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Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23. File photo by Bob Savage

By Rob DeStefano

What can you accomplish during a 25-year career at Comsewogue School District? Greatness. Let me explain: While I was a sophomore at Comsewogue, we were introduced to Joe Rella as the new teacher in the music department, a quarter century ago. In the months that followed, students started talking about music, band, theater and jazz with an increased frequency not measurable before. Something special was beginning.

I don’t remember which concert it was, winter or spring, but as a junior participating in the newly reinvigorated jazz band, it happened. We sat playing an upbeat swing-time classic — maybe Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” — and this new teacher stepped away from the conductor’s podium. We stayed cool, kept playing, though we wondered what was happening. He walked to the audience and offered a hand to his wife. A moment later, this new teacher and his wife were doing the Charleston in front of an audience of parents, while our band played. In that moment, the magic became real. Comsewogue had hired our own “Mr. Holland.” We had our first glimpse of who Rella was.

In the years that followed, class after class grew to appreciate his style — and his impact. His collaboration with our music educators led to a number of new opportunities for students. We had a pep band at home football games. Our theater performances recruited more students, some discovering talent they didn’t know they had. Even more, they found confidence, overcame shyness and lifted each other to perform at higher levels. This influence benefited all the district’s high school students when he became principal in the 1998-99 school year. How he found the time to continue to accompany students in their musical endeavors, I don’t know.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Rella’s appointment as Comsewogue’s superintendent in 2010 coincided with my election to our board of education. To call the last eight-plus years of working with him “unforgettable” is an understatement. Just as he inspired our students, he’s been a source of trust, candor and community to Port Jefferson Station residents, and beyond.

He’s proposed innovative solutions to challenges that threaten public education. He’s stood up for our children and an educational curriculum that prepares them to be their best. He’s advocated logic in the face of unreasonable and irresponsible policies dictated by out-of-touch government actions. As he prepares to retire after nine years as superintendent, his influence on our district, community and public education are deep and long lasting.

Great leaders don’t act alone. At each step in his 25-year journey, Rella has influenced the culture of the departments, schools and communities he’s worked with. Those who became Warriors along the way have become part of this culture of openness, collaboration and unwavering spirit. That makes me very excited for our community and Comsewogue School District’s future.

Our district administration has delivered great community successes in recent years. We’ve weathered the limitations of the property tax cap without compromising the quality of student education. Student access to technology has grown at all levels. Our arts programs are amazing. If you haven’t been to one of our schools’ art shows or musicals lately, I highly recommend them.

We’ve received accreditation from the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a first on Long Island for a full-sized district, putting our educational standard significantly above those dictated by the New York State Education Department. Program performance has been on a strong incline. Our literacy program and programs for English language learners are providing stronger foundations toward the educational growth of every student. Our problem-based learning program is proving our students have the analytical, critical thinking skills for 21st century success. They not only pass state exams but demonstrate deep knowledge of topics and an understanding of the world around them.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue board of education member and a Comsewogue High School graduate

On top of all this, our district — and really, our community — culture is unprecedented. Our students are not only academically thriving, but they are responsible stewards of the schools and neighborhoods to which they belong. The number of volunteer initiatives and the number of students who participate is awesome to see. And the latest of these, “Joe’s Days of Service,” is one of the great cultural legacies that I have no doubt will become a lasting part of how Comsewogue students give back to the community that has supported them, even after Rella moves on. Our students, past, present and future, will continue to make us proud.

As incoming superintendent, Jennifer Quinn represents the next stage in our community’s Warrior spirit. She has worked alongside Rella to get us where we are. As our district has been elevated, she has built, evolved and driven the programs that are enabling our students to thrive. I’m extremely excited about the vision she has shared to continue Comsewogue’s trajectory toward the very best in academics, athletics and arts. Our community is becoming a more attractive place to live and raise a family. Ask your local real estate agent to confirm this. Where we’re headed, the place we live will become an even more coveted venue — a benefit for all residents.

Legacy takes many forms. Rella’s real, lasting impact on our community is proven by how we celebrate and carry forward the torch he passes along to us all. The job belongs to all of us. We must not lose sight of what makes ours a special place to be. We must recognize the opportunity ahead of us and continue toward it with the same unwavering commitment. We must continue to work together, support each other and continue to carry Comsewogue forward with pride because, in some way, we’ve all had the blessing of being students of Joe Rella. We are a family of Warriors.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue School District Board of Education member and a graduate of Comsewogue High School.

Port Jeff resident Dom Famularo and Mayor Margot Garant discuss important issues to the village during its new video series. Image from PJV Facebook

Port Jefferson Village is facing an array of issues threatening to upset the status quo in both the near and long term. To help in keeping taxpayers informed on the important set of circumstances likely to impact property taxes and other aspects of daily life in Port Jeff, village Mayor Margot Garant will appear in a series of videos to be released on the village’s website and Facebook account called “Port Jeff Update with Mayor Garant.”

The conversations feature Garant and village resident Dom Famularo in a one-on-one setting responding to questions sent in by members of the public. The first video, released Oct. 16, tackled the village’s tax certiorari legal battle with Long Island Power Authority and the impact an impending settlement will have on villagers’ property taxes going forward, which the mayor dubbed “LIPA 101.”

Garant said the goal of the new communications was to provide her the chance to address the community directly in an uninterrupted fashion, giving her the ability to inform the public on the issues and address misconceptions she said she regularly sees on social media and in conversations.

“The internet right now doesn’t give you the opportunity to have that sort of exchange and people were asking lots of questions,” she said in an interview. “I was trying to figure out, do I like a town hall setting? And I was like, the town hall setting is still not going to give me the opportunity to control the conversation. And I think that might sound egotistical to a certain extent, but the issue is I just want the whole thing on the table.”

In the video, Garant said the village entered into a settlement agreement with LIPA in April to establish a gradual reduction of the amount of money the utility pays in property taxes based on the assessed value of its Port Jeff based plant. The legal cases are based on LIPA’s contention its plants are over-assessed based on decreasing energy demand. Garant said the village is essentially waiting to sign the paperwork to finalize the settlement, as LIPA continues analogous cases with the Town of Huntington and Northport-East Northport School District which is holding up the official completion of the village and Brookhaven Town’s agreed-in-principle settlements.

The Mayor added that about $3.2 million of its roughly $10 million annual operating budget comes from LIPA, and as part of the agreement that number will be cut in half gradually over an eight-year span. As a result, village residents should expect their Port Jefferson Village property tax bill to increase incrementally during that span. Garant said the village is planning to establish a calculator tool for residents to enter in their own pertinent property tax information which will illustrate how much individuals should expect their taxes to go up.

The first video is about 11 minutes long and as of Tuesday afternoon had nearly 2,000 views on Facebook. Garant said Famularo was selected as the other party for the conversations because of his personality, presence and grasp of the issues.

“I decided to get involved so I could assist with clarifying information and prevent social media rumors,” Famularo said in an email, adding he has been a member of the village’s parking committee for eight years and has never shied away from getting involved. “I did not want to just be that person that is not involved and complains … I am honored to sit with the mayor and have time to ask pertinent questions so all PJ residents can hear and be educated in the tasks at hand. We all need to be involved and take an active role.”

Garant said the next video will address efforts to revitalize upper Port Jeff Village and will be released in the coming days. The videos can be accessed by visiting www.portjeff.com or by typing “Port Jefferson, NY” into the search bar on Facebook.

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Recent tragedies have shown just how good and inspired our community can be if everyone bands together behind a cause.

On Sept. 30 Boy Scouts from Troop 161, based in Shoreham, were hit by an alleged drunk driver while hiking in Manorville. While four young men suffered injuries, 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, a student at Shoreham-Wading River’s Albert G. Prodell Middle School, was pronounced dead the morning after he was hit.

The news quickly spread on social media, and the community rose rapidly to the occasion. Red ribbons still fly across Long Island from mailboxes, street signs and even entrances to Suffolk County parks. A GoFundMe to support the troop has already raised close to $19,000, and the wakes and funeral for the young man were packed by those wishing to pay respect.

We’ve seen this groundswell of community activism in other places in response to hard times elsewhere. On Sept. 25 Port Jefferson Village was inundated with water that in some places reached as high as 4 or 5 feet following intense rain. Port Jeff’s Theatre Three saw the worst of that damage, as the flooding destroyed props, costumes, play scripts, books and thousands of dollars in electrical equipment, not to mention structural damage to the old building. Yet again we saw the community step up to aid its local theater. Galvanized by news stories and online crowd funding campaigns, dozens of volunteers came to the theater to aid in the cleanup, and theater personnel reported it started receiving thousands of dollars in donations the morning right after the flood, which have continued.

The rise of online connectivity can prove a useful tool in times like these, yet still there is a pervading sense that the world is becoming more insular. With election season right on the horizon and with tensions rising, we kindly remind people it’s OK to be a good neighbor even in not-so-tragic times.

We in the news business know just how powerful and stimulating a community coming together can be. Yes, reporters are people too, and it’s hard not to be heartened, even in the face of mind-numbing tragedy, to drive to work every day with countless red ribbons lining both sides of the road like a landing strip.

Imagine if it didn’t take tragedy to excite such fervor in the local community. Two childhood friends in Commack have worked to bring Commack Day back to Hoyt Farm after a near-30-year absence. The lifelong friends and Commack natives James Manikas and Dean Spinato got the community involved by posting the idea to local Facebook groups, driving their support through connectivity.

There are so many issues that Long Island currently faces, from the threat of nitrogen in coastal waters, rising sea levels and a lack of affordable housing, yet we at TBR News Media watched how well the community can come together to get things done in times of need. It would be great to see the community come together more on an average day.

Recent tragedies have shown just how good and inspired our community can be if everyone bands together behind a cause.

On Sept. 30 Boy Scouts from Troop 161, based in Shoreham, were hit by an alleged drunk driver while hiking in Manorville. While four young men suffered injuries, 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, a student at Shoreham-Wading River’s Albert G. Prodell Middle School, was pronounced dead the morning after he was hit.

The news quickly spread on social media, and the community rose rapidly to the occasion. Red ribbons still fly across Long Island from mailboxes, street signs and even entrances to Suffolk County parks. A GoFundMe to support the troop has already raised close to $19,000, and the wakes and funeral for the young man were packed by those wishing to pay respect.

We’ve seen this groundswell of community activism in other places in response to hard times elsewhere. On Sept. 25 Port Jefferson Village was inundated with water that in some places reached as high as 4 or 5 feet following intense rain. Port Jeff’s Theatre Three saw the worst of that damage, as the flooding destroyed props, costumes, play scripts, books and thousands of dollars in electrical equipment, not to mention structural damage to the old building. Yet again we saw the community step up to aid its local theater. Galvanized by news stories and online crowd funding campaigns, dozens of volunteers came to the theater to aid in the cleanup, and theater personnel reported it started receiving thousands of dollars in donations the morning right after the flood, which have continued.

The rise of online connectivity can prove a useful tool in times like these, yet still there is a pervading sense that the world is becoming more insular. With election season right on the horizon and with tensions rising, we kindly remind people it’s OK to be a good neighbor even in not-so-tragic times.

We in the news business know just how powerful and stimulating a community coming together can be. Yes, reporters are people too, and it’s hard not to be heartened, even in the face of mind-numbing tragedy, to drive to work every day with countless red ribbons lining both sides of the road like a landing strip.

Imagine if it didn’t take tragedy to excite such fervor in the local community. Two childhood friends in Commack have worked to bring Commack Day back to Hoyt Farm after a near-30-year absence. The lifelong friends and Commack natives James Manikas and Dean Spinato got the community involved by posting the idea to local Facebook groups, driving their support through connectivity.

There are so many issues that Long Island currently faces, from the threat of nitrogen in coastal waters, rising sea levels and a lack of affordable housing, yet we at TBR News Media watched how well the community can come together to get things done in times of need. It would be great to see the community come together more on an average day.

Broadway Market in Rocky Point, owned by Ann Olenick and Shasho Pole, is conjuring images of a revitalized, walkable downtown community hub for some locals. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Broadway Market, a Rocky Point restaurant that opened in March, has quite a lot on its plate.

It’s not just the food — even though the restaurant has offerings not only for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but all the way through coffee, desserts and alcohol — it’s that owners Ann Olenick and Shasho Pole both respect what a place like the Broadway Market means to the community.

“I think it’s an anchor business, and I think it gives people another reason to try to come here – bringing Rocky Point back to a walking town,” Olenick said.

Olenick and Pole are both area natives, having first met at the Rocky Point Farmers & Artisan Market nearly five years ago. After learning about each other’s expertise, with Pole in the organic meats market and Olenick in baked goods and desserts, the two decided to partner up and take their show on the road. They travelled to multiple farmers markets across Long Island, and by the third year of working together the duo was going regularly to seven local markets every season.

Broadway Market in Rocky Point, owned by Ann Olenick and Shasho Pole, is conjuring images of a revitalized, walkable downtown community hub for some locals. Photo by Kyle Barr

Despite their success on the local market scene, the idea for a brick-and-mortar restaurant didn’t cross their minds until they tried to meet a demand for chicken cutlets. Because of state regulations, they could only sell chickens whole without an inspected, clean location to butcher them. Though the two looked all over Long Island for a proper space, their eyes settled on a location in Rocky Point right near the farmers market where they first met. They settled on a location that was once home to a bar, first named Harry’s Beer Garden and then Gracie’s Hearty Foods.

“It already had all the wastewater approvals, the sanitary requirements we needed and an inspected kitchen,” Pole said. “It’s funny, we went on a quest for a spot, you know a wet space, in a walking town and circuitously we wound up back here.”

The idea grew exponentially past a simple place to sell their meats and sweets. At the start of their building project they thought they could get away with a Keurig coffeemaker, but that transformed into days of barista classes in New York City. They originally didn’t think that the restaurant would have a bar, but since the location already had a liquor license they decided to go through another round of classes, this time in bartending.

“We thought we would have a little closet — a little boutique — and we wound up with all this,” Pole said.

The building sticks out not just for its looks, with modern rustic-gray stonework and barn-wood interior, but for its freshness. Local community leaders have recognized just how much of a turning point the Broadway Market is for downtown Rocky Point.

“The Broadway Market is great — it’s bringing more attention to the community,” said Charles Bevington, the president of the Rocky Point Civic Association. “Rocky Point is still a place where people can invest.”

While the old Gracie’s stood in the same spot as the market, the only things left of the building are the western wall, a chair and the beer tower, now refurbished, that used to belong to both Harry’s and Gracie’s.

Pole said that all the food at Broadway Market is as regionally sourced as possible, including fish and vegetables as long as they are in season. Some 10 percent of the meats are grass fed, particularly the beef used for burgers, and they do their best to get their chickens from free-range sources.

On the bakery side of things, Olenick, who is a college-trained pastry chef, said she offers some of her own designs along with the designs offered by their trained in-house chef Elizabeth Moore.

Though the two owners know their food, it took a bit of time for the pair to figure the ins and outs of operating a restaurant. Over the past several months they have slowly increased the number of days and hours they are open. Now as the sun rises on the restaurant, the building strikes such a distinct poise compared to the other smaller, brown and white paneled buildings it neighbors. Some locals have described it as something one would only see in more affluent areas like in the Hamptons.

Broadway Market in Rocky Point, owned by Ann Olenick and Shasho Pole, is conjuring images of a revitalized, walkable downtown community hub for some locals. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We’ve had people say when are you opening in East Hampton, when are you opening in Huntington? Can you come to Soho?” Olenick said laughing.

“Stop, stop, stop — please, we need to get our traction here first,” Pole said, continuing from where Olenick left off. “There are naysayers, but the feedback that I get here is a resounding ‘we need this, we need something like this.’”

Either way, the community is responding to the new restaurant in a big way. Some see it as a dream of what might be the future of Rocky Point’s downtown.

“It’s good to have a nice restaurant in the area,” said Kenny Kowalchuk, a Rocky Point local who had just finished his meal at the restaurant. “This is really turning the community around.”

Broadway Market is located at 643, Broadway in Rocky Point. The location is open seven days a week, Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday 2 to 10 p.m. and Tuesday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The Town of Huntington hosted its 5th annual tournament at Coral Park July 21

The Town of Huntington hosted its fifth annual Co-Ed Basketball Tournament at Coral Park in Greenlawn July 21.

Teens between the ages of 12 to 18 came out for a number of friendly half-court games in a round-robin tournament. Those games were followed by an alumni game with teams made with graduates from area high schools. While the kids played, event organizers stood on the sidelines and shouted advice and encouragement to the young players on the court.

“We do this every year to keep kids out of trouble,” tournament organizer Vernon Lowe said. “Somebody did it for me when I was growing up, and somebody should do it for them.”

Several kids were given awards for being recognized as Most Valuable Player by the tournament organizers. Huntington High School student Omari Stephen, who plays boys’ junior varsity basketball team, and Leisaan Hibbert, of Dix Hills, were awarded MVP for the youth tournament. Damique Reddick, a 2016 graduate of John H. Glenn High School in Elwood, won MVP for the alumni game.

Annual enrollment numbers of 2012-13 school year compared to 2016-17. Graphic by TBR News Media

By Kyle Barr

A shadow hangs above the heads of Long Island’s school districts: The specter of declining enrollment.

“From last year, not a whole lot has changed, enrollment is still declining,” Barbara Graziano, the manager of the Office of School Planning and Research for Western Suffolk BOCES said. “What a lot of districts are seeing is there is a significant displacement between their graduating classes being larger than the following year’s kindergarten classes.”

School enrollment across Suffolk County has been in decline for nearly a decade. In last year’s annual report on enrollment, Western Suffolk BOCES, a regional educational service agency, said there was a 9.1 percent overall decline in enrollment in townships from Huntington to Smithtown from 2010 to 2016.

Students at Bicycle Path Pre-K/Kindergarten Center hop off the school bus. Photo from Middle Country school district

Between the 2006-07 and 2016-17 school years, Long Island saw a 6.2 percent decline in enrollment, according to Robert Lowry, the deputy director for advocacy, research and communications at the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Statewide enrollment declined 4.2 percent in the same period. Nearly every school district on Suffolk County’s North Shore has seen at least some decline, and the trend can have tangible effects on a district’s long- and short-term planning.

“Declining enrollment may push a district toward reconsidering staffing and whether it’s necessary to close a school,” Lowry said.

Smithtown Central School District in the 2012-13 school year had 10,317 students enrolled in the district, and four years later the number dropped more than a thousand to 9,241 in 2016-17. The declining enrollment was cited in 2012, with guidance from the district’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Instruction and Housing, as the rationale behind the closing of Nesconset Elementary School, and again in 2017 when the district closed Brook Branch Elementary School.

“Over the last few years, the board of education and administration have been proactive regarding the district’s declining enrollment,” Smithtown Superintendent James Grossane said in an email. “The district
will continue to monitor its enrollment trends to plan for the future.”

“Over the last few years, the board of education and administration have been proactive regarding the district’s declining enrollment.”

— James Grossane

Experts cite factors like declining birthrate, aging population and changes in local immigration patterns as potentially having an impact on local enrollment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report in May indicating the national birthrate in 2017 hit a 30-year low with 60.2 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44. The national birthrate has been in general decline since the 1960s, but this most recent report is low even compared to 10 years ago when the birthrate was closer to 70 births per 1,000 women. Suffolk County’s population is also skewing older. Census data from the American Community Survey showed from 2010 to 2016 there was an estimated 28,288 less school-aged children between the ages of 5 and 19 living in the county. School closings are probably the most severe action districts tend to take to mitigate the effect of declining enrollment, but it is not the only option.

The Three Village Central School District has seen enrollment drop by about 900 students during the last decade. In its recently passed budget the district said it was making several staffing changes, including consolidating the roles of certain staff members. The district cited declining enrollment along with staff retirements and attrition for the changes, but also promised to add a new high school guidance counselor and an additional district psychologist to give attention to individual student’s mental health.

“While our district, like so many others in our area, have recently been experiencing a decline in enrollment, particularly at the elementary level, we have taken this opportunity to create efficiencies using current staff in order to lower class size and support a number of new initiatives, programmatic enhancements and student support services,” Cheryl Pedisich, the superintendent for Three Village schools said in an email.

“Declining enrollment affects school districts in several ways — perhaps most importantly through the impact on state aid.”

— Al Marlin

Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen said lower enrollment allows for smaller class sizes and for more attention to the mental health of individual students.

“Our students today need a little bit more mental health support than students yesterday,” Eagen said. “Obviously we don’t need as many elementary sections, but we haven’t necessarily decreased our total staffing amount because we’ve been increasing our mental health supports.”

Even with those potential benefits, many districts are still trying to work out the long-term implications of lower enrollment. Al Marlin, a spokesperson for the New York State School Boards Association said enrollment has a large effect on how much state aid a school can procure.

“Declining enrollment affects school districts in several ways — perhaps most importantly through the impact on state aid because New York’s school-aid distribution formula is based, in part, on enrollment numbers,” Marlin said in an email. “Declining enrollment also can make it more difficult for districts to sustain academic courses, including Advanced Placement courses and programs such as sports teams.”

Shoreham-Wading River school district conducted an enrollment study in 2015 that was updated for the 2017-18 school year. The study predicted the district will recede to 1,650 enrolled students by 2025, compared to 2,170 as of May. Along with a declining birthrate and an aging population, the district pointed to low housing turnover from 2008 to 2016 for part of the declining enrollment.

As part of an ongoing Shoreham-Wading River bond referendum voted on in 2015, school classrooms, like those at Principal Christine Carlson’s Miller Avenue School, were expanded to include bathrooms. File photo by Kyle Barr

“It is difficult to predict the exact number, but it is fair to say that the enrollment decline in the district will be continuing in the near future,” SWR superintendent Gerard Poole said in an email.

Superintendents from SWR and Rocky Point school district both said they do not have any plans to close schools, but there is a possibility lower enrollment could affect the districts’ ability to apply for grants.

A few districts are breaking the trend. Huntington Union Free School District has actually seen an increase in school enrollment from 2012 to 2017, but Superintendent James Polansky said in the most recent years that increase has started to level off. Polansky did not want to speculate as to why enrollment in Huntington was not decreasing like other districts, but Graziano said it might be because the district is more diverse and attracts more immigration than nearby districts.

“Every district is different, they have to look at their own schools and communities to see how they deal with enrollment,” Polansky said.

Every year Western Suffolk BOCES releases a report that looks at schools’ current enrollment and compares it to previous years. Graziano, who is working on this year’s report, most likely to be released sometime this month, said the agency expects a continuing decline in school enrollment at least for the next several years. Though eventually, she said, the declining enrollment should level off as entering kindergarten class sizes stabilize. However, there is no telling when that might be. 

“Birthrates do not seem to be increasing, it doesn’t look like, as of right now, that’s going to turn around any time soon,” Graziano said. “But of course, we don’t have a crystal ball.”

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.”

Local nonprofits gathered in East Northport to share ideas and network. Photo by Kevin Redding

A community bank and a financial education group recently partnered up in an effort to help local nonprofits thrive.

On March 25, the Equity First Foundation, an organization that primarily works with small businesses in financial distress, hosted a community breakfast for nonprofit organizers and supporters at Investors Bank in East Northport.

The networking event gave the crowd of good-hearted people who advocate for important causes across Suffolk County a rare opportunity to exchange business cards and ideas with one another.

Equity First Foundation Founder and President Rhonda Klch, a Rocky Point resident, speaks to local nonprofits during a community breakfast. Photo by Kevin Redding

Representatives from a wide range of volunteer organizations — that help everybody from families to children to veterans — bonded over their shared interest in providing a service to those who need it most.

Priscilla Arena, executive director of Suffolk Asperger-Autism Sport and Information, a Mount Sinai nonprofit that serves the needs of the autism community throughout Long Island, said the event benefitted nonprofits far better than social media ever could.

“There’s nothing better than a face-to-face meeting with anyone, with any decision makers,” Arena said. “And here you have a room of decision makers and people that make things happen. You have the right people in the room, it’s communities helping other communities and it’s fantastic.”

Communities helping other communities is exactly what pushed Investment Bank Branch Manager and Miller Place resident Amanda Seppi to pursue the idea of the gathering with her frequent collaborator Rhonda Klch, a Mount Sinai resident and executive director of the Equity First Foundation.

Seppi, whose bank is geared toward community grassroots organizations and overall community giving, said she wanted to bring nonprofits from the local area together to network with one another and potentially help strengthen their individual causes.

“I was finding that nonprofits don’t necessarily interact with one another to develop strategies to grow, and I figured it was a win-win for everybody to be able to learn about one another,” Seppi said. “[Ultimately], I want them to be able to reach a wider audience, to be able to raise funds in order to escalate and continue to do the good they’re trying to do for the community.”

The nonprofits don’t have the exposure they deserve, she added.

“I’d like to bring as much attention to the people who are doing good for nothing, it’s important to me to have them grow and do well,” Seppi said.

Klch agreed, feeling as though the nonprofits could use all the help they could get in terms of funding, which all nonprofits rely on to survive.

Through Investors Foundation at the bank, nonprofits can receive grants and scholarships.

Members of local nonprofits share ideas and network. Photo by Kevin Redding

“With a lot of changes happening in the economy, a lot of grants are no longer available, qualifying for funding is much more difficult and even your local business community that would normally support different fundraising initiatives, because of their own setbacks, aren’t able to provide as much,” Klch said. “What we’re looking to do is have nonprofits partner and work uniformly. If I have money or resources coming into my organization, I can offer it to somebody else.”

Klch presented “The Haven,” a beachside retreat that nonprofits can offer to clients who may be facing economic hardships caused by illness, death and addiction. The retreat would serve as a mental reprieve for individuals and families, as well as a sponsorship opportunity.

Among some of the organizations at the gathering were Youth Directions & Alternatives, a community agency that serves youth and families in the Northport-East Northport-Elwood-Harborfields school districts; Maria’Z Hope Foundation, a group made up of women dedicated to providing support for those seeking an alternative approach to medical healing; and East Northport-based General Needs, which helps homeless Long Island veterans and their families through charitable donations and support.

Lonnie Sherman, founder of General Needs, started the group 10 years ago when he realized there were 5,000 homeless veterans on Long Island without basic necessities like socks, underwear and boots. Today, the group takes care of about 3,000 of them, cooking food, helping to treat those suffering from PTSD and delivering hundreds of pairs of boots so they can get jobs.

A recent grant from Investors Bank allowed the group to help veterans get apartments.

“When I go to an event like this, I want to walk out having had a conversation with one person that’s going to listen, so we get the word out … ultimately that’s going to make a difference,” he said. “We [nonprofits] are the ones who can make a difference.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on right, gets signatures from residents in support of the Community Protection Act outside Stop & Shop in Miller Place. Photo from County Executive Bellone's office

By Kevin Redding

In light of recent court rulings and pending lawsuits in favor of sex offenders, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is urging the New York State Legislature to follow in the county’s footsteps and get tough on sex criminals by passing legislation that gives the county authorization to uphold its strict laws against them.

On Feb. 11, Bellone and Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) spoke with parents and residents in Miller Place about supporting and protecting the rules within the Suffolk County Community Protection Act — a private-public partnership law developed by Bellone, victims’ rights advocates like Parents for Megan’s Law and law enforcement agencies. It ensures sex offender registration and compliance, and protects residents and their children against sexual violence — much to the dismay of local sex offenders, who have been suing the county to try to put a stop to the act.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Legislator Sarah Anker talk to residents about the Community Protection Act. Photo from County Executive Bellone’s office

“We’re encouraging people to go on to our Facebook page and sign the online petition,” Bellone said. “We want to get as many signatures as we can to communicate to our partners in the state that this is a priority that we pass legislation that makes it clear Suffolk County has the right to continue doing what it’s doing to protect our community against sex offenders.”

While the county executive said Suffolk representative have been supportive of the law, which was put in place four years ago, he wanted to make sure they’re armed with grassroots support to convince state colleagues they have a substantial evidence to prove it’s popularity and show it’s the right thing to do.

Since it was enacted in 2013, the Community Protection Act has been the nation’s strictest sex offender enforcement, monitoring and verification program, cracking down on all three levels of offenders when it comes to their proximity to a school facility or child-friendly area, and reducing sex offender recidivism in Suffolk County by 81 percent. Ninety-eight percent of Level 2 and more than 94 percent of Level 3 registrants are in compliance with photograph requirements, what Bellone said is a significant increase from before the law took effect.

Through its partnership with Parents for Megan’s Law, the county has conducted more than 10,000 in-person home verification visits for all levels of sex offenders, by sending retired law enforcement to verify sex offenders’ work and home addresses and make sure their registry is accurate and up to date. More than 300 sex offenders have also been removed from social media under the law.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, the act is a critical piece of legislation.

“The program has been incredibly successful, which is why sex offenders don’t like it.”

—Steve Bellone

“The numbers don’t lie, there’s a lot of hard evidence and data that shows this act has done precisely what it was designed to do: monitor sex offenders and make sure they’re not doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing,” Deputy Commissioner Justin Meyers said. “To date, I have never met a single resident in this county who didn’t support [it].”

Besides the sex offenders themselves, that is.

The act has made Suffolk County one of the more difficult places for registered sex offenders to live and, since its inception, Suffolk sex offenders have deemed its strict level of monitoring unconstitutional, arguing, and overall winning their cases in court that local law is not allowed to be stricter than the state law.

In 2015, the state Court of Appeals decided to repeal local residency restriction laws for sex offenders, claiming local governments “could not impose their own rules on where sex offenders live.”

In the prospective state legislation, Bellone hopes to close the sex offender loophole that would allow high-level sex offenders to be able to legally move into a home at close proximity to a school.

“The program has been incredibly successful, which is why sex offenders don’t like it,” Bellone said. “This is what we need to do to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect kids and families in our community. As a father of three young kids, this is very personal to me and I think that while we’ve tried to make government more efficient and reduce costs here, this is an example of the kind of thing government should absolutely be spending resources on.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on right, with a community member who signed his petition urging state lawmakers to uphold the Community Protection Act. Photo from County Executive Bellone’s office

To conduct all the monitoring and fund educational resources offered to the community by Parents for Megan’s Law — teaching parents what to look out for and how to prevent their children from becoming victims — costs roughly $1 million a year, according to Bellone.

In addition to the residential restriction, Bellone is calling on the state to authorize the county to verify the residency and job sites of registered sex offenders, authorize local municipalities to keep a surveillance on homeless sex offenders, who represent less than 4 percent of the offender population in Suffolk County, and require them to call their local police department each night to confirm where they’re staying, and require an affirmative obligation of all sex offenders to cooperate and confirm information required as part of their sex offender designation.

“If people really knew this issue, I couldn’t see how they would oppose the Community Protection Act, because sex offenders are not a common criminal; there’s something fundamentally and psychologically wrong with somebody who commits sexual crime and we as a society have to understand that,” said St. James resident Peter , who held a “Protect Children” rally in the area last years. “Residents should know that the sexual abuse of children is out of control.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four girls are abused and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

“It is imperative that we, not only as a community, but as a state, make efforts to further ensure the safety of our children from sexual predators,” Anker said. “We must do everything in our power to ensure that this law is upheld and that’s why I’ve joined [Bellone] in calling on the New York State Legislature to consider an amendment to grant the county the ability to uphold it.”

To sign the petition, visit https://www.change.org/p/new-york-state-protect-our-children-support-the-community-protection-act.

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The news is in my blood. If you don’t believe me, check the name of the person who writes the column on the same page and who started this business 40 years ago — go Mom!

And yet there’s far too much blood in the news these days. It’s not enough that storms and natural disasters kill: People are murdering each other in stomach-churning numbers.

It’s heart-wrenching to read about the losses in our country and around the world. Far too often, headlines about senseless violence fill the news.

News organizations shouldn’t ignore these horrific acts, because we want to know what’s going on in the world, what we need to do to stay safe and what other people are doing and thinking.

It seems to me that there are things we can do. We can give blood. Why? We might save someone’s life, we might give someone a vital supply of something we can’t grow in a field, pull from a river or manufacture in a laboratory.

Recently, I met a woman who had been donating blood to her father for two years. He was sick and he needed blood on a regular basis. After he died, she continued to give blood. She said her father received blood from other people besides her during his illness, and she wanted to give back to a system that improved and extended his life.

Do we read about her? No, generally, we don’t, because it’s a small act of kindness and social awareness that doesn’t get politicians angry and doesn’t cause people to write messages to each other over the Internet. It’s not an opportunity to resort to name calling: It’s just a chance to save lives.

We can also volunteer to make our communities better places. We can be a big brother or big sister, or we can find a charitable organization that provides caring and support for families that have children with special needs. My Aunt Maxine had Down syndrome and gave so much more than she ever took.

Sure, she dominated the airwaves with her husky voice and, yes, she sometimes said and did things that made us roll our eyes, but, more often than not, she displayed the kind of unreserved love and affection that jaded and vulnerable adults find difficult to display. When Maxine laughed or did something extraordinarily funny, like sharing a malapropism, she laughed so hard that she cried. Nowadays, after she died, we find ourselves sharing tears of joy when we think of how much she contributed to our lives and to the room.

When the big things seem to be going in the wrong direction, we the people can commit random acts of kindness. Yes, we can and should pray for each other. It certainly can’t hurt, regardless of whether we’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other religion.

We can also take the kind of actions that define who we are and that show our character. We are living in a world after the Brexit vote and after the failed coup attempt in Turkey. We may not know what to make of all that, but we can decide who we want to be.

We can’t stand on a platform, the way all the former Miss America contestants of bygone days used to, and wish for “world peace,” because that seems naive. And, yet, we can hope that small acts, committed in the name of counterbalancing all the negative news, echoed and amplified across the nation, can turn the tone.

We are fortunate enough to live in a place where we can shape the world in a way we’d like it to be, one community and one random act of kindness at a time.

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