Features

Members of Miller Place Fire Department, EMS volunteers and community members come together at Stop & Shop in Miller Place to raise donations for those in need this holiday season. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Local families in need have a group of Miller Place volunteers, generous strangers and a big red bus to be thankful for this holiday season.

Cold, windy weather did nothing to stop Miller Place Fire Department members from gathering outside Stop & Shop at 385 Route 25A for five hours last weekend. In fact, the dozen volunteer EMS members, engine company officers and firefighters were all smiles as they collected 800 pounds of nonperishable items from passing shoppers, whose contributions were packed into a fire department bus and dropped off to St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach the next morning.

Former Miller Place captain of EMS
Debi Rasweiler, on left, collects
donations. Photo by Kevin Redding

Canned food, condiments, paper towels and much more stock the shelves at the church’s food pantry for Miller Place, Sound Beach and Mount Sinai families struggling to make ends meet. The donations will help them have a proper Thanksgiving.

“The outpouring is always incredible — people here are just amazing,” said Debi Rasweiler, a former captain of EMS at the fire department and organizer of the 7th annual EMS Stuff-A-Bus Nov. 17, which ran from 3 to 8 p.m. “Last year we stuffed the bus from floor to ceiling, rear to front. It just grows every year.”

During the event, shoppers on their way into the supermarket were handed a list of items needed for the pantry — including pasta, dry cereal, canned vegetables, soaps and toothpaste — and asked to donate if possible. It didn’t take long before residents wheeled their carts over to the bus to chip in. Some dropped off one or two items while others outdid themselves, handing over full bags of groceries and cash.

“I just think we all have to give back,” said Shoreham resident Peggy Debus, who donated peanut butter, jelly and cereal. “When people stop giving back, the world gets very bad.”

John Barile from Mount Sinai, who handed over paper towels, said he takes any opportunity he can to help others who need it.

“If everybody gave something, we would never have any problems,” Barile said.

“If everybody gave something, we would never have any problems.”

John Barile

When asked what inspired her to donate multiple items, another shopper simply said, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Stephen Rasweiler, Debi’s husband and a lifelong volunteer firefighter, voiced his appreciation for the community as he held up a donated bag of yams and turkey stuffing.

“This is somebody’s Thanksgiving dinner just in one bag,” he said, beaming. “This time of year is very stressful, the economy’s tough for a lot of families and we know we’re helping a lot of people. It’s sad that this is needed but it’s been a great department and community effort.”

It was the Rasweiler’s daughter Jessica who initially brought Stuff-A-Bus to the community seven years ago after being involved in a similar event with her sorority at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. When she came home from college, and joined the fire department as an EMT, Rasweiler was determined to adopt the donate-and-transport event.

She got local businesses to sponsor it and went door-to-door from Setauket to Wading River to spread the word. As a full-time nurse at St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown, she was unable to be at this year’s event, but said over the phone that the event’s continued success makes her heart smile.

“I wanted to do more for the community,” she said. “I knew we could do something greater than just wait for the whistle to blow for any kind of call that we get at the fire department. I just can’t believe it and it’s amazing the community has just latched onto it. It’s a very special event.”

For Bobby Chmiel, 2nd Lieutenant of EMS, the Stuff-A-Bus is a highlight every year.

St. Louis de Montfort’s outreach coordinator Jane
Guido shows off her new inventory as a result of the
annual Stuff-A-Bus event. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s not just residents helping people, it’s helping people they might know,” he said. “They could be your friends or neighbors. The community in Miller Place and Sound Beach will unite around a common cause. When it’s one of our own that needs help, especially during the holiday season, we’re there.”

On Nov. 18, the big red bus delivered its boxes upon boxes of items to the church. The various foods were stacked into the church’s pantries and will be given out to families, many of whom the church takes care of year-round.

“It’s a blessing and I can’t thank them enough,” said Jane Guido, St. Louis de Montfort’s outreach coordinator. “The families are very appreciative because a lot of them wouldn’t’ be able to put that kind of spread on their table for a holiday. It’s just too costly. People are so generous — we get plenty of stuff that holds us through the year — without their help, our pantry would be bare.”

After all the boxes were brought inside, Debi Rasweiler announced that on top of the food, one resident who asked to be anonymous donated $1,400 worth of Visa gift cards.

“It was a single parent who had been needy for a long time,” Rasweiler said.

An emotional Guido hugged her.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you everybody,” Guido said.

Centereach Fire Department teamed up with Operation Christmas Child to collect shoeboxes filled with gifts to be donated to needy children. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

It wasn’t quite Santa’s sleigh, but it was large, red and carried presents, so an ambulance was good enough for the Selden Fire Department, which took over Santa’s duties last week and stuffed 100 shoeboxes with gifts for poor young children all over the world.

Volunteers help fill a Selden Fire Department
ambulance with shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Most of these boxes are going to go to kids who never even get a gift,” Selden Fire Department Treasurer Vincent Ammirati said. “This is something that will put a smile on a face, and this is the fire department — everything we do here is for other people. All we do is try put a smile on people’s faces.”

The shoeboxes were collected as part of Operation Christmas Child, a function of the evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse. The organization takes the shoeboxes from drop-off points in local churches before sending them to distribution centers that will ship them to poor communities in Africa, South America, Asia and others. The shoeboxes are labeled by age and gender, and usually contain toys like inflatable soccer balls or stuffed animals, but mostly they contain hygiene products like soap and toothbrushes along with school supplies like books and pencils.

All seven companies within the Selden Fire Department helped contribute to the stack, with some companies acting as a group and other members of the fire department contributing indipendently.

Children in Uganda receive shoeboxes of gifts from
Operation Christmas Child last year. Photo from
Danielle McCarthy

Volunteer firefighter and Operation Christmas Child Long Island Coordinator Danielle McCarthy headed the fire department’s collection drive. She said she got the idea of filling an ambulance full of shoeboxes from watching the Los Angeles Police Department and how a funeral home had pulled in with a hearse full of shoe boxes.

McCarthy has been involved with Operation Christmas Child for more than a decade, first packing boxes before becoming a local packing leader, and then area coordinator. In 2012 McCarthy travelled to Uganda to help hand out shoeboxes.

“As we put shoe boxes into their hands and they opened up those boxes I saw their delight,” she said. “To look at them having physical needs met, to be able to see the joy that came to them from these simple things like school supplies and toys and that sort of thing, that impacted me. But what really impacted me even more, and what keeps me packing shoeboxes, were all the kids standing outside the place who didn’t get shoeboxes because there wasn’t enough to give to everybody.”

Shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child were collected with gifts to be
donated to needy children.
Photo by Kyle Barr

Every box also comes with a picture book called “The Greatest Gift,” put inside after each is packed. The book depicts a number of biblical stories told in that country’s native language. There was a $9 fee for every package, which pays for both the book and shipping costs. The fire department pulled together $900 to go toward this cost.

“Every one of these shoeboxes to us is not just a gift that we’re giving to a child, but around Christmas time Jesus is a gift we try to give, too,” said Victor Rossomano, an Operation Christmas Child Suffolk County-area coordinator. “It’s in their language and their culture. We try to keep it within their culture; we try not to send America to them, we want them to be who they are.”

Ammirati helped McCarthy drive the shoeboxes to the drop-off point at the Grace Gospel Church in Patchogue. He said he plans on using his officer status with the Suffolk County Volunteer Fireman’s Association to try and spread the idea out to all the different fire departments in the county.

“It’s a great way to show our community presence with the fire department and also for Operation Christmas Child,” McCarthy said. “It’s taken a few years to get this rolling, but when we challenged the fire department to fill the ambulance, as you can see, the guys stepped up.”

The 100 boxes kicked off national collection week, which ran from Nov. 13 to 20. In 2009, Suffolk County gathered 7,100 boxes, but the number has grown. The group is hoping to have 20,000 boxes packed this year

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen Pennington and Warrior Ranch Foundation Vice President Tony Simonetti spend time with Pennington’s horse Red. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

When Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro first stepped into the round pen with a horse at Warrior Ranch Foundation, her guard was up.

Castro, who served in Operation Enduring Freedom from 2002 to 2004, and admittedly struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, was face to face with a 1,400-pound Friesian horse named BlackJack during a July demonstration by the Mount Sinai and Islip-based nonprofit, which pairs military and first-responder veterans with rescue horses in need of rehabilitation and training.

Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro bonds with
Vet therapy: Mount Sinai’s Warrior Ranch helps heal
her horse BlackJack. Photo from Warrior Ranch
Foundation

The tough-as-nails veteran was attempting to engage BlackJack in basic ground exercises, but the horse was not budging. Its guard was up too.

“I soon realized it was because I was terrified of him,” Castro later said. “When you’re with these horses they feel everything you’re feeling, even the emotions you think you’re hiding from everybody else. You can’t hide them from a horse.”

Castro relaxed, and as she calmed down, so did BlackJack. The horse began to lick and chew — a reflex associated with the animal’s release of stress.

“By the end of the session, I wound up with a friend,” she said of BlackJack. “With the horses, you have someone you’re actually bonding with in your own private, silent language. It’s beautiful.”

Officially incorporated in June 2016, the Warrior Ranch Foundation has helped reduce the stress levels and PTSD symptoms of more than a dozen veterans still recuperating from a wide range of conflicts — from the Korean War to Vietnam War to the war in Afghanistan — by teaching them how to groom, feed and train troubled horses. And much like the veterans, the nine residential horses, mostly retired race and show animals that have been trained their whole lives to compete and perform in high-stakes settings, are learning to adapt to a new, more relaxed world.

Cathie Doherty spends time with horse Cody.
Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“There’s a strong parallel between them and it’s amazing to see their emotional breakthroughs,” said Eileen Shanahan, the nonprofit’s founder and president. “While the race horses are trained to run, run, run, and as a result have emotional issues, the veterans are trained to go out there and do the best they can to protect and defend us. When they come back, they have to shut that off and that’s not so easy. We provide a safe haven for these humans and animals.”

Shanahan’s organization is the result of her lifelong love of country and horses. The Queens native, who shoots and produces television programs and commercials for a living, comes from a large military family with a father who served in the Marines, an uncle and brother in the Navy, nephews in the Army, as well as several first responders.

Although she mostly rode buses and subways growing up, Shanahan always admired horses from afar, seeing them as beautiful creatures.

When she got married and moved to East Quogue in the 1980s, she took up horseback riding and, 15 years ago, began adopting rescue horses and studying natural horsemanship — a variety of rapport-based horse training techniques.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen
Pennington with horse Red. Photo
from Warrior Ranch Foundation

For nearly a decade, she dreamt of providing this outlet for local veterans and finally launched it with the help of longtime friends and equestrians specialists. While the group currently works out of two private barns, the future plan is to turn Warrior Ranch into a national organization.

“We want to eventually help hundreds of veterans and horses because it really works,” Shanahan said, explaining that interactions like Castro’s is very common at the ranch. “A lot of times when they come here, the veterans have their arms crossed, but by the end of the day, they have ear-to-ear grins. A lot of them break down and cry and it’s so powerful to watch.”

Tony Simonetti, Warrior Ranch’s vice president and top horse trainer, has made a career of rehabilitating emotionally distraught horses and re-interacting them with their human counterparts, resolving more than 500 extremely difficult horse cases for people across the country. When asked his most memorable veteran-horse interaction within the organization, he talked about Army Staff Sergeant Allen Pennington, Warrior Ranch’s first soldier to go through the program, and Red, a 4-year-old, retired race thoroughbred.

“[Allen’s] this big, rough and tough guy, and when the horse connected with him, I just saw all the stress he was holding inside bubble right up through his chest and then he just couldn’t keep himself composed,” Simonetti said. “He broke down and turned around and hugged that horse like it was his battle buddy. And I told him, ‘don’t feel bad about that. That’s what you’re here for.’”

During a testimonial on the Warrior Ranch website, Navy veteran Cathie Doherty, who was diagnosed with PTSD and put on medication for a number of years, said she was grateful to have attended a women veteran’s retreat at the nonprofit.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen
Pennington with horse Red. Photo
from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“It was really an amazing experience,” Doherty said. “I think it touched me much deeper than I imagined it would. I appreciated working with the horses and that I had to make a connection with them. I feel I was present in the moment. I didn’t care about my phone, I didn’t care what was going on around me. It was a beautiful experience for me.”

Castro said companionship with a horse might be more beneficial than a human’s.

“When you’re a veteran and you’re having a bad day, you don’t want to tell anybody, you don’t want to talk about it — you want to forget about it,” she said. “But I also don’t want to be alone and, so, when you’re there with the horse, and that horse knows what you’re going through and feeling, he feels it too. And because you love the horse and you don’t want the horse to feel that way, you’re going to try and make yourself feel better. It’s awe-inspiring.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who served four years in the Army, visited the ranch in Mount Sinai with his family Oct. 7 and saw firsthand the value of the nonprofit.

“It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to see the positive effects that you’re having on these horses, and from these horses the veterans are getting love that they possibly have never experienced
before,” Zeldin said. “In a way, you’re directly coping with the symptoms of PTSD while also productively escaping the worst of it. It’s a great concept and I’d love to see Warrior Ranch grow into something a whole lot bigger than it already is.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, fifth from left, meets with members of the Warrior Ranch Foundation. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

Huntington Station veteran Jerome Robinson, ninth from left, stands with the 2017 VetsBuild graduating class at the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center Nov. 13. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Veterans who have served our country are proving in Huntington Station they can also learn the skills to help build a better local community.

More than 20 veterans received their certification in construction at the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center Nov. 13 after successfully passing through VetsBuild, a program offered by the nonprofit United Way of Long Island, that provides job training in green construction, facility maintenance and technology for veterans and their families.

“VetsBuild is not just about teaching home building skills and construction skills, it’s about building your lives,” said Craig Fligstein, vice president of community impact for United Way of LI. “It has accelerated positive changes in your life and allowed you to take a new turn in your career.”

Huntington Station resident Jerome Robinson, a 2017 VetsBuild graduate, said he served 11 years in the U.S. Army and as an officer in U.S. Army Reserves.

“We have served our country in different ways, but we are all looking for a way to move forward and find a new and exciting career path for ourselves,” Robinson said. “Personally, VetsBuild has opened up a number of doors.”

Robinson, 52, said he was previously employed doing overnight custodial work for Stony Brook University and struggled to make ends meet after being laid off in September. He learned about the free six-week construction program through United Veterans Beacon House, a nonprofit organization that provides temporary and permanent residences for U.S. Military veterans in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and started classes Oct. 2.

“I knew it was a chance to make myself more marketable to potential employers and find a career,” Robinson said.

VetsBuild will offer two to three training sessions a year for veterans depending on demand, according to Rick Wertheim, the senior vice president of housing and green initiatives for the United Way of LI. Those enrolled take daily classes in basic construction techniques and earn their Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10-hour certification. Students then have the opportunity to train in specialized disciplines of the trade, from electrical to gas work, based on their interests, Wertheim said.

Robinson said he will be moving forward with GasPro, to gain skills in gas appliance installation and repairs. Others in his class will become electrical apprentices and at least one will be going back to college for an associates degree in renewable energy.

The skills the veterans have learned are used to build energy-smart homes throughout Long Island, including some for other veterans in need. The United Way of LI debuted the most recently completed VetsBuild home at 40 Depot Road in Huntington Station. It was specially commissioned by United Veterans Beacon house to become a residence for five veterans with special needs.

The more than 3,500-square-foot house was named the 2017 Grand Winner for Innovation in Affordable Homes by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of its Housing Innovation Awards. The Depot Road home earned the recognition by being a “zero energy ready home” because it incorporates specialized innovative green features. These features render the projected annual energy cost at a netgain of $200 per year due to its capability to sell off excess energy produced by its photovoltaic solar panels. Other green technology featured in the home includes a solar thermal water heating system, internet-controlled heating and air conditioning, and 100 percent LED lighting.

Above, Simon shows the audience a photo of the crew right after being rescued. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Danger on the high seas: Reliving ‘the perfect storm’
A painting by George Schoenberg depicts the rescue on Oct. 29.

By Heidi Sutton

The Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor hosted a presentation of “The Accidental Sailor” with guest speaker and storyteller Nelson Simon last Thursday evening. In front of a captivated audience, Simon recounted how he and his crew members were caught in “the perfect storm” off the coast of North Carolina and how they all miraculously survived. With a slide show and readings from his journal, Simon gave a dramatic day-by-day account up until that fateful hour when the ship starting taking on water and had to be abandoned.

Simon opened the lecture by reading the names of his crewmates: Joey Gelband, Laingdon Schmitt, Jen Irving, Peter Abelman, Damian Sailors, Marty Hanks, Barbara Treyz and John Nuciforo.

“A ship in a storm is like a tiny quadrant of order in a huge universe of chaos and it only works if everyone does their job, and these people did,” said Simon solemnly.

The Anne Kristine

In late Oct. 1991, the Brooklyn resident found himself aboard the Anne Kristine, a 150-year-old Norwegian schooner bound for Bermuda from Mills Basin, Brooklyn. The 95-foot ship, which had been lovingly rebuilt by explorer Norman Baker in 1986, was to be transported to Bermuda and then continue on to Puerto Rico to take part in a scientific expedition to study whale behavior.

Simon had second thoughts from the very beginning, a sort of sixth sense about the whole thing, but signed up nevertheless as the last, and least experienced, ninth crew member. Why did he do it? “Maybe being an immigrant, we are taught to fit in, go along, to accommodate people. I didn’t want to be a bother,” explained Simon, who was born in La Paz, Bolivia. Though he had recently sailed on the Clearwater Sloop for a week down the Hudson River holding educational tours, he couldn’t help but wonder what he had gotten himself into.

What was supposed to be a pleasure cruise, turned out to be a near death and life-changing experience for Simon as the ship found itself caught between a nor’easter and Hurricane Grace, battered relentlessly by enormous waves for days until the captain sent out a Mayday.

Unlike the fishing boat Andrea Gail and its six-member crew who were lost in the storm never to be seen again, the crew of the Anne Kristine were all rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard on Oct. 29. Simon described how each crew member had to jump into the raging sea one at a time with a life jacket and flashlight and wait to be plucked out by a helicopter rescue crew.

Last seen turning sideways in the waves, the ship was lost at sea.

From left, friends Paul Maggio and Jonny Rosenblatt, storyteller Nelson Simon and Joan Lowenthal, Elizabeth Fusco and Amanda Vengroff of The Whaling Museum. Photo by Heidi Sutton

“Anne Kristine did everything that we asked of her,” stressed Simon. “She held up under the most challenging circumstances. She was completely seaworthy. There was some talk afterward that she had let us down but nothing could be further from the truth.” Instead, Simon blamed human error, citing several key mistakes including “heading east instead of west” and not priming the pumps properly.

For the crew, telling Norman Baker that his beloved ship had sunk was hard. “Anne Kristine wasn’t just a ship, she was a community,” said Simon. Baker held a memorial for the ship shortly after at his home in Massachusetts — 150 people showed up, including the nine-member crew that sailed on her last.

Even after 26 years, Simon still gets emotional speaking about the event. “In preparing this [lecture] I remembered how afraid I was,” said Simon. He described the scene right before he was rescued — “a young man standing on the ship’s deck, looking up at the [midnight sun], wondering how he got here and waiting for his chance to get away.”

Kaileigh Blessing and some friends construct the frames for the bat houses. Photo from Kaileigh Blessing

She may not wear a cape or cowl, but 17-year-old Kaileigh Blessing is serving as a hero to the Village of Shoreham by bringing more environment-boosting bats to the area.

Blessing, a senior at Rocky Point High School and member of Venturing Crew 777, a co-ed youth development program of the Boy Scouts of America, has spent the last year designing, funding, building and installing seven bat houses throughout Shoreham.

Kaileigh Blessing presents her original idea for how to build the bat houses to The Shoreham Village Association as part of her Summit Award. Photo from Kaileigh Blessing

The houses are to be installed in parklands along Woodville Road and private properties. It is a project constructed in Blessing’s pursuit of her Summit Award — the Venturing Crew’s highest program-level award. She became involved in the project in October 2016 when members of The Shoreham Village Association launched a subcommittee to expand the number of bat houses hanging in public as a way to coax more of the nocturnal animals into the area.

While they once carried a reputation as fearsome creatures, the public perception of bats has changed drastically in recent years as they have been proven to greatly benefit the ecosystem of their surroundings by eating thousands of small insects per hour — including the ever-increasing population of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Shoreham, like the rest of Long Island, has lost a majority of these more environmentally friendly bug eliminators due to an increased use of dangerous pesticides and the spread of white nose syndrome, a fungus that grows on and kills hibernating bats along the East Coast.

“Bat houses are needed everywhere,” said Laura Miller, a member of the association’s subcommittee and one of the recipients of Blessing’s bat houses. “The bat population in general has decreased drastically and it’s a real concern, agriculturally, especially for farmers. Bats are generally very beneficial and people don’t realize it because of the whole nature of what they think a bat is.”

Kaileigh Blessing and a few of her friends piece together the bat houses. Photo from Kaileigh Blessing

During last year’s October meeting, members of the subcommittee held a raffle drawing for the houses to be built and installed for two village residents and, in figuring out who should be the one to take on the project, the idea to involve a local Boy Scout troop and expand the number of houses came up. Through Venturing Advisor Tom Seda, Blessing was proposed as a fitting candidate as she wasn’t too interested in the more traditional routes of building a park bench or installing a garden for her final project.

“I wanted to build something that was a bit more impactful environmentally, so I gratefully took up that
offer,” Blessing said. “I’m so glad I went with this and I’m looking forward to coming back and hopefully hear from the women of the association that the bats have returned.”

The Venturer, who first joined the youth-powered organization when she was 14, dove into the project with “gusto,” according to subcommittee members. She raised funds for construction materials by recycling scrap metal and bottles and pledging for donations at various businesses like Home Depot and Benjamin Moore, where she received paint, stains, lumber, drills and screws. With the help of her dad and a group of friends, Blessing spent hours on weekends building the large, single-chamber habitats — each one large enough to house 20 to 50 brown bats — which contains a ventilation area for warm air to filter out and grooves in its back panels to act as grips when the bats fly and grab onto the house.

Kaileigh Blessing and a few of her friends help glue together the bat houses for her Summit Award project. Photo from Kaileigh Blessing

She also scouted locations for the houses in the village and sought out PMM Landscaping, a Middle Island-based group, to mount them on trees. She is currently designing a bat house information kiosk that she hopes will be installed at Major Hopkins Park in Shoreham.

“I really didn’t know anything about bats when I started this, but through research and everything, I just find it all really intriguing and interesting now,” she said.

Jean Jordan Sweet, chair of the subcommittee, commended Blessing for her tenacity throughout the strenuous project. Sweet said she met with the subcommittee several times throughout the year, made presentations, and had to wait on approvals from the village board of trustees and the Suffolk County Council of Boy Scouts every step of the way.

“She’s very impressive,” Sweet said. “She had to go through so much authorization and processes for this project, but she’s a real self-starter and took this very seriously.”

While her project, and Summit Award, still needs to be fully approved by the Scouts, which might take several months, the association will present a summary report and recognize Blessing’s efforts during an event Nov. 11.

Kelly and Donna and McCauley held the third annual Butterfly Breakfast for a Cure fundraiser at Applebee’s in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

A mother-daughter duo from Rocky Point raised thousands of dollars last weekend to help those with epidermolysis bullosa — a rare and painful skin disease that hits close to home.

Donna McCauley, who was born with the genetic condition that causes the skin to blister and tear at the slightest friction, and her daughter Kelly, a former Girl Scout, raised $4,000 during the 3rd Annual Butterfly Breakfast for a Cure fundraiser Nov. 4 at Applebee’s in Miller Place. More than 100 locals gathered at the restaurant to eat pancakes, take part in a Chinese auction with huge prizes for adults and kids and learn about “EB,” which is largely considered “the worst disease you’ve never heard of” and affects one in 20,000 births in the United States.

Donna McCauley auctioned off prizes to raise more funds. Photo by Kevin Redding

All proceeds are going toward Debra of America, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides assistance and support to families with children born with the disease through funding research for a cure and treatment initiatives.

As a teenager, Donna McCauley, whose parents were told she was going to die young from this “genetic anomaly,” made a conscious choice not to let EB — which turns run-of-the-mill activities like getting out of bed, taking clothes on and off and showering into daily struggles — define her life. Instead, she strived to be a role model for other “butterfly children,” a term given to young people with the disease, as their skin is said to be as fragile as a butterfly’s wings.

She became involved with Debra when she was 16, which opened her eyes to a community of others like her, and made sure to get her license, go to college and pursue jobs, vowing “not to be afraid to live” despite her condition.

“I can sit in the corner and rock and be sad, or I can get up and do what I need to do,” said McCauley, 49, who lives in constant pain and must wrap her wounds in bandages each day in order to prevent infections. She is currently in a clinical trial for a new treatment drug by Amicus Therapeutics that helps mend her wounds. “Things like this fundraiser give me hope that people become more aware, and more money is raised. Each day they are getting closer to finding a treatment and a cure.”

Although McCauley has been the face of the event since it started in 2015, the Rocky Point resident who referred to herself as a professional volunteer and remains a coordinator with local Girl Scout troops, pointed to her daughter as the real driving force behind the fundraiser.

“I can sit in the corner and rock and be sad, or I can get up and do what I need to do.”

— Donna McCauley

“One of the things that strikes me the most is that Kelly has a sense of empathy and compassion that I don’t think you can teach,” McCauley said. “I’m so proud of her initiative to make other people more aware of disabilities. She has always been the person who includes the one that isn’t included.”

Kelly McCauley, 19, a current student at Dominican College in Orangeburg, New York, started advocating for EB support as a sophomore at Rocky Point High School by selling bracelets decorated with butterflies to peers and administrators and ended up raising $500 for Debra. This prompted her to want to step things up a notch, and she soon went door to door to local businesses in search of a venue for her own bigger and better fundraiser.

McCauley’s daughter said growing up and witnessing her mom’s perseverance encouraged her to get involved in the first place.

“I saw just how strong she was and how much it took for her just to wake up every day,” she said. “She’s definitely the strongest woman I know. This disease is so much on a person. You wake up and you hurt no matter what. But she still gets up, she goes to church, she volunteers, she works as a religion teacher — she does all these things even though she’s always in some sort of pain.”

McCauley’s determination to live a normal life has served as a foundation for her younger brother, Bob Newfield, a Setauket resident who was also born with EB.

“It’s tough — what would take most people 15 minutes to get ready for work in the morning takes me an hour,” Newfield said. “But there are other things in life that are tough too, so you just have to deal with the cards you’re given. It’s such a rare disease and doesn’t get the funds it needs.”

Local residents, like Miller Place resident Joan Lowry, on right, attended the fundraiser. Photo by Kevin Redding

His wife, Marianne, explained how it’s been to observe the disease firsthand.

“His mind wants to go, go, go, but his body holds him back at times — but those with it are the strongest people I know,” she said. “They don’t really let anything get them down. Bob puts on a happy face every day even though his feet kill him; many days are hard.”

Residents that donated to the cause by purchasing raffle tickets ranged from those living with the disease to others who had never heard of it before.

Bonnie Harris, who grew up in Port Jefferson, said she and a majority of her family have the condition.

“The disease itself doesn’t get better when you get older, but you get better as you get older,” Harris said. “You’re not as clumsy when you’re falling and you’re able to take care of it better. My mom, who had it, always said, ‘You can do anything you want to do — you just have to work harder than everybody else.’”

Miller Place resident Joan Lowry heard of the fundraiser through St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach, a parish where McCauley is extremely active.

“There are too many people who fall in the cracks and need the help,” Lowry said, “and that’s the reason I’m here.”

If you wish to make a contribution, visit Debra.org/butterflybreakfast2017.

Miler Place Girl Scout Troop 227 members make a presentation to the board of education about energy efficiency. Photo by Kevin Redding

Miller Place High School has the potential to save large sums of money and energy this year thanks to the environmental efforts of a group of middle school Girl Scouts.

Sixth- and seventh-grade members of Cadette Girl Scout Troop 227 urged the board of education during the Sept. 27 meeting to consider replacing the 120 fluorescent lights in the high school cafeteria with more energy-efficient LED lights. This installation could save the district approximately $1,044 in the cafeteria alone over the course of the 180-day school year, the Girl Scouts said.

“Switching to LED lights would allow the district to focus that money on education,” 11-year-old Lilah Lindemann said.

Analynn Bisiani, a sixth-grader, informed board members 180-degree LED lights release significantly less heat energy than tube-shaped, 360-degree fluorescent lights, making them safer.

“They do not contain dangerous chemicals and will project light only down instead of 360 degrees,” Analynn said. “A lot of energy is wasted when light is projected upwards.”

Girl Scout Lindsey Galligan speaks at the Miller Place board of education meeting about the importance of energy efficiency and the ways in which the Girl Scouts project could help the district. Photo by Kevin Redding

The troop’s presentation was based on an energy audit of the high school cafeteria the girls conducted in May with the help of a PSEG Long Island representative as part of their Girl Scout Journey project — a long-term initiative to find a solution to a local environmental problem.

One of the requirements for the project was to focus on conserving energy, so troop leaders and members decided to conduct an audit of a public building, specifically the high school cafeteria, where the group holds its meetings twice a month.

With the help of Scout mom Kim Soreil, a PSEG Long Island manager of customer operations, the girls studied different forms of energy, made circuit cards and calculated the energy savings of switching to LED lights by counting all 120 lights in the cafeteria. The girls figured out
approximately 17.5 cents per kilowatt hour could be saved, which, assuming a 14-hour school day with extracurricular activities, equates to $5.88 in savings per day and $1,044 a year.

“They picked up on everything very quickly and just took off with it,” Soreil said of the troop’s excitement about the project. The girls, including Soreil’s daughter Lauren, also learned about phantom energy and the benefits of unplugging electrical appliances even after they’ve been turned off.

“They were peering through windows to try and see if lights were left on in the offices in the back and trying to turn off the lights on the vending machines so the school could conserve
energy,” she said.

During the presentation, Girl Scout Sarah DiPersio offered the board another environmentally-based solution in the cafeteria.

“Although it is not an electrical energy savings, we also noticed there is a traditional water fountain in the cafeteria, instead of a bottle refill fountain,” Sarah said.

Troop co-leader Candace Lindemann, who guides the girls alongside Morgan Caufield, said while she was impressed by the research and work her Scouts took part in, she wasn’t too surprised.

“We can definitely learn to use energy more efficiently because that’s one of the only ways we’re going to be able to continue living well on Earth.”

— Lilah Lindemann

“We have a very environmentally concerned and diligent group of girls,” Lindemann said, noting their other environment-based initiatives include beach cleanups and water health studies. “I think growing up near the beach definitely encourages an interest in the health of the environment for them.”

Her daughter Lilah said she has been passionate about the environment for a long time and hopes to be an engineer one day.

“We can definitely learn to use energy more efficiently because that’s one of the only ways we’re going to be able to continue living well on Earth,” the 11-year-old said. “And helping the environment and the community is what the Girl Scouts are about.”

Girl Scout Lindsey Galligan said she hopes by saving money through this proposal, the school district could afford to provide more art programs.

At the end of the board of education meeting, Miller Place Superintendent Marianne Cartisano presented each Scout with a certificate and thanked them for their presentation.

“That was very comprehensive,” Cartisano said. “We’re very grateful you did this and we’ll certainly be taking your recommendations and findings into consideration.”

The school district is currently in the process of bringing more energy efficiency to its buildings by installing solar panels on top of its high school and Andrew Muller Primary School.

Members of Cadette Girl Scout Troop 227 that participated in the audit are Sara Bally, Analynn Bisiani, Molly Caufield, Sarah DiPersio, Mary Cait Duffy, Lindsey Galligan, Lilah Lindemann, Maris Lynch, Ceili McNicholas, Madelyn Miller, and Lauren Soreil.

By Desirée Keegan

The North Shore is losing one of its most powerful lobbyists.

The North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce announced its dismantling this month, as the result of president Jennifer Dzvonar stepping down. Currently no members or outside businesses leaders have stepped up to take her place.

North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Dzvonar, also owner of Bass Electric in Port Jefferson Station, with her husband William. File photo

Dzvonar did not return requests for comment, but Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), who represents the territory that’s home to most of the area businesses involved in the chamber, said she was shocked, but not surprised, knowing the Port Jefferson Station’s Bass Electric owner has a family of young children.

“It’s very time consuming,” Bonner said of being a chamber leader. “I’m surprised no one else stepped up to the plate, but I understand the quandary they’re in. Volunteerism on any level really, really does cut into your personal life. It’s a lot of balls to juggle and I know, because I’m a serial volunteer. I have a lot of respect for people who put their family first.”

Losing the 17-year-old business network, a local organization of businesses whose goal is to further the interests of businesses, means losing a go-to organization for new small businesses owners seeking help. The towns it covers also lose a local advocate fighting on behalf of the business community in the community it serves. It is not only a welcoming committee but it also helps promote business in the area. The dismembering of the chamber will result in less funding and support for tourism and trade, and the loss of a large scholarship program for local high school seniors — including those who reside in Wading River, Shoreham, Rocky Point, Sound Beach, Miller Place, Mount Sinai, Port Jefferson Station and Terryville.

“People will miss new business owners wanting to get involved with the chamber, not having a go-to person,” said Bonner, whose comments were also echoed by Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station). “But as council people we will, as we always do, make our doors open to help with the process.”

The future of the train car

The breaking down of the North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce leaves the future of the historic train car at Memorial American Flag Park on the corner of Route 112 and Route 347 in Port Jefferson Station in question, but executive director Mike Poveromo said residents needn’t worry.

Despite the dismantling of the chamber, Poveromo, although he refrained from providing specific details just yet, said a Port Jefferson Station-Terryville Chamber of Commerce will be emerging, and taking with it, the responsibility of using dues to pay for what was once the chamber of commerce’s office.

“The train is one of the first electric trains and one of the two remaining of its model on Long Island,” Poveromo said. “The train car is a 1914 baggage/passenger car, that was in use from Jamaica Station to Grand Central Station. In my opinion, it is not only a chamber office, it is a community landmark.”

At the park is also a 20-feet wide, by 30-feet long American flag. A remembrance piece from the World Trade Center is also encompassed into the foundation circle.

“The picnic tables provide visitors and residents the opportunity to enjoy the area when taking a break when shopping, driving and visiting our area,” he said. “I am not concerned when the north Brookhaven chamber closes, since a new chamber is being formed, and will continue its ongoing effort in this respect.”

Mike Poveromo, general manager of Family Times Event Rentals in Mount Sinai and executive director of the chamber, said he knows a thing or two about how demanding the position can be. He joined the then-Miller Place-Mount Sinai Chamber, a small group of 30 local merchants, and eventually moved from membership director to president in 1997. He then served as president of the Council of Dedicated Merchants Chamber of Commerce from 1998 to 2004, which is when the chamber grew to include Sound Beach and Rocky Point. His business was also active in the Port Jefferson Station and Shoreham/Wading River chambers.

“Some of the first local merchants who welcomed me, like Mike Allen of Janitorial Plus and Paul Houghton of Miller Place Sea Food made a lasting impression,” Poveromo said. “They convinced me to become the volunteer membership director. But being a volunteer officer or director of any chamber of commerce is a demanding undertaking, especially in this time in history when both residents and business owners feel they do not have enough time in their day for personal, meaningful and beneficial relationships.”

The executive director recalled what to him was the first significant program established to connect business owners with the community — the Music and Arts Festival at Mount Sinai’s Cedar Beach. It was also the place to raise funds to support the scholarship.

“The chamber membership grew quickly, the business and residential community grew rapidly once the four-lane highway was in place [on 25A],” Poveromo said.

Poveromo said he is worried about the future of the area businesses.

“The days of when your doctor knew you, your whole family, your pharmacist helped you personally, your local butcher, baker and dentist that had your family covered is gone,” he said. “Today it is all about fast food, cheap service and instant gratification.”

He said he feels the dismantling of the chamber is a huge mistake.

“I cannot answer the question of why no member business owner or director hasn’t stepped up to the plate to bring the NBCOC into the future, but it could be they feel they could not afford to volunteer their personal time and expertise away from their business and family,” he said. “With no serious candidate willing to take over, I understand and support the chamber’s decision to dismantle, and this will open up new opportunities for individual town business leaders to open a chamber of commerce and promote their community as a great place to live, work, raise a family and open a business.”

Currently, a Port Jefferson Station-Terryville Chamber of Commerce is in the works, but no merchants have stepped up to fill the void in the other hamlets.

“It is a loss to hometown recognition for small businesses embedded for years in the fabric of the community they serve,” Poveromo said. “Today’s new small business start-ups must find innovative ways and the means to become part of the community fabric. They are choosing to open and invest their time, money and talents in the American dream, and the chamber of commerce is a great resource. New chamber leaders must find solutions to show and prove to residents the value of shopping locally at small business locations where owners are making a direct investment in the towns they chose to open a business.”

Lt. Katherine Biggs aboard Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship administering aide to Puerto Rico. Photo by Stephane Belcher

A Naval emergency medicine physician from Port Jefferson Station is trying to provide comfort while aboard a ship named for it in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in September as a historic Category 5 storm, devastating Puerto Rico with sustained gusts nearing 200 mph. When Lt. Katherine Biggs, a resident at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia currently receiving training in military-specific medicine, was offered the chance to travel to the storm-ravaged island, the 2006 Comsewogue High School graduate said it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

Lt. Katherine Biggs and other sailors aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort treat a patient from Centro Medico in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Stephane Belcher

Biggs is one of five from the residency program aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship Comfort, which reached Puerto Rico Oct. 3 and does not have a scheduled return date, working on the boat’s casualty receiving area administering medical aide to those affected. Catastrophic flooding, damaged infrastructure and a lack of supplies, drinking water and electricity have created a dangerous situation for most Puerto Ricans trying to restore their regular routine.

“We’ll be here as long as directed and as long as needed,” Biggs said in a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “I’ll stay here as long as they’ll let me.”

She called the trip thus far a great learning experience, and said it’s been a change of pace helping people with severe respiratory and heart issues, for example, because she’s used to providing medical attention to those with traumatic, combat-related injuries. Biggs has treated some with broken bones, but said many of the patients she has been tasked with treating are people with chronic issues that are flaring up because they’ve been unable to take their prescribed medicines for various reasons.

The lieutenant said she knew when she was in ninth or tenth grade at Comsewogue that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine as a way to help people in need. After four years at Binghampton University as an undergraduate, she moved on to medical school at New York Institute of Technology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, graduating in 2015. Biggs said she was able to afford the schooling thanks to the Health Professions Scholarship Program, a financial assistance offering from the U.S. military, which she heard about from a neighbor. She is in the third year of her residency in Portsmouth, and it is a rarity for residents to be asked to go on a trip like the one she’s on now, according to residency program director Commander John Devlin.

“This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”

— Laurie Biggs

“I say it’s win-win,” Devlin said in a statement. “The people of Puerto Rico are getting more emergency medicine physician manpower than they would have had, had we gone with the original plan. And from the resident standpoint and the Navy’s standpoint, we are getting five junior physicians that, for their entire career, will have this experience base to carry forward to apply to missions in the future.”

With the help of the “Sea Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron, Biggs and the other residents have been able to personally assist in medical evacuation missions around the island to return people to the ship for treatment via helicopter.

“When I heard about Katie’s plans to head to Puerto Rico I was incredibly proud,” Biggs’ mother Laurie said in an email. “I remember reminding her that this is why she joined the Navy and wanted to become a doctor. This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”

Biggs’ mother added she knew from an early age her daughter, who is the oldest of four, was a caring and helpful person, ever aware of helping the less fortunate.

“To us she will always just be Katie, the daughter and older sister that is always there when you need her,” she said.

Biggs said her biggest takeaway from the mission thus far has been the dedication of responders on the ground to do whatever it takes to help both individuals and the island as a whole return to normalcy. To contribute to the relief effort, visit the American Red Cross website at www.redcross.org/donate.

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