People of the Year

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.”

Nicole Christian, grant writer for PJV, helps fund projects by finding hidden dollars. Photo from HB Solutions website

Though the hills might not be saturated with valuable nuggets like the gold rush days of old, hidden money exists for municipalities in the form of state and federal grants for countless types of projects.

For the last eight years, Nicole Christian, a grant writer for HB Solutions consulting services, has been finding hidden dollars for Port Jefferson Village and, as a result, has helped to progress projects that might otherwise not have gone forward. Since 2014, Christian, a 2015 “Forty Under 40” honoree by Long Island Business News, has found more than $3 million to put toward a wide range of projects that have or will positively affect the lives of members of the community.

Her work has been instrumental to advancing the village’s upper Port Jeff revitalization plan. Dubbed “Uptown Funk,” the multiphased project has been building momentum since 2014 and aims to transform blighted properties, better connect residents to work, make the streets more walkable and vibrant, and provide an overall better place to live in the area of the village on Main Street between North Country Road and the Long Island Rail Road train tracks, according to Village Mayor Margot Garant,

At the beginning of 2017, Christian secured $500,000 from Empire State Development through its Restore New York Communities Initiative, and a grant of $250,000 from Suffolk County as part of its Jumpstart program, for transit-based improvements around the Long Island Rail Road Port Jeff train station. In December, the village learned it had received another $350,000 Restore New York grant from the state to go towards the upper Port plan, bringing the total Uptown Funk grant money up to $850,000.

“I think Uptown Funk is going to skyrocket this village through its stratosphere,” Christian said in a previous interview. “It’s a destination for young people, families, tourists. I think it’s a fantastic investment for the community, and I think the state knows that too.”

Garant said Christian has been an asset for Port Jeff Village because she is highly personable and understands the community and its needs.

“When it comes to trying to find money, you’ve got to squeeze every ounce of water out and turn over every stone, and that’s what Nicole does,” Garant said. “When you don’t have it in your budget it’s so important to have that lifeline to have someone help you find the money.”

Christian’s impact on the village in 2017 was certainly not limited to development projects. The village closed the iconic Rocketship Park for renovations and began a months-long refurbishment, partly funded by a $265,000 grant from New York State’s parks department. Garant said the village applied for the money multiple times, and prior to the third trip to present their qualifications for the grant, the mayor admitted her hopes were not high.

“We went three times to get money for Rocketship Park and the third time I was like, ‘Guys, I’m not going, why would I go, they never gave us any money the first time,’” she said. “Nicole said, ‘No, you’ve got to go.’”

The village still didn’t get the award, but finished close enough that when the applicant who came in first returned the money, Port Jeff’s application had been next in line.

“I think when you’re a grant writer you have to be persistent,” Garant said.

Charles Lefkowitz, right, one of the co-founders of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, presents an award to state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, center, along with George Hoffman, left, another founding member of the task force. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Anthony Frasca

When he noticed there were issues with the cleanliness of Setauket Harbor, Charles Lefkowitz took matters into his own hands. A founding member of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, Lefkowitz has become an advocate for attention to the harbor.

“Nobody was doing anything and it was just deteriorating until Charlie and a bunch of us got together and said this harbor needs a group of people that will start advocating for its improvement,” said George Hoffman, also a founding member of the task force and a vice president of the Three Village Civic Association.

By forming the task force to call attention to the issues regarding the cleanliness of the harbor, such as roadway runoff, the group was able to procure a $1 million dollar grant in state funding with the help of state Senator John Flanagan (R-East Northport). The task force was also appointed to the Long Island Sound Study, a cooperative multistate effort to improve the water quality of Long Island Sound, in existence since 1985.

“As a founding member of the Setauket Harbor Task Force he has involved himself from the very beginning,” said state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who has attended numerous task force meetings. “He has made time out of his very busy schedule to attend meetings, sometimes in the middle of a workday. He very often offers some of the most sage advice around the table. This is worth noting and saying thank you to Charlie for being part of the individual glue that holds our community together. It speaks to a level of sincerity of love of the community and serves as an example of what it means to be a community leader.”

Once an elected official in the Town of Brookhaven, Lefkowitz continues to involve himself with numerous community issues and advocacy groups in addition to the task force.

“He’s a former town councilman and his involvement in our community and to our town continues,” Englebright said. “If anything he is even more effective now because he is unshackled from politics, and he is able to express his commitment to making our community even better.”

“The subtle side of Charlie is that he is the owner of the Stop & Shop [shopping center] on Route 25A, and I’ve seen him outside pulling weeds out of the flower beds. That’s an indication of the level of detail he’s willing to invest himself in.”

— Steve Englebright

Hoffman said Lefkowitz is vice president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce and has reinvigorated the chamber by recruiting new people, broadening the chamber’s focus and making it more representative locally.

“Charlie is responsible for reinventing the chamber of commerce,” Hoffman said. “He is a driving force in keeping the group together and focused.”

Lefkowitz was also involved in the community visioning committees for the re-examination of the zoning along the Route 25A corridor in the Three Village area. Drivers along the state road in the vicinity of the Ridgeway Plaza Shopping Center can sometimes see Lefkowitz tending to the flower beds that are planted every spring.

“The subtle side of Charlie is that he is the owner of the Stop & Shop [shopping center] on Route 25A, and I’ve seen him outside pulling weeds out of the flower beds,” Englebright said. “That’s an indication of the level of detail he’s willing to invest himself in.”

Lefkowitz’s influence also extends beyond the Three Village area, according to Hoffman.

“He is a visionary on land use issues especially upper Port Jefferson in terms of its commercial viability,” Hoffman said. “He is also an advocate for electrification of the Port Jefferson branch of the Long Island Rail Road. He focuses on how to make it happen and for the first time we are seeing progress.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said she has worked on various projects with Lefkowitz, and he is currently working with the town on implementing aspects of the Port Jefferson Station Commercial Hub Study on some of his properties.

“As a former councilman, chamber vice president, business owner and resident, Charlie has a unique perspective of our community,” Cartright said. “Charlie’s knowledge of real estate and of the history of the Three Village area was a valuable addition to the community forums my office held while working on the Route 25A-Three Village area corridor community visioning report this past year. The award of Person of the Year is well deserved by Charlie, and I look forward to seeing him continue to work with residents on community projects.”

Huntington resident Marie Destil is the owner of owner of Gingerbites Restaurant & Catering in Huntington Station. Photo from Marie Destil.

By Jill Webb

A Huntington resident with a passion for cooking opened her doors to help the people of her native Haiti, and in reaching out that helping hand, has made the world a bit smaller and better.

At 14 years old, Marie Michele Destil moved from her native island of Haiti to the United States. Now, 35 years later, Destil is the owner of Gingerbites Restaurant & Catering in Huntington Station.

At Gingerbites, along with serving authentic Haitian cuisine, Destil has used her business as a platform to help Haitian relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

Destil said she has always had a love for cooking and showed signs of being the entrepreneur she would become at a young age.

“I remember when I was maybe 10 or 11 my mother would have friends come over and I’d go make coffee and then serve it with bread and sell it to them,” she said. “If you don’t buy it, I’ll cry.”

After her 18-year-old twin girls and 22-year-old son went off to college, Destil wanted to focus on something more grounded and local. Destil decided to use her experience in catering to open up Gingerbites in late 2015. The restaurant aims at bringing the culture and cuisine of Haiti to Huntington Station.

“We’re from an island, so we’re very simple people with very distinct taste and a very distinct way of life,” Destil said.

Then when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, more than 1,000 of Haiti’s citizens were killed according to Reuters. Destil said upon hearing the shocking news the first thing she thought about was the people.

“You have to remember not that long ago we came from the earthquake in Haiti, so that was the most devastating thing that ever happened to us there,” she said. “But when Matthew happened, you’re like ‘Oh, my God.’ But my thought is that no matter what happened, Haitian people are resilient people. They’ll survive. It’s hard, it’s difficult, but they’re not quitters.”

Destil had and continues to have a strong faith in her homeland, despite all it’s been through.

“That island [has] gone through a lot but with the help of God it’s still standing,” she said.

The restaurant owner recognized the importance of supporting her homeland and the residents struggling in Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath.

Town of Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) recalled when Haitian groups were starting to partner with the Town of Huntington’s relief efforts, Destil jumped at the chance to help.

“She’s a very bubbly and hardworking person,” Cuthbertson said.

Destil partnered with the town in November 2016 to raise donations for the charity, Meds & Food for Kids. The nonprofit organization focuses on the malnourished children of Haiti, providing them with ready-to-use therapeutic food. Their food is made in Haiti by Haitian workers, and they aim to use Haitian raw materials as much as possible.

One of the many reasons that charity was so important to Destil was her love for children.

“I love all kids, I’m a sucker for that,” Destil said.

Also important in narrowing down the search was to find a charity where most of the proceeds go directly to people in need. Finding out that the Meds & Food charity gives the majority of its proceeds to the children made it an easy choice.

“The children [are] our future, so invest in them,” she said.

Destil was honored Oct. 26 at the town’s 16th annual Women’s Networking Day luncheon for her charitable efforts.

As her business continues to grow, Destil hopes in the future to partner with more charities to help the Haitian community as much as she possibly can.

State assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick with Rev. Myrel Bailey-Walton of Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church in Smithtown. Photo from Facebook.

Pastoring a historic church with a small congregation needs confidence and faith — two qualities the reverend of Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church at 229 New York Ave. in Smithtown naturally possesses.

The Rev. Myrel Bailey-Walton has been ensuring Trinity carries on since AME Bishop Richard Franklin Norris appointed her pastor five and a half years ago. While the church currently only has a handful of active congregants, the reverend isn’t worried.

“Numbers aren’t important,” Bailey-Walton said. “We make sure doors are open for anyone that needs us.”

She said during services and events, Smithtown residents and members of other AME churches, including Bethel AME Church in Setauket, will join Trinity’s regulars.

“We always have people stop by to see what’s going on and get involved,” Bailey-Walton said. “The neighbors around us are active as far as stopping by to see what’s going on and just letting us know that they’re there for us if we need them.”

Her motto is even if it’s one [person] she has service.”

— Marlyn Leonard

Marlyn Leonard, wife of the Rev. Gregory Leonard of Bethel AME Church, said she has attended services at Trinity. Also, Bailey-Walton preaches at the Setauket church the third Sunday of every month.

“Her motto is even if it’s one [person] she has service,” Leonard said.

Leonard said the reverend’s sermons are phenomenal, and she recommends that churchgoers stop by Trinity to see Bailey-Walton in action.

“She’s happy all the time,” she said. “When you see her, she greets with a smile and a hug. That’s who she is.”

Bailey-Walton said Trinity AME celebrated its 107th anniversary in November.

“I feel that we’re significant in Smithtown,” she said. “We’re the only African-American church — even though we embrace all the community — but still it’s historical.”

The property was once the meeting spot for freed slaves in the town who would gather regularly on the property and, in 1910, their descendants built a church on the land, according to “Smithtown, New York, 1660-1929: Looking Back Through the Lens” by Noel Gish. In 1931, the AME Church of Smithtown bought the structure for a dollar from Isadora Smith.

State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said he remembers playing basketball as a teenager in Brady Park across from the church on Sunday mornings and seeing people dressed in their finest attire. For him, recognizing the historical importance of the church is important. Fitzpatrick is reaching out to representatives of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to see if the church can receive recognition from the state’s Historic Preservation Office and possible financial assistance.

We’re the only African-American church — even though we embrace all the community — but still it’s historical.”

— Rev. Myrel Bailey-Walton

Bailey-Walton said she balances her responsibilities as pastor with working full time and spending time with her husband, Leland, and 1-year-old child. To spread the word about the church, the reverend regularly posts on social media and the internet.

The reverend and Trinity’s congregation plan a variety of events through the year, including the church’s anniversary gala in November, an open house for the community and a Women’s Day event.

Leonard said Bailey-Walton juggles her responsibilities with grace and elegance.

“She answers her calling very well,” she said. “I can’t say enough about her. Since I’ve known her, she just grasps everything in a bundle, and what needs to be done, she gets it done by the grace of God.”

Leonard said in addition to working with her congregation, Bailey-Walton is always there to help with people outside of her community, especially when it comes to children or wherever there is a need by
participating in volunteer efforts.

“She’s a role model not only for God’s house but also for the community and others,” Leonard said.

Fitzpatrick said Bailey-Walton has been working with groups such as the Boys Scouts and Royal Rangers from Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle to complete projects at the church and grounds. Work that he said is significant due to the church’s historical importance. The assemblyman believes Bailey-Walton is a perfect fit for the church and is confident in her leadership abilities.

“She is a dynamo, she really is,” he said. “She is very committed. She knows God has her back, and she’s going to do her very best to keep this church alive. Any recognition of her is well deserved.”

Sixth Precinct community liaison officer Will Zieman and COPE officers Casey Berry and John Efstathiou visit monthly civic meetings and engage in community programs. Photo by Kevin Redding

In areas patrolled by the 6th Precinct, the sight of a police car has become more comforting than daunting for residents this year. That’s largely thanks to the efforts of Suffolk County Police Department officers Casey Berry and Will Zieman, who spend their days bridging gaps between cops and the community.

In just the last few months, the dynamic duo have supplied clothes and food to homeless residents, brought holiday cheer to struggling families, helped young kids with their homework and taught high schoolers how to cook healthy meals. The two also bounce between nine civic association meetings each month where they listen and try to find solutions to concerns and complaints raised by residents.

“Work doesn’t feel like work,” said Zieman, 34, smiling from ear to ear. “Everywhere we go we have an opportunity to make a difference that’s going to be beneficial to everybody. Each day we get to pay it forward.”

Casey Berry participates in a Police Unity Night. Photo by Kevin Redding

Berry, 39, who takes part in monthly Nerf battles with local kids at Sky Zone in Mount Sinai and hosts community fishing trips, said she especially values the impact they have on youth.

“It’s immeasurable when we go to these events and they say ‘Officer Casey!’ and come running up to hug my knees,” she said. “That’s going to be a 15- or 25-year-old one day that might have a problem, and I hope my relationship with them will then positively affect their relationship with law enforcement for years to come.”

Both former patrol officers, Berry and Zieman — a Community Oriented Police Enforcement, or COPE, officer and community liaison officer, respectively — took on their new roles within the precinct in recent years as a way to better connect with the public they serve. In doing so, they strived to make patrol officers’ lives easier and their interactions with residents more effective by breaking down barriers and quelling divisions between the police and public.

“Will and Casey genuinely care about the job they’re doing and clearly enjoy it,” said Sgt. Kathleen Kenneally, the executive officer of the SCPD’s Community Relations Bureau. “They’re very open to having transparent conversations with community members. There’s certainly a strife going on nationally [between cops and civilians] that causes questions in our community and they’ve made a point to engage and answer sometimes difficult questions.”

Berry said there’s always an initial guardedness among residents at events with them, no matter their ages, and it’s the unit’s job to put people at ease.

“Once they see the person behind the uniform, we can really see and feel the shift,” Berry said. “We’re not just the uniform, not just that person they may have had a negative experience with two weeks ago or whatever. I think that can all get dissolved by more human interaction.”

“Work doesn’t feel like work. Everywhere we go we have an opportunity to make a difference that’s going to be beneficial to everybody.”

— Will Zieman

During big events like Coffee With a Cop and National Night Out — nationwide community-police bonding initiatives — Zieman chats with people about “unmasking misconceptions,” he said.

“It’s a two-way street,” Zieman explained. “Not every police officer is the same and not every person who looks a certain way or dresses a certain way is the same. People become more open with us quickly. And within our events, we always try and make it a priority to reach out and explore development with communities that are hesitant to interact with us.”

Keith Owens volunteers at St. Michael’s Recreation Center in Gordon Heights and has been a longtime friend of the officers, who host fun activities with youth groups there. But Owens said many of the teens at the center weren’t too interested in hanging out with Berry and Zieman at first, as they have had negative experiences with police in their past.

“They were asking the officers questions in the beginning, like, ‘Would you shoot us?’ and ‘Why do you have a gun?’,” Owens said of the kids. “But now they’re asking me, ‘Is Officer Will coming by today?’ The youth are telling me they feel more comfortable around law enforcement. Will and Casey go above and beyond for them — it means the world to me.”

Pastor Anthony Pelella of Axis Church in Medford, where the officers host their cooking workshop and coat drives for residents in the winter, said the officers make a huge difference in the community.

“They’re really outgoing and their personalities are wonderful — it’s contagious,” Pelella said. “We’re so blessed here in the 6th Precinct to have officers like them. They’re really making a difference … you just have to see Officer Berry on her knees looking at these little kids, embracing mothers, she’s just so loving and helpful toward them.”

The two officers joined the force in 2010 with backgrounds that prepared them perfectly for their current jobs.

Will Zieman at a recent Coffee With a Cop event. Photo by Kevin Redding

Berry, who grew up in the Commack area in a family of police officers, always knew she wanted to be in a helping profession and served for several years as a social worker in an outpatient mental health clinic. She was also an instructor in the police academy before switching to the COPE unit.

Zieman, for as long as he can remember, wanted to either be a teacher or a cop. The William Floyd graduate eventually received degrees in childhood and special education at St. Joseph’s University and taught for a number of years within the Sachem school district, teaching fifth grade in the elementary school and math and English in the middle school. When he took the police test, for a second time, and did well, he had some soul-searching to do, he said.

“I thought, would I be able to live out the rest of my life without regretting not taking the risk?” Zieman recalled. “In both professions, you have the ability to right certain wrongs and guide people in the right direction. Being a community liaison officer gives me the ability to tie it all together.”

The pair, along with new 6th Precinct COPE officer John Efstathiou, are tasked with being as innovative as possible when it comes to creating events that engage the community. Many of their frequent initiatives include hosting tours of the precinct for members of the Girl and Boy Scouts; giving food, clothing and other nonperishables to those in need in a mobile food pantry; and helping the senior community get rid of expired medications.

A recent pilot event, headed by Zieman and in partnership with 6th Precinct Cops Who Care and Heritage Harbor Financial Associates in Port Jefferson Station, provided 40 low-income families the opportunity to get professional holiday photos taken free of charge.

Nicole Tumilowicz, the director of events at Sky Zone, said both officers are invaluable.

“With the state of the country right now and police relations in general, I think the two of them just really embody what it is to be an approachable, relatable police officer,” Tumilowicz said. “They’re really hands-on and their attitude toward life makes it easy for people to relate to … if anybody needs the help of the police, these two people would be the ones you’d want to go to.”

Tuscany Gourmet Market owners Rich Fink and Tommy O’Grady are known for helping families in the community, whether it be donating food and gift cards to a charitable event, or volunteering time to cater and serve at an event with company volunteers. Photo by Jennifer Brunet

By Desirée Keegan

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

That’s what it’s like when entering Tuscany Gourmet Market. Customers step through the sliding doors of the 10-year-old establishment’s new location on 25A in Miller Place and are immediately greeted by staff members. Restaurant-quality foods, imported cheeses and fine meats are available everywhere the eye can see at the family owned fare. Owner Tommy O’Grady is even known to whip up specialty items if a customer can’t find exactly what they were looking for, and if they can’t do that, they’ll find a way to get it.

But that’s not even half of what Miller Place residents say makes the market so special. To many, it’s that the warm, welcoming atmosphere is coupled with sincere care for the community.

Tuscany Gourmet Market manager Rich Fink and owner Tommy O’Grady are known for helping families in the community, whether it be donating food and gift cards to a charitable event, or volunteering time to cater and serve at an event with company volunteers. Photo by Jennifer Brunet

Sound Beach resident Patti Kozlowski first visited Tuscany Market five years ago as a customer. She said right away, she knew it was a place she wanted to shop.

“It felt like family, like they were family,” she said of her first experience, which was at the business’ previous location closer to Mount Sinai. “It didn’t feel like a corporate place. It felt like a mom-and-pop shop where they knew everybody in the neighborhood and everyone in the neighborhood knew them.”

O’Grady gets to know each customer, his or her family and usual orders in what many consider a very tight-knit Miller Place community.

“They are consistently going above and beyond, and in many cases it’s unsolicited,” Kozlowski said. “I try to give them my business every opportunity that I have. I always recommend them. One, because I truly think that their service and their products are well above average — exceptional. And two, because I always think that their service to the community should be recognized.”

Kozlowski, who is also the founder of North Shore Neighbors Breast Cancer Coalition, a nonprofit that raises funds to provide support services for local families fighting cancer, approached the owner seeking donations as part of a fundraising effort for local boy Thomas Scully, who was fighting anaplastic ependymoma, a form of brain cancer.

O’Grady said he’s known Thomas since his mother was bringing him into the store in a bassinet.

“To hear this happening to someone in your community, it’s like it happened to your own family,” he said. “I immediately knew I wanted to do all I could.”

Jennifer Brunet, Thomas’ aunt, said there were two fundraisers held for her brother’s family — at the Miller Place Fire Department and at Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub in Miller Place, which is now Recipe 7. Brunet said at the second fundraiser, in 2015, O’Grady ran the show.

“They genuinely wanted to be there for Thomas,” she said. “Not only did they donate stuff, every staff member came and donated their time to help — brought food, brought raffle items — they did everything.”

Tuscany Gourmet Market owner Rich Tommy O’Grady is known for helping cater a myriad of fundraisers. Photo From Patti Kozlowski

The business kept raising money for the family until Thomas died in summer 2016 and continued to help amid the wake and funeral.

“When Thomas passed away they reached out to me immediately and said, ‘We want to take care of everything,’” Brunet recalled. “And they did. They could have very well shown up at my house with a hero, but when we came back from the first wake session with my entire family everything was set up — salads, entrées, vegetables; there were choices for kids to eat, everything. And when I came home from the second wake everything was wrapped up and the place was clean. I didn’t have to do a thing. They were unbelievable.”

Thomas’ mother Debbie Scully said the kind, giving, selfless nature of the Tuscany Market owner and employees moved her beyond words.

“We were busy doing what we needed to do to take care of our son and they were giving us gift cards to come get food and showed so much support,” she said. “Tom would never let us pay for anything when we’d go there, he’d say, ‘When you get back on your feet then you can pay, until then, no.’ And it was endless, because after Thomas passed away they continued to give. It was over three years of them taking care of us and not asking for a thing in return.”

Scully said the family started a foundation in Thomas’ memory to help other children with cancer, and Tuscany Market members wanted to remain involved.

“He goes, ‘All right, what can I do? Let me know when the next event is,’” she said of O’Grady. “When you go through what our family went through, you don’t know what you need, but you do need help. And to have somebody preempting that and just being there and being supportive, it made it a little bit easier for us. That’s priceless.”

That caring, community-centric, no-questions-asked attitude reverberates beyond Miller Place.

Jennifer Hunt works with Kozlowski for team Fight Like a Girl, which participates in the LI2Day Walk, a 13.1-mile walk that celebrates cancer survivors and raises funds for local Long Island families battling cancer. The team hosts its own fundraiser, a Chinese auction, for which Tuscany Market has provided gift cards and what Hunt referred to as “high end” baskets.

Tuscany Gourmet Market workers volunteer time to help cater an event. Photo From Jennifer Hunt

“Without businesses like that, the money that we raise to help people in our neighborhood fighting cancer, it wouldn’t happen,” she said. “The fact that they’re willing to step up is tremendous. Not many people do as much as they do.”

Most recently, the owners stepped up to help Shoreham-Wading River freshman Alexa Boucher, who was diagnosed with orbital rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer in the eye socket. A sold-out spaghetti fundraiser was held at the Wading River Fire Department, and Tuscany Market catered the event, donating food, paper goods and wait staff for a 150-person dinner.

“Originally, it was going to be a spaghetti dinner at the firehouse,” Hunt said. “But no one knew how it was going to run — it was a little overwhelming — so Tommy decided he would just do it and cater it from soup to nuts. I’m there shopping all the time because the food is so good and everyone is just so nice and helpful, but it’s also nice that they’re willing to step up in any way you ask them to.”

It’s said it takes a village, and O’Grady is said to emit so much joy doing what they’re doing to support their neighbors.

“Their kindness is alive and kicking in them,” Scully said. “It’s like you’re watching a movie of this little community where everyone comes out and supports each other and has each other’s back and looks out for each other. They are at the heart of that, they embody that. We’re very lucky to have them in our community.”

Tuscany Market helps provide for those that need it most, in a place where everybody knows your name.

This version was updated to correct that Tommy O’Grady is the owner of Tuscany Gourmet Market. Rich Fink is a manager there.

Margo Arceri, right, creator of Culper Spy Day, poses with Diane Schwindt, dressed as an 18th-century cook at the 2017 event. Photo from Mari Irizarry

By Rita J. Egan

With the help of those who appreciate history, events of the past have a chance to live on. Margo Arceri is one of those history lovers, and her passion has inspired others to learn more about their local landscape.

Arceri didn’t need the AMC series “TURN” to discover how instrumental the members of the Culper Spy Ring were in the Colonies winning the American Revolutionary War. While growing up in Strong’s Neck, she learned about the Setauket spies directly from Kate. W. Strong herself. The great-great-granddaughter of Anna Smith Strong would tell stories of the patriot who used her clothesline to send messages to her fellow spies, and through those tales, Arceri developed a deep curiosity for history and the local intelligence group.

Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly Tyler said Arceri’s passion is so strong her car features “Culper” license plates.

“She loves the Revolutionary War,” Tyler said. “She loves Anna Smith Strong, and the whole idea of the spy ring.”

A few years ago, Arceri, a former vice president and past secretary of the Three Village Historical Society, created Tri-Spy Tours, where participants follow the footsteps of the spies by walking, biking and/or kayaking through the area.

Steven Hintze was the president of the society when Arceri came to him with the idea of the tours. He said he liked the concept and discussed it with the board members.

Hintze said it was while conducting Tri-Spy Tours that Arceri realized there was more to share about local history, so she developed Culper Spy Day, an annual event that sponsors a self-guided tour where attendees visit various structures and museums in the area to learn how the Setauket spies assisted President George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Hintze said the day, which marked its third year in September, has greatly grown in popularity, attracting history lovers from all over the tristate area. According to historical society records, the event attracted twice as many people in 2017 than it did the year prior.

Hintze said he isn’t surprised how popular it has become through Arceri.

“She’s one of those people who has a great personality, she’s friends with everybody,” Hintze said. “She knows a lot of people, and she knows how to put them together.”

Margo Arceri, standing left, with volunteers Janet McCauley, standing right, and Barbara Lynch at the 2017 Culper Spy Day. Photo from Mari Irizarry

Tyler agrees that Arceri has done a wonderful job, especially in getting various organizations involved in Culper Spy Day. Arceri reached out to local groups such as The Long Island Museum, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson, which once was owned by the Roe family, members of the ring. The happening has also grown to include organizations outside of the Three Village area, such as Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay and Ketcham Inn in Center Moriches. Tyler said Arceri is working with a historical society in Fairfield, Connecticut, to take part next year.

“I think it’s very important to the area,” the historian said. “It’s starting to bring in people.”

Steve Healy, the Three Village Historical Society’s current president, said when it comes to questions he may have about local history, in addition to Tyler and Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell, he considers Arceri one of his go-to people.

“It’s difficult in today’s environment to dedicate time to history, and she seems to have found a good mix with history and with [her] work,” he said.

Arceri has a knack for getting people to think about history, Healy added, saying it’s apparent during both the Tri-Spy Tours and Culper Spy Day. He said the history buff connects with people by allowing them to ask questions and have a dialogue. She’s known for asking participants: “What do you think happened? What do you think are the elements that drove this situation?” because she doesn’t see historical events in black and white.

“Margo likes to engage people, and that’s one of her strong points, too,” Healy said. “She has many, but one of them is to engage people in a situation where they can have an honest, educated discussion.”

Healy believes the future looks bright for Arceri and her Culper spy ventures.

“I think she’s found a great niche where she can introduce local history to people and grow that further, because she’s always looking to grow,” Healy said. “That’s one of the things that I really like about her. She’ll have a conversation with me and say: ‘Steve, I want to expand. I want to get more people involved in this. I want to teach more people to let them know what happened here.’”

Comsewogue Library Director Debbie Engelhardt, third from left, and Port Jefferson Free Library Director Tom Donlon, second left, with others, cut the ribbon on a Free Little Library in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

Steering a community institution as it crosses the half-century mark in its existence is an enormous responsibility. But when the institution has the inherent added degree of difficulty associated with morphing to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, fulfilling that responsibility likely feels like threading a needle. As the third director in Comsewogue Public Library’s 50-year history, Debbie Engelhardt has gracefully and masterfully threaded that needle.

Engelhardt got her start in the library world as the director of Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton in the early 2000s. She was also the director of the Huntington Public Library from 2009 to 2012, before being selected as just the third director in the history of the Comsewogue Public Library.

The Comsewogue Public Library’s only three directors — Richard Lusak, Debra Engelhardt and Brandon Pantorno — in front of the newly dedicated Richard Lusak Community Room. Photo by Alex Petroski

In October 2017, Engelhardt played a vital role in planning, organizing and conducting a 50th anniversary celebration for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community staple. The day, according to many of her colleagues, had fingerprints of her enthusiasm, one-track community mindedness, and passion all over it, though that can be said about every day she’s spent at Comsewogue’s helm.

“Very rarely do you find anybody as dedicated to her profession and to her community like Debbie,” said Richard Lusak, Comsewogue Public Library’s first director from 1966 through 2002. The Oct. 14 anniversary celebration included the dedication of the building’s community room in Lusak’s honor, an initiative Engelhardt unsurprisingly also had a hand in.

“Those who come to know her quickly value her leadership ability and her insight into things,” he said. “She never says ‘no,’ she says, ‘Let me figure out how to do it.’”

The director tried to sum up her feelings about the anniversary as it was still ongoing.

“The program says ‘celebrating our past, present and future,’ so that’s what we’re doing all in one day with the community,” she said in October.

The event featured games, a bounce house, farm animals, crafts, giveaways, snacks, face painting, balloon animals, music, a historical society photo gallery and tour, and a new gallery exhibit.

“We thought of it as a community thank you for the ongoing support that we’ve had since day one, across all three administrations,” the library director said.

Engelhardt’s vision has been a valuable resource in efforts to modernize the library and keep it vibrant, as Amazon Kindles and other similar technologies have infringed on what libraries used to be about for generations. As the times have changed, Engelhardt has shown a propensity to keep Comsewogue firmly positioned as a community hub.

“I think she’s done a superb job with respect to coordinating all of the interests of input from the community as to what services are being requested by the public, whether it’s the children’s section, the adult reference and the senior citizens, including all of the activities we offer and the different programs,” said Edward Wendol, vice president of the library’s board of trustees who has been on the board for about 40 years. He was the board’s president when Engelhardt was selected as director.

Wendol credited Engelhardt with spearheading efforts to obtain a Free Little Library not only for Comsewogue, but for several other area libraries. The program features a small, outdoor drop box where readers can take a book to read or leave a book for future visitors.

“Anybody can use it as much as they want and it’s always a mystery when you open that box — you never know what you’ll find,” Engelhardt said during its dedication over the summer. “There are no late fees, no guilt, no stress. If you want to keep a book, you can … we are pleased to partner with the historical society to bring this gem. The books inside will move you and teach you. We say that libraries change lives and, well, little free libraries can too.”

The Little Free Library, a free book exchange, is located near the playground, alongside the shack at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai. Photo by Fred Drewes

Wendol said she also played a huge role in reorganizing the interior structure of the library. Engelhardt has created reading areas on all levels, placed popular selections near the entrance of the building, and taken an overall hands-on approach to the look and feel of the library. He also lauded her role working together with the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, an organization dedicated to serving the 56 public libraries in the county and assisting them in sharing services, website designs, group purchases and other modernization efforts.

“She’s great at what she does and seems to be having a great amount of fun while she’s doing it, and it’s kind of infectious,” said Kevin Verbesey, director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and a friend of Engelhardt’s for more than 20 years. “She is one of the leaders in the county, not just in Port Jeff Station and Comsewogue, but somebody who other library directors turn to for advice and for leadership.”

Her community leadership efforts cannot be contained by Comsewogue Public Library’s four walls however. Engelhardt is a member and past president of the Port Jefferson Rotary Club; a member of the board of trustees at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital; and vice president of Decision Women in Commerce and Professions, a networking organization dedicated to fostering career aid and support, and generating beneficial community projects.

When she finds time in the day, she participates in events like the cleanup of Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches, a facility for children with special needs. This past November she helped, among many others, clean up the camp with  husband, John, and son, Scott.

JIm Powers, president of the Townwide Fund oF Huntington, at their annual gala. Photo from Facebook

By Kyle Barr

There’s a Huntington man who keeps himself awake at night, driven to make sure he does his best to raise funds for charity — benefiting not one, but nearly 40 organizations.

Jim Powers, the president of The Townwide Fund of Huntington, thinks of his time with a business-like aim toward efficiency. He wants to get the biggest bang for his time.

As president of the fund, an organization created by the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce to raise funds for local charities, Powers funnels his time and energy toward aiding 39 nonprofit organizations. In 2017, the fund gave out more than $200,000 to charities in and around the Town of Huntington.

Jimmy Powers has been credited by some for saving the Townwide Fund of Huntington. Photo from Townwide Fund of Huntington

“It’s almost one size fits all,” he said. “You’re putting all your time into one organization [where] you can affect 39 different charities touching tens of thousands of different people in the town. Our tagline is, ‘The money raised in Huntington stays in Huntington.’”

Powers dedicates hours each week to the fund, whether it is looking for donations, supporting charity events, hosting their own fundraising events and more. At full board meetings, he’s known to bring coffee and bagels, knowing that all but one board member is a volunteer. Powers wants to show that their time is appreciated.

Powers is also a volunteer for the fund.

“He’s the heart and soul of this organization,” said Gloria Palacios, executive director of The Townwide Fund. “Our fundraising events are the most important thing that we do and Jim gets behind each one because he’s so driven to make sure that we get all the sponsorships and ticket sales and what not.”

Palacios said she marvels at the amount of time Powers puts into the organization, knowing he works many hours a week teaching at New York Institute of Technology and is also the director of business development for Bohler Engineering. She often teases him, Palacios said, knowing in the two or three days before The Townwide Fund events he doesn’t sleep, anxiously making sure every last detail works out perfectly.

“I keep telling him, ‘That it’s not your event, it’s a team event,’ but he says, ‘I know, but this needs to work for the town,’”
Palacios said.

Nine years ago, The Townwide Fund was nearly closed. Many people on the board point to Powers as the person who saved the fund from collapse. He drew up a business plan, replaced much of the board with what he called a “young, vibrant board” including not just business leaders but bankers, architects, attorneys, teachers and stay-at-home moms.

“He’s probably raised more money and given away more money than any other president in the fund’s history,” said Dave Gustin, vice president of the board and president of Melville Chamber of Commerce.

He’s the heart and soul of this organization.
— Gloria Palacios 

Others say Powers is the first person to make phone calls or jump in when something needs to be fixed. Carl Adler, third vice president of The Townwide Fund, recalled one day when they drove by one of the organization’s fundraiser signs together and realized it had been hit by a truck.

“We decided to get out — we had a shovel in the car — and fix it up together,” Adler said. “It’s very typical of Jim when something comes up, he’s going to fix it or he’s going to get people involved.”

Bob Bontempi, founding board member of Long Island Business Council and former chairman of the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce, said Powers supports not only The Townwide Fund but is visually active in several other organizations.

“I don’t know how he has the energy to do all the things he does,” Bontempi said. “He’s just one of those people that you go to because he’s a visible leader, and it’s the totality of selfless effort and time over the years that finally needs to be recognized.

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