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Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook

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.