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Fundraiser

Choppy conditions in Port Jefferson Harbor forced the cancellation of the race portion of the 2018 Village Cup Regatta Sept. 8,  but the annual fundraiser was a success anyway.

For the ninth year, the Port Jefferson Yacht Club and the Port Jefferson Village Center were the home for the event, which features a parade past the village-owned pier at Harborfront Park, a race out in the open water between sailboats representing the village and John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, and a banquet to conclude the festivities. This year, conditions weren’t conducive to holding the race, but the event still raised about $70,000 for two worthy causes, according to Mather’s Facebook page.

Funds raised by the regatta will be split between Mather Hospital’s Palliative Medicine Program and the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

For the sixth year,  actor/director and local resident Ralph Macchio served as community ambassador for the event. Macchio helps to publicize the important work of the two programs funded by the regatta. His wife, Phyllis, is a nurse practitioner in Mather’s Palliative Medicine Program.

Ayla Lerner with her brother, Miles. Photo from Fundrazr

The sister of a Northport High School student-athlete who was hit by a car Tuesday morning has launched an online fundraiser to help her brother on his road to recovery. In less than four days, it has already raised nearly $85,000.

“The response has been tremendous,” said Ayla Lerner, a junior at Northport High School. “Our local community has been absolutely amazing in showing their support.”

Lerner’s 14-year-old brother, Miles, was on his way to cross-country practice Sept. 4 when he was struck by a 2005 Honda sedan traveling eastbound on Laurel Hill Road at 8:06 a.m., according to police. He was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital with serious injuries.

“Our local community has been absolutely amazing in showing their support.”

— Ayla Lerner

Lerner launched a FundRazr site titled “Please Help Miles Lerner’s Road to Recovery” to reach out and ask for the Northport-East Northport community’s support for her brother and her family in the aftermath of the accident.

“The media has reported that the driver who hit him is uninsured, which adds an element of financial strain,” she wrote on the website.

Miles was preparing to start his freshman year of high school Sept. 6. He was excited to be a member of Northport’s cross-country running team and Freshman Choir, according to Lerner.

“To give you a sense of his energy level, Miles participated in a three-week bike tour this past summer and biked 55 to 75 miles a day while carrying his belongings on the back of a bike,” she wrote.

After launching the website, she reached out to members of her brother’s cross-country team hoping given their connection to him, they would spread awareness of the cause and help her family. Word of her brother’s accident and her fundraising efforts has spread quickly and further than Lerner said she ever expected.

“I know all parents mock social media, but in this age, the Internet has allowed us to receive support from so many communities — we’ve received support from as far as Indonesia — they are treating us like family,” she said.

In addition to the donations, Lerner said her parents have been completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and well wishes they have been receiving. She said community members have brought her family food, offered to pack her lunch, and even reached out to offer her transportation to events like an upcoming ACT exam.

“I know that he doesn’t know it right now, isolated in his hospital room, but he is really being backed up by all the people he knows and loves.”

— Ayla Lerner

“We are incredibly gratified by the response,” she said.

Continued donations are most appreciated as the family anticipates medical bills for their son’s continued hospital care, according to Lerner. For those anxiously awaiting updates on Miles’ medical condition, the family will be hosting a table at the Northport Cow Harbor Day race Sept. 15 to share information with the community and sell navy bracelets bearing the slogan “Miles4Miles.”

“I know that he doesn’t know it right now, isolated in his hospital room, but he is really being backed up by all the people he knows and loves,” Lerner said.

Northport’s cross-country team will be participating in the Great Cow Harbor 10K race this year to show its support for Miles, according to Lerner, running the miles that he cannot.

His sister said the traumatic accident has changed her view on being an older sibling.

“Everyone has siblings, and sure, sometimes we annoy each other, but when you see your brother lying on a hospital bed in front of you, your perspective changes,” Lerner said. “I want to do everything I can to help him. I miss him.”

Residents paddle along in the 2017 Regatta on the River at Nissequogue River State Park. Photo from Nissequogue River State Park Foundation

By Anthony Petriello 

Residents are gearing up to take to the Nissequogue River in kayaks, canoes and, for the first time ever, on paddleboards to witness and preserve its beauty.

Kings Park students have come together to plan the third annual Regatta on the River Aug. 11 to raise funds for the upkeep and improvement of Nissequogue River State Park. The event is sponsored by the Reichert family, owners of the Larkfield and Fort Salonga IGA supermarkets, and features a competitive 10-mile race starting at 11 a.m., followed by a leisurely 5-mile race at 11:30 a.m.

“Each year the regatta has grown and we look forward to another successful event this year,” said John McQuaid, president of the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the park and its assets for future generations. 

Each year the regatta has grown and we look forward to another successful event this year.”

– John McQuaid

The foundation was created to work together with students to plan events and fundraisers to keep the park clean and up-to-date for local residents to enjoy.

Emily Dinan, Caleigh Lynch and Juliana Quigley are three co-presidents of the foundation’s student board who have worked together to organize this year’s event.

“The student board allows high school students like myself to get hands on experience in giving back to our community,” Lynch said, a student of Saint Anthony’s High School in Melville. “This experience is different than most others that are available for students our age, as we are given a great deal of responsibility in obtaining sponsors, filing permits, handing out fliers, etc.”

Under the guidance of McQuaid, the student board held meetings to organize the event by creating flyers to hang around town, filing the necessary permits and obtaining sponsors. The board also looked at what was and was not successful in previous regattas, and took those elements into account in planning this year’s event.

Dinan, who will be a senior at Kings Park High School this fall, said she is humbled by the opportunity that she and her other co-presidents have to generate positive attention for the park built on the former grounds of Kings Park Psychiatric Center.

In our own backyard, we have a recreational gem comparable to any of the parks in upstate New York and my wish is that our community takes full advantage of it.”

– Juliana Quigley

“This beautiful park doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” she said. “Of course we, the student board, want the regatta to be an even bigger hit than it’s been in the past, but the real goal is for people to see the beauty of the park and see what else it has to offer.”

Paddleboarders are welcome to take part in the regatta this year for the first time, after the committee received numerous inquiries from prior participants. The students hope the addition of paddleboards will attract even more residents and help further bolster the park’s rising popularity among Long Islanders. Quigley, who will be a senior at Kings Park High School this fall and third-generation resident, said she believes that Nissequogue River State Park rivals any other New York state park.

“Whether it was kayaking on the river or walking along the trails, my family has been able to fully utilize the various recreational purposes that this park serves.” she said. “In our own backyard, we have a recreational gem comparable to any of the parks in upstate New York and my wish is that our community takes full advantage of it.”

Registration for the 10-mile race costs from $45 to $60 per person, depending on watercraft type and whether a rental is needed. Cost of the 5-mile course starts at $25 increasing to $55. Adult spectators are asked for $10, while children age 10 and under are free. All proceeds from ticket sales will go directly to the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation for use in the park. Rain date is Aug. 12.

For more information on the regatta or to register to participate, visit www.ourstatepark.com/3rd-annual-regatta-on-the-river.

Connor Richardson. Photo from the Richardson family

A Smithtown father is looking to honor his young son’s memory by pledging to continue the battle against pediatric cancer in his name.

Wayne Richardson is pairing up with The Park Lounge in Kings Park to host the first Connor R. Richardson Forever One Pediatric Cancer Foundation Tournament July 22 from 1 to 5 p.m. The event — featuring a tournament of the outdoor beanbag toss game Cornhole — will be a tribute to Richardson’s late son, Connor, who died in January after a six-month battle with cancer.

“I promised him I’d cure this thing and it gives his life more meaning,” Richardson said.

“I promised him I’d cure this thing and it gives his life more meaning.”

— Wayne Richardson

Connor was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer called aggressive teratoid rhabdoid tumor in August 2017, when he was only seven months old. Less than 10 percent of children with brain tumors have the same type of Connor’s diagnosis, according to St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital in Memphis.

Richardson said his son and wife, Janida, spent months living at St. Jude’s while Connor was an inpatient. He underwent extensive chemotherapy treatment in hopes of defeating the cancer.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was hoping it would at least be a couple of years,” his father said.

Richardson said he is grateful for how St. Jude’s staff treated his family while they were there, and keeps in touch with his son’s doctors. He recalled how for Connor’s first birthday in December 2017 his son received not one, but two birthday cakes from staff. Now, Richardson wants to pay his family’s kind treatment forward.

The Cornhole tournament at the July 22 fundraiser will cost $15 per player or $30 per team, all of which, along with gift basket raffles and all donations, will be donated directly to St. Jude’s, according to Richardson. A Kings Park High School alumnus, he’s had the support of The Park Lounge in helping put together the event.

“It all helps, it’s all bullets in the gun against cancer.”

— Wayne Richardson

“He’s a Kings Parker and he hangs out here” said Michele Cocco, an employee of The Park Lounge.

Richardson said the event will also be used to kick start the Connor R. Richardson Forever One Pediatric Cancer Foundation, with which he hopes to raise money to provide continuous support for St. Jude’s and help research ways to fight pediatric cancer.

Since Connor’s death, Richardson said he’s been learning about another former of pediatric brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, which affects the brain stem. On average, less than 10 percent of children diagnosed with DIPG survive for two years, according to Michael Mosier Defeat DIPG Foundation, a nonprofit committed to finding a cure for the disease. Richardson, a retired New York City police officer, said he hopes to one day work with computer programmers to help track DIPG and other pediatric cancers in order to pin down the causes and fund research to develop a cure. He frequents Stony Brook University’s medical library, so he can study up on the cancer and similar ones that took his son and still threatens the lives other children, he said.

“It all helps, it’s all bullets in the gun against cancer,” Richardson said.

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By Anthony Petriello

Comsewogue High School will be rockin’ for a good cause July 19 with John Elefante, former lead singer of the American classic rock group Kansas.

A concert — called A Night of Hope — is being presented by the Warriors of Faith Christian Club, a group of Comsewogue students who organized the event to benefit the family of Brian McGuire, a district resident, former NYPD detective and 9/11 first responder who died suddenly April 30, leaving behind three children and his wife Karin, according to a GoFundMe page set up on behalf of the family. The event is meant to raise money for the family and for attendees to gather for prayer and discussion, according to a flyer promoting the concert.

Joining Elefante will be Kevin Chalfant, former lead singer for the Alan Parsons Live Project and former member of the world-renowned 1980s rock group Journey.

A benefit concert is being held at Comsewogue High School July 19 at 7 p.m. to benefit the family of a late community member.

Chalfant said he is eager to perform and was dedicated once he was informed about the circumstances surrounding the benefit.

“When John Elefante asked me to join him on Long Island for this wonderful family get together I was very happy,” Chalfant said. “I never knew the officer but when I heard that he was a first responder on 9/11, that’s all it took for me to be committed to this wonderful event.”

The money donated through ticket sales and a silent auction will go toward paying for college educations for the McGuire’s three kids. Their oldest son, Thomas, graduated from Comsewogue June 21, and will be attending Suffolk County Community College in the fall. Their son Michael will be entering 11th grade this upcoming school year, and their daughter, Danielle, will be heading to eighth grade.

Local businesses including Chick-Fil-A, School of Rock, and Wahlburgers, among others, as well as clergy from Axis Church of Medford, Harbor Church of Patchogue, Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, and the Christian Cultural Center in Smithtown are working together to promote and organize the event along with the Comsewogue students. All of the funds raised will be directed to the McGuire family.

Pastor Anthony Pelella of Axis Church is one of those coordinating the event, and said he wanted to be involved just to help a family in need.

“We just wanted to give them something to make them smile,” he said.

Pelella will be delivering a message of hope prior to the concert. He said he believes in the notion that the Port Jefferson community is an extremely interconnected and faith driven place to reside.

“I believe that the Port Jefferson community hurts together,” He said. “When one person hurts we all hurt together, and when one person smiles we all smile together.”

Comsewogue school board President John Swenning also said he is looking forward to the event and raising funds for the cause. While Swenning is not the main coordinator of the concert, he said he is putting his full effort behind it and working to maximize the aid the concert generates for the McGuire family.

“It is humbling to see a community come together to help a neighbor in their time of need,” Swenning said. “There is no place I would want to raise a family other than the Comsewogue community.”

The silent auction will consist of gift baskets and guitars autographed by Elefante and Chalfant.

Assigned seat tickets can be purchased at www.comsewoguehs.seatyourself.biz. Special tickets are also for sale for a meet and greet and dinner with the band, with food provided by Wahlburgers. Tickets for the meet and greet dinner are being sold by Axis Church, which can be reached by emailing info@axisny.org. The event begins at 7 p.m. at Comsewogue High School. Standard admission tickets will also be sold at the door.

The Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society dog walk will raise funds to repair and restore the windows on the historic William Miller House. File photo by Kevin Redding

The Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society is hosting its first Bark and Biscuit Walk May 19 to raise money to repair and restore the windows on the historic William Miller House. The house received a new roof at the end of last year, beginning of this, thanks to help from a local comic book-enthused resident, Jack Soldano.

The walk, which will start at North Country Road Middle School, located at 191 North Country Road in Miller Place, will begin at 10 a.m. and move west along the Miller Place Historic District to Landing Road, around to Cordwood Landing Road and then back to the middle school. The route is 1 mile each way.

Rules to follow will be that all dogs must remain on a leash and under the supervision of the handler at all times and all handlers must be 12 or older. There will be biscuits for the dogs and treats for the handlers.
McNulty’s Ice Cream Parlor in Miller Place is creating special ice cream for the pooches.

The historical society asks all attendees arrive at the middle school at 9:45 a.m. Registration is $20 per pet. Forms can be found at www.mpmshistoricalsociety.org.

Annual game against Mount Sinai memorializes the late alumna for her kindness, giving nature

By Desirée Keegan

Hundreds came out to show support for a local girl who gave to others.

In 2011, Rocky Point High School graduate Susie Facini died of a sudden heart attack. She was 19 years old. Since then, the Eagles and Mount Sinai’s baseball team have faced off each year to raise money for a scholarship in the name of a girl who was known for her immediate impact on everyone she met.

“All of them universally buy into what we’re trying to get across, and that is kindness,” said Facini’s father Peter, who tossed a ceremonial first pitch. “It takes courage to be kind sometimes — to step out of your comfort zone and reach out to somebody. And conversely, if you’re in trouble and you need help, you need to be able to ask somebody for help. It’s a difficult world and these kids give us great [hope].”

Without warning, Facini had felt her heart race, and passed out just seconds later. Despite efforts by her mother, Bernadette, a registered nurse, Facini was unable to be revived. The mother said she’s moved each and every year by how the community and the teams react to the game, especially now that most of the current student-athletes had never met her daughter.

“It comes down through the teachers, the parents; ‘Who is this girl, what does she mean to people and why?’ and they all do it proudly,” she said. “We are humbled by it every year and we’re shocked that it gets bigger and bigger. These are absolutely remarkable, nice boys. This event is really wonderful, and we’re lucky.”

Rocky Point senior pitcher and outfielder Ryan Callahan dedicated his time and efforts, taking part in the fundraiser that gathered $500 for the scholarship through food sales and raffles.

“I didn’t know her, but anyone you talk to says she was such a great person,” Callahan said. “I heard from everyone who’d known her that she was such an amazing human being, always so kind to everyone and left such a big and lasting impact on people. This is just our way to memorialize that.”

Jessica LaCascia, Facini’s longtime friend and classmate, said it’s the type of event her friend would’ve been first in line for.

“She would be dancing in the dugout like they are,” she said, pointing to the teammates that shook their hips to the music that played between each inning. “Susie was friends with everybody — there was not a stranger in her life. She was just such a bright light. Anytime she entered a room you couldn’t help but laugh; she commanded all of the attention. [I look around] and I don’t know anyone here, so I’m so thankful for all the people here coming out to celebrate what her life meant.”

Donations to the Live Like Susie Memorial Scholarship can be made in person or by mail to the high school at 90 Rocky Point-Yaphank Road, Rocky Point, NY, 11778.

Bill Landon contributed reporting

Kids get their heads shaved at the annual St. Baldrick's event at Centereach Fire Department March 16. Photo by Doug Dickerson

By Kyle Barr

On the night before St. Patrick’s Day, hair rained down onto the floor of Centereach Fire Department. People clapped and cheered as blonde, brown and even green-dyed hair fell from amused faces before being swept away during the annual St. Baldrick’s charity event to raise money for childhood cancer research March 16.

Area local Aimee Jackson watched her teenage son Zachary get shaved, the first head of the night to go bald. It was his fourth time participating, and every year the duo has tried to raise more and more money.

“The first time he did it he was little — 5 years old — we both did it,” she said. “He’s shaving in honor of his twin brother, Kendall, who passed away just before their fifth birthday.”

Zachary Jackson has his head shaved in honor of his twin brother, Kendall, who died of cancer at age 4. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Middle Country Youth Civic Association and Centereach Fire Department joined with local sponsors to host the fourth annual event. Before the buzzer even started sounding, the team of brave bald-headed
community members raised close to $30,000. By Monday, the event had raised over $47,000, close to twice the original $25,000 goal, according to event organizer Doug Dickson. The largest donor was 12-year-old Austin Vero, who raised over $15,000 alone.

“Thank God for our barbers — with all the hair on the ground, they bring their own guys, they’re sweeping all the time,” Dickson said, laughingly.

The night was full of Irish flavor with the inclusion of FDNY Emerald Society bagpipers and Irish step dancers from Mulvihill-Lynch Studio of Irish Dance in Lake Ronkonkoma. Attendees were decked in green from head to toe, including Rob “Squid” Wilson, who was one of many prospective head-shavers to dye their hair green.

Wilson has been hosting local St. Baldrick’s events for 16 years. This year, he dressed in a bright green shamrock coat and a green tiara.

“My team is the Squid and the Squires,” Wilson said. “Each team is a bunch of clowns like us who are doing it for the right reasons.”

He and his friend Tom Duffy have been involved and shaved their heads every year since their first rodeo.

“It’s important to show kids it’s not a big deal to get their heads shaved,” Duffy said. “My big thing is I feel if [scientists] can cure cancer with kids — they can cure cancer.”

Members of the Suffolk County Police
Department shave their heads at the event. Photo by Doug Dickerson

Several staff members at the fire department joined in the shaving spirit, including Assistant Chief Joseph Feola.

“It’s a huge event — one of the bigger events we have,” Feola said. “It’s great to see all this support from the community.”

Nine barbers and hairdressers volunteered their time to shave heads, including the owner of Rockabilly Barbers of Stony Brook’s Vinnie Ferrara. He and his crew of barbers have also been involved in the event for 16 years.

“The greatest thing about it is that we’ve been doing it for so long and seen so much money raised,” Ferrara said. “It just goes to a great cause.”

“The people are so into it,” owner of Centereach-based Blondie’s Creations Inc. Mary Beth Mastando said. She and her team have been shaving heads at the event for three years.

“The community gets together, and everybody helps,” Mastando said. “They’re excited to be shaving their head, and I’m the one doing it, so that’s pretty cool.”

The Centereach St. Baldrick’s organizers are accepting donations until next year’s event. To join in the cause, visit www.stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/10953/2018.

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Michele and Bill McNaughton lost their son James in 2005. He was killed in Iraq by sniper fire. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Bill McNaughton, a retired NYPD officer, army veteran and Centereach resident could hear the party outside the small back room. The music was loud and upbeat, the crowd was hundreds strong and their bodies nearly filled every inch inside Mulcahy’s Concert Hall in Wantagh. The event attendees were all out there celebrating the life of McNaughton’s son James, an NYPD officer and army reservist who while stationed in Iraq was killed by sniper fire in 2005. He was 27.

“You know what it is, even though we’ve been doing this for years, this is like the first every time,” Bill McNaughton said. “It’s nice, but it brings back everything. And you know everybody else goes home tonight, but it stays with us.”

Pictures of his son, known to most as Jimmy, were hung out on the dance floor and on televisions around the room. Every year since January 2006, half a year from when he was killed, family and friends have come together to celebrate his life and raise money for veteran aid groups.

Friends Eric Wiggins, Anthony Palumbo, Vinny Zecca and Danny Leavy​ celebrate the life of their childhood friend. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Jimmy, he’s still helping guys today,” McNaughton said. “That’s what this is about, he’s still helping his men. All those people out there shows how he touched so many lives, and as a father you can’t ask more than that. It is an honor to see it.”

The annual event honoring James McNaughton hosted its 13th anniversary Jan. 27. The donations from sponsors helped raise money for nonprofit Wounded Warriors Project and PTSD Veterans Association of Northport.

Jimmy McNaughton graduated high school in 1996, and having early enlisted, immediately joined the army. When he returned home after being honorably discharged, he joined the reserves and the NYPD, where both his dad and stepmother worked as officers. He helped in aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and was sent oversees with the reserves in 2004 and 2005. He was killed in August of that year.

The event was created by the veteran’s childhood friends, including Vincent Zecca, who worked to ensure the memory of his friend was never lost.

“We tried to think of something that he would want,” Zecca said. “He wouldn’t want us to be somber and hold a traditional benefit, he would want something that everyone could enjoy.”

“Jimmy wouldn’t want people to cry in the corner, that’s just not how Jimmy was.”

— Michele McNaughton

McNaughton’s stepmother Michele agreed it’s a celebration that further strengthens her son’s memory and memorializes his story.

“Jimmy wouldn’t want people to cry in the corner, that’s just not how Jimmy was,” she said. “He always had a goofy smile on his face. I’m not going to say it’s easy for Bill or myself or even his friends — it’s hard to keep yourself together, and it doesn’t get any easier with time — but Jimmy was a really fine and funny kid, always laughing, he was never down in the dumps. This is how we remember that.”

The deejay, Michael Paccione, was a childhood friend of McNaughton’s. One of the bands who played two sets, Plunge, has donated its time for several years. The band was joined by New York Shields Pipes & Drums, which played Taps on ceremonial bagpipes.

Attendance at the event has remained consistent at the 1,000-person mark over the last few years.

Eric Wiggins, another longtime childhood friend, saw McNaughton as one of the most loyal people he ever knew.

“He would do anything for you,” he said. “We’re all one big group of friends, and doing this like this, with this party, and how many people come, just shows us returning that loyalty.”

The band Plunge has donated time to perform at the James McNaughton Foundation fundraiser for the last few years. Photo by Kyle Barr

Lou Puleo makes the photo slideshow, and mixes them up every year.

“He was the selfless type,” Puleo said of his old friend. “He was the type of guy that when he was overseas, he would get care packages, but if there was something good, he would give it out to everybody.”

Brothers Mike and Ross Burello grew up across the street from the McNaughton’s. They remember their neighbor as the youngest kid of the group, always up for playing outside.

“I don’t get to see these guys too often,” Ross Burello said. “So I love coming here every year. The montage and slideshow at the end brings it all back. It shows just how much he did for our country.”

Bill McNaughton said not a day goes by he doesn’t think about his son. He has Jimmy’s face tattooed on his arm so when he shakes a person’s hand, they just might ask who he is. His name and likeness are also stenciled in both his large army Humvee and his ‘69 Chevelle.

“I remember that Colonel walking on my lawn,” he said. “That’s my way of dealing with it. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do any of that stuff. You know how I deal with it? I take that Humvee and I drive.”

Mount Sinai Students Against Destructive Decisions club members organize gifts that will be donated to children at Concern for Independent Living in Medford through the Hauppauge-based nonprofit Holiday Magic. Photo by Kevin Redding

Mount Sinai High School students took on the roles of Santa and his elves to make sure local children in need have gifts to open this Christmas.

In a continued collaboration with Hauppauge-based nonprofit Christmas Magic, 43 members of the school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club embarked on shopping sprees at Smith Haven Mall and Walmart Dec. 1 to bring holiday cheer to underprivileged children. They set out to find gifts for more than 60 boys and girls from Concern for Independent Living, a nonprofit agency in Medford that provides permanent housing for homeless families, based on wish lists they wrote to Santa.

With $4,500 supplied by Christmas Magic, SADD club members bought more than 100 gifts — each child receives about three — from wireless headphones to action figures and dolls, to sweatshirts and diapers.

Members of Mount Sinai’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club unpack gifts to be donated after going shopping. Photo by Kevin Redding

Back at the high school, the students turned the cafeteria into a makeshift Santa’s workshop. They organized the gifts, piled them into garbage bags and sent them off on a big truck to be wrapped and delivered back to the school Dec. 6, where the district hosts a dinner for the children and their families, where club members join Santa Claus himself in presenting the wrapped gifts.

“I think this teaches the students compassion,” said John Wilson,  a special education teacher and the SADD Club’s co-advisor who said the district is in its 18th year of involvement with the program. “When they see some of the lists — and there’s a jacket or something they take for granted — I think it humbles them and makes them appreciate what they have.”

In one letter, which included a drawing of a smiling snowman and a Christmas tree, a young boy asked Santa for a tech watch and a lightsaber. In another, a girl asked for a pair of boots and a unicorn onesie.

“I love getting the lists,” said Julie Pfeiffer, an 11th grader and SADD club member, who picked up wrestling action figures and Roblox toys for a 7-year-old boy. “We get these lists from them, in their own handwriting, and it’s so sweet. We’re able to give them what they want, directly. It warms my heart so much.”

High school senior Ruchi Thaker bought a sports kit and learning toys for a 1-year-old boy as well as a My Little Pony toy and a bracelet making gift set for a little girl. Junior Rebecca Muroff tracked down a specific brand of hoodie and phone case for a 15-year-old girl.

“You just feel good about doing this,” said Emma Wimmer, a senior who bought a Nike sweatshirt, a pair of sneakers and pants for two teenage boys.

Margaret Kopcienski, a junior and president of SADD Club, said this is her favorite event of the year and said prior to the Dec. 6 dinner that she looked forward to meeting the children at the high school.

“We’re able to give them what they want, directly. It warms my heart so much.”

— Margaret Kopcienski

“It’s really magical seeing how happy they are,” Kopcienski said. “It’s a great time and really cool to see the result of all our hard work and how much joy the presents bring to them.”

The school district will also be reimbursing Christmas Magic more than $7,500 raised during its Turkey Trot 5K and Fun Run Nov. 25, an annual fundraising event run by SADD co-advisor and history teacher John McHugh. Last year, upwards of 11,000 kids across Long Island were gifted through the nonprofit.

“It’s an amazing feat that the students and staff at Mount Sinai make this happen every year,” said Charlie Russo, who founded Christmas Magic in 1990 out of a lifelong passion to give back to those less fortunate. “It just speaks volumes as to where the district is and where their community service efforts are. I can’t praise them enough.”

Russo said Christmas Magic has been working alongside Concern for Independent Living, one of about 70 agencies involved, since the nonprofit was formed.

Concern for Independent Living was formed in 1972 and has been recognized as the largest nonprofit provider of supportive housing for individuals and families in need on Long Island. Ralph Fasano, the organization’s executive director, said Mount Sinai students have helped families and kids get through the holidays for years.

“All the families come from low-economic brackets and oftentimes there’s not enough money to buy kids gifts,” Fasano said. “When these kids get things they’ve wanted for years — gifts they never thought they’d ever have — it restores some hope for them.”

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