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Friendship

By Kevin Redding

Since the untimely passing of Tom Cutinella in October 2014, the memory of Shoreham’s beloved student-athlete has lived on within the district, from the dedication of the high school’s athletic field in his name to a life-size bust and memorial wall close to it.

But perhaps no remembrance captures the kindhearted spirit of the fallen football player quite like the newly built “buddy bench,” to be installed on the playground at Wading River Elementary School.

“Character is what sets us aside from one another. This ‘buddy bench’ will inspire you all even more to be like Thomas and Kaitlyn … to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”

—Kelli Cutinella

Adorned with the inscription “Be A Friend Make A Friend” underneath the dedication “In Loving Memory of Thomas Cutinella,” the bench serves to eliminate loneliness and promote friendship among children — when those feeling alone or bullied sit on the bench, other students are encouraged to take a seat next to them and ask if they want to be friends.

It was donated in Cutinella’s honor by Kait’s Angels, a North Fork-based non-profit started just weeks after Mattituck resident Kaitlyn Doorhy, a 20-year-old college student at Sacred Heart University, was struck and killed by a car in August 2014.

So far, the organization has installed more than 10 benches in her memory at every elementary school on the North Fork, including Cutchogue East and Greenport, as well as a senior center in Southold. This is the first one built in someone else’s name.

“This bench defines what Tom stood for,” Kelli Cutinella, Tom’s mother, told students, administrators and parents packed into the elementary school’s gym for the bench’s ribbon-cutting ceremony June 16. Speaking directly to the students, she said, “character is what sets us aside from one another. This ‘buddy bench’ will inspire you all even more to be like Thomas and Kaitlyn … to do the right thing, even when no one is looking … have that character that sets you aside from everyone and always let your peers know they have a friend and are never alone.”

“Their legacy has come together for a special reason and Kaitlin and Thomas will always be remembered here. Even though they’re not here in the flesh, their spirits live on.”

—Darla Doorhy

It was during his years at the elementary school that Cutinella started being recognized as someone special, who took the school’s teachings about trustworthiness, respect and caring to heart.

He was a kind, selfless kid who was quick to help others and make friends with anyone he crossed paths with, no matter who they were.

“[Tom] was a friend to everyone, and I mean everyone,” said Cutinella, who was joined at the event by her husband, Frank, and their children. “He was a natural helper and a best buddy.”

Cutinella’s life was was tragically cut short nearly three years ago following a head-on collision with an opposing player on a football field during a high school game.

Darla Doorhy, Kaitlin’s mother, reached out to Kelli Cutinella around Christmas time to discuss collaborating on the dedication, which took about six months to come to fruition. The bench was purchased by Kait’s Angels from Belson Outdoors in Illinois.

She said Tom and her daughter — who had been a Girl Scout ambassador, National Honor Society member, multi-sport athlete, musician and organizer for countless fundraising efforts — were very similar in their generosity towards others, right down to being registered organ donors.

“Their legacy has come together for a special reason and Kaitlin and Thomas will always be remembered here,” Doorhy said. “Even though they’re not here in the flesh, their spirits live on.”

“The truth is that every one of you has the power to transform the world in the decisions you make. If you see anyone sitting on that bench, that means you go up and ask, ‘Hey, can you come and play with me?’

—Louis Parrinello

Cutinella agreed there’s a special connection between their children, and said she was humbled to be approached by Doorhy and Kait’s Angels.

“Certainly there’s a commonality of the tragedies,” President of Kait’s Angels, William Araneo, said. “Although physically there will always be an empty chair, her presence remains strong … she continues to find ways to bring us together and this is one example of that. And just like Tom, Kaitlin reserved a place in her heart for those who may not have been popular, and persevered to make friends with those who might be developmentally challenged.”

Wading River Elementary School Principal Louis Parrinello called on a few students from each grade, starting with second, to place notes they wrote earlier in the day into a large basket next to the bench.

Scribbled on the notes were ways in which a student could make friends with another; one student wrote, “I can make a friend by playing with them,” while another student’s note said, “I can make a friend by talking to them about what they like.”

A small group of students who knew Cutinella personally were called up to cut the ribbon and be the first to sit on the bench.

“We learn about people in history, like Abraham Lincoln and Betsy Ross … people who have transformed the world,” Parrinello said to the room of students, “but the truth is that every one of you has the power to transform the world in the decisions you make. If you see anyone sitting on that bench, that means you go up and ask, ‘Hey, can you come and play with me?’ It’s about opening up and starting something new.”

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Parenting, that is

Much anticipation surrounds the arrival of a new baby. Photo by Andrea Paldy

When you see a headline claiming parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment or the death of a partner  — check out the August 11 edition of The Washington Post — you can’t turn away. You have to keep reading.

Even if the article turns out not to be quite what the headline implies, it’s definitely an attention grabber, because no matter how lacking in sleep or how many Legos you’ve collected from random places, in what feels like an endless loop, the notion that parenthood is worse than some pretty traumatic life events is kind of offensive.

Though it sounds like the study is saying having children makes people unhappy, what the researchers Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskyla are really saying is that parents’ first go around with baby #1 can influence the choice to have a second.

Oh. Well, that makes more sense.

In fact, the longitudinal study, conducted on German couples three years before the birth of a first child and at least two years after the birth, doesn’t actually compare parenthood to unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner, at all. But, it does, The Washington Post said, use the same happiness scale that has been used to measure such milestones. Even so, the deck seems pretty stacked if you’re measuring parenthood by that first year.

I mean, you’re talking about desperately sleep-deprived adults who are faced with the highest stakes responsibility of their lives! With no previous experience, I might add. Sorry, but babysitting in high school does not count. Not to mention the isolation, decisions about careers, childcare and worrying about how and where to pump if you are going back to work. And on a less dire, but still psychically stressful note, there is deciding what to wear to work, since it’s pretty unlikely the pre-baby era wardrobe will be making a reappearance.

What I liked about the study is that it actually acknowledges the effect that those issues — along with difficulties during pregnancy, giving birth or breastfeeding — have on that first year. It’s hard! And as the researchers mention, childrearing is “continuous and intense” and can be especially challenging without experience or social support.

The study finds that parents reported the highest well-being either right before the baby is born or right after, but that the biggest drop-off in well-being occurs within that first year after the birth. The researchers also found that among its participants, those who decided to have a second child had “a smaller drop in well-being in the year after the birth” of their first child and “gained more in life satisfaction around the time of a first child’s birth” than those who chose not to have a second child. Again, this seems pretty logical.

And unlike all of the blogs and books and things meant to ease newbies into their roles, the study does note the importance of social support in that first year. Grandparents, of course, are invaluable, because they’ve done it all before. They can see the big picture, which at the very beginning is so hard to see. They love us and they love their grandkids and they have tons of patience. (More than they had when we were kids).

Friendships with other parents are also key. It sounds simplistic and can be rather difficult to do with short parental leaves that barely grant enough time to bond with and enjoy the baby, but there is much to be said for being able to talk to someone who has experienced what you have recently or is making some of the same discoveries you are. When a good college friend came to visit a week after my first was born, she allayed many of my anxious, new-mom concerns about whether I was doing it right, because she had just been there and done that.

Even as the children grow and you grow into your role, it’s good to have those friends with whom you can swap stories, advice, children’s clothing and even emergency childcare. It can also mean lifelong friendships for the children too. And if it gets hard, it’s okay to say it’s hard, because you’ll probably hear that you’re not the only one feeling that way.

There is no question that becoming a parent is a joyous and transformative experience with a steep learning curve. And as any parent knows, you never stop learning or worrying about getting it “right.”

Whether it’s those lifelong friends transitioning with you or new ones you make along the way, having that support can make a difference. Because, everyone needs a little help from their friends. Especially when it comes to raising children.

Setauket Elementary students Julian McGrath, left, and Conor Matthews share a moment and a smile with their Jefferson’s Ferry friend, resident Betty Bangert. Photo from Kathleen Caputi

Spirits were high when 25 fifth-grade students from Adrienne D’Onofrio’s Setauket Elementary school class recently enjoyed a farewell lunch at Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Retirement Community.

Over the course of the school year, the students have partnered with Jefferson’s Ferry’s Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing residents, enjoying companionship, crafting, cooking, learning and fun.

Well-loved by students and residents alike, the Intergenerational Program was conceived 10 years ago by Setauket Elementary teacher Ellen Young, who is now retired but is still active in the program, with Jefferson Ferry Director of Therapeutic Recreation Jennifer Barrett.

Generally, a dozen or so residents engage with the children in small groups during monthly visits.

“You can’t even imagine how much the children look forward to seeing the residents at our visits,” D’Onofrio said. “It has really made an impact on both the students and the residents. Together they’ve written poems, played games, built candy houses, and cooked up a Thanksgiving feast. It’s been a great year.”

The farewell luncheon is always an emotional and memorable event, with barely a dry eye among the adults in attendance. The children get all dressed up, parents are invited, and a lunch is served in the rotunda at Jefferson’s Ferry’s main building. This year, on May 21, the children read aloud letters to the residents and performed Randy Newman’s song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

“The students and the residents become very close over the course of the year,” said Barrett. “We attended the school’s talent show and the kids ended up cheering for us. It made our residents feel loved and very special. We’ve also had numerous students return over the years, either to visit their friends or give community service. It’s very gratifying and a win-win for everyone.”

Student Harry Rosenzweig wrote a note to resident Jim Ardolino.

“I want to thank you so much for playing spoons with me that Thursday we came in April. You made me realize that my hair is way too long and that I can’t see with [it] in my eyes! I got it cut that weekend and I saw the world in a new way! The stories you told about how athletic your childhood was were so awesome and interesting. Thank you for being the coolest resident ever.”

Another student, Julianna Lorber, said that, “I’ve had such an amazing experience coming to see all of the residents. … Thank you for always making me leave with a smile on my face.”

Mary Bafundi, a 95-year-old Jefferson’s Ferry resident, has participated in the Intergenerational Program since she moved into Assisted Living more than five years ago. Today Mary lives in Skilled Nursing, but pilots her electric power chair to keep up with her young friends.

She’s helped plant flowers with the children, baked with them, attended their talent shows and told them her stories. As the oldest of 13 children, Mary spent most of her life first tending to her siblings and then her own children.

Joining Mary in the program are residents Giselle McGann, Dorothy Catania, Jim Ardolino, David Wooster, Nina Sloan, Betty Bangert and Lisa Goldschmidt. In addition to Henry and Julianna, D’Onofrio’s students are: Ashley Bunici, Hazel Cash, Jean Chung, Faith Curth, Melaina Gargano, Toni Amber Hemmerick, Kaitlyn Hernandez, Kristopher Furnari, Maia Le Lay, David Liang, Giani Mascolo, Conor Matthews, Julian McGrath, Mark O’Brien, Samuel Ribeiro-DiCanio, Lindsay Rodgers, Ben Sheline, Sohum Singh, Hannah Toirac, Melissa Vivenzio and Dylan Zummo.

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