Movers & Shakers

Brianna Florio, on right, was honored by the Sound Beach Civic Association and president Bea Ruberto, on left, for her community involvement. Photo from Sound Beach Civic Association

A Sound Beach Girl Scout recently solidified the organization’s highest honor by helping children who live in a temporary shelter feel a little more at home.

Brianna Florio, an 18-year-old Sound Beach resident and a member of Rocky Point Girl Scout Troop 2945, has been working since last year to better the lives of 16 children who reside at Halo House in Sound Beach, a shelter for families in crisis.

While staffers within the home — which gets its funding from the Department of Social Services — do all they can to help the four families currently living under one roof get their cases under control, find employment and locate more permanent housing, helping young children adjust to their new environment is a constant challenge.

Brianna Florio will be receiving her Gold Award next month after working with children at Halo House in Sound Beach to paint a mural to make the place feel more like home. Photo from Brianna Florio

So when it came time to pick a community outreach project in summer 2016 to fulfill the requirements for her Gold Award, the Rocky Point High School graduate, who learned of the shelter from one of her troop leaders, set her sights on making it more kid-friendly.

“I knew this would be a good fit for her,” said Donna McCauley, her troop leader who first became aware of the Halo House through St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach. “Brianna is very dedicated, has a very generous spirit and is always ready to help anyone in need. It also gave her a way to express herself creatively, which she’s very good at.”

Florio utilized her artistic talent and painted a large mural on the wall in the shelter’s dining room depicting animals having a tea party, installed a bench to be placed in the property’s yard and hosted a toy and book drive at her high school. Through that event, Florio brought multiple boxes of donated entertainment for children of different ages to the Halo House — items that are sorely needed, according to shelter manager Joe Pellegrino.

“[Brianna] definitely helped bring the kids a sense of community within the neighborhood of Sound Beach,” he said, adding the children in the shelter were eager to be involved in her mural project. “The younger ones would wait for her to come, and when she got here, they would say, ‘Can you paint a snake? Can you put a hat and bowtie on it?’ It betters the children’s state of minds when they’re at the shelter, because they get a sense that it’s a home and not just a place they’re forced to live in.”

Pellegrino said the mural has become a center of pride in the home and is even used as an educational tool to teach the children about the different animals depicted.

“It really warmed my heart to see the kids and their smiling faces and just how excited they were about it,” Florio said of the mural. “It was really nice to see it all finished, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it.”

She will officially receive her Gold Award from the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County council in December.

Although it was an independent project for the Girl Scout, Florio was able to acquire paints and various supplies through local donations, like from Costello’s Ace Hardware of Rocky Point. She also received support from her school district, where she was a member of the Be a Nicer Neighbor Club, a group that cooked for the homeless and performed songs at senior citizen homes during the holidays.

“Brianna is very dedicated, has a very generous spirit and is always ready to help anyone in need. It also gave her a way to express herself creatively, which she’s very good at.”

—Donna McCauley

“I think if anybody is deserving of a Gold Award, it’s Brianna,” Rocky Point High School Principal Susann Crossan said. “What sets her apart from everybody else is she has a constant concern for other people. She’s been involved in so many activities within the high school that involve giving back. She was an extremely well-rounded and kind student.”

Florio’s project was also no surprise to Nancy Kloska, the director of an aftercare program for children at Mount Sinai Elementary School, where Florio currently serves as a mentor helping students with homework, playing games with them and leading fun activities.

“She’s warm, approachable, responsible and the kids really love interacting with her — Brianna always has a large group around her,” Kloska said. “I think she just brings out the best in the kids and is such a positive role model. I can’t say enough good things about Brianna. I think she’s wonderful.”

Florio was bestowed a certificate of appreciation by elected officials and community members for her Gold Award efforts during a Sound Beach Civic Association meeting Nov. 13. Civic president Bea Ruberto later said in an interview that Florio is a shining example of upstanding youth in the community.

“We were so proud to honor Brianna at our meeting — she’s very community-minded and is always there to help and give back,” said Ruberto, pointing out that Florio has helped with the civic’s pet adoption efforts and contributed a drawing in honor of the civic’s 40th anniversary. “We often hear about all the kids who behave badly and do this or that, and we really make an attempt in the civic to showcase the good kids. She’s a very fine young lady.”

Florio is currently pursuing a career in computer science and game programming as a freshman at Stony Brook University.

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.

Through Compassion International, Mount Sinai Congregational, United Church of Christ can give clean water to communities in need

Sylvia, on right, passes a sponge to Natalie as the pair help youth group leader Michael Clark scrub down a car. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

The soap suds were flying as young members of a Mount Sinai church hosed down dozens of cars this past Saturday to better the lives of children in need around the world.

During a car wash fundraiser Aug. 12 on the grounds of the Mount Sinai Congregational, United Church of Christ on North Country Road, members of the church’s youth group cleaned cars for three hours and raised $320 in donations. All proceeds are going toward clean and safe water filtration systems for impoverished communities in faraway countries.

Natalie hoses off a car during the Mount Sinai Congregational, United Church of Christ fundraiser. Photo by Kevin Redding

In these areas, which include villages in Africa, Asia and South America, life-threatening diseases emerge from contaminated waters, taking the lives of a child every 15 seconds.

From the money raised, four $79 filtration systems will be purchased and delivered to these communities in need by Compassion International, a child-advocacy organization that’s been helping the poor worldwide since 1952.

Each village will receive a filtration system which also includes two buckets, a hose and training on how to maintain it so it can provide a lifetime supply of water.

“We got to choose what we wanted the money to go for,” Natalie, a 12-year-old church member from Rocky Point, said during the car wash.

When she and others in the youth group, which is made up of fifth through 12th grade students from five local school districts, saw the water initiative among a long list of others on the Compassion International website, Natalie said it immediately excited them.

“A lot of people are getting sick because they’re drinking dirty water, so we chose to do something to give them clean water,” she said “It makes me really happy to know someone else is going to have a better life because of this. It’s one of my life goals to help people around me, and make the world a better place.”

Natalie’s youth group friend Sylvia, 12, from Selden, said she was also moved  by the idea, and decided to join the cause.

Mount Sinai Congregational, United Church of Christ youth group leaders Michael Clark and Mary Larson helped put together a car wash to raise money for water filtration systems in needy communities. Photo by Kevin Redding

“To me that’s just incredible,” Compassion International communications director Tim Glenn said upon hearing about the car wash. “To see youth — 10- to 12-year-olds — come together to raise money to change a family’s life like that — I just love that. In 2017, a day and age where we’re told to think of ourselves first, there are teenagers and young people out there who are putting the needs of others first, to make sure their basic needs are met.”

Mount Sinai Congregational began its partnership with Compassion International roughly a year ago when a member on the church’s Board of Christian Outreach decided to sponsor an 8-year-old girl from Kenya named Kanana Ferry through the organization.

A first-grader living in the village of Ruiri, Ferry has become an honorary member of the church’s youth group through letter correspondence and is frequently provided tuition assistance, books and games.

“From there, the kids got interested and thought that any child should have water, any child should be able to go to school; they’d say ‘let’s do more,’” said Mary Larson, one of the youth group leaders. “I’m so proud of them that they’re taking their Saturday to do this. It’s important to help those who are marginalized, but they’re also working
together to get this done.”

While Natalie, Sylvia and 10-year-old Jake scrubbed Toyotas and Mercedes with sponges and sprayed windshields and each other with water, other kids held up signs on the side of the road waving more cars in.

“In a few hours of the day, a world change can be made,” said Jake, from Stony Brook,  before washing down a pickup truck.

Jake smiles as he washes a car during the fundraising event for water filtration systems for communities in need. Photo by Kevin Redding

Earlier this year, the kids raised more than $200 to donate chickens and miscellaneous supplies to help families in need, and regularly host fundraisers to pay for mission trips.

Youth group leader Stephanie Clark, who grew up attending the Mount Sinai church, said she’s always happy to see how enthusiastic the kids are about helping others.

“It’s very exciting,” said Clark, whose husband Michael also became a youth leader. “I think it’s good to have a community like this growing up. And growing up in this church, when I was young, I looked up to older members and now they look up to older members. That’s just how we are.”

Glenn said he personally visited some of the poor villages in South America and witnessed how much the water filters boost the morale of families. Each filter produces up to one million gallons of clean water and lasts years, he said.

“I want to thank the youth group and church so much for stepping up and changing the lives of families,” Glenn said. “Thank you for thinking beyond yourselves and taking the time out of your busy schedules to do something like this for others you may never meet.”

Mikey Brannigan proudly displays the United States Flag as he races down the London track during the 2017 World Para Athletes Championships. File photo

By Desirée Keegan

Mikey Brannigan didn’t roam the halls of Northport High School, he ran down them. He’d dash through the doors as others raced behind him, saying “catch me if you can.”

“Stop that kid,” Brannigan said they would shout, laughing.

Mikey Brannigan received a proclamation from New York State Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci. Photo from Assemblyman Lupinacci’s office

Brannigan battled his way to a successful high school career, and beyond after graduating in 2015. The runner is continuing to exceed expectations — being the only Paralympic athlete in history to hold simultaneous records in the 1,500-, one-mile, 3,000- and 5,000-meter events. He brought home two gold medals — in the 1,500 and 800 — and silver in the 5,000 at the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships at the end of last month.

“Make no mistake about it Mikey wants to be the best,” his New York Athletic Club coach of two years, Sonja Robinson said. “His drive — it shines out. You see it. He loves running.”

Brannigan was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old, and began running at 8. Fast-forward 11 years, when as a 19-year-old he became the first individual with autism to win a gold medal in the 1,500. He also became the first athlete with a T-20 Paralympic classification to shatter the 4-minute mile threshold in August 2016 with a 3 minute, 57 second finish at the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, North Carolina. A month later, he competed in the Special Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he took home the gold after a dominating 3:51 in the 1,5000.

Mikey Brannigan, at center, is surrounded by politicians and coaches as he shows off his new proclamations and gold and silver medals. Photo from Assemblyman Lupinacci’s office

Now at 20, he’s training to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

“I’m taking it little by little and want to show everyone that if you take even little steps you can achieve your dreams,” Brannigan said. “Look at all you can achieve. Work hard and you can achieve your dreams. You can achieve anything.”

Brannigan was honored by local government officials at Northport High School Aug. 9, receiving accolades for his accomplishments, while the members also dubbed Aug. 9 Mikey Brannigan Day in New York.

“He’s truly our hometown hero,” state assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station) said. “Mikey’s story is nothing short of amazing. What he has accomplished at his age is unheard of. His achievements are a true testament of his hard work, dedication, perseverance, sweat and tears.”

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), whose kids graduated from and played sports in Northport, said he was in awe, and pointed to the back of the room — the local kids that were in attendance at the press conference — as the “cool” part of the event.

“He’s truly our hometown hero. Mikey’s story is nothing short of amazing. What he has accomplished at his age is unheard of.”

—Chad Lupinacci

“What we do when we go to Albany is we brag,” he said, putting his hands on Brannigan’s shoulders. “We tell everyone how cool our districts are, we tell everyone about the Northport school district, and we’re very proud of where we live and where we represent. There’s nothing, in my opinion, nothing better than dealing with young adults, no matter what they may be doing, because they’re the future.”

Brannigan grinned as he was invited to Albany in January to be recognized by the entire state legislature. State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) also presented him with a proclamation.

“We’re going to bring you up to Albany, but the bad news is, you have to run there and it’s 200 miles,” Flanagan joked.

“That’s a long, cold trip,” Brannigan responded, waiving his arms no.

Flanagan said he was humbled and proud to be in Brannigan’s presence.

“These are the stories people should know about and want to hear about,” he said. “I went from a stage where I used to run, then I jogged and now I walk. On my best day, I couldn’t even come close to the accomplishments of this young man, who really is a role model.”

State Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) agreed the barriers Brannigan has broken are unbelievable feats.

Mikey Brannigan smiles as he shakes New York State Assemblyman Andrew Raia’s hand during a press conference at Northport High School. Photo from Facebook

“Every day you turn on the television and something bad is happening,” he said. “I want to turn on the television to see this young man. It’s a big responsibility to carry, but in just the few moments I’ve had to talk with him, I know he’s up to the challenge.”

Raia proceeded to tell Brannigan he was going to embarrass him, to which he responded: “Do it.”

The assemblyman pointed out the runner’s red, white and blue Sperry top-siders, and said he needed to find out where he got them.

“He’s such a proud American,” Raia said, to which Brannigan smiled and shook his hand. “We wish nothing but the best. Keep running, my friend.”

Lupinacci shared a similar sentiment during the conference that was broadcasted on Facebook live and viewed by nearly 3,000 people.

“Your family and friends and all of us here today are proud of you,” he said as he gave Brannigan a hug. “Younger generations will follow in your footsteps. You’re not only our hometown hero, you’re an inspiration to all New Yorkers and all Americans. You’re an inspiration to people around the world.”

H.E.L.P. International student-athletes boast new uniforms donated from Smithtown school district. Photo from Kimberly Williams

By Desirée Keegan

Athletes in the Smithtown school district have something in common with students in Uganda thanks to the efforts of several educators from across Long Island.

Carisa Eye, a Smithtown High School East varsity field hockey assistant coach and Nesaquake Middle School lacrosse head coach, is the latest educator to get inspired to give uniforms to the H.E.L.P. International school in Masese, Uganda.

Smithtown physical education teacher Carisa Eye helped send over the most recent batch of uniforms to Uganda. Photo from Kimberly Williams

“The things we take for granted over here like uniforms, that are so easily available to us in our school district, are things that kids don’t get in other parts of the world,” Eye said. “The little things go a long way. It makes you feel good to see these kids in our jerseys, and it shows it doesn’t take much to make someone’s day. I want my athletes to understand that.”

Eye originally asked Smithtown administration to coordinate a donation to send to Ghana, after a friend and former Smithtown student, who teaches in the William Floyd school district, asked for help through Facebook. Eye was able to collect a boxful of uniforms with the help of Smithtown athletic director Pat Smith, but her friend could only take some of what she was given. She came across another Facebook post, a press release regarding Smithtown West marine science teacher Kimberly Williams and the work she’d done with her sister-in-law Carolyn Ferguson, and Eye asked Smith to connect her to Williams.

“We do have a bunch of older uniforms we don’t use, and this is a great way of putting them to use for a good cause,” Smith said. “It’s really nice to see some of our teachers wanting to get on board and we hope the kids, who know what we’re doing, can appreciate what we have here.”

The athletic director hopes the district can continue its involvement with H.E.L.P.

“Seeing the photos they look like a team — they were arm-in-arm and you can tell it made such a difference,” he said. “It’s a great thing for us to be involved in. If we can continue to do this for underprivileged kids, we will, and I hope we can.”

While the idea originated with Ferguson’s former Rockville Centre assistant superintendent Delia Garrity, who helped form the school in Uganda with her husband Peter in 2010, she said she was thrilled to hear of the spread of generosity.

Some of the Smithtown uniform donations from physical education teacher Carisa Eye went to students in Ghana. Photo from Carisa Eye

“It’s all word of mouth, which is amazing,” said Ferguson, a Rockville Centre physical education teacher. “The reach has been incredible.”

Garrity, who just returned from one of her trips to Uganda, said her student-athletes’ transformation has been palpable since being outfitted in the gear.

“When we began our athletic program, our children wore whatever clothing they had — which was not much,” she said. “They played with bare feet and kicked a dilapidated soccer ball. A soccer ball was used for volleyball with players hitting the ball over an imaginary net. When we received donations of athletic supplies and uniforms from Rockville Centre and Smithtown schools, among others, our kids were over the top with joy.”

She described some of the changes she’d seen in the young athletes since they were given the uniforms.

“They have more confidence, more belief in themselves as a team, more motivation to practice and a stronger work ethic,” she said. “Our teams win most local tournaments in soccer, volleyball, netball and track and field. Other schools do not want to play against H.E.L.P. Primary in the opening rounds of any tournament because it’s become a powerhouse.”

H.E.L.P. International school’s soccer team in Uganda received the first Smithtown uniform donation in 2015. Photo above from Delia Garrity

The idea of Smithtown contributing to the cause began when Ferguson was talking with Williams during a Christmas dinner. Also in charge of equipment and uniforms in her district, Ferguson detailed how she’d helped Garrity collect jerseys since 2013. Moved by her sister-in-law’s involvement, Williams asked for a donation from Smith, and the first batch was sent over from Smithtown in 2015.

“I think if someone is getting rid of something it should go somewhere before the garbage,” Williams said. “When resources are so limited, there’s always someone who needs it, and I work hard to make sure my kids understand that. Whether it’s uniforms or composition notebooks.”

Ferguson said the jerseys mean more to the children in Uganda than just the ability to play sports.

“Wearing the same uniform gives them pride and it encourages them to keep going,” she said. “That sense of community that perhaps they don’t normally have.”

Eye said the program also gives her pride in where she grew up and now works.

H.E.L.P. International student-athletes boast new uniforms donated from Smithtown school district. Photo from Kimberly Williams

“I love my teams and I love my town,” she said. “Smithtown has always been supportive, especially of athletics, so it didn’t surprise me when I sent an email and they got back to me right away. They’re always willing to help.”

She said she was moved seeing photos of the smiling faces of Ugandan children donning the red and blue.

“It makes me cry,” Eye said. “They wash their uniforms and lay them out to dry on rocks like prized possessions. I’m going to try to keep donating every year and have my teams participate.”

Williams already handed over another box to Ferguson that has been sitting and waiting on her dining room table. Ferguson will pass the donations, which came from one of William’s former students who teaches in Maryland, over to Garrity to take on her next trip, and the cycle will continue.

“It’s connecting kids through the uniforms,” Williams said. “Smithtown is developing the whole athlete — not just their sports abilities. That makes me thrilled to be part of this.”

For more information on H.E.L.P. International or to find out how to get involved, visit help-uganda.com.

This version corrects the URL for the H.E.L.P. Primary School’s website.

As the number of drug-related overdoses on the Long Island grows, one parent refuses to bury his head in the sand.

On the one-year anniversary of his son’s fatal heroin overdose, William Reitzig wasn’t in bed grieving. Instead, the Miller Place parent was on stage at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai asking hundreds of community members to hug one another.

“Hug your loved ones like I hugged my son every day … My hope is that you leave here today with the same mission as my wife and I — that with love and compassion, we have the power to overcome the perils of drug addiction.”

—Michael Reitzig

“Hug your loved ones like I hugged my son every day … don’t let a minute go by without saying ‘I love you,’” Reitzig said to a crowd of emotional parents, extended family members, friends and strangers. “My hope is that you leave here today with the same mission as my wife and I — that with love and compassion, we have the power to overcome the perils of drug addiction.”

That mission resonated throughout Hope Walk for Addiction, an April 22 fundraising event created by Reitzig and co-sponsored by Brookhaven Town and Hope House Ministries — a nonprofit based in Port Jefferson that supports people suffering the disease of addiction.

Reitzig, whose 25-year-old son Billy struggled for years with opioid pills and ultimately died after a one-time use of heroin last April, kickstarted “a war on addiction” by raising awareness, educating about addiction, raising money to help those struggling and unite the community.

“This is [really] for the community — it’s not about me, it’s not about my son, it’s to try and make a difference moving forward,” Reitzig said. “I can’t do anything about the past at this point, but going forward we can all chip in … we’re all in the same boat. Today is about all the families that struggle every day with this disease getting together because this is no longer acceptable and we need to do something.”

The large crowd, mostly loved ones of those battling addiction or those who died from it, collectively walked Cedar Beach’s Nature Pathway in memory of those who overdosed. About a dozen names could be seen on signs along the scenic trail.

“I don’t think people realize how many people are depressed and they don’t know how to handle that and so people self-medicate and that’s part of the issue. Ninety-one young people die every day [from this] and that’s unconscionable.”

—Francis Pizzarelli

Local leaders, self-help experts and bands occupied the stage to address the issue that brought everyone together. Various sponsors, including WALK 97.5 and St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, were set up at tables taking donations and educating others, and representatives from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office gave seminars on how to use Narcan, a life-saving nasal spray that can revert the effects of an overdose.

More than 500 people registered for the event, and all proceeds — totaling more than $34,000 at the end of the day — went to Hope House, which currently doesn’t have enough space for the overwhelming amount of people who need its services.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, founder of Hope House, counseled Billy while he was rehabilitating in the facility’s outpatient treatment program for a few months, and ultimately presided over his funeral.

Reitzig worked closely with Pizzarelli, and Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), to make the Hope Walk a reality.

“Billy was a loving and caring guy, but like a lot of people today, he had his demons and struggled with that,” Pizzarelli said. “I don’t think people realize how many people are depressed and they don’t know how to handle that and so people self-medicate and that’s part of the issue. Ninety-one young people die every day [from this] and that’s unconscionable. [William] elected to say ‘we’re not going to let this continue, we’re going to do something about it and we’re going to protect the quality of life of all our younger and older people addicted to heroin.’”

This is a time to come together as a community, Pizzarelli added, and celebrate the hope Reitzig embodies.

“We need to help stop the stigmatized feeling that comes with addiction. The users feel alone as it is, they don’t feel proud of themselves. They are good people that made one bad decision.”

—Sue Meyers

“I don’t think I’ve met more resilient, strong, dedicated and passionate people in my whole life as I have in William and his family,” Bonner said. “He’s changing the future of so many people by doing this. We’re losing a generation to addiction and this is an opportunity to lift each other up and strip the layers of shame back. It’s all around us and no community is safe from it.”

Patty Eiserman, of Sound Beach, wore a shirt bearing the face of her nephew David Smallwood, who died in 2013 when he was just 22. She said her goal is to educate children as young as possible so they don’t start using.

“I don’t want to say it’s impossible to get them clean,” she said, “but it’s very, very hard.”

Manorville resident Melanie Ross, whose brother died last year after a 10-year battle with addiction, said the situation ravaged the family. It was the first time she’d attended an even like this.

Sue Meyers, a Setauket resident, said she was walking for her son, Michael Moschetto, a Ward Melville graduate who died in December at 28.

“It’s in his name, but I’m also here to help show support for other people and donate as much money as I have in my pockets,” Meyers said. “We need to help stop the stigmatized feeling that comes with addiction. The users feel alone as it is, they don’t feel proud of themselves. They are good people that made one bad decision. I think events like this really give people hope and a sense of direction.”

By Kevin Redding

While many young people look to television, YouTube videos and sports arenas for a glance at their heroes, a 23-year-old Shoreham resident sees hers every night around the kitchen table.

In Rachel Hunter’s own words in a heartfelt email, her parents — Jeffrey Hunter, a respiratory therapist at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in Patchogue, and Donna Hunter, a neonatal nurse practitioner at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson — are “the hardest working, most loving, supportive and beautiful people” she’s ever known.

Jeffrey Jr., Jake, Rachel, Jeff Sr., and Donna Hunter at Rachel’s graduation party in June of last year. Photo from Rachel Hunter

“My parents exude the meaning of character, integrity, respect, responsibility, kindness, compassion and love,” Hunter said. “I can honestly say I’ve never seen two adults that are more amazing standards for human beings.”

Newfield High School sweethearts, the Hunters have been providing care and service for people across Long Island, consistently going above and beyond to ensure their patients are as comfortable, safe and as happy as possible.

For Jeffrey Hunter, 55, whose day-to-day job is to be responsible for every patient in the hospital — from making sure their cardiopulmonary conditions are steady, to drawing blood from arteries, to being on high alert as a member of the rapid response team — the passion for helping people comes from his upbringing in Selden.

“We lived a simple life, and I was always taught to treat people with dignity and respect … the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “I try to practice that every day of my life, not only in work, but with my daily activities.”

He said while the job can be emotionally harrowing at times — working at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital for 31 years, Hunter establishes close relationships with patients who end up passing away after fighting conditions that worsen over time  — but it’s worthwhile and extremely rewarding when he can help somebody and bring relief to family members.

“Just to see the look on someone’s face if you can make them feel better, even just by holding their hand … it’s the simple things and it really doesn’t take much, but I think the world needs a lot more of that these days,” he said. “I’m just a general people-person and try to comfort patients in their time of need. It can be really dangerous and sad at times, but I just try to remain hopeful.”

“Just to see the look on someone’s face if you can make them feel better, even just by holding their hand … it’s the simple things.”

— Jeffrey Hunter

Rachel Hunter recalled a day when her father came home from work and told her about an older man in the hospital who felt abandoned and forgotten by his kids, who never called or sent birthday cards.

“I held back tears as my dad told me he sent him a birthday card this year,” she said. “Many leave their workday trying as hard as possible to forget about the long, stressful day, but not my dad. He left work thinking ‘what else can I do? How else can I make a difference?’”

Donna Hunter, 54, said her passion for providing care to neonates, infants and toddlers and emotional support and compassion for their parents and families started when she found out her own parents had full-term newborns who died soon after delivery.

She graduated from Adelphi University with a degree in nursing and received a master’s degree as a perinatal nurse practitioner from Stony Brook University. When fielding questions from people asking why she didn’t go through all her schooling to become a doctor, she says, “because I wanted to be a nurse and do what nurses do.”

“I’m one of those very fortunate people that love the career that I chose,” she said. “Every time I go to work, I’m passionate about being there, I’m excited, and it’s always a new adventure for me.”

Highly respected among staff for the 26 years she’s worked at St. Charles, she tends to newborns in need of specialized medical attention — from resuscitation and stabilization to rushing those born critically ill or with a heart condition to Stony Brook University Hospital.

Donna Hunter during the delivery of her cousin. Photo from Donna Hunter

“Babies are the most vulnerable population, but are incredibly resilient,” she said. “Babies have come back literally from the doors of death and have become healthy, and to be part of that in any small way is very satisfying.”

Maryanne Gross, the labor and delivery head nurse at St. Charles, called her “the calm voice in the room.”

“Donna is who you want with you if you’re having an issue or in a bad situation,” Gross said. “She’s an excellent teacher and just leads you step by step on what you need to do to help the baby. She’s great to be around and I think she was born to do [this].”

Hunter has also dedicated herself to creating a better future regarding neonatal withdrawal, saying the hospital is seeing more and more babies in the Intensive Care Unit affected by their mothers’ opioid use.

She recently gave a 45-minute seminar on the subject at a chemical dependency symposium by St. Charles outlining the newborn’s symptoms, treatment options and what it means for future health. She not only wants to help the baby but also the mother, providing resources to help them recover successfully.

Even with all their accomplishments in the field, Jeffrey and Donna Hunter consider family their top priority. With three children — Jeffrey Jr., 27; Jake, 24; and Rachel —  they take advantage of every opportunity they have to be together.

“It’s a juggle as to who’s working, who’s got to go to a meeting, but we make it happen,” Donna Hunter said. “We even take time to play games at our kitchen table … a lot of families don’t do that anymore. We’re very fortunate.”

Coram resident raises donations in Miller Place to help sick children

Santa, played by Michael Carnes, hugs a child he delivered gifts to. Photo by KT Leung

Coram resident Ashley Leung put the drive in toy drive for the second year in a row.

Last year, Leung, 24, wanted to brighten up the holidays for kids who have cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in the community, so she collaborated with some local good Samaritans to create the Kids Need More Toy Drive to go above and beyond to make a difference in children’s lives.

Once all donated gifts were collected at the drop-off station at Corrective Chiropractic in Miller Place, they were loaded up in a fully decorated “holiday cheer bus” and brought directly to the door steps of kids and families in need by Santa — played by Leung’s uncle and local chiropractor Michael Carnes — and a group of volunteer “elves.”

A family shows off the new gifts Santa, played by Michael Carnes, delivered. Photo by KT Leung

Leung said it was important to her that the delivery was personal.

“We wanted to donate to the children in the area, but also be the ones to deliver those gifts because there’s a lot of different toy drives in New York and nationwide, but no one really knows where the toys go,” she said. “We wanted to document everything … so for every toy donated, we gave a picture to the donors showing them ‘this is where your donation went.’”

For the second annual Kids Need More toy drive, Leung, Santa and his elves headed back on the bus Dec. 18 for an even bigger and better night of giving.

Leung said this year a total of five buses were launched, as opposed to two last year —   two in Suffolk County, two in Nassau and one in New Jersey. The volunteer turnout also increased. The Suffolk buses, for instance, had a total of 40 parents, friends, family and even former cancer patients on board this year, compared to eight to 10 on each bus last year.

Hundreds of gifts were donated by members of the community —  everything from Disney Infinity games for PlayStation 3 to stuffed animals and hats. A blue and black mountain bike was donated anonymously and raffled off to a 15-year-old patient.

Young girls especially loved receiving Cancer Barbie. The hairless doll comes with different wigs they’re able to swap out and serves as an inspiration for those undergoing chemotherapy. The girls see a doll that looks like them and suddenly don’t feel different, Leung said.

Many of the kids went home from the hospital just to see Santa.

Santa spreads some holiday cheer throughout Suffolk County. Photo by KT Leung

“We made a really big difference,” she said. “I think the kids we visited this year truly appreciated us visiting them. We really kept the holiday spirit going; I think the kids we saw were honestly shocked.”

Leung’s charity venture spring boarded while she was attending St. Joseph’s College. A professor told her about Camp Adventure, a week-long sleepaway camp on Shelter Island for kids diagnosed with cancer, which remains Long Island’s only camp of its kind. She was excited to get involved and wanted to immediately.

The year she joined the summer program — which now serves the East Coast and tri-state area — as a camp counselor, the organization found itself without funding.

The American Cancer Society had been providing funds for the camp since 1990, but suddenly had to stop in 2013, so a dedicated group of Camp Adventure volunteers began Kids Need More to parent the camp and ensure its longevity.

Kids Need More Camp Adventure is completely free for all kids and siblings who want to attend and involves everything from a day camp, to peer mentoring programs and visits to children’s hospitals.

It even partners with a volunteer pilot organization called Patient AirLift Services that flies patients living in rural areas who need specialized treatment to centers and hospital appointments. For the last two years, PALS has flown kids who live outside of Long Island — like those in Ohio, New Jersey and even in Albany — to the camp for free.

When Leung was working in the Corrective Chiropractic office last year, she began talking to her uncle about wanting to do something to give back to the community, and a partnership with Kids Need More to donate to children in the area seemed like a no-brainer.

According to Melissa Firnes, the founder of Kids Need More, the event has “snowballed” and served 200 kids while making lots of stops.

“These kids love it,” Firnes said. “We show up to their house for caroling and things like that. It’s simple, but very nice.”

She said what matters most is that the organization isn’t asking families to leave their homes.

Local volunteers for the Kids Need More toy drive smile in front of one of the buses as it drops off gifts to the homes of local children. Photo by KT Leung

“We’re actually coming to them, and I think that matters a lot to them,” she said. “It’s hard for [the families] to get around when there’s somebody sick in the family. Kids come out to the bus and choose a gift from the volunteer elves.”

She said Leung is willing to do anything Kids Need More needs to be successful, which makes her stand out.

“[Leung] is really great at being the cheermeister for the kids and being all enthusiastic, but is also willing to do all the legwork and logistics that’s needed in putting together the toy drive,” Firnes said. “She’s been such a big part of the organization and has now brought her whole family into it, which is really special too.”

Carnes, who brings Santa to life for the kids, said it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to touch people’s hearts and directly impact their lives.

“Children really thought I was Santa when I came up and they would give me a hug and say ‘thank you Santa,’” Carnes said. “Some of these children don’t have much and some families barely have anything, so to bring joy to people is just amazing … it’s the spirit of the holidays.”

He said he believes we can all use more happiness in the world.

Jaime Pacheco, PALS outreach coordinator and cheer bus volunteer, said the toy drive prides itself on the fact that it’s not about the gift you’re getting, but the time spent with people and the emotional support they provide.

Leung said the toy drive continues to be the best day of her life.

“Just getting off that bus — and some of these kids don’t even know we’re coming — they see Santa at their front door, and they’re just completely shocked,” she said. ”I think that’s the best thing we can give them.”

Renée, Glen and Zachary Cote at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Rockt Point Post 6249 ninth annual gold outing on Sept. 26. Photo by Desirée Keegan

By Desirée Keegan

The Cote family is overwhelmed.

After Glen, a Gulf War veteran, and Renée found out that they would be receiving a new home for veterans in Miller Place, they got a phone call that some of the proceeds from Joe Cognitore’s VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 ninth annual Veterans of Foreign Wars Rocky Point Post 6249 annual golf outing at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai, on Sept. 26, will go toward their new home.

“People keep asking us about the process with the house,” Renée Cote said. “I’m still trying to absorb everything — and then we get a call about this — there’s so much love here and to be on the receiving end of that, it’s a blessing.”

The Cote family will be receiving a home built for returning veterans and their families, on Helme Avenue in Miller Place. Photo by Glen Cote
The Cote family will be receiving a home built for returning veterans and their families, on Helme Avenue in Miller Place. Photo by Glen Cote

The Cotes have been through several hardships, from Renée Cote being diagnosed with a rare and painful metabolic disorder called acute intermittent porphyria, which requires expensive biweekly treatments that she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, to her 7-year-old son Zachary being diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in 2014.

Most recently, the family was told they were being kicked out of their home because the landlord had let the rental fall into foreclosure.

“It’s awesome to see this much love for somebody from out of town like myself, that they don’t know, it’s incredible,” Glen Cote, who’s from Texas, said. “Everyone is so supportive and friendly.”

The family recently met with Cognitore, Rocky Point’s post commander, for the first time when Landmark Property owner and developer Mark Baisch chose the family to receive the 11th home for returning veterans. The two are still looking for a family for the 12th home.

“It’s a good feeling, especially given their circumstances,” Cognitore said of helping the family. “We’ve been doing things over the phone, and it helped me in the hospital. I felt very good. It was a big relief to know that we’re helping this family out.”

The Cotes said they’ve begun meeting their new neighbors and community members and they’re excited to make the move. Their previous rental home was in Sound Beach,

“They are the nicest people,” Renée Cote said. “I like the fact that — because, we kind of stalked the house — they came out and they were saying hello to us, they’ve been in the community for 30 to 40 years, they were very welcoming and we’re excited. I’m excited to have little BBQs with them and stuff like that.”

“When Mark [Baisch] heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue, and talk about superheroes, [Mark Baisch and Joe Cognitore] are our local superheroes.”

— Sarah Anker

At the golf outing, where more than 160 golfers hit the course to help support veterans, Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) came out to meet the family and commend Cognitore and Baisch for all of their work helping local veterans.

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

LaValle was glad to seewho have helped him remain in the Miller Place school district, which was most important to his family.

“It all comes together very, very nicely,” he said. “We can’t do enough for our veterans to say thank you, and this is one of many ways that we can appreciate their service that they have made to our country.”

Renée Cote said she is also teaching her son to give back, and said she feels thank you will never be enough.

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

Hugo Rizzo who raises money for research in their memory. Photo from Hugo Rizzo

One Northport resident found inspiration through loss.

Hugo Rizzo lost two brothers to lung cancer, and has since devoted his time to raising money for lung cancer treatment research.

“Mothers don’t deserve to bury their children,” Rizzo said through tears in a phone interview. “I had to tell my mother both times that her sons died. It has been up to me both times. Nobody deserves to get lung cancer.”

Rizzo said his family’s struggle is what makes him so passionate about being involved in cancer research organizations.

Carlos Rizzo who died from lung cancer at 60. Photo from Hugo Rizzo
Carlos Rizzo who died from lung cancer at 60. Photo from Hugo Rizzo

He also touched on the stigma he believes is associated with lung cancer patients, and how he wants to help change that.

“The stigma is that ‘you brought it on yourself,’” Rizzo said, “that it’s a smoker’s disease.” He said he feels this assumption is unfair, and “lung cancer patients share the same fears as colon and brain cancer patients.”

Rizzo said lung cancer is one of the most underfunded cancers in terms of research. According to LUNGevity Foundation, lung cancer is the leading cancer death, but only receives six percent of federal research dollars. That comes out to $2,366 per life lost, compared to $24,167 per life lost to breast cancer, and $14,510 to prostate cancer. LUNGevity also reported 60 to 65 percent of all new lung cancer diagnoses are among people who have never smoked or are former smokers, and 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked in their lives.

This year marks the first time Rizzo is part of the organizing committee for non-profit Free to Breathe’s Lung Cancer 5K in New York City and Brooklyn. The event is on Sunday, Oct. 30, starting at 10:30 a.m. at Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn. Rizzo said he is proud to help and wants to make sure the event is fun.

“This shouldn’t be a morose event, it should be hopeful, hopeful that we find better treatment,” he said.

The event includes a 5K run, walk, and kids run, as well as other activities, including face painting, a magic show and a yoga warm-up. There will also be guest speakers and a heroes wall to help show young children they are just as much heroes for being involved as the superheroes they read about.

Rudy Rizzo, who died from lung cancer at 64. Photo from Hugo Rizzo
Rudy Rizzo, who died from lung cancer at 64. Photo from Hugo Rizzo

Free To Breathe is a nonprofit organization made up of lung cancer survivors, advocates, researchers, health care professionals and industry leaders, all working to raise money for lung cancer research, increase the number of lung cancer patients participating in clinical trials, and build and empower the lung cancer community.

Rizzo said the nonprofit donates 83 percent of the money it raises to research and the development of programs.

“Before I get involved, I make sure [an organization] fits well with me,” he said. “And they give back such a high amount of what they fundraise.”

This year Rizzo said they are expecting between 400 and 500 participants, and are hoping to raise between $45,000 and $60,000. He said they were able to raise more than $40,000 last year.

“This is a movement that is growing,” he said. “If I can do my part to help others, to make sure they don’t go through what my brothers went through, then that is time well invested.”

To find out more information on Free to Breathe’s Lung Cancer 5K or to donate, visit www.freetobreathe.org.

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