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Joe’s Day of Service

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella and two other Comsewogue students. Photo from Joe Rella

Amanda Perelli

Those who know him say Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher at the Comsewogue High School, is an empathic teacher in the classroom and an advocate for service within the community, and that he often goes above and beyond.

Harris recently organized Joe’s Day of Service, a community service initiative where students and community members pledge to give back.

“Sometimes kids are like, ‘Oh, I have to get another five to 10 service hours,’ but with him the kids are so happy doing it. He’s really visionary in many ways,” Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella said. “He moves comfortably between and among the teachers, the administrators, the elementary students, secondary students, and really gets them excited about service. He’s a selfless person and that comes across in everything he does.”

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Harris has been a member of the district for 14 years, but it wasn’t until last year, with the help of his colleagues, that the idea for Joe’s Day of Service was born. 

The name was inspired by Rella for his constant dedication to better the community. 

Harris asked Rella what he thought of creating more districtwide volunteer opportunities and Rella was instantly on board.  

“He said, ‘What do you think about creating some opportunities [in service],” Rella said. “We have different opportunities at the High School level, where kids have to do community service as a part of the National Honor Society — what about if we did it on a district level? I said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea’ and he’s transformed the whole concept of service.”

The superintendent added the community was missing a districtwide event to get everyone involved at once.

Students in Harris’ class pitched how they thought they should spend the day — excited to work outside the classroom and with others within Comsewogue. 

“We had a movement here for many, many years to get kids more involved in their community — giving back, to be more empathetic,” said Joseph Coniglione, the principal at Comsewogue High School. “The goal was to do that through community service in the area. We had a large sum of students who went out and did individual projects and a tremendous group, who went to the Calverton National Cemetery to clean off the head stones and get them prepared for the veterans.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said Joe’s Day of Service was so successful she expects it will only grow in coming years.

 “The Comsewogue community is very close knit, and neighbors have already been working with students, teachers and faculty to improve the lives of others through the Joe’s Day of Service projects,” Cartright said. “Andy Harris and those involved have portrayed this initiative as continuous from the start, so I have no doubt that participation will increase as more members of the community learn about the project.”

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartwright (D). Photo from Joe Rella.

Harris spearheaded the initiative, developing one day-long service event that taught students the value of service while helping out the community. 

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

Harris has inspired students to give back to their local communities, and he also teaches the importance of being a civic leader in service. 

“Andy is a veteran special education teacher, but what sets him aside from a lot of people is his ability to really be empathic toward people,” said Coniglione. “He’s probably one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet in your life. He really tries to make others life better and just happier.” 

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe's Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Stories of Comsewogue School District students and staff engaging in acts of kindness are hardly rare, but an event conceived by a teacher and several students carried out May 30 somehow raised the bar.

High school teacher Andrew Harris said he thought of the idea of a full day of community service projects last school year, and in talking with some of his colleagues, a larger idea was born. By this school year, the event had a name — Joe’s Day of Service, after Superintendent Joe Rella — and students were making pitches in Harris’ class for how the student body should spend the day.

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

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

Ninth-grade students Julia Ratkiewicz and Rachel Plunkett proposed the idea of visiting Calverton National Cemetery, where members of the United States armed forces are laid to rest, to spend the day cleaning gravestones. By May 30, nearly 200 Comsewogue High School students headed to the Calverton cemetery — on seven buses donated for use that day by Suffolk Transportation Service.

“I was in such a good mood, my mom asked, ‘Are you sure you were out cleaning gravestones?’” Julia said.

Rachel, who said she and Julia thought of the idea because they both have veterans in their family and wanted to show their appreciation, said she never imagined their small idea presented in class as a way to give back would turn into a districtwide day of service.

“It’s just the least we could do for them since they did so much for us,” she said.

Eleventh-grader John Quartararo, who also helped organize the trip, called his experience at the cemetery a beautiful day, and marveled at the mood and response from his classmates who participated on the trip.

While the high school students were at Calverton, other Comsewogue kids were at Save-A-Pet animal shelter in Port Jefferson Station, cleaning cages and spending time with the rescued animals. John F. Kennedy Middle School students visited Stony Brook University Hospital to sing in the lobby, then went over to the Long Island State Veterans Home on SBU’s campus to sing patriotic songs and spend time with the veterans living at the facility. Others collected toiletries to donate to the homeless. Some painted rocks as part of The Kindness Rocks Project, an initiative which calls on people to paint inspiring messages on rocks and leave them in places where they will be found by someone in need of a boost.

Comsewogue students are recognized during the June 14 Brookhaven Town board meeting. Photo by Alex Petroski

Local businesses even got wind of Joe’s Day of Service and contributed to the cause. Chick-fil-A, Wahlburgers, Bagelicious Café, Walmart, McDonald’s and Applebee’s Grill and Bar in Miller Place all offered support in one way or another.

Harris and the students involved each credited Rella for setting the tone at Comsewogue and in the community.

“All I did was go to the events and just get blown away at every single one,” Rella said. “It was an unbelievable show on the part of our students. I’m better for having been here. I’m a better person for just having been at Comsewogue. And that’s the way it is.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) commended Harris and the students involved for their efforts.

“I think it’s important that we highlight all of these [acts] because on one day, they provided all of this service to our community, to those in need,” she said. “I just want to say thank you so much for all that you do, Comsewogue, and keep up the great work.”

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