People of the Year

Darin Parker smiles in front of Main Street Cafe in Northport. Photo by Ted Ryan

By Ted Ryan

For Darin Parker, owner of the Main Street Cafe in Northport, serving her community is about more than just filling cups of coffee and serving lunch.

Parker is dedicated to working for her community and making it the very best it can be, and for this reason Times Beacon Record News Media has selected her as a Person of the Year.

Parker has been the owner of the Main Street Cafe for 16 years, but she also serves as the first vice president of the Northport Chamber of Commerce as well as a fundraising organizer, and she hosts trips to Broadway shows for Northport Village residents. She is also a major supporter of events and foundations including St. Baldrick’s, Relay for Life, Adopt a Family and Strides for Cancer.

“Since Saint Baldrick’s has been initiated in Northport, we’ve supported it every year … we did the cancer walk this year,” Parker said in an interview. “It’s not just me; the customers here are just absolutely incredible. I send out an email [saying] we need money, we need this, and they respond really well.”

Parker also has holiday stockings lining the walls of her cafe, filled to the brim with donations for the Ecumenical Lay Council Pantry in Northport. Last year, the cafe made a $4,000 donation to the pantry.

Northport Fire Department Ex-Chief John McKenna said Parker is a priceless addition to the Northport community.

“Darin’s helped out in a bundle of ways,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s not a whole lot that Darin hasn’t gotten involved with altruistically. She’s just a very benevolent person and she genuinely cares about people.”

As the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, Parker organizes events such as raffles and gets local businesses in the Northport community to take part.

Funds received from the raffles and donations run by Parker and the chamber are used to offset costs of maintenance, decorations and events for Northport Village.

Parker said she didn’t foresee herself becoming a member of the Northport Chamber of Commerce at first, much less the chamber’s vice president. She said she’s noticed a distance between the chamber and business owners of Northport that she is trying to close.

“People don’t realize there’s a little rift sometimes between the local merchants and the chamber,” she said.  “I was one of those people, and I wasn’t involved with the chamber for a long time, but if you don’t get involved, you can’t make any changes.” 

Northport Chamber of Commerce Director Debi Triola vouched for Parker’s devotion to encourage local businesses to be a part of the local events.

“Darin’s excellent,” she said. “Years before she was on the board she was always the advocate for business, for the community supporting any other businesses even at times to her own detriment,” Triola said. “If something was good for the community, — even if it wasn’t necessarily good for her own business — she was very supportive of it. She’s always been.”

Parker said she wants to create a bond among patrons of her cafe, so she organizes events she calls “bus trips” where members of the community go on trips she organized to Broadway shows in New York City.

Parker said that the first time the cafe organized a trip about 20 to 30 years ago, they took a trip to Ireland. Parker has made a commitment to organize a trip abroad run by the Main Street Cafe every two years moving forward.

Parker feels very welcome in Northport and appreciates the receptiveness of her neighborhood in regards to helping the public.

“It does become a really neat community of family,” she said. “I’m not just saying that, it really is. They’re great people.”

Helping the Port Jefferson Station community has been Celina Wilson’s, center, mission since the 1980s. Photo from Facebook

By Rebecca Anzel

When Celina Wilson moved to Port Jefferson Station in 1985, she noticed her new community was underserved — and that she could help. Some Spanish-speaking female residents had problems accessing health care, specifically mammograms.

A nurse and Spanish-speaker herself, Wilson worked to partner with the American Cancer Association to bring these women informational materials, teach them how to conduct self-examinations and schedule mammograms with a mobile service.

She founded Bridge of Hope Resource Center in 1998 with her husband to continue helping Port Jefferson Station residents get free health care by partnering with other organizations and community leaders. As other issues the community faced came to her attention, Wilson expanded the scope of Bridge of Hope to include them.

The organization gets feedback from residents and takes them straight to public officials. So far, it has tackled issues such as safety in schools post-Sandy Hook and drug abuse awareness and prevention.

“I believe that the more awareness you raise about issues communities face, the less chance there is of our communities becoming unstable,” Wilson said. “I really want Port Jefferson Station to stay strong.”

For her work advocating for Port Jefferson Station residents and fighting to combat drug abuse, Times Beacon Record News Media is recognizing Celina Wilson as a Person of the Year.

“Celina Wilson is a resource for Port Jeff Station — she’s been doing this for decades,” Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant said in an interview. “She does this because she cares so much about not only her own children, but all our children, and I am just so impressed by her.”

Bridge of Hope uses education as a tool to help show community members why drug use is dangerous. Wilson said she thinks it is important to share information about the “basics” of drug abuse — what changes it makes in a user’s brain, risk factors that might lead to someone turning to drugs and signs someone is using.

“We work to make sure that when you look at Port Jefferson Station, people know it’s a community that’s got it together and can weather any problems.”

— Celina Wilson

She shared that information in an educational forum at Port Jefferson High School in mid-October. Also on the panel was a Stony Brook Children’s Hospital doctor of adolescent medicine and a scientist who focuses on addiction’s effect on the brain. The event marked the first time Bridge of Hope was able to host an educational event in a school.

The goal of the forum, Wilson said, was to educate parents and others in attendance about the “root causes” of drug abuse. She expressed to parents there are signs to look for and risk factors that might lead their children to turn to drugs — such as not understanding the world around them and a lack of confidence and self-esteem — and stressed the importance of keeping an open line of communication with their children.

“It’s important that parents are educated about these things so they don’t feel helpless,” Wilson said. “I found out a week or two later the parents there were receptive to the information we shared at the forum, which was a big accomplishment for us.”

Other educational efforts include publishing an article called “The Amazing Human Brain” on the Bridge of Hope website that focuses on brain function and working to create a traveling museum exhibit to make the community more aware of drug abuse.

Dori Scofield, founder of Dan’s Foundation for Recovery, worked with Wilson on the exhibit, which will launch next year. She said she loves the work Bridge of Hope does making a difference in the community.

“Celina is amazing and I love working with her on community issues,” she said. “She is an inspiration to all of us who work in the field of improving life for all.”

Bridge of Hope also works in Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore, but creating a support system for residents in Port Jefferson Station is not any less important to Wilson now than it was when the organization was founded 18 years ago.

“We really want our community to stay strong and our families to have stability. We don’t want to hear about our youths overdosing,” Wilson said. “We work to make sure that when you look at Port Jefferson Station, people know it’s a community that’s got it together and can weather any problems.”

The organization also offers mentoring opportunities for teens in need of extra guidance.

To contact Bridge of Hope Resource Center call 631-338-4340 or visit www.bridgeofhoperc.com.

Staff members of Cause Café gather outside the front entrance. Photo from Stacey Wohl

By Ted Ryan

Along Fort Salonga Road is a quaint café, filled to the brim with baked pastries and freshly brewed coffee. But the best part of this shop isn’t the treats, it’s what the café is doing for the community.

Stacey Wohl is the founder and president of Cause Café, a small business that offers jobs to young adults with cognitive and developmental disorders, such as autism.

It is for this reason that Wohl and the staff at Cause Café have been named People of the Year by Times Beacon Record News Media.

Wohl got started in the coffee business through working sales in a newly acquired coffee company with her ex-husband. During her time working sales in this new business, she had her two children, Brittney, 19, and Logan, 17, who were both diagnosed with autism. Wohl eventually stopped working to take care of them.

In 2010, Wohl moved to Northport, where she founded her own nonprofit, called Our Own Place, after getting assistance from friends who were also in the nonprofit business. The company provides unique opportunities to special-needs children and their single parents. The organization’s ultimate mission is to open a weekend respite home for families of children with cognitive disabilities that will provide job training and socialization skills to its residents.

Two years later, Wohl started her own coffee business, Our Coffee with a Cause Inc., a business that employs individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities, and funds local charities that support them. It was created in response to the growing concern for special-needs individuals on Long Island who are aging out of schools to find job opportunities and a learning environment to acquire real-life skills.

And on May 7, Wohl opened Cause Café in Fort Salonga.

Alex Alvino, the head chef of Cause Café said he appreciates the chance Wohl has offered to not only him, but to those with special needs as well.

“Stacey’s been great,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m thankful for her for giving me this opportunity; it’s such a humbling experience to be a part of this. I really think this place has potential, and within a couple of months, it’s just going to take off.”

Wohl’s children are both actively involved in the café as well.

Brittney works at the café after school and on weekends where she busses tables, frosts cupcakes and assists Wohl in instructing a cupcakes class the café offers. Logan busses tables, works behind the counter and takes out the garbage.

Wohl said she is looking to change the business model of the Cause Café into a nonprofit so it can offer more opportunities, like the ones her children have, for those with disabilities.

“It makes sense for us and for the business model so that we can hopefully get grants and donations to be able to hire more kids with special needs,” she said.

And the demand for jobs for young adults with disabilities is high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was about twice that of those without disabilities.

Wohl can vouch for the need of more jobs for the disabled — she experiences it first hand regularly.

“I get three or four calls a day, or people walking in with their resumes, or parents walking in for their child, or job coaches coming in, all asking me for jobs,” she said. “And we need to get more customers first before we can hire more people,” said Wohl.

Dorina Barksdale is one of the parents whose child, Johnathan, was able to find work at the café.

“Johnathan loves his job, and he feels accepted and wants to work at the café,” she said in a phone interview. “I see Stacey twice a week, she’s compassionate and offers a family atmosphere for Johnathan to work in. Stacey wants to make a difference for my son as well as for other kids with disabilities who want to work.”

Wohl said she believes the reception of the Cause Café has been good, especially during its early months, but acknowledges the fact the number of opportunities for those with special needs is dependent on the demand for business.

“The community was very supportive of us the first few months when we opened, and we just need to remind them again that we are here,” said Wohl.

Even though owning a business such as this comes with difficulties, Wohl has no doubt that the rewards outweigh the risks.

“When you come in here, you see that you are giving a kid a job that might not have a job. … When you are buying it [coffee] from us, you are helping to employ someone that would be sitting home otherwise and not having an opportunity to work,” she said.

Kate Calone checks out an end table at the organization’s warehouse in Port Jefferson Station. File photo by Susan Risoli

Furniture is a necessity. It allows a family to sit at a table and eat together. It gives children a place to do homework. It provides the opportunity to open one’s home to guests. It’s essential for a good night’s sleep.

People transitioning from homelessness, domestic violence shelters, military service or displacement following a disaster need more than just a roof over their heads.

Inspired by a youth mission trip to a furniture bank just outside Washington, D.C., Kate Calone wondered if such a service would fly on Long Island. For some, this might have been a daunting task, but Calone set about researching and planning. She organized a feasibility committee and piloted the group to take off.

The Open Door Exchange is rounding out its second year of operations, having served more than 300 Long Island families and individuals in need. Referred by social service agencies and nonprofits, people can “shop” with dignity, by appointment at the organization’s rented Port Jefferson Station warehouse, which is configured to resemble a furniture store. All pieces are free of charge.

For her compassion, determination and leadership in helping Long Islanders in need, Calone is one of Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Calone spent six years as an attorney before entering the Princeton Theological Seminary. When she and her husband Dave, who ran against Anna Throne-Holst in the 2016 Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District and Suffolk County judge, returned to Long Island to raise their three children, Calone worked at the First Presbyterian Church in Northport before joining the Setauket Presbyterian Church as associate pastor, to work with the Youth Group.

Residents walked on the Greenway Trail to raise funds and awareness for Open Door Exchange. File photo by Susan Risoli

When she returned from D.C., she told retired Setauket businessman and church member Tom Kavazanjian her idea and asked if he’d be interested in helping. Having great respect for Calone and her worthwhile cause, he said yes.

“Kate’s leadership is unique,” he said. “She leads with a quiet confidence and is one of the most unassuming and selfless people I know. Everything she does, she does with such grace.”

With a lot of planning — and the help of a group of dedicated volunteers — Open Door Exchange was launched in January 2015, recounted Stony Brook resident and retired school teacher Diane Melidosian, who was also an early recruit.

“This was no easy undertaking,” she said. “Since there is no cost to the recipient, all costs associated with this program are handled through fundraising, grant writing and contributions.”

There were lots of logistics to be worked out and the committee used A Wider Circle, the furniture bank in the outskirts of D.C., as a model.

East Setauket resident Bonnie Schultz said being a part of the creation of Open Door Exchange energized her.

“I’d never been part of a startup,” she said. “It’s exciting. And [the organization] has grown by leaps and bounds. The amount of furniture that goes in and out of [the warehouse] is incredible.”

She said even some clients come back to volunteer.

Another member of the exploratory committee, Stony Brook therapist Linda Obernauer, said the youngsters who traveled on the mission played an important part in advancing the idea of a Long Island furniture bank.

“Kate got more interested as the kids got into it,” she said, adding that Calone has served as a role model to many of them. “People who are ‘of the fiber’ do the right thing. Kate doesn’t have to have accolades, she helps people because that’s who she is.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, left, and Supervisor Ed Romaine, right, present proclamations to Ann Becker, Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato at the Mount Sinai Civic Association's 100th anniversary dinner. File photo by Desirée Keegan

In October, the Mount Sinai Civic Association celebrated its 100th anniversary and further cemented its role in providing the look, helping with the maintenance and ensuring the overall quality of life of the community. Considering its century-long list of accomplishments, the civic association is still going strong.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community,” Mount Sinai Civic Association Vice President Brad Arrington, a member since 2004, said. “It’s a mechanism to have an input in the future of my community and a place I plan to stay in for quite a long time.”

For their tireless efforts and infinite contributions, the more than 180 members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association have been recognized as Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community.”

— Brad Arrington

Made up of volunteers, the organization has been, and continues to be, built on local residents stepping forward and having a voice in shaping the place in which they live.

It all began on Oct. 5, 1916, when the civic association was founded as an offshoot of the Mount Sinai Taxpayers Association for the main purposes of obtaining better roads, improving conditions in Mount Sinai Harbor and figuring out ways to protect against fires, which would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Mount Sinai Volunteer Fire Department standing today.

The original officers elected at the first organizational meeting were Jacob Schratweiser, president; Philip C. Scherer, first vice president; William R. P. Van Pelt, secretary and Lorenzo H. Davis, treasurer.

They paved the way for decades’ worth of major civic issues that include successfully stopping the dredging of Mount Sinai Harbor in the 1960s, suing Brookhaven for overdevelopment to reduce the number of housing units built in 1996 and working with state, county and town officials to purchase and preserve “The Wedge” property as Heritage Park. Developers initially planned to construct a Home Depot where the park is today.

Members of the civic association work toward improving their community, protecting its coastal environment and, perhaps most importantly, protesting against overdevelopment to keep their hamlet quaint and suburban.

“We want to [continue] protecting the open space Mount Sinai has,” Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker said. “The woodlands, beach areas … preventing overdevelopment is [crucial] because that can also have negative impacts on taxes, quality of life and even things like crime.”

Becker, an active member since 1984, said she joined the organization because of the direct impact its work had on quality of life and families in the area.

Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker at a recent meeting. Photo by Kevin Redding

What initially prompted her involvement was the proposal for a giant commercial shopping center on the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Canal Road, right behind her home, which would have been inconsistent with the aesthetic of the primarily residential neighborhood. Naturally, there wasn’t a lot of support for the planned development, and so the public — through the civic association — rallied against it and the shopping center never came to be.

Becker said the civic association is always on the lookout for problems and concerns residents might have with the ultimate goal of working on behalf of everyone to reach the best possible outcome and make a difference.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), whose office is currently working closely with the civic on two developmental projects, called Becker “a force to be reckoned with.”

“She’s exactly what a civic leader needs to be,” the councilwoman said. “The Mount Sinai community is very fortunate that Ann and the group continue to step up to the plate. They are a great group of volunteers and it’s an honor and a privilege to work with them.”

Fred Drewes, one of the civic’s long-serving members, joined in 1970, feeling it was important to be an active participant in the community and give constructive suggestions to help develop the quality of it.

Drewes, with the help of fellow civic member Lori Baldassare, projected his vision of a “central” park to help bring people together and have a location for community activities. It didn’t take long before the civic purchased the almost-a-Home Depot parcel and developed Drewes’ “Ivory Tower” idea.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the development of our hamlet,” he said, “has benefited from the input of members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association.”

Pat Westlake, executive director at the pantry, smiles surrounded by donations. Photo from Ted Ryan

By Ted Ryan

On March 4, 1984, the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry opened its doors for the first time, and it has served the community in full force ever since. For their support of residents in need, the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry is recognized as the Times Beacon News Media People of the Year.

The food pantry was established to assist the residents of Smithtown who need help feeding their families and is made up of seven churches within Smithtown: the Byzantine Church of the Resurrection, the First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, the Smithtown United Methodist Church, St. Andrews Lutheran Church, St. James Episcopal Church, St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and St. James Lutheran Church.

According to Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry Executive Coordinator Pat Westlake, it has only gotten more and more successful since its creation.

“They helped about 40 people that first year,” said Westlake. The number has grown each year as more and more people needed help.

The food pantry’s accomplishments are entirely based on the community’s largesse and support.

“People in town are very generous … everything is donated or we purchase it with donations that people give,” Westlake said. “Everyone here is a volunteer, no one gets paid … we depend on this community.”

Each of the seven churches has its own coordinator, and the churches rotate who is running the emergency food pantry every month. The coordinator from each church runs the daily operations and has at least three volunteers working every day.

The people who come to the food pantry go beyond just the poor. In Smithtown, the list of profiles of those who ask for food is longer and more diverse than one might expect.

“Most of the clients come when there’s a problem,” Westlake said. “They lose a job, they get downsized, there’s illness in the family, senior citizens taking in grandchildren, divorces. Most of our clients need a helping hand through that rough time, and that’s what we’re here for.”

“There are many more people in the community of Smithtown that need assistance than you would ever imagine.”

— Jean Kelly

With so much need from the community, there are many who rise to the challenge to give to the unfortunate.

During the Thanksgiving season of 2015, a man gave food to the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry. He opened his trunk to reveal more than $100 worth of food to be dropped off.

After thanking the man for the generous donation, Westlake said she ask for his name. “He replied, ‘Joe, just Joe.’ He wouldn’t give his last name.”

After asking what the food pantry was short on, Joe came back the next day with another trunk full of food as well as a dozen turkeys for the Thanksgiving season.

After Westlake thanked Joe for his generosity, he responded, “You helped me a couple of years ago and I always promised I’d pay back.”

It’s because of residents like Joe that the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry has been able to give to those in need for 32 years.

The food pantry has been a big help to the community, and local legislatures such as Smithtown Town Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) recognize its role.

“The Food Pantry is a most wonderful organization that does great work for those in need,” Vecchio said. “The pantry lives up to the perception that we should feed the hungry. I am proud of the fact that the pantry is part of our town.”

Jean Kelly, the coordinator at St. Thomas of Canterbury, supervises the food pantry every seventh month and said that people may be surprised how many Smithtown citizens are in need.

“There are many more people in the community of Smithtown that need assistance than you would ever imagine,” she said in a phone interview. ““If they do come in, many people cry; they’re embarrassed. But we try to make them feel comfortable, [we] don’t want them in any way to feel that they are in any way a burden to anyone.”

The Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry is located at 90 Edgewater Avenue in Smithtown. You can call 631-265-7676 to see what donations are most needed or if you need help feeding yourself or your family.

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

By Rebecca Anzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex Petroski

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

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

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

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

Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group. Photo from Gitto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Rebecca Anzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henninger echoed the sentiment.

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

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