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Boy Scout

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Matthew Chan in front of the magnetic ball track. Photo from Angeline Judex

Matthew Chan, a Comsewogue High School senior and Boy Scout in Troop 354, has volunteered at the Long Island Explorium since seventh grade. Now in his last year of high school, he took his help one step further when he constructed a magnetic ball track for the Port Jefferson nonprofit.

Boy Scouts looking to gain their Eagle Scout recognition often provide a service to the community, whether it’s reconstructing fences, planting trees, building benches or painting old buildings. 

The Comsewogue High School senior took it a step further and constructed a magnetic ball run at the Long Island Explorium. It allows children to create their own looping track where they can send a small marble careening down a path of their own design.

“I thought about how I could make my project very hands on,” Chan said.

In order for a Boy Scout to make the rank of Eagle Scout, he first has to perform a service project in the community. The Port Jefferson Station resident used his Eagle Scout project as an opportunity to aid the explorium even further. Three years ago, the explorium underwent renovations, including installing two large steel sheets on one of the walls. This was all part of an idea hatched by Angeline Judex, the executive director of the explorium, and Chan to create this ball run.

A young kid creates his own track for a marble to run through. Photo from Angeline Judex

“The Explorium is always pleased to work with Boys and Girls Scouts to help them develop skills and experience to become leaders of the future,” said Judex. “Matt’s project added tremendous value to the Explorium. The giant magnetic ball run helps promote STEM learning in a fun and engaging manner that is enjoyed by visitors of all ages.”

The project took quite a bit of time to come about. While Chan proposed the project initially in November of 2017, it took until May 2018 for him to gather all the materials together. In June of that year, he gathered around 15 other Boy Scouts to help him construct the track. The Scouts drilled holes in planks of wood where they could affix the magnets, then drilled holes in PVC pipe, some pieces cut horizontally in half. When it was all installed by late 2018, Chan got to witness firsthand children using, playing and learning with his creation.

“I think it encourages a lot of creativity,” he said. “It trains kids to think for themselves and create their own solutions.”

Troopmaster of troop 354 Bob Pearsall said he was proud of what Chan was able to do at the Explorium.

“His eighteenth birthday is March 22, and he has to finish up his paperwork and hand it in before then to make the Eagle Scout rank official, and we will make sure he does that,” Pearsall said.

Chans court of honor will come up in the next few months, with a date and time still to be determined.

The senior is expecting to graduate come June. From there he is looking forward to attending The College at Brockport where he will enroll in its nursing program.

“The Boy Scouts has a lot to do with first aid and life saving,” the Eagle Scout said. “I was a lifeguard, and I used to be very interested in first aid and health. I thought helping people through nursing would be a very good career path for me.”

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More than 400 people crowded onto the Shoreham-Wading River High School soccer field Dec. 15 to race in the first annual Andrew’s Run, but one family especially that crossed the finish line did so to cheers and applause that resounded all across the North Shore community.

John McMorris, the father of 12-year-old Boy Scout Andrew McMorris who died in October, walked and ran with his son’s framed photograph clenched in his hand. As he and Andrew’s mother, Alisa, strolled over the finish line that morning, John stuck up his hands in triumph, knowing it would go to support his son’s memory.

“This is how the community comes together,” he said. “The community is the only way we’ve been able to heal — to continue to heal.”

Andrew, who was a seventh-grader at Albert G. Prodell Middle School in Shoreham, died Oct. 1 after an alleged drunk driver struck him and four of his fellow Scouts in Boy Scout Troop 161 while they were walking along the shoulder of David Terry Road in Manorville during a hike. The McMorris family said
Andrew was going to do his first practice for the middle school cross country team that same day, but his life was ended before he could fulfill that ambition. 

The run was brought together through the efforts of 16-year-old Miller Place High School student Danelle Rose, who helped prepare everything from the race’s route across the fields at SWR High School to coordinating with the school and the Strong Island Running Club professional time takers, who donated their services for free to the run.

All the funds are going to support Boy Scout Troop 161 in their effort to build a new 3,200 square foot Adirondack cabin at Baiting Hollow Scout Camp in Wading River, which will be named McMorris Lodge in honor of Andrew. The run raised over $8,000 for the lodge.

Several members of local Boy Scouts, including those from Troop 161 and Troop 204 from Miller Place, ran in the race, some in their full Boy Scout uniforms. While weather forecasts called for rain that Saturday morning, Troop 161 Scoutmaster Matthew Yakaboski said it was a sign that good things may still come from tragedy.

“I think Andrew was shining down on us today,” Yakaboski said.

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Body tissue belonging to James Nielsen, 17, who died in July, could prove helpful for researchers of aggressive, rare form of cancer

James Nielsen, 17, of Port Jefferson Station, while on a family trip in Tennessee to see the solar eclipse in 2017, just weeks before he and his family learned he had cancer. Photo from Steven Nielsen

Making sense of loss is never easy, though a Port Jefferson Station family has drawn strength from their 17-year-old son’s bravery and desire to help others, even in his last days.

“Bad things happen to people and this just happened to happen to me, and we’re just going to do the best we can with it,” James Nielsen told his father Steven when they learned the 17-year-old had been diagnosed with a form of cancer so rare and devastating only one documented case of survival exists.

James Nielsen, 17, of Port Jefferson Station, after becoming an Eagle Scout. Photo from Steven Nielsen

The Comsewogue High School student was diagnosed with NUT midline carcinoma in December 2017, an aggressive form of cancer akin to a death sentence. Despite the devastating prognosis, the Eagle Scout from Troop 454 engaged in rare, barely fleeting moments of despair, according to his parents, even spending the day he died — July 16, 2018 — playing UNO card games and watching the World Cup.

James’ form of cancer is characterized by tumors that form in bones or soft tissue. No effective treatment for NMC exists, there are no guidelines, and current approaches to treatment are based on discussions among a few oncologists who each have had a single experience treating this disease, according to the writings of Dr. Christopher French, a pathologist researching NMC at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, who also advised James’ family after his diagnosis.

“The cancer type that he had is extremely rare and he has a yet even rarer variant of that cancer,” French said in a phone interview. “His tumor was really quite unique. It had a different gene, a variant that is extremely uncommon.”

In late August 2017, upon arriving at cross-country team practice at Comsewogue, James’ mother Jean Nielsen said she noticed a sizable lump on her son’s leg. She said he brushed off her concern, went to practice, and even ran an additional mile when he got home. That night, she had her husband Steven Nielsen examine James’ leg. He said it looked swollen but not necessarily alarming, but when he touched the tumor it was rock solid. A trip that same night to a walk-in medical clinic led to a visit to Stony Brook University Hospital, and by that weekend the family knew their oldest child of four had cancer.

Initially doctors believed he had Ewing’s sarcoma, a diagnosis with a far higher survival rate and clearer treatment options than NMC. In the early stages of his battle, James’ mother said she wrote “treatable and curable” on the first page of a journal the family kept pertaining to his illness. James began what was expected to be a 10-week cycle of chemotherapy, but by the second week of October 2017, it became clear the tumor wasn’t responding to treatment, and immediate surgery would be necessary.

At about 10 p.m. Oct. 12, 2017, just six hours before he was scheduled to head to Manhattan for surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, James’ surgeon called and informed his parents there was a possibility he would need to remove their son’s entire leg, and not just portions of the thigh muscle and femur as initially expected.

“I’ll never forget, he looked at us, he sat silent for a moment, and he goes, ‘OK — we’ll do what we have to do,’” James’ father recalled. “And then it was pretty much, ‘Good night.’”

During hour 17 of a 20-hour surgery, the Nielsens were finally informed James would be able to keep his leg.

A positive outlook is often cited as essential in situations like James’, and for the Nielsens positivity flowed on a two-way street.

James Nielsen rides around Manhattan on Thanksgiving night 2017 after undergoing a round of chemotherapy. Photo from Steven Nielsen

“I guess we’ve always just kind of been in the place like, ‘It doesn’t help’ — letting your head spin and certainly getting overwhelmed by emotion — you have to kind of keep everything together for him,” Steven Nielsen said. “He made us so strong. We made him strong, but he led the way.”

Being able to salvage his leg was a small, yet short-lived victory. By December, doctors were finally able to pinpoint his diagnosis. Staring down a cancer with such long odds of survival precipitated an unusual response from the Nielsens — a trip to Disney World.

“We didn’t let it control us, we controlled it,” the father said. Self-pity was never in James’ vernacular. “We were never naive about the possibilities of what could happen, but we also, all of us, really felt that it wasn’t worth putting your energy there. Put energy toward your cure. And so we lived life that way.”

The family dedicated their son’s last months to embracing life, spending Thanksgiving evening perusing Manhattan after an eight-hour round of chemo, looking at stores on Madison Avenue, a night his father remembered as “magical.” They visited a ranch in upstate New York just weeks before his death, one of James’ favorite places to vacation. They went to the beach.

While their focus was getting the most of their time remaining, James’ parents were far from ready to give up the fight. Feeling like their experience at Memorial Sloan Kettering left something to be desired, Steven Nielsen did some research that led him to French. James participated in some clinical trials and spent time at the Boston facility, where he and his father even managed to find time to explore the city and visit colleges with notable pharmacy programs, a field in which James had expressed a future interest.

The father’s dogged pursuit of answers for his son led French to mistakenly call him “doctor” during one of their numerous correspondence.

“He wrote in a way that made me think that he knew quite a bit about medicine, I just assumed he was a physician,” French said, laughing. Both Nielsens are teachers in the Comsewogue district.

French is hoping to soon be provided with donated tissue from James for the purpose of research, one of the teen’s dying wishes. His will be the first cancer cell line, which are living cancer cells used for research, with NMC that French will have been able to get his hands on, an essential gift if there’s any hope for untangling the mysteries of the cancer form.

“The tissue that he donated at his autopsy for research was priceless, and potentially a very valuable tool to perform research with,” French said. “He was just a sweet individual. It tore my heart out when I met him very briefly … It was quite riveting to meet him just sort of knowing the truth, that this was likely to not go well.”

For James the decision to donate tissue for research was reflexive and required about two minutes of thought, according to his parents. The teen was known for reusing Dixie cups and napkins because of his aversion to creating waste.

The Nielsen family goes pumpkin picking shortly before he underwent surgery in Oct. 2017 to remove a tumor from his right leg. Photo from Steven Nielsen

“For him it was just what you do — he didn’t think it was a big deal,” his mother said. “What we look to as heroic or whatever is not really that heroic. Sometimes unassuming people are the most heroic, not people who are very vociferous.”

She said the family can take some comfort in knowing there’s a possibility James’ struggles could lead to a better future for someone else.

“I think if you believe everyone has a purpose, you’d like to think such a horrible result would end with something purposeful, like contributing toward the cure for other people,” the father said. “For us to have him taken away, you hope that that’s the reason.”

The Nielsens expressed gratitude for the support and well wishes they’ve received from the community. Some of James’ classmates have taken up fundraising efforts to get a memorial built in downtown Port Jefferson. Members of the school’s marching band wore pins honoring their fallen peer at the homecoming football game this month. Still, his parents stressed James was not interested in pity or ritualistic gestures of remembrance.

“He was very kind, very sweet, very familial — old kind of qualities that aren’t maybe appreciated as much these days,” his mom said when asked how she hoped he’d be remembered. “He was very selfless.”

To donate to aid in NMC research visit http://www.myjimmyfundpage.org/give/nmcregistryfund.

Mount Sinai Scout Michael Muroff stands with his completed Eagle Scout project Sept. 29, the front door of the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society. Photo by Alex Petroski

A Mount Sinai Boy Scout literally restored an entryway to local history to complete his Eagle Scout project.

The front door to the William Miller House on North Country Road, a centuries-old building that has long served as the headquarters for the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society, was in a state of disrepair for longer than historian Edna Giffen could remember. Now, thanks to 17-year-old Scout Michael Muroff from Troop 1776, a brand new door constructed with a nod to history in mind hangs from the hinges, serving as a refurbished entry to local history.

Boy Scouts hoping to achieve Eagle status, the highest rank attainable by a male Scout, are tasked with completing a project that demonstrates leadership and benefits the community. Repairing the front door of the historical society met the criteria for Muroff, who said he and his family had been attending events — like the annual Country Fair that took place Sept. 29 during Muroff’s project unveiling — at the house since he was a kid.

Eagle Scout Michael Muroff, center, receives a proclamation from Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, third from right, after unveiling is project Sept. 29. Photo by Alex Petroski

“I’ve always had an interest in local history, and it was always a subject I excelled at in class, and I thought by doing this project it would be a good way of giving back to the community and something that I really enjoy,” he said.

The work started with four to five weekends dedicated to just stripping the old paint off of the door frame using a heat gun and metal stripper, according to the Scout. With help from a local woodworker and others, a new, yet true to the original batten door was constructed. Batten doors traditionally have between six and eight wooden planks bound together. Muroff’s door features seven planks and includes the door’s original hinges, restored and repainted as well as part of the project. He also found authentic galvanized nails to match the original and maintain the new door’s historic integrity. The door’s original handle was left as is though, according to Muroff.

“The old door was falling apart and dilapidated, so we had to just completely make a new one,” Muroff said.

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) attended the event and joked she had never seen the front door of the building hang so straight and close so tightly.

“We always like to take time out of our day to recognize and honor our Scouts,” she said. “So much attention is focused on the bad things our kids are doing and not on the good things they’re doing. It makes me feel good to know that we’re surrounded by some really great kids.”

In August, Muroff’s sister Rebecca completed her Gold Award project, the equivalent to the Eagle project but for Girl Scouts, which entailed cataloging the historical society’s vast collection of historic photos. The Scouts’ dad Greg Muroff served as Michael’s Scoutmaster throughout his time working through the program.

“It’s just wonderful that many years coming down to the Country Fair and to see Postman Pete, just to have my children Rebecca and Michael give back to the historical society and the community is just a wonderful thing,” he said. “Mike has a tremendous love of history and this was an ideal project for him.”

He said it will be special for both him and his son to drive past the house on North Country Road for years to come and see his hard work front and center.

“I have to say, as his dad and Scoutmaster I’m especially proud,” the Scoutmaster said. “The Eagle Scout award is more than just a project, it’s a culmination of their Boy Scout career. It means a lot of leadership, service to the community and self-discipline.”

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The Kings Park community is pulling together to host a fundraiser to support one of their own who was diagnosed with cancer in December.

R.J.O. Intermediate school student Frank Loeffler III, 11, is fighting a battle with embryonal habdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that most commonly occurs in children. It only accounts for 3 percent of pediatric cancers, with about 350 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

Frank Loeffler Jr., young Frank’s father, remembers the exhausting and heartbreaking lead up to learning that his son had cancer.

Frank Loeffler III. Photo from YOU CARING

“It was just an ear infection, a virus we were thinking.” Loeffler said. “It was a shocker.”

His son had a pain in his ear, but it quickly became a numbness that went all the way down to his chin.

“We were blindsided, that’s the best word,” said Nicole Schweitzer, Frank’s cousin and the fundraiser’s organizer. “You don’t think an ear infection is going to turn into that.”

The middle schooler is currently undergoing a six-week treatment at ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, New Jersey, where he is in the process of receiving proton radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

“He’s hanging in there. He’s strong and brave, the kid’s my hero,” his father said.

The Loeffler family, friends and community members were quick to help lend their support. Chris Stillwell, Frank’s pack leader for Boy Scout Troop 539, helped to organize weekly meals for family members who spent so much time on the road visiting hospitals.

“The boys felt his absence right away, but the outpouring from the pack was overwhelming,” Stillwell said. “The boys, the moms and the dads wanted to do something, so [they]  set up a food train and delivered food to them once a week.”

Frank has continued to participate in the Boy Scout troop’s activities, even placing in the top four out of 50 contestants in the Pinewood Derby last month.

“We were blindsided, that’s the best word. You don’t think an ear infection is going to turn into that.”

— Nicole  Schweitzer

Loeffler said his son is doing well so far, and that the radiation has reduced the tumor by nearly half.

“He’s strong,” he said.

The Loeffler family hopes to raise $50,000 through donations. The money will go toward paying for Frank’s medical treatments and a portion of the money will also go toward Ronald McDonald House Charities and The Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

“When a child has cancer, the first thing people want to do is help, they want to help right away. ‘How can we get involved, can we do this or we do that,’ it blew up really quickly,” Schweitzer said. “Everybody knows my family so we’ve had a tremendous amount of support so far, and I’m mind-blown as to how many people have committed to coming to the fundraiser.”

Schweitzer said they have been advertising for about a month and more than 200 people have committed to come to the fundraiser so far.

They also contacted Joe Mango, the president of Kings Park nonprofit organization Angels Without Faces whose mission is to provide financial assistance to families and individuals going through hardship, to help promote the event. He said he expects the event to do well.

“This town is just a phenomenal fundraising town,” Mango said. “I’ve seen three fundraisers all go off in the same weekend and they’ve all been successful.”

The fundraiser will take place at Shanahan’s Bar and Grill at 515 Old Dock Road in Kings Park on Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. There is a $30 cash donation at the door. The family has also set up a page on www.YouCaring.com for people to donate. Those who wish to donate can search “Frank Loeffler” on YouCaring or go to www.angelswithoutfaces.com.

Eagle Scout John Ninia stands by the dogwood trees he planted at Frank Melville Memorial Park. Photo from Jerry Ninia

For one Eagle Scout, earning coveted merit badges has been more than a pastime; it’s been a mission. The undertaking has led him to earn all 137 badges a Scout can receive — an accomplishment only 6 percent of scouts in the nation have achieved, according to the Boy Scouts of America website.

John Ninia, of Poquott, a senior at Ward Melville High School, moved up from Cub Scout to Boy Scout when he was 11 years old. Ninia said it took him six years to earn all 137 badges. A scout needs 21 badges to become an Eagle Scout — 16 being mandatory ones.

“I just went for all of them,” the Troop 70 Eagle Scout said.

When he was 12 years old, Ninia said he attended Boy Scout camp, where his mission to collect every badge first became his goal.

John Ninia, an Eagle Scout in Troop 70, proudly wears his 137 badges. Photo from Jerry Ninia

“I remember after my first week of summer camp, I was on my way home and I was really thrilled,” he said. “Usually you can get five badges if you’re really into it but I got about 11, and my parents mentioned that I could go back for a second week.”

Ninia said he immediately signed up for the second week, and when he earned 20 badges that summer, he said it was a great feeling. The Scout said some merit badges, such as one for art, can take a day and a half, while personal fitness, family life and other badges require more time, even months. He said a scuba badge took several days of training to earn certification, while achieving the water skiing one was the most difficult, but he kept trying until he could stand up on the skis.

Ninia completed three Hornaday projects, which are tasks that involve the environment. He eliminated invasive knotweed, a Japanese plant, at West Meadow Beach, planted trees at Frank Melville Memorial Park and installed a rain garden in the Village of Poquott’s California Park. Working to improve the environment is a passion of his, and he plans to major in environmental studies in college.

Frank Melville Memorial Foundation Park Board President Robert Reuter said Ninia worked diligently to clear a substantial vine-choked area adjacent to the Bates House in the park. His work saved existing trees and allowed for the planting of several native white flowering dogwoods.

“It’s revealing of his commitment that I get calls from John offering to continue the work,” Reuter said. “This young man has a bright future underpinned by his extraordinary personal achievements and service to community.”

Robert Mandell, who was Ninia’s troop leader for the majority of the time he has been in Boy Scouts, said he remembers the teenager coming to him telling him how he earned badges for various activities such as glass blowing and concrete mixing. The former troop leader he said he would question him at length about what he did to earn the badge.

“I quizzed them like the FBI,” Mandell said.

He said he wasn’t surprised when Ninia earned every badge, saying he is a smart, hardworking teenager.

“This young man is driven,” the former troop leader said.

While the experiences earning the badges have provided great memories for Ninia, he said what he has enjoyed most during his Scouting years has been “providing leadership to a group of scouts and helping them with their own ability to rank up.”

“This young man has a bright future underpinned by his extraordinary personal achievements and service to community.”

— Robert Reuter

Despite a busy schedule with school, the cross-country team and DECA, Ninia said it’s important to make time for Scouting.

The high school senior said one can no longer be a scout after 18, but while his days as a scout may be over soon, he hopes to always be a part of the organization in some way, even though he’s not sure about being a troop leader.

“It’s hard, and I do have a lot of stuff and I’m a busy guy, but Scouting is something I’ve loved so I’ve always been able to make time for it,” he said. His advice to other Scouts? “Try your best and shoot for the stars.”

Ninia’s father Jerry said the family, which includes mom Lynn and siblings James and Christina, is proud of their Scout and his accomplishments.

“He’s a good kid,” his father said. “He works very hard He perseveres. He has a can-do attitude. He’s just the kind of guy that makes things happen.”

Achieving merit badges makes a Scout a more well-rounded individual, according to Jerry Ninia.

“When you think about it, 137 merit badges, it touches on everything from art to architecture to woodworking to metalworking to horseback riding to law and medicine to water sports and everything in between,” he said. “You can probably strike up a conversation with anyone as a young adult and speak to anyone from practically any walk of life because you’ll probably feel some commonality.”

Summer kicks off in Shoreham with a scenic stroll through the five senses.

After two years of planning and construction, a new, community-built sensory garden at the Shoreham facility of Suffolk County’s Association for Habilitation and Residential Care, a non-profit that assists people with special needs and disabilities, officially opened to the public May 24.

What was once an underdeveloped stretch of woods and concrete is now a vibrant haven where visitors of all ages and abilities can excite their sight, smell, touch, taste and sound through various interactive materials and installations donated and put in by dozens of businesses and organizations. Local Girl and Boy Scout troops also volunteered throughout the past year to make the dream project a reality.

It was a dream that came from a passionate AHRC employee.

Christine Gallo, who serves as a behavior intervention specialist at the organization’s Intermediate Care Facility at 283 Route 25A in Shoreham, said ever since she started working there, she’d dreamt about utilizing the location’s natural resources to help the 96 people living on campus — many of whom deal with sensory-processing disorders, in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to what comes in through the senses.

While a number of AHRC locations are sensory-based, all of them are indoors.

“I thought, ‘wouldn’t that be great to bring all the science and knowledge we’re so good at at AHRC outside?’ because nature impacts the residents greatly,” said Gallo, who went on to research other sensory gardens throughout Long Island and the world and combined the best aspects of them when it came to designing her own.

She brought the idea to the higher-ups, including the facility’s director, Linda Bruno, and director of development, J Andreassi, who started a donation process and reached out to companies, architects, engineers, contractors and suppliers about pitching in. Island Steel & Detailing Corp. in Manorville, Precision Tree Services in Ronkonkoma, Shoreham-Wading River Teacher’s Association, the Riverhead Central Faculty and Reliable Garden & Fence Co. in Middle Island are among the participating companies that donated, cleared the area, set up fences, gardened, mulched and made installations.

The total project cost approximately $315,000, according to Andreassi.

“It was amazing the amount of people that it took to get this job done, but it was so worthwhile and it’s only going to get better,” he said. “Next year, that garden is going to be so lush and beautiful.”

Upon entering the expansive, oval-shaped garden, which is broken into different areas according to the senses, visitors can use a mallet to bang on big plastic drums and rainbow xylophones in the sound section. Along the decorated pathway, visitors pass wheelchair-accessible garden beds filled with vegetables for picking and eating and herbs scientifically-proven to aid with memory and concentration, a large-scale checkerboard on the lawn, a quiet sitting area to accommodate those who might be hyper-sensitive, and a barefoot labyrinth made up of river rocks.

“People can take off their shoes and just walk through, [like reflexology],” Gallo said. “It’s my favorite area.”

Gallo is hoping the new garden can further help with the sensory and developmental process.

“I just want it to become a meaningful, beautiful place for people to go,” she said. “But also where clinicians and specialists and training staff can use these really amazing features.”

Gallo said members of the Girl and Boy Scouts were involved in plant research and even building some of the structures, like the sensory wheel, which is filled with rocks of varying textures people can touch and spin. The wheel, she said, is designed for those in wheelchairs who can’t utilize the sensory input from the labyrinth.

She and Bruno hope to eventually host school and camp field trips, as well as community gatherings, at the garden.

“So far, every individual who we’ve brought through there has loved every aspect of it,” Bruno said. “It’s a peaceful place — it’s really magical. I think it’s exciting to be living and working out here, and to see something positive happening, and people contributing from the community.”

When asked how it felt to be standing in the garden of her dreams, Gallo said, “When I think about this piece of land, although it may seem like a small part of the world, it’s really monumental in how it can change people’s lives and be a place for the community to come.”

Snow and sleet notwithstanding, spring will soon be here, and it’s time to ask the question: Will environmental education programming return to West Meadow Beach in Stony Brook and Cedar Beach in MountSinai?

When queried last year, Brookhaven Town spokesman Jack Krieger responded in an email, “At this time the position [environmental educator] is occupied and budgeted in the 2017 town budget.” When he wrote that, the person holding the title, Molly Hastings,  had been suspended since September pending the outcome of a hearing process that has yet to be concluded nearly five months later.

The 1996 New York State legislation that decreed the removal of the cottages being used by private individuals, and returned the beach to its natural state, also contained a provision that there be an environmental educator hired to provide programming to add an informational component to the newly reclaimed preserve.

The cottages were razed in 2004 and, following a multi-year civil service process to establish the position, Eileen Gerle became the first environmental educator in March 2009. Upon her retirement in October 2014, Hastings became the second to hold the position the following December. 

Stony Brook civic leader Herb Mones said he dedicated a decade and a half to seeing that the town complied with the legislation.

“I spent 15 years of my life on this issue, to move the town to fulfill its obligation to make the public park public, fulfilling the vision of local industrialists Ward Melville and Eversley Childs,” he said.

Mones said the town has done some very good things at West Meadow, remodeling the main building, adding a lifeguard station and providing new playground equipment.

“If the town never did another thing, it would still be a remarkable resource,” he said. “It’s a little slice of heaven. I think there are a lot of things that are very positive. West Meadow really defines the Three Villages.”

Still, he said he’d like to see refurbishment of the remaining cottages, addition of a nature trail and installation of security lighting near the Gamecock Cottage. And, of course, restoration of educational programming.      

When Nick Sicurelli, a 17-year-old Hauppauge High School senior, learned all the fall environmental education programs at West Meadow Beach — as well as at Cedar Beach — had been cancelled this year, he said he felt bad for all the students and scouts who had missed out.

“It’s important to reach out, to inform people [about the environment], to let them know the scale of what’s going on — and the small things they can do [to improve the planet],” he said, adding he believed the cancellations were unfortunate.

Sicurelli first came to West Meadow Beach to complete an environmental science merit badge with his Boy Scout Troop 343. He returned happily and often to take advantage of the opportunities to learn and do more including search for turtles and turtle eggs, help with beach cleanup, remove invasive plants and replant a beach garden for which he raised funds to purchase trees and plants.

In all, 19 programs open to the public and 22 public school programs were canceled in September and October at the two sites, according to a Sept. 27 email sent from Tom Carrano, supervisor of the environmental educator, to Molly Hastings.

In addition, a variety of tours, field trips, school assemblies, citizen scientist projects and volunteer opportunities were unavailable this fall.

Elyas Masrour of Setauket, a student at P. J. Gelinas Junior High School, saw a film years ago that engendered in him a passion for birds.

“I watched ‘The Big Year,’ a funny movie about birders who go on a trip and try to outdo each other sighting birds,” he said. “It lit a spark for me and I signed up for bird walks at West Meadow Beach.”

He said he met other birders and they did a ‘Big Year’ together — right in the Three Village area — identifying more than 100 bird species. Taking the next step, Masrour started photographing birds he spotted, until he realized taking videos made it easier to capture a good shot in an individual frame. That led to wildlife filmmaking.

He asked permission of Hastings to film the piping plovers at West Meadow last summer. She worked with him so he could create a five-minute documentary.

Catherine Masrour, Elyas’ mother, would like to see the educational programming resume.

“It’s such an important thing,” she said. “Kids don’t get outside enough as it is. There are all these opportunities at West Meadow that make it so special and wonderful. If we are going to combat climate change, we need to start locally — and with the young. We need an informed future generation.”

A closer look at the life-size bust of Thomas Cutinella that rests in front of the wall along the Thomas Cutinella Memorial Field. Photo by Desirée Keegan

By Desirée Keegan

It was a huge undertaking, and there may have been some doubt, but Shoreham Boy Scout Ryan Ledda was able to complete his Thomas Cutinella memorial wall.

Ledda, a junior wide receiver on the Shoreham-Wading River football team, decided to dedicate his Eagle Scout project in memory of Cutinella, who died following a head-on collision on the football field in 2014.

The Thomas Cutinella memorial wall was made possible by Boy Scout Ryan Ledda. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The Thomas Cutinella memorial wall was made possible by Boy Scout Ryan Ledda. Photo by Desirée Keegan

His plan was to build a wall with pavers that would be purchased by members of the community, with the option of them being engraved, and a bronze statue of a football or helmet. What Ledda ended up getting from the project was even greater.

“I was able to do everything I hoped to do and more,” he said. “It started out as a helmet and football, then just a chest-up bust of Tom, and now it’s a waist-up life-size bust of Tom.”

His father Rich, who is also one of his troop leaders, liked the original idea, but had some reservations.

“I thought it was a big undertaking, but I also thought it was a great tribute to a member of the community,” he said. “I had some doubts at first, and Ryan assured me along the way, telling me ‘Dad, I got this.’ And he did.”

What made the project that much more special, was the community’s support.

“It was heartwarming,” Ledda said of seeing the hamlets, Shoreham and Wading River, and even surrounding communities, continue to rally together to support Tom. “I realized how close our community is. It feels amazing knowing that our community came together to do such a wonderful thing. And it makes me feel really good about myself.”

Shoreham Boy Scout Ryan Ledda came up with the idea for the Thomas Cutinella Memorial Wall, as his Eagle Scout project. Photo from Shoreham-Wading River school district
Shoreham Boy Scout Ryan Ledda came up with the idea for the Thomas Cutinella Memorial Wall, as his Eagle Scout project. Photo from Shoreham-Wading River school district

Ledda had some help along the way.

Ed Walker, owner of and sculptor at Carolina Bronze Sculpture Inc. in North Carolina, remembers his first interaction with the junior.

“The call was from a Boy Scout telling me about an Eagle Scout project, and I had never heard of an Eagle project like the one he proposed,’ Walker said. “I gave him a cost, and there was a gasp before he told me he’d get to work on it. I didn’t think I was going to hear from him again.”

But five months later, he did.

“The young boy said ‘Well, Mr. Walker, I have the money, but here’s my dad, because I’m too young to sign a contract,” Walker said, laughing. “I was surprised to say the least, and feel honored we were chosen to complete the project. I was very touched by Tom’s story.”

Walker went online to read articles and study photos of Tom. He was in contact with Tom’s parents, and worked to produce the best, most accurate depiction of Tom that he could.

“Any time I work on a portrait, I like to find out all that I can about the person,” he said. “In our consumerous age, when everything gets thrown away, this is something that lasts forever. This has a lot of meaning and will for a long time. It’s a very satisfying thing to do this line of work.”

For football teams to come, the $38,000 wall and bust, which rests on the side of the new Thomas Cutinella Memorial Field, will be a place teammates will pass before touching a monument rock, as the guys take the field. Funds were raised through a Go Fund Me page, and Ledda also enlisted donations from Emerald Landscaping. It took three years to raise the money, but just a few days to construct the project.

The Thomas Cutinella Memorial Wall was constructed with the help of funds raised from a Go Fund Me page, where pavers were purchased and engraved. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The Thomas Cutinella Memorial Wall was constructed with the help of funds raised from a Go Fund Me page, where pavers were purchased and engraved. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“It adds to the field, and it shows future football teams how close we are,” Ledda said. “I think it sets a precedent for our football program. Now it’s a place they could go to remember Tom and think about all of the good things he did in his life.”

For Kevin Cutinella, Thomas’ younger brother, who is a senior and quarterback of the Wildcats football team and midfielder on the lacrosse team, the piece has an even greater meaning.

“I think the final product is gorgeous,” Cutinella said. “I never expected it to be as big as it later came out to be, and [Ledda] did an outstanding job and is an amazing person. Seeing the community, once again, support Tom’s legacy, memory and life — it means everything to me and my family. We are very grateful for everything the community has done and continues to do. I am grateful, honored and humbled that this monument was built. I feel happy because Tom deserved to be noticed and respected every day.”

Neighbors gather to help Aidan Donnelly, a 13-year-old student from Centereach, complete his Eagle Scout Service Project in Stony Brook. Photo from Elizabeth Flagler

A Long Island Scout stepped up for Stony Brook’s osprey population.

Neighbors and members of PSEG Long Island helped Aidan Donnelly, a 13-year-old honor student at Dawnwood Middle school in Centereach, complete his Eagle Scout Service Project on Saturday May 9 soon after the boy approached the utility company about installing an osprey nesting pole out of harm’s way at West Meadow Beach.

In order to achieve the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouts, scouts must earn at least 21 merit badges and complete an extensive service project that the scout plans, organizes, leads and manages.

Donnelly organized the meetings with PSEG Long Island and the Town of Brookhaven, then planned and led his fellow scouts from Troop 362 in the construction of an osprey nest platform, adding to his current total of 48 merit badges.

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