to be ready.

“I think they took a lot of risk to put the shovel in the ground,” Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant said in an interview. “It’s a huge undertaking to do a project like that.” Garant actually grew up across the street from the Gittos.

Rob Gitto said the group saw an opportunity to try to improve a part of the community that needed attention. Garant said the village is actively seeking state and county grants to aid in the development of Port Jeff, and 74 housing units could have a massive impact in achieving that mission.

“Our whole goal with re-branding upper Port was making sure when you came to the [train] tracks, you have that same sort of gateway that you get down the hill,” Garant said. “You can’t do it by yourself. You need that private sector person to be willing to make the investment and then you as a municipal government, you need to be there to support them if it’s the right project. I think a lot of times ‘developer’ just gets such a negative connotation. We’re building our future.”

Garant said she hopes the influx of residents will have a large impact on businesses in the village.

“Tonight is going to be a cold and quiet night in the village — these merchants still have rents to pay,” she said.

Rob Gitto, who has since moved to Poquott, acknowledged that lifting up a community where he and his family grew up is an added bonus to business success.

“We’re a business and we’re looking to make a profit, but at the same time we’re hoping it jump-starts revitalization up there,” he said. “A lot of our tenants go to [PJ Lobster House] and use the dry cleaner. Hopefully [the businesses] are feeling the effect of people living up there.”

The Hills at Port Jefferson opened in upper Port in July. Photo from Rob Gitto

The elder Gitto, who remains involved with the business, reiterated his son’s sentiments regarding the balance between business success and community service that the group has achieved.

“I believe that the village has the potential to be one of the finest communities on Long Island with all that it has to offer residents, visitors and businesses,” he said in an email. “The Hills development was an appealing option for The Gitto Group as it provided an opportunity to improve the uptown area, and provide facilities for young people to stay in the community and be the future of the community. In addition, the development was a great economic opportunity for our company.”

Barbara Ransome, the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce director of operations, said she appreciates the Gittos for their impact on the village’s business world, but their love of landscaping and dedication to beautifying their properties and other village properties is part of what makes them so special to the community. Rob Gitto said they also contribute donations throughout the year to the village and local charities.

“The family is just first class,” Ransome said in an interview. “It’s not just a flash. It’s consistent. They’ve been very generous to this community and they’re a nice family.”

Ransome said their properties, like the CVS on Main Street near Barnum Avenue, are stunning in the springtime after thousands of flowers are planted.

Garant called the father-and-son team “perfect gentlemen,” and recognized them for embracing Port Jeff’s slogan and their efforts to make it come true. It encourages visitors to stop by the destination village “for a day, or for a lifetime.”

“The only way it’s going to work [in upper Port] is if everybody does their part,” Rob Gitto said. “Hopefully we can make it a better location for people to come visit and live. We don’t want people to just drive through uptown anymore.”

Sean Lehmann and Linda Henninger work to bring new life to downtown Kings Park. Photo from Sean Lehmann

By Rebecca Anzel

Three Kings Park community leaders partnered to improve and invigorate the hamlet’s downtown area.

Chamber of Commerce President Anthony Tanzi, Civic Association President Sean Lehmann and Civic Association Vice President Linda Henninger had received feedback from residents and business owners for years that the area needed to be revitalized.

Together, they hosted three meetings attracting about 300 residents each to create a vision plan representative of the community’s wishes for downtown Kings Park, which includes parts of Main Street, Pulaski Road, Indian Head Road and Meadow West. The plans included ideas for more sewers in the town to help accommodate new businesses and affordable housing.

Tanzi and Henninger proposed the completed vision to the Smithtown town board at a meeting in November. The town is waiting on a marketing study to be completed before accepting the plan.

“You just have to drive through Kings Park to see we have great bones and offer a lot,” Henninger said in a phone interview. “We can really make this the jewel it can be.”

For their leadership and commitment to improving Kings Park, Tanzi, Lehmann and Henninger are being recognized as three of Times Beacon News Media’s People of the Year.

Tony Tanzi works to bring new life to downtown Kings Park. Photo from Tony Tanzi.

“They work hard to make Kings Park a better place to live. It’s their persistence against resistance from the county, the state and the town that makes them successful — they just keep going,” Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said. “This is something that kids should look at and say, ‘These guys don’t stop and when you don’t stop, you get results.’”

Tanzi, a third-generation Kings Park resident, owns a hardware company, construction firm and several properties in the area. He said he hopes by revitalizing downtown, younger residents, including his four children, will want and can afford to stay in Kings Park.

“Younger residents not only want the ability to move around without having to get a car, they want to live in an area that has an entire community built into an offshoot of where they live,” he said.

Henninger, a mother herself, agreed that upgrading downtown Kings Park is a way to keep residents and attract new ones. She has always been active in the town. A Fort Salonga resident, Henninger has been a member of the civic association since 1992 and formed a group called Kings Park Neighbors Association, which helped prevent the sale of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center to a private developer.

That fight is how she and Lehmann met. He moved to Kings Park in 2005 and got involved with KPPC because he thought the developer’s plan to build multifamily housing would not be good for the hamlet.

One of their immediate efforts has been to hold a concert series and farmers market on Main Street, a way Lehmann said he hoped would encourage other residents to begin utilizing the downtown area.

“This is a unique community and we love it,” Lehmann said. “Kings Park has a very small town feel and plenty of open space, so when we thought about revitalizing our downtown, we wanted it to still feel quaint and fit with the character of the community.”

Henninger was quick to point out that while she, Lehmann and Tanzi helped to organize the project and make sure a plan was created, revitalizing downtown Kings Park was a group, community effort. The best part of the 18-month project, she and Tanzi agreed, was seeing residents come together to better the hamlet.

“It’s easy to get tons of people coming out to fight against something they don’t want, but it’s very rare that you can get people to come out and talk about something they do want,” Tanzi said. “We got so many people engaged and excited about it that they came out and participated.”

Henninger echoed the sentiment.

“When you’re doing something for the good of the town, of the community, anything can be accomplished,” she said.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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