People of the Year

Rivera is honored by members of Brookhaven Town Board for his advocacy and support work surrounding the disease. Photo from Councilwoman Cartright's office

By Jennifer Sloat

He has been called an angel, the personification of goodness and strength, a champion of the underrepresented and an inspiration. Frank Rivera is all of that and more.

Rivera is the founder and president of Sarcoidosis of Long Island, an awareness and advocacy group for sarcoidosis, a rare and often debilitating disease from which the Coram resident is suffering. In 2004 at the age of 36, he received an incorrect diagnosis of lung cancer for which he underwent treatment. The X-ray showed lumps in his lungs. It was after a hospital visit in 2011 for abdominal pain that he was correctly diagnosed with sarcoidosis.

Frank Rivera, at center, cuts a ribbon at Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park to signal the start of his Sarcoidosis Awareness 5K. Photo from Councilwoman Cartright’s office

Things got even tougher for Rivera as complications from the disease arose. It attacked his neurological system, eyes and gallbladder. In April 2012, he went back to the hospital with more stomach cramps and learned his colon had ruptured. He contracted sepsis and nearly died.

Through it all Rivera continues to fight, not only for his own health, but for the health of others affected by the disease. His organization raises awareness for sarcoidosis patients at local, state and federal levels, and helps them find doctors and treatment.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said Rivera came to her office a few years ago and told her his story and idea to start a not-for-profit organization.

Anker said his tireless work with elected officials and medical research experts have provided him the guidance and resources to help residents dealing with sarcoidosis.

“He has accomplished so much,” Anker said. “It was his goal, and it remains his goal.”

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), a practicing ear, nose and throat physician, said when he heard Rivera was creating awareness, he reached out to lend support. Spencer, who lost his mother to the disease, said he was fascinated by the work Rivera does.

“It hit close to home,” the legislator said. “Many have not even heard of the disease.”

Spencer said that what Rivera has done also generated a lot of funding to aid sarcoidosis patients in seeking medical attention and emotional support.

“I hope to continue to support him,” he said. “I hope to see him do more great things for those who don’t have champions.”

Some of the organization’s efforts include a health fair and a 5K run/walk at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

“He gets folks together to share ideas and stories, and to support one another,” Anker said. “It is amazing what Frank has done considering he is dealing with his own challenges, both physical and mental.”

The Town of Brookhaven celebrates National Sarcoidosis Awareness Month in April, and it’s a direct result of Rivera’s work and dedication.

“The town board has learned an overwhelming amount about the misconceptions surrounding sarcoidosis and the hurdles patients face who are suffering from rare diseases,” said town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station). “This is due in large part to Frank’s efforts. Listening to Frank speak about his personal experiences is a testament to his strength of character.”

In an interview with RARE Daily, a Global Genes patient advocacy organization, Rivera said his focus is helping others with hardships before worrying about himself.

“There are 200,000 sarcoidosis patients,” he said. “I always consider myself a representative for those 200,000 patients. I always think about what they need.”

Anker said despite his own struggles he’s always being positive to inspire others to have the will to get through the tough times.

“He always has a smile on his face and goodness in his heart,” Anker said. “His mind is going 1,000 miles an hour to accomplish what he has set out to do. He has been able to accomplish so many of his goals.”

Huntington resident Ginny Munger Kahn received a proclamation from Suffolk Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) Dec. 19.

A Huntington woman has taken to heart that Earth was made for all to enjoy, big and small, including man’s favorite four-legged friends.

Ginny Munger Kahn, president of Huntington-based The Long Island Dog Owners Group (LI-DOG), has been leading the way to create dog parks and dog-friendly park policies in Suffolk County since 2002. In her most recent victory, she convinced the Huntington Town Board to amend town code Aug. 15 to allow for on-leash walking of dogs in town parks.

“It is the highlight of my day to take my dog for a long walk,” Munger Kahn told TBR News Media in August. “I don’t want to do it just in my neighborhood on the street, but I want to be able to walk my dog in a beautiful public park. It’s been frustrating over the years on Long Island as many towns don’t allow it.”

Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) said that Munger Kahn was one of the first constituents to sit down and have a meeting with him when he was elected to office. He has come to have a great deal of respect for her and LI-DOG.

“It has many volunteers and is an outstanding non-for-profit organization that does wonderful things not just for our furry friends and beloved family members, but I am sure everyone would agree sharing time in the outdoors with our pets is not just good for them, it’s good for all of us,” Stern said. “It’s good for all of us and our quality of life.

Due to Munger Kahn’s activism, Stern was the leading sponsor on county legislation that directed the Suffolk parks commissioner to identify at least five parks where dog parks could be created in 2007. A decade later, there are 10 such parks on Long Island, seven of which are in Suffolk County including an off-leash beach, plus dozens of on-leash dog walking trails.

“The dog parks are large, attractive and very much appreciated by the people who use them every day,” Munger Kahn said.

Two of the local dog parks that have been created are at Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown and West Hills County Park in Huntington.

“By expanding access to and enjoyment of Suffolk County’s beautiful parks and open spaces, Ginny Munger Kahn has helped to materially improve the quality of life of thousands of current and future Suffolk County residents,” reads a proclamation Stern gave to the LI-DOG president at the Dec. 19 county Legislature meeting. “In recognition of [that work], we, the members of the Suffolk County Legislature, do hereby honor Ginny Munger Kahn.”

Munger Kahn has been involved in changing laws and setting precedents not only at the county level, but the town. In 2013, her nonprofit organization supported the town’s dog walking trails initiative, which allowed on-leash dogs at select Huntington parks. But, she wanted more for her four-pawed friends.

“It was kind of crazy to have some parks in the Town of Huntington allow on-leash dogs and the vast majority of town-owned parks not to allow dogs on a leash,” Munger Kahn said in Aug. 2017. “This was confusing to people. The thought was if we adopted standards, a policy more closely aligned with Suffolk County’s policy, it would make enforcement easier.”

As LI-DOG’s representative on the Huntington Greenway Trails Citizens Advisory Committee, she pushed for the town to adopt more uniform park standards for leashed dogs in Huntington Town parks which was approved earlier this year, with two exceptions of Heckscher Park and Centerport’s Betty Allen Twin Pond Nature Park.

A perpetual advocate, Munger Kahn said she hopes once the town’s new policy is proven successful, she will be able to revisit regulations regarding Heckscher Park

The Sorrentino family handed out thousands of free Thanksgiving turkeys to local families. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

When a Huntington business owner gave away 30 turkeys out of the back of a pickup truck on Thanksgiving eve nearly a decade ago, he was shocked to find out there were so many families in need. Rather than shy away from the issue, he started raising funds to turn it into an annual family event where thousands have received their holiday meal.

Lifelong Huntington resident Andre Sorrentino, owner of PAS Professional Automotive Services on New York Avenue, is known for having a larger than life personality to go along with his big heart.

“He’s a very good, very kindhearted person; really a pillar of the Huntington community,” said Huntington Supervisor-elect Chad Lupinacci (R), whose state assemblyman offices are located across the street from Sorrentino’s business. “A lot of people look up to him and people like to work alongside him. He always has the community’s heart with him.”

Lupinacci said he was there that first Thanksgiving, with Sorrentino and his daughter when they handed out turkeys on the streets of Huntington and Huntington Station. He has been amazed to see the annual Sorrentino Trucking Turkey Give Away expand to giving away approximately 2,000 turkeys in 2017 — 1,000 of which were purchased by Sorrentino himself.

The turkeys weren’t enough though. Sorrentino coordinated with Suffolk County’s 2nd Precinct to have police officers help hand out what turned into turkey, all the trimmings and household goods like soap and laundry detergent.

“He’s all about giving back to the community that’s given him so much,” the state assemblyman said.

Andre Sorrentino with his family in 5eptember 2015. Photo by Stephen Jimenez

This August, Sorrentino worked with his friend, George Schwertl, of Lloyd Harbor, and Dom Spada, the second assistant chief of Halesite Fire Department, to coordinate a massive donation drive for Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas. A mass email was sent out by Halesite Fire Chief Greg Colonna that asked residents for donations of nonperishable food, toiletries hygiene products, water, blankets and dog food to be dropped off at participating busineses which included Sorrentino’s auto body shop on New York Avenue.

Schwertl and Sorrentino  paid for five Sprinter vans out of their own pockets and planned  to  drive down to Texas, and distribute the donations by hand themselves. By the time they left, it had grown to include tractor-trailers.

“We want to be positive that when we get there they will take the donations and it will go into the right hands,” Sorrentino said in August, prior to the trip.

He took time away from running his business and his wife, Kim, with their two young daughters to make the drive to Houston. Kim Sorrentino said she’s not surprised by her husband’s trip or charitable actions.

“My husband and his family have been here for so long, and we’re lucky enough we’re in a position where we can help people at this point in our lives,” she said. “We really love Huntington, and we’re trying to make it as good as we can.”

It seems many people from Sorrentino’s employees to firefighters and elected officials have said they know they can turn to him for help when times get tough.

“He’s got a good heart and wants to do things to help people,” said James, an employee of Sorrentino’s who requested his last name not be used. “I’ve seen him help people that pretty much no one else would. He’ll pick a person up. It’s the way he is.

“I think Andre Sorrentino is what is best about this community.”

— William “Doc” Spencer

Northport resident Phyllis Berlin-Sasso called Andre Sorrentino “the kindest human being in Huntington” for the help he gave her.

“I was divorced with three children at the time, and I would get my car repaired by him,” she said. “They helped me out with payment plans to pay for it.”

Several others related similar tales as fire department members from Huntington Manor and Lloyd Harbor said they know they can turn to Andre Sorrentino and his family if they have a resident with an issue — and even if he can’t help — Sorrentino has been known to put them in contact with someone who can.

“I think Andre Sorrentino is what is best about this community,” said Suffolk Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport).

Many suggested that perhaps, Sorrentino’s charitable nature came from his upbringing by his father, Andre Sorrentino Sr., the owner of Andre’s Shoe Repair in Huntington. But his father said he couldn’t take the credit.

“He is doing things right for the community, it’s simple what he does,” he said. “I’m very proud of him.”

Huntington resident Kevin Gersh recognized as innovator of programs for children with special needs

Huntington resident Kevin Gersh, founder of Gersh Academy, is known for his innovative programs designed for children with special needs. Photo from Gersh Academy.

It takes a special person to take care of a child with special needs. Huntington resident Kevin Gersh has proven all it takes is a few innovative ideas and a big heart.

Gersh, founder of Gersh Academy in Huntington, created a series of schools and programs geared toward helping children with autism and special needs. But it’s been his drive to do more philanthropic actions that give back to the community that has made others take notice.

“Kevin Gersh is an innovator in the special needs community,” said Stephanie Gotard, program director of Leadership Huntington, which fosters development of community leaders. “He has dedicated his life to making a difference in the lives of children.”

Gersh founded West Hills Montessori School of Huntington in 1991, where working with one child with special needs made him realize that the method of teaching needed to change. As a result, he started Gersh Academy in 1999 as an education program for children ages 5 to 21 on the autism spectrum.

Over the years, Gersh has expanded his organization to create 11 programs spanning from Long Island to Puerto Rico, for typical children in addition to those with special needs.

I love helping kids. When someone asks me can you help a child, I say ‘yes.’ I don’t hesitate. It’s what gets me going.”

— Kevin Gersh

“It’s what I do for a living, that’s who I am,” he said. “I love helping kids. When someone asks me can you help a child, I say ‘yes.’ I don’t hesitate. It’s what gets me going.”

Others in the Huntington community said they now look to Gersh for advice in meeting the needs of children with autism. Cold Spring Harbor resident Bob Fonti said when he had a friend who was unsure where to get help for his child with special needs,  Gersh’s door was open, and he was more than willing to pick up the phone and make a call.

“He is always willing to advise, advocate and provide hope for special needs parents,” Gotard said.

In addition to his work for special needs children, Gersh has been noted by others for giving back to nonprofits and local communities. In 2015, Gersh Academy students raised funds for the Caroline Wambui Mungai Foundation, an organization whose mission is improving the lives of orphaned and abandoned children throughout Africa. The following year, the Gersh Organization donated money raised for Sunrise Day Camp, a specialized camp for children with cancer and their siblings.

More recently, Gersh donated hundreds of school uniforms to students in Wyandanch school district. He has also created an event, which distributed donated suits to help students heading into college and with job interviews. He recalled fondly watching one football player try on a jacket.

“You should have seen the smile on his face when he looked in the mirror dressed in a $3,000 full-length cashmere coat,” Gersh said. “He didn’t take it off the whole night. That to me, is everything.”

“[Kevin Gersh] is always willing to advise, advocate and provide hope for special needs parents.”

— Stephanie Gotard

This holiday season, Gersh has joined with a friend, Kevin Donnelly of Lido Beach, in an effort to ship 10,000 toys to Puerto Rico for children displaced by Hurricane Maria in time for Three Kings Day, Jan. 6.

“They are living in shelters, the least we can do is give them a Christmas,” Gersh said.

He has asked the 75 employees of Gersh Academy in Puerto Rico to help sort the toys for distribution. The U.S. Marines with Toys for Tots and the toy company, Hasbro, have pitched in and joined the effort.

But he’s already looking forward to his next event, having Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey hold a day in May 2018 specially for children with autism. Gersh said the theme park will close to the public for a day to allow those with special sensory needs to enjoy the park with quieter music and shorter lines alongside their families.

“I anticipate this to be a huge event,” he said. “I get excited about doing things for kids that no one has ever done before.”

Bob Bontempi, of Huntington, recognized as one of TBR News Media's 2017 People of Year

Huntington resident Bob Bontempi, center, at an event hosted by Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce. Photo from Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce.

By Kyle Barr

There are qualities that allow a person to excel no matter what they are doing or put their mind to. Huntington residents who know Bob Bontempi say it’s his simple ability to listen that makes him so capable.

“He has a way of making you comfortable and feel more important than anyone else in the room,” said Jim Powers, president of The Townwide Fund of Huntington. “He’s very easy to get to know, and he’s giving you compliments half the time even when he’s doing something right — not you.”

A longtime Huntington resident, Bontempi has bridged the gap between business professionals, charities and government in the Town of Huntington.

“Bontempi in Italian means ‘good times’, and we like to call him, ‘Bobby good times,’” said Brian Yudewitz, chairman of the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce. “If a colleague or a friend needs guidance with a problem they’re having or an opportunity they have with work, he’s the guy to talk to. He’s so good at identifying issues and working toward solutions in that area, as well as the local political area as well.”

Bob Bontempi, former chairman of the Huntington Tonwship Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Long Island Fall Festival. Photo from Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce.

Bontempi served as chairman of the Huntington  Township Chamber of Commerce from 2009 to 2013. He remains the driving force behind the annual Long Island Fall  Festival, an event that he said showcases
everything that Huntington has to offer — and is proud of.

“The chamber of commerce is a great example of Bontempi’s work. You don’t get paid to be the chairman and the amount of work that you have to do to give back is huge,” state Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) said. “So that just typifies what kind of person he is that he’s willing to go that extra mile to make sure things go well. He has a heart of gold and he’s willing to share that heart with everybody.”

Bontempi is also a founding board member of the Long Island Business Council. This year, he started the Huntington Township Business Council Political Action Committee to raise funds and give campaign contributions to political candidates who members felt would benefit downtown businesses.

“He’s not afraid to get involved in any social issue or political issue,” said Robert Scheiner, vice chairman of the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce. “He is very, very up front with his opinion.”

But Bontempi is more than a businessman. As the Northeast regional business director at Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, he is also involved in numerous local charities. He previously served on the board of Pederson-Krag Center, a nonprofit mental health care provider, and served on the advisory board for Splashes of Hope, a charity that uses paintings to improve hospital aesthetics. Bontempi is a supporter of Moonjumpers, a Huntington-based charitable foundation that provides financial assistance for needy families, children, veterans and other charitable organizations.

“He’s a guy who is very committed to the town and to the betterment of the people,” Scheiner said. “Bob is the kind of guy you go to for anything, and there’s very few people that you can count on like that, only the number of fingers on your hands.”

Friends and colleagues alike marvel at how many organizations Bontempi has been involved in. They laud his compassion and attention to anything involving the Town of Huntington.

“I think [Bontempi is] a very dedicated civic-minded individual that really tries to help people and just make Huntington and our community a better place,” said Supervisor-elect Chad Lupinacci (R). “He has a ton of energy and it doesn’t matter if he’s traveling for business or if he’s right here in Huntington, he’s always very
accessible, he’s always willing to help out the community.

More than 1,000 hours of community service put into gardens, mansion tours, live music and more

Members of the Centerport Garden Club volunteer their time to maintain the Vanderbilt's rose garden. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum.

One of Suffolk County’s museums leads by example in knowing the value of the proverb many hands make light work.

The Vanderbilt Museum, Mansion & Planetarium has been able to delight visitors with its scenic gardens and extensive programs thanks to the time put in by its roughly 135 year-round volunteers who have donated more than 1,000 hours in 2017.

“Volunteers are better than staff as they do work but don’t get paid,” Executive Director Lance Reinheimer said. “Their time is very valuable and it saves the museum a big expense each year.”

A visitor’s experience is shaped by the work of the museum’s volunteers from the minute they enter the estate. Volunteer gardeners designed and planted a garden near the property’s entrance at the request of the executive director. Master gardener Gloria Hall has taken over organizing a group formed by her late husband, Bill, that works on the property each Monday, during the growing season from May to October, helping in every aspect from planting and weeding to designing new features.

“Gloria has done a great job in carrying on the tradition of caring for our gardens,” Reinheimer said.

The gardening clubs involved have also helped design and create gardens that encircle the estate’s celebration tent on the Great Lawn, which overlooks the Long Island Sound. The director said it has added
visually to many of the weddings and special occasions happening on the grounds, anchoring the tent to make it feel like a permanent structure and blend into the property
.

Agnes Ward has spearheaded the Centerport Garden Club in donating its members time to  delicately handling  the Vanderbilt Estate rose garden outside of the planetarium.

“The gardeners really augment my ground staff,” the executive director said. “We’ve made great strides in beautifying the property in the last two years.”

Museum guests who take a tour of the historic Gold Coast mansion may be led around by a volunteer, as hundreds have by guide Ellen Mason who has volunteered at the Vanderbilt since May 2006. The retired school teacher said her passion for history keeps her coming back on Saturdays to share the experience with others.

“I’ve been asked over and over again to get on the payroll,” Mason said. “I refuse. I wanted to volunteer, I want to volunteer at something I love doing and it makes my spirit soar. I love the people who work there, it’s like a whole other family.”

It’s so welcoming that there’s even a former Vanderbilt employee who continues to come back and volunteer. The museum has several longtime volunteers who regularly give freely of their time including Rick Ellison, Mary McKell, Dale Spencer and Marianne Weeks, a
ccording to museum staff.

“There are so many people involved in that Suffolk institution — garden clubs, the living history program, all different types of work,” said Herb Mones, husband of museum trustee Gretchen Oldrin-Mones. “It’s really under the radar. I don’t think the larger community is fully aware of how much the volunteers impact the daily running of that institution that services tens of thousands of school kids each year.”

Once inside the mansion, visitors may be treated to live music played on the antique aeolian pipe organ played by volunteers Bill Caputi and Sheldon Cooper.

My feeling is that Long Island is a mecca for volunteerism,” Reinheimer said, in recognition how generous the museum’s volunteers have been. “Long Islanders give willingly to causes that are worthy.”

Personal Fitness in Rocky Point. Photo from Facebook

By Kevin Redding

A Rocky Point fitness club owner is determined to get people in shape — inside the gym and beyond it.

Since 1989, North Shore residents have been going to Personal Fitness on Route 25A not just to run on the treadmill and get fit for beach season. They go to have their lives transformed by Ed Darcey, the gym’s owner, trainer and “overall cheerleader and therapist,” according to gym members, who are made up of athletes, parents, children, developmentally disabled residents, people in wheelchairs and those struggling with drugs, alcohol or abuse.

Ed Darcey, owner of Personal Fitness in Rocky Point, training a client. Photo from Facebook

“Ed is an inspirational, motivational, kind, empowering and passionate trainer,” said Faith Powers-Raynis, who joined the gym after suffering a spinal cord disease that paralyzed her from the waist down. “Ed is helping me to rebuild the muscles that I lost … I know with Ed’s help, I just might get back on my feet.”

“He’s a wonderful soul,” Lisa Monaco said. “He makes you feel comfortable and pushes you as far as you can go.”

Rob Geneva, a longtime customer turned staff member, said Darcey makes the atmosphere feel less like you’re in a gym and more like the bar from “Cheers.”

“Anybody is welcome and you just get that feeling right when you come in,” he said. “You’re not intimidated.”

Darcey, 54, a Shoreham native and Riverhead High School graduate, said he has always felt a need to help and protect those around him, whether it was a kid at school being bullied or a homeless person on the street asking for money. It’s a feeling that remains.

“If someone needs a hand, I’m going to try and reach out and do my best to help, especially those whose lives maybe aren’t what they should be,” Darcey said. “A lot of our members here see the gym as an outlet, like a second home. Sometimes they’re more comfortable here than they are at their actual home. They come here, get in shape and we all root each other on. I’m trying to help give them a better life if I can.”

A football player throughout high school, Darcey pursued a degree in physical education and health at C.W. Post, where he received his gym certification after three years. In his late 20s, he decided to take advantage of some empty space next door to his parent’s long-running carpet business on Route 25A, and he’s been there ever since.

“From the beginning, I tried to make it very personal and hands-on,” he said. “Lots of other gyms are these big franchises. This is a family-type atmosphere. We have members that have wheelchairs and walkers, and kids with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. But in my gym, everybody’s the same. Some may have different limitations and abilities, but they’re all the same to me.”

The first time Rocky Point resident Rich Grundmann went to the gym, he saw a young woman with Down syndrome running on a treadmill and mentioned to a nearby trainer that his 12-year-old son Alex had cerebral palsy, wondering if he’d be able to get involved with the gym. The trainer encouraged the father to bring him by.

“After just one session there, my son just lit up,” Grundmann said. “And the personal attention they gave him was incredible. He’s been through all sorts of therapy, personal and occupational, but the trainers here really pushed him and he loves it. It’s amazing the amount of strength he’s built up since going there.”

Alex, he said, moves around in a walker and sometimes a wheelchair, and has a lot of spasticity. The trainers work on stretching his legs and arms to gain more mobility.

Ed Darcey, owner of Personal Fitness in Rocky Point. Photo from Facebook

“It gets frustrating for him at school because he looks around and he wants to do all the sports the other kids do and wants to feel like a regular teenager,” his father said. “But whenever he leaves the gym, he’s on cloud nine. There’s something about that place and Ed where everyone fits in. It’s like a big family.”

Amy Dias of Middle Island, who sustained a traumatic brain injury after a car accident on Middle Country Road in 2003, said Personal Fitness helped her feel confident again. Following the accident, which left her in a coma for nine months, doctors told Dias she would never speak or move again. A year after she joined the gym, she was walking with a cane and talking. She even lives on her own now.

“I’m not afraid to talk to people now and they definitely strengthened my right side, which got affected most,” Dias said. “I love everyone at the gym. Ed is wonderful and really helped me.”

And how did he do the impossible?

“He cares,” she said. “He honestly cares about every individual person.”

The gym owner also helps out in the local community, frequently lending a charitable hand to Ridge Full Gospel Christian Church, where he recently helped to feed and clothe the homeless on Thanksgiving. He raises funds and promotes any and all shelters and charity drives in the area, and is a regular contributor to Betty’s Closet, a store inside the Rocky Point Middle School cafeteria that helps raise money and collect toys and food for families in need.

“Whenever I post something about an upcoming event on my page, he’s always ready to help,” said Betty Loughran, the Rocky Point PTA member who created Betty’s Closet. “He gets all the gym members involved, donates gift cards and goods and whatever the community needs. He’s just a really good person. The gym is always open and if kids in the community are ever in trouble and need a place to go, he’s there for them.”

John, Jr. and Leslie Kennedy, of Nesconset, both serve as elected county officials. Photos from The Kennedys.

Nesconset resident Leslie Kennedy stepped into Giorgio’s of Nesconset Pizzeria & Restaurant Dec. 15, but not to grab a bite to eat. She had a busy day ahead. Her schedule only allowed for a short stop at the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce’s annual holiday luncheon. But the local business owners knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Kennedy would come by to say hello and ask how they were doing.

“Even though she only had 10 minutes, she came by to show her support,” said Christine DeAugustino, president of the Nesconset chamber. “We are so grateful for her support.”

It’s no surprise to residents when Suffolk Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) or her husband, county Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), show up together at a business luncheon, parade, street fair, blood drive, civic association meeting or any number of local events.

“They are huge supporters of the local community,” DeAugustino said. “They are tremendous. Every time we have an event, her and her husband both come.”

Now both elected county officials, they have deep roots in public service and dedication to their constituents. John Kennedy Jr. was first elected to the Suffolk County Legislature representing the 12th District in 2004, where he served for 10 years.

“John has been there from the very, very beginning when they were reconstructing Smithtown Boulevard, Rosevale Avenue and Gibbs Pond Road intersection,” said Martin Aponte, president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in Nesconset.

John Kennedy Jr. was fundamental in securing the land for the memorial to first responders who died on 9/11 or as a result of 9/11-related illnesses, Aponte said, and even set aside his office’s roundtable space for the organization’s meetings. Leslie Kennedy has continued to set aside meeting space for the foundation since filling her husband’s shoes, being first elected to represent the 12th District in  the county Legislature in 2015.

They are extremely involved in the community, both John and Leslie, most of the time you’ll find them there. They have a very positive effect on the community.”

— Ed Wehrheim

“[Leslie]’s not only there for moral support for the chamber and businesses, she’s always there for me as a resource,” DeAugustino said. “She makes herself and the office available to the people of Nesconset as a resource.”

The Kennedys, together, have sponsored and help establish the chamber’s annual Nesconset Summer Concert Series which draws hundreds of residents to the Nesconset Gazebo each July and August.

“They are extremely involved in the community, both John and Leslie,” Smithtown Supervisor-elect Ed Wehrheim (R) said. “Most of the time you’ll find them there. They have a very positive effect on the community.”

Wehrheim said the county comptroller has always been responsive to Town of Smithtown’s tax questions and fiscal concerns.

“What he is there for, that I appreciate, is anytime we have a question he makes himself and his experience available to us,” Wehrheim said.

Similarly, the town officials are in frequent communication with the current legislator regarding how to best address and tackle the opioid issue in Smithtown and as a channel to communicate with Suffolk County police. The supervisor-elect said the Kennedys have been helpful in pushing the downtown revitalization of Kings Park forward at the county level through their respective offices.

This year, Legislator Kennedy secured the acquisition and preservation of the Hauppauge Springs property on the south side of Route 347 in Hauppauge, preserving open space at the headwaters of the Nissequogue River. It’s been sitting on the county’s master list of environmentally sensitive priority properties for more than 20 years, dating back to when she worked as a legislative aide.

The legislator has called it one of her biggest victories, one she hopes will be remembered as part of her legacy. It was a priority, she said, to protect the environment and help ensure safe drinking water for local residents.

 

Born in response to tragedy, the organization aims to start conversations about immigration rights, racial divisions, social injustice

Tom Lyon, center, and Gregory Leonard, right, of Building Bridges in Brookhaven with an attendee of the group’s 2017 Martin Luther King Day Jr. event. Photos by Will McKenzie

By Daniel Dunaief

Tom Lyon, Mark Jackett and Susan Perretti, among many others, don’t have all the answers. In fact, they are filled with difficult questions for which the Town of Brookhaven, the state of New York and the country don’t have easy solutions.

That, however, hasn’t stopped them from trying to bring people together in Brookhaven to address everything from social injustice to immigration rights to racial divisions.

Members of Building Bridges in Brookhaven, Lyon, Jackett and Perretti have met regularly since 2015 when the group formed in the wake of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Members of the group Building Bridges in Brookhaven share the common purpose of opening up community dialogue. Photos by Will McKenzie

Building Bridges personally connects with people, according to Tehmina Tirmizi, who is the education chair at the Islamic Association of Long Island. Building Bridges members attended an interfaith event at IALI in late 2016, and its members have gathered with others for monthly vigils to support Muslims.

Tirmizi said she appreciates the understanding, solidarity and unity and feels members of Building Bridges are out there for support.

The group meets on the second Monday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. to get together and talk, forge connections, understand differences and encourage peace. They have met at churches throughout the region, as well as at the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding at the Suffolk County Community College campus in Selden.

“The origins were in response to the shootings,” said Jackett, an English teacher at Smithtown High School West. He added continued gun violence is part of what the group is trying to address. “It’s part of the sense of urgency.”

Jackett decried the drumbeat of hatred, negativity and division in the country and in communities on Long Island.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people,” Jackett said.

The gatherings bring together people of different backgrounds, ages, races and sexuality and attract a crowd from a wide cross section of Long Island.

This past year, the organization hosted a celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and a Unityfest at Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach in September. The MLK event drew more than 200 people, while the Unityfest brought almost 300.

The Unityfest enabled Building Bridges to donate $1,600 to support Hobbs farm and highlight its program to supply fresh produce to local food pantries.

Coming in February, the group will host its second annual MLK festival, which moves beyond King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech and embraces his broader approach.

“King talks a lot about the beloved community,” said Lyon, who is also one of the founders of Building Bridges. “That was his ultimate vision for the world and it involves a lot more than [defeating] segregation.”

Lyon said former head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover had an enemies list, as did former President Richard Nixon. For King, his enemies were militarism, racism and materialism.

While BBB formed in response to violence in a church and brought people together through church organizations, it is an interfaith group, Lyon said.

The group encourages people to contribute to, and participate in, other efforts on Long Island as well.

Many of the group members belong to other organizations, according to Jackett. Building Bridges has also been supporting other efforts, which include Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and People Power Patchogue, a group dedicated to defending civil rights and creating stronger and safer communities.

Building Bridges has also formed subcommittees on immigration rights and criminal justice reform.

Jackett said efforts to address and combat racism need to be done regardless of who is in office.

“We try our best to do that work and highlight the need,” he said.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people.”

— Mark Jackett

The group has a Facebook page and the group is working on a website too. A mix of retired people and people still in the workforce, the members of Building Bridges have been discussing the architecture for a web page. It is also hoping to forge deeper connections with millennials through Stony Brook University, Suffolk County Community College and a new Artists Action Group in Patchogue.

Perretti, a retired writer who worked as an editor at St. Joseph’s College, suggested that Building Bridges is looking to create a network of people who can respond to various needs.

“We need to build ourselves into a community more and more and when that happens, more people will come,” Perretti said.

The group is also focused on jumping to action during times of crisis.

“This is the opportunity to get to know people who may be the targets of hate or violence and to develop a friendship and alliance with them,” Perretti said. “When something happens to them, it happens to us as well.”

Looking ahead, Perretti said the group has to find ways to attract and encourage involvement from a broader base of community members in 2018.

She said she would like to make room for people who have vastly different views. She encouraged people with different opinions to engage in courageous conversations, without fear of reprisals or attacks.

“It’s nice and fun and easy to be with people we are like, [but] it’s really hard work to talk to people who hold different opinions who may argue with us,” she said.

Members of the Building Bridges community know they face uncertainty with the issues and challenges ahead.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Perretti said, adding that the group’s primary mission is to start conversations about the things happening in the United States.

“This is a community that wants to build and grow,” she said. “We need to hear other people. We’re open to ideas.”

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