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Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, center, receives the Brookhaven Community Leadership Award from Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright and Holiday Inn Express owner John Tsunis. Photo by Rita J. Egan

A familiar face in the Three Village and Port Jefferson areas was honored for her career achievements the day before International Women’s Day.

On March 7, Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) received the Brookhaven Community Leadership Award at a ceremony held at the Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook. At the event, which was sponsored by the hotel and Gold Coast Bank, Hahn was surrounded by family members, friends and community members, including Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), Setauket Fire District Fire Commissioner Jay Gardiner, and Jane Taylor and Carmine Inserra, Three Village Chamber of Commerce 2nd vice president and executive director, respectively.

John Tsunis, owner of the Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook and CEO and chairman of Gold Coast Bank, said as a resident of Hahn’s legislative district he is a proud supporter of her and her work. The CEO admired her passing of policies that helped ensure emergency workers were trained in the use of Narcan to revive patients who overdose and a bill that increased background checks of daycare workers. He also called her a tireless advocate for domestic abuse survivors and a “champion of our environment,” citing her work to help to protect ground and drinking water along with her promotion of recreational activities at local parks.

“As we all know, Kara cares deeply for our community, because of her thoughtful leadership Kara was elected to serve as legislature majority leader in 2016 and again in 2017,” he said.

Cartright said when she first ran for town office in 2013 she felt “blessed” to know Hahn. The councilwoman described her county counterpart as a worker bee who looks at her job from different perspectives.

“What’s so special about Kara Hahn is that she not only looks at things from a legislator perspective, but she looks at it from a community member perspective — a perspective that she’s one of us,” Cartright said. “She’s gone through the process. She understands the struggles and tribulations that many of us have to face within our communities.”

Hahn said she was humbled and honored to represent the community. She described the legislative district as an area where people work together to help make it an even better place to live. She cited a recent example where a member of Cartright’s office reached out to her to ask how they could help members of a Port Jefferson Veterans of Foreign Wars post attend the Rocky Point St. Patrick’s Day Parade so they wouldn’t have to park too far away. Hahn reached out to the Holiday Inn Express, and Tsunis offered the hotel’s shuttle bus for the veterans’ use.

“That’s the kind of community we have,” Hahn said. “Everybody wants to chip in. Everybody wants to help. Everybody knows it’s a great place to live and knows that it can be even better. We have a vision for that, and we keep every day trying to find a way to make things better whether it’s for our environment or our schools.”

The Brookhaven Community Leadership award has been presented annually since 2014. Past winners include Charlie Lefkowitz, Three Village Chamber of Commerce vice president; Leah Dunaief, TBR News Media publisher; and Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization.

Charlie Ziegler, director of operations of the Holiday Inn Express-Stony Brook, Denean Marie Lane, manager of the Holiday Inn Express, and presenters Laura Dooling, Shantae Rodriguez, and Anthony Zenkus from the Blue Campaign. Photo from the Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook

A Stony Brook hotel is doing its part to help stop sex trafficking on Long Island.

“They’re the ones walking the halls all day long so if they see something out of place, they can let us know.”

— Charlie Ziegler

The Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook says it is the first hotel on Long Island to offer an employee seminar on how to spot victims of human trafficking. John Tsunis, the hotel’s owner, invited representatives from Long Island Against Trafficking, a nonprofit dedicated to creating awareness about trafficking, and Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, which assists survivors of violence, to conduct the hour-long seminar earlier this month for all of their housekeeping and management staff.

Charlie Ziegler, director of operations at Holiday Inn Express, said while the hotel has never encountered a problem, Tsunis and its management felt the information would be invaluable to employees.

“They’re the ones walking the halls all day long so if they see something out of place, they can let us know,” Ziegler said, adding calling the authorities would be the next step.

Sue Lingenfelter, a board member of Long Island Against Trafficking, presented the idea to Tsunis at a networking event back in September, and he quickly said “yes” to the nonprofit coming in to make a presentation.

The goal of the seminar is to train staff members on how to identify victims of human sex trafficking, according to Lingenfelter, where a person is forced against their will to engage in sexual activity, and what to do if they suspect it — a crime she said that occurs often in hotels.

Both Lingenfelter and her fellow board member Shantae Rodriguez said there are a number of red flags to look out for that include: a person allowing someone else to do the talking for them; a hotel guest refusing housekeeping services but ordering more towels and linens than average; a distressed young woman with an older man; or a group of women with one man.

“You can be in the hallway, notice there was a man inside and he came out and saw another man go in, come out.”

— Sue Lingenfelter

LIAT members said sometimes a hotel guest may not want to give a full name, register a vehicle, or will ask for a room toward the back of the hotel which makes it easier for multiple people to come and go. Lingenfelter added seeing a lot of people coming and going from one hotel room is a red flag.

“You can be in the hallway, notice there was a man inside and he came out and saw another man go in, come out,” she said. “These are the signs [employees] can potentially notice. Every employee in the hotel would have a different view of things that could show that this person is being trafficked.”

Rodriguez said if someone gets a chance to talk to a suspected victim, they may find out the person doesn’t know what day it is or what town they are in due to being moved from one location to another constantly by the trafficker.

Both board members and Ziegler felt the seminar was well received and Rodriquez said many employees asked questions.

“The fact that they’re asking questions shows that they’re engaging, and it did turn some wheels, or maybe there is something they’re looking out for,” she said.

Lingenfelter and Rodriguez said they are hoping to bring the seminar to more hotels on Long Island.

“The more education, the more seminars, the more training a hotel is willing to receive, the more that they’re able to say they’re taking a stand against this injustice and being a part of the healing of ending trafficking in this particular area,” Rodriguez said.

Ziegler said if new employees are added to the Holiday Inn Express staff or it is felt a refresher is needed, they would definitely schedule another seminar, and he said he recommends it for all hotels.

“Even if you feel you don’t have this issue going on at all, for every hotel I would absolutely do a seminar,” he said. “It only takes an hour out of everyone’s time. If it can save one victim anywhere it’s worth it.”

On Aug. 23, the Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook hosted a 4-on-4 volleyball tournament with local fire departments, including Setauket, Centereach and Selden, competing to win and raise money for the Lt. Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation. The money raised will help to buy “bailout systems,” which are personal escape kits, for fire departments in need all over the country.

The winners of the $1,000 prize money were members of New York City Fire Department’s Watkins Station Engine 231/Ladder 120 — Darren Fenton, Patrick Tulley, Connor Norman and Anthony Edrehi. The tournament winners and John-Paul Sabbagh, from the Terryville Fire Department who won the event’s 50/50 raffle, donated their winnings back to the foundation.

The event cost $20 to enter, and the tournament was judged by John Tsunis, owner of the hotel; Joe DiBernardo Sr.; and Leah Dunaief, publisher of Times Beacon Record News Media. Dan Keller from Stony Brook University’s athletics department served as referee.

Tsunis said the hotel hopes to make the tournament an annual event, adding, “It was a lot of fun to have all the firefighters there and all the community members we recruited to play.”

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An Aug. 23 volleyball tournament will help raise funds to buy bailout systems for firefighters through the Lt. Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation. DiBernardo, right, is pictured with his father Joseph DiBernardo Sr., left. File photo

Local firefighters are training to serve up some fun and to help members of firehouses around the country.

On Aug. 23, a 4-on-4 volleyball tournament will be held at the Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook with fire departments competing to win and raise money for the Lt. Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation. The money raised will help to buy “bailout systems” for fire departments who lack the vital equipment. The personal escape kits are used when rescue workers find themselves in fires that are difficult to escape, like when they are a few floors up, a building collapses or there is a backdraft.

Joseph DiBernardo after recovering from shattering both his feet and breaking bones below his waist. File photo

Tanya Lee, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, said she came up with the idea for the fundraiser when DiBernardo’s father, Joseph DiBernardo Sr., stopped by the hotel to book a workshop. Lee, who is a volunteer with the Centereach Fire Department along with her son, said she was looking for a way the hotel could give back to the community and saw DiBernardo’s visit as a sign. She said she discovered while talking to him that many fire departments in the country don’t have the funds to pay for bailout systems and the training required to use them, which together can cost up to $1,000 per firefighter depending on the manufacturer.

“It was kind of like that ‘Aha’ moment,” Lee said. “Like he walked right in when I was looking to do something for the community.”

DiBernardo Jr., who was a volunteer with the Setauket Fire Department, was one of three New York City Fire Department firefighters injured during a tenement fire in the Bronx in 2005. Three firefighters also died in the blaze, and the tragedy was called “Black Sunday.” During the fire, DiBernardo Jr. helped his fellow firefighter Jeff Cool escape the building using a rope and then secured it to a child safety guard to lower himself from a window. The rope broke, and DiBernardo Jr. fell four stories, breaking practically every bone from his waist down and shattering both feet. During his recovery in the hospital, he suffered respiratory arrest and
developed pneumonia. While DiBernardo retired as a firefighter due to his injuries, he traveled the country and assisted in safety trainings for firefighters despite the physical pain he continued to suffer, according to his father. In 2011, the firefighter died from the injuries he sustained in the 2005 Bronx fire. In 2013, the DiBernardo family, members of the Setauket Fire Department and Cool established the foundation.

“We decided to [start] the foundation, so no other firefighter would have to die due to lack of personal safety ropes,” DiBernardo Sr. said.

Lee said the 4-on-4 tournament will consist of eight teams that will compete in a 15-point game until one team is left standing. For teams that are eliminated earlier in the tournament and for spectators, there will be a Cornhole toss, raffles, food and beverages. Attendees who stay overnight at the hotel will also receive a discount on their room.

“I just want them to feel good about helping their brothers, whether they’re a fire department in Schenectady or they’re a fire department here, they’re all brothers,” Lee said.

“I just want them to feel good about helping their brothers, whether they’re a fire department in Schenectady or they’re a fire department here, they’re all brothers.”

— Tanya Lee

So far there are five teams consisting of firefighters set to participate — FDNY, Hicksville, Jericho, Selden and Centereach. Kevin Yoos, fire commissioner with the Setauket Fire District and vice president of the foundation, said volunteers in Setauket are currently organizing a team. Lee said there will also be a team consisting of Gold Coast Bank employees.

The tournament was one that John Tsunis, the owner of Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook, said he was on board from the moment he heard about it. The hotel donated $1,000 to the tournament, and it will be awarded to the winning team, according to the hotel owner. Tsunis, who is also CEO and chairman of Gold Coast Bank, said he believes in giving back to the community the hotel serves.

“We’re not big hotels in Las Vegas or international banks in New York City,” Tsunis said. “We’re neighbors and friends, and we work together, and we live together.”

DiBernardo Sr., who is a retired FDNY firefighter, said his son wanted to fight fires since he was a kid. He would play with fire trucks as a child, and when he was a bit older, would visit his father at work at his station house in Brooklyn.

When he was 18, DiBernardo Jr. became a fire alarm dispatcher on Long Island, and the next year he became a volunteer with the Setauket Fire Department, according to his father. During his tenure with the department, he became a lieutenant and captain. In 1993, DiBernardo Jr. became an FDNY fire alarm dispatcher, and in 1995, his dream of becoming a firefighter in the city was achieved.

“That’s what he always wanted,” the father said. “It’s nice to see your son achieve his dreams.”

The father said he was touched when he heard about the volleyball tournament and the $1,000 donation.

“Someone would care in the community to do something for us like that … it’s fantastic,” he said.

The Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook is located at 3131 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook. Entry donation is $20 for players and spectators and includes food and beverages. For more details about the event, contact Tanya Lee at 631-471-8000. Or visit www.facebook.com/HIExpressSB/ for a link to sign up. For more information on the Lt. Joseph P. DiBernardo Memorial Foundation, visit www.joeydfoundation.org.

Carolyn Brown-Benson transforms from hotel employee to pop icon Linda Ronstadt. Photo by Christina Bohn

By Rita J. Egan 

Carolyn Brown-Benson has discovered that even though dreams can sometimes be delayed, they can’t be ignored.

The 51-year-old East Setauket resident always wanted to perform, and put that dream on hold more than 20 years ago. Now, she finds herself donning a brunette wig and transforming into pop singer Linda Ronstadt to front the tribute band Blue Bayou. Performing with the group she founded two years ago, Brown-Benson delivers the iconic hits of the singer who is known for “You’re No Good,” “It’s So Easy” and “Somewhere Out There.”

The sales associate at Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook said her entertainment dreams took a detour when she married her husband James in 1996 and soon after had her two children James, now 15, and Shannon, now 18.

When her son and daughter were younger she tried to return to the stage. She sang at the Performing Arts Studio in Port Jefferson and appeared in shows at Stony Brook’s Educational & Cultural Center as the iconic singer Ethel Merman, and as the legendary actress Mae West at Mount Sinai’s Heritage Center.

When she landed a role with the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she realized she couldn’t pursue performing full time while raising her children.

“I was getting an itch [to perform], and I needed to, but I needed to be a mom first,” she said.

While performing at local restaurants Bliss and Mario’s, Brown-Benson realized she had a knack for singing Ronstadt’s hits, and that the crowds seemed to agree.

“I noticed that people would always — when I was singing “You’re No Good” or “Hurt So Bad” — especially the women, they would always turn around,” she said. “You could just see they really recognized those songs.”

Brown-Benson said starting a tribute band seemed to better suit her schedule as a mother. She reached out to contacts on Facebook and assembled a band, currently Linda Cusumano, keyboards; Don Waller, guitar; Jon Pell, bass; and Mark Pohl or Eugene Henriksen, drums.

“My husband is thinking about retiring, and I’m just gearing up,” she said. “And it shows my children, too, that no matter how crazy you think your dreams are, it’s really a calling.”

Denean Lane, general manager of Holiday Inn Express, has witnessed Brown-Benson, who performs at the hotel, in action.

“She has a very good energy about her and just a very feel-good mood with her range of emotion,” Lane said. “She’s really fantastic.”

She added that the performer’s presence at the hotel, be it in front of the microphone or at her desk, is an asset to the business.

“She’s well known throughout the community, and she’s really gifted and talented,” Lane said.

In November, the local singer met Ronstadt during “A Conversation with Linda Ronstadt,” at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Long Island University.

“It was surreal sitting in the audience,” she said. “All of a sudden, I’m sitting three rows from her and I’m going to meet her.”

Brown-Benson forgot everything she was going to say to Ronstadt during their brief meeting, but was able to tell her about the tribute band. Ronstadt, who has Parkinson’s disease, said, “I really wish I could sing with you.”

The local singer has future hopes to record original music and perform under her own name. For now, she hopes to at least be an inspiration to those thinking of chasing their dreams.

“You can feel what direction you should be going — you need to listen to it,” she said. “You get up off your knees when you are sort of praying for direction, and you keep going. Every time those doors close and you think it’s the end, it’s really not. There’s something else open for you. And when you start paying attention to those signs, you’ll be amazed at what comes along.”

Blue Bayou will hit the stage Aug. 1 at 6 p.m. at JFK Middle School in Port Jefferson Station, as part of the Port Jefferson Station-Terryville Summer Concert Series. For more information about Brown-Benson and her tribute band, visit www.bluebayoutributeband.com.

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