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Port Jefferson Station

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Suffolk County Police Sixth Squad detectives are investigating a single-vehicle crash that killed a woman in Port Jefferson Station Oct 15.

Kaitlyn Schaal was driving a 2001 Jeep Cherokee southbound on Old Town Road when the vehicle crossed the northbound lane and struck a tree on the east side of the road at Greenhaven Drive at 6:03 a.m.

Schaal, 19, of 60 Chestnut St., Mount Sinai, was transported to Stony Brook University Hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The vehicle was impounded for a safety check. Detectives are asking anyone with information on this crash to call the Sixth Squad at 631-854-8652.

 

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Volunteers help revitalize the Terryville Road community garden Oct. 5. Photo by Kyle Barr

One would have never known there was a garden on the side of Terryville Road in Port Jefferson Station. Vines had strangled the fence that bordered the road, and to anyone without some local knowledge practically anything could be behind those rusting chain links.

Comsewogue students Sarah Thomas and Briana Rodriguez tear apart vines at the community garden. Photo by Kyle Barr

Now, those driving past see something completely different — a full garden with planting boxes, a greenhouse and a large sign reading “Community Garden.”

Over the course of Oct. 5, close to 20 community leaders, volunteers and young people looking for high school service hours hacked at weeds, shrubs and vines, quickly bringing the place back to a presentable standard.

The garden property is owned by the Comsewogue School District, and for years had been operated by the Comsewogue Youth Center, according to district officials, but the crew suddenly ceased operations nearly a decade ago. Since then vines overtook the fence, and the site faded from many locals’ memories. While the grass was maintained by the district, the rest of the site was left to its own devices.

“The lady who took care of it eventually moved, and after that it fell to squalor,” said Sal Pitti, the president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association.

As the volunteers moved in, many were surprised by just how well the property had survived after years of neglect. Only a few wooden pieces had to be replaced, such as needing new 2-by-4 lumber for the wooden benches and for a few new planters, along with new Plexiglas for the greenhouse door. Otherwise the civic leaders were pleasantly surprised.

Members of the PJS/Terryville Civic discuss ideas for the garden. Photo by Kyle Barr

“The bones of this is in relatively good shape,” said Charlie McAteer, civic corresponding secretary. “Maybe it needs some paint, maybe it needs a touch up.”

In just a few hours, a mountainous pile of plant debris had already formed by the gate onto the property.

Local landscaper Kevin Halpin, of Halpin Landscaping, said he was contacted via Facebook by civic vice president, Ed Garboski. The day before the cleanup, Halpin came in with appropriate equipment, and did much of the heavy lifting along with cutting the grass. He said he will come back on request to help with whatever needs doing.

The area, he said, needs that extra effort and TLC.

A number of high schoolers from the area also showed up to lend a hand. 

Comsewogue students Sarah Thomas and Briana Rodriguez laughed and joked around as they plied a bundle of rough vines apart. 

“It was a huge mess, there were vines everywhere,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely a lot cleaner without all the vines and stuff. I think a lot more kids might come here.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) arrived midday Saturday and immediately started picking up litter from the side of the road in front of the garden gate. She said cleanups like this are good ways for community members to make a difference in an immediate and tangible way.

A sign for the Community Garden was surprisingly intact. Photo by Kyle Barr

“They’re usually very effective ways of getting people involved,” she said.

Pitti said he is looking to work with the school district to see if other students looking to get service hours in the future could work in the community garden.

“As much as the kids get into it, they’re welcome to come,” the civic president said.

The civic leaders are looking forward to next spring, where they will start planting vegetables and flowers, hoping that they maintain a staunch group of locals to tend the garden. Once the garden starts growing, they plan to donate the food to neighboring St. Gerard Majella R.C. Church for its food pantry, and if they grow even more, they will share with other churches in the area.

Animals were up for adoption at Save-A-Pet's Hounds on the Sound event in Port Jefferson 2015. Photo by Bob Savage

By Leah Chiappino

Save-A-Pet Animal Shelter is looking to expand its reach to the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts where the organization plans to open a sanctuary.

The Port Jefferson Station-based animal shelter is due to close on a 20-acre property that contains a barn, house and space for a veterinary facility this month, according to shelter president Dori Scofield.

Starting around the holiday time, the sanctuary will be open to older or disabled dogs and cats that have had a difficult time finding a home.  The sanctuary’s first residents will be three dogs currently residing at the shelter from Mexico who were hit by cars and are now paralyzed.  However, they will still be available for adoption.

In the spring, Scofield hopes to welcome farm animals, such as pigs and goats that have been “faced with slaughter, factory exploitation, auctions, and whose lives have been wrought with fear and loneliness,”
she said.

The facility won’t just benefit animals. The shelter president said Save-A-Pet has plans to use the sanctuary to “provide an educational program where people can experience the individual personality of each animal, to become kindred spirits and therefore begin to understand the changes we must make in our own lives to stop the exploitation of animals for food and consumer products.”

The organization has fundraised what they need to make a down payment through a capital campaign and has mortgaged out the remainder of the cost. However, Scofield says the sanctuary still “desperately” needs funds. 

“I am nickel and diming my way through this just like I did with Save-A-Pet,” she said.

Scofield is looking for volunteers to provide services such as plumbing, electrical work and carpentry to assist in some capital repairs needed on the Massachusetts property. They are also looking for veterinary assistants and volunteers willing to care for the animals at the property, while building a staff of volunteers in the Berkshires. 

“Everything we have at Save-A-Pet we will need there,” she said.

Save-A-Pet will be hosting an Uncorked Love fundraiser at Madrian The Wine Bar at 209 Main St. in East Setauket set for 7 p.m., Nov. 7. Tickets are availble at Save-A-Pet located at 608 Route 112. All proceeds will go to the sanctuary.

Josephine Gruposso recently competed in a New York State bagging championship. Here she stands at the Northport Stop & Shop. Photo by Kyle Barr

What goes into bagging items in the grocery store?

It’s not a thought held by the hundreds who check out their groceries in local supermarkets every hour of every day. For Josephine Gruposso of Port Jefferson Station, it is a matter of deftness, intelligence and speed.

Josephine Gruposso recently competed in a New York State bagging championship. Here she stands at the Northport Stop & Shop. Photo by Kyle Barr

“I think it’s fun — some people might think it’s silly,” Gruposso said. “But when you work in a supermarket, with silly little things like this, I feel like bagging makes my time go quicker. It’s an amazing way to interact with your customers, an amazing way to interact with your employees.”

Just this last weekend Gruposso, 36, traveled upstate to participate in the 2019 New York State Best Bagger Finals at the Stop & Shop in Poughkeepsie. She, along with her Poughkeepsie-based teammate Joanne Chapman, huddled over shopping bags Sept. 21 to see who could stack and fill the fastest and neatest. 

First, New York grocery stores held competitions in “heats” with multiple baggers competing against each other at a time. Each store sends two employees, and the Port Jeff Station resident was chosen for Stop & Shop.

Gruposso has been working with the supermarket chain since 2008 and has only recently started training as a customer service manager. She said she started to become interested in bagging skills when she worked the register many years ago in a store in Rhode Island. She first heard of the competition there, and though she only got to the second round in that state’s competition, she found the experience fun. 

“I made it a game — and when we got really busy, I said: Okay I’ll put my timer here and we’re going to see how fast we can bag this.” 

Gruposso said she has developed a bagging method that generally allows her to bag $20 worth of merchandise in under a minute, and a $100 order in one to two minutes. First, she separates the products, then places boxes around the sides of the bag to straighten and provide structure, then lays cans and bottles in the middle, which gives the packed bag balance and ensures the sides don’t tear. 

“I made it a game with my cashiers, so at the same time I was practicing,” she said. “I would see how fast each customer would take me.”

She competed among 16 other contestants from stores around New York, including Stop & Shop, D’Agostino Supermarket, Gristedes, Hanaford, Price Chopper, PSK Supermarket, ShopRite and Tops Market. Those who win have the chance to travel to San Diego for the National Best Bagger Champion at the National Grocers Association annual convention.

Yes, there is a national competition, and there is a cash prize of $10,000. 

The competition has gone on since 1983, when the American Paper Institute sponsored the first competition. Moving on since then, and with plastic bag laws across the state, the competition has switched to reusable bags.

The competition went well, she said, and while she didn’t win, she said she had fun watching others use different rapid bagging techniques.

“There is always next year,” added Gruposso.

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Comsewogue library takes up task of preserving history

A number of artifacts now being displayed at the Comsewogue Public Library. Photo by Kyle Barr

If the old, black-and-white photos could speak, some would be crying. Others, perhaps, could be looking forward to the future.

Past Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and Cumsewogue Historical Society President Jack Smith on a recent trip to the Gentlemen’s Driving Park in Terryville. File photo by Elana Glowatz

For 10 years, Jack Smith, a Port Jefferson Station resident and retired teacher, built the historical society from the ground up. He collected countless documents and materials and became a leading figure in local history. The Cumsewogue Historical Society, named to reflect the old spelling of the original Native Americans in that area, would be at the head of numerous outreach projects, from advocating Brookhaven town buy the Gentleman’s Driving Park in Terryville to fighting to preserve two historical structures on Main Street in Port Jefferson Station. Smith was named one of TBR News Media’s persons of the year on two separate occasions.

But by the end of 2018, Smith said he had no real choice but to dissolve the historical society, leaving thousands of artifacts to the care of the Comsewogue Public Library.

Smith said the historical society’s near 10-year run ended for a number of reasons. One was the society’s space at the Comsewogue Union Hall had mold problems and was an ill place to store items of historical significance, it not being climate controlled with structural issues. The other was the charter renewal for the historical society required that the society have five board members to vote. Smith added it had gotten harder and harder to find people willing to serve. At the start of 2019, he was also planning a half-year-long trip, and there would be very few people who could have taken care of the artifacts.

“It was just a perfect storm” he said. “I was very disappointed it couldn’t continue.”

Smith, 69, said it had grown increasingly hard to get the community active in its events.

Nick Acampora, the president of the Greater Port Jefferson Historical Society, had worked for years alongside Smith on a number of projects. He said people are busy in this day and age with work, and many have little time for volunteering. While he added his group is fortunate in the amount of support it gets, he’s always worried for the future.

“It’s a tough time for all volunteer organizations,” Acampora said. “Even some of our board members, some of them have been doing it for 30 years. When one of them steps back someone needs to take over, and who do we have to pass the baton onto?”

Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said town officials will continue to work to preserve historical sites in the area, all the while praising Smith for his past work.

“The Cumsewogue Historical Society has laid the foundation for us to continue to highlight history,” she said.

Instead of letting all the artifacts fall to the wayside, Smith presented all artifacts as a deed of gift to the Comsewogue Public Library, which he described as one of the real community centers in the PJS/Terryville area.

Library’s new historical role

Debbie Engelhardt, the library’s director, said she has long agreed that should the historical society dissolve for any reason the library would take in its artifacts.

“So while they understood the town historian would take very good care of the items, there was concern they wouldn’t be as readily available to the local residents,” she said. 

Lori Holtz, the exhibit coordinator and head of adult services at the library, made the connection that other historical societies often have deep roots and foundations in a community, leading to greater support, while the Cumsewogue Historical Society was born out of passion, it had that much more work to do, and needed that extra community support.

A number of artifacts now being displayed at the Comsewogue Public Library. Photo by Kyle Barr

“What he [Smith] was doing which was really noble — he was trying to gather things that really haven’t been gathered all this time and trying to create something,” she said. 

The library has displayed numerous items from the old historical society’s collection, including pictures and artifacts from the Comsewogue school district, pictures of the Gladyz family on their farm and even the rusted shell of binoculars from the old Gentleman’s Driving Park. The library plans to rotate these items in and out throughout the year.

However, the library isn’t stopping there. Holtz said they have future plans, including some things the historical society wouldn’t have been able to do, including scanning and digitizing some of the artifacts to make them available on the library’s website.

In honor of October being American Archives Month, the library is planning to put together an exhibit of several of the historical pictures and artifacts still not available at the library. The display will be available during regular operating hours. 

“We’re thinking it’s not going to be a really heavy lift to continue what we were doing and hopefully do a little bit more,” Holtz said. “Hopefully more people in the community do come forth.”

Barbara Russell, the Brookhaven town historian said the group did the right thing by donating all its materials to the library. 

“It takes a group of people to maintain a historical society,” Russell said. “They had a nice group of working members, but it was small, and you can’t have that small a pool of volunteers.” 

Smith continues to be involved with his artifacts, taking the trip to the library when the directors need help identifying artifacts. Both library and Smith have long worked together since the beginning of the historical society doing displays and lectures, but the president of the dissolved society said even then he would have a hard time getting people to come to events. 

Historical advocacy

Smith said while he will still continue to be active in the area, his advocacy days are largely over.

He and the historical society were involved in several projects, having been at the head of Brookhaven buying the Gentleman’s Driving Park property to help preserve it. Last year, Smith made a huge push to preserve 101 and 105 Main St. adjacent to the south side of the train tracks in Port Jefferson. Those buildings date to the early 1900s, one of which housed E.H. Rogers Feed Mill, a relic of the area’s agricultural roots. While the 2014 Port Jefferson Station Commercial Hub Study contained recommendations from local architects for preserving a number of those buildings, Smith had said last year they were under threat by local developers.

The above photo, taken in the early 1900s, is of the Rogers Grain and Feed Mill (a.k.a. the Remz Feed and Grain Mill) in Port Jefferson Station which serviced local and far-reaching businesses, farms and families throughout Long Island including the Brookhaven National Laboratory. This photo, along with others of the era, is on view at the Terryville Union Hall. Photo courtesy of Cumsewogue Historical Society

Sarah Kautz, the preservation director of Preservation Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for protection and stewardship of historic sites, said Cumsewogue had reached out to them over those buildings looking for support. She added lacking support like the now defunct historical society to keep tabs on such projects impacts their ability to try and preserve such properties.

“For the work we do in helping to advocate for preservation across Long Island, we really depend on partners like that in local communities, because they’re the ones on the ground, they find out about these new proposals,” she said. “Advocacy really comes from them, the grass roots.”

Cartright said there are no new plans presented to the town about those properties on Main Street, but said she will work to protect those historic sites, along with maintaining the town-owned properties of the Gentleman’s Driving Park and Terryville Union Hall.

Acampora said he had conversations with Smith last year about those particular properties and had promised to work to preserve them. The news that his neighboring historical society had dissolved came as a shock to him and to the rest of the historical society’s board. He said his group will do its best to try and preserve those properties, along with other historical sites in the PJS/Terryville area.

“I’m hoping we can do something with those buildings on the south side of the tracks,” he said. “It’s going to be up to us, and that’s what we try to do with any of our old buildings — keep an eye on it and do what we can.”

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Port Jefferson and Port Jefferson Station vets have shown dedication to a local institution for just over 100 years.

The American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 held its 100th Anniversary Dinner/Dance at the Port Jefferson Moose Lodge Sept. 14. Local veterans and members of the lodge celebrated the centennial achievement alongside residents and local elected officials. 

The post was named after the late Cpl. Irving Wilson Ritch Jr., who made the ultimate sacrifice Sept. 6, 1918, on the Vesle River during the Oise-Aisne campaign during World War I. On Sept. 1, 1919, 15 of the original members came together to form the post, which was formally chartered Sept. 16 that year.

Their first meetings were held at the Port Jefferson Hook and Ladder House on Jones Street, presided over by A.C. Fiske, who was the post’s first commander and president.

Later, meetings were held at the local YMCA, the Port Jefferson court room, the K. of C. rooms and the rooms over the Port Jefferson Free Library. The group has now been meeting out of its new formal headquarters located at 1450 Hallock Ave. in Port Jefferson Station.

Since its start the post has been very active in the Port Jefferson Station and surrounding communities: attending and participating in various activities, ceremonies and events such as the annual wreath laying ceremonies on Memorial Day and other remembrance ceremonies on Veterans Day. Recently, the group has been working alongside other local vet groups and with Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) raising funds to revitalize local veteran memorials.

Members of the post said they look forward to serving and celebrating in local communities for another 100 years. 

Information provided by post historian Richard Knutson.

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File photo

Suffolk County Police said they are currently investigating an alleged stabbing that took place on Bicycle Path in Terryville Sept. 16 at around 3 p.m.

A 17-year-old, which police declined to name, was allegedly stabbed in the calf by an unknown assailant and was transported to a hospital for non-life threatening injuries. No arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 800-220-TIPS (8477) or texting “SCPD” and your message to “CRIMES” (274637). All calls and text messages will be kept confidential.

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The director of the Echo Arms Adult Home in PJS said they are lacking funds to help support their residents. Photo by David Luces

As census data suggests the number of Americans ages 65 and over is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060, some argue there has been an increased need for more assisted/senior living facilities. 

In New York State, licensed assisted living facilities receive government funding known as SSI, or Supplemental Security Income, which helps pay for services for seniors, including room, board, 24-hour supervision, medication assistance, case management and personal care assistance. New York State also supplements the federal SSI with additional payments through its Supplemental Security Program (SSP). 

“For lower-income and disabled individuals there are no other choices for them.”

— Harry Katz

Some local assisted care directors say the money is too little to care for an increasing demographic.

Harry Katz, administrator of Echo Arms Adult Home in Port Jefferson Station, said he runs one of the largest facilities in Suffolk County that exclusively accepts SSI/SSP individuals. 

“If SSI doesn’t change it will jeopardize a number of facilities on Long Island like mine,” he said. “For lower-income and disabled individuals there are no other choices for them.”

Though facilities in the state have said it has become increasingly difficult to pay for care of lower-income elderly, as the state has not increased its supplemental payment income for facilities in 12 years. 

Empire State Association of Assisted Living, a nonprofit organization whose stated goal is to strengthen New York State’s assisted living network, said due to the state not increasing the amount it will restrict senior’s access to this type of care. Currently, there are over 12,000 seniors living in SSI adult care facilities across the state. 

ESAAL serves more than 280 licensed assisted living residences, adult homes and enriched housing programs throughout the state. Some other locations in Suffolk County include Fairlawn Adult Home in Northport, Atria South Setauket and Maryville Assisted Living in Smithtown.  

According to ESAAL and Katz, the current SSI rate is less than $45 per day, which barely covers one half of a shift of one aide employed by an assisted living facility. 

Katz, who oversees 13 other employees at his facility, said he believes the state should increase funding so he and others can continue to provide these valuable services to seniors. 

“These are their homes, I’ve had residents who have lived here [Echo Home] for close to 20 years,” he said. 

Katz and others have reached out to elected officials to help their cause, but he said Albany remains stagnant in trying to increase funding.   

Back in 2018, current Democratic U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, while then a state assemblyman, introduced a bill (A6715B) that would increase the SSP that adult care facilities receive. In order to ensure that these services continue to be available to low-income SSI recipients. The bill passed both the Assembly and Senate but was ultimately vetoed by Gov.Andrew Cuomo (D). ESAAL is requesting that NYS increase the current SSI rate to $61 in the 2020-21 state budget. 

The administrator said it is also about educating people on what their organization does every day, as well as what kind of services these facilities provide. 

“These are a vulnerable group of people, these homes are providing a very good function,” he said. 

Katz said for many facilities like his, the increase of operation costs, wages and other factors in addition to the current SSI funding has made it difficult for some operators to continue to run its services. 

“Many facilities unfortunately are moving in that direction, he said. “The edge is coming closer for us, if nothing happens.”                                              

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Bob Rodriguez and his wife Wesam Hassanin. Photo by David Luces

For Bob Rodriquez, owner and brewmaster of Po’Boy Brewery, located at 200 Wilson St., Building E, in Port Jefferson Station, it’s all about making his customers feel like family and keeping them on their toes with the constant variety of beer and cider options. 

Rodriguez shows how brewing is done. Photo by David Luces

Rodriquez said he had a dream to open up a brewery of his own for quite some time, first beginning home brewing as a hobby in his garage. As he got better at the craft, he began entering his own creations into competitions and racked up a number of awards along the way. 

For the past two years, Rodriquez has amassed a dedicated group of customers.

“It is a life changer, it definitely took over our lives,” he said. 

What makes Po’Boy stand out from other breweries is that it releases a new cider weekly and a new beer every two weeks. 

“It’s fun for me, I get to create new recipes and people come back to see what’s new,” Rodriquez said. 

The owner said everyone, for the most part, finds out about new releases the day of. They send the new menu to a customer email list and share it through social media. Even the bartenders find out the same time the customers do. 

Rodriquez enjoys making new creations. 

“I wake up — OK, I want to make this,” he said. “Let me see if I have the ingredients, if not I’ll get it and then in the next couple of days I make it. I like to keep it a surprise for everyone.” 

Behind the tasting room are three tanks that Rodriquez uses to make his new creations. From there, it goes to the breweries cold room which is the final step before it gets put on tap for customers to enjoy. 

“Not to mention the ‘sick’ beers and ciders — you can’t go wrong with that.”

— Bob Rodriguez

While big companies may use a full automated system and more man power, Rodriquez does it all by himself. 

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of physical labor — you sweat,” he said. 

Wesam Hassanin, Rodriquez’s wife and bar manager at the brewery, said most places you go to they’ll have their mainstays, and only once in a while they will add another option. 

“We have a lot of regulars, they come in often, so we want to keep it fun for them,” she said. “It’s all [Rodriguez’s] ideas, he’s like a mad scientist,” she said. 

While the business has taken off for the couple, as of now they only operate the brewery from Wednesday through Sunday. Both of them have jobs working at Stony Brook Hospital. Rodriguez has been a nurse practitioner for the past 25 years while his wife works as a senior administrator in the surgery department. 

“I said I’d go part-time when I hit 25 years and that has made it a little easier — opening up this place was much more difficult to do than getting my doctorate in nursing,” Rodriquez said jokingly.

Since Po’Boy opened in January 2017, the menu has grown from eight to 16 beers and ciders on tap. Last December, they began distributing to local businesses including Prohibition Kitchen among others. 

“What I really love about it is the people that come here, the atmosphere and the comradery is really awesome,” Keegan Johnson, a bar regular from Setauket said. “Not to mention the ‘sick’ beers and ciders — you can’t go wrong with that.”

Johnson praised Rodriguez’s craftsmanship. 

“I appreciate the craft — you see someone that really enjoys what they are doing,” he said. “You can tell he loves what he does, he loves making people happy.”

Po’Boy Brewery has created a large following in a short amount of time. Photo by David Luces

Po’Boy has been recognized islandwide as it was one of News 12’s fan-picked winners in its Brewery Battle poll. Regulars come from all over Long Island, and even beyond.

Yolanda Ramos, of Brooklyn, said she and friends make the drive down to Port Jeff just to come to Po’Boy. 

“We all walk in strangers and we walk out making so many new friends,” she said.  “It’s just a beautiful place.”

Ramos said she started enjoying ciders because of Rodriguez. 

“I was never a cider person until I came here,” she said. 

Johnson said Rodriquez takes it to another level and dubs him “the chemist.” 

“He understands what people like,” he said. 

Rodriquez is proud of what he able to cultivate over the past two years. 

“This is something they can identify with: This is Port Jeff Station, this is Po’Boy,” he said. “They feel like they are a part of this.”

Selden residents lay out candles to spell Jenna’s name on the Newfield High School football field. Photo by Kyle Barr

On the green turf football field at Newfield High School, the Selden community, also swaddled in different shades of green, laid out candles in the grass. The crowd came together like a tide. As they stepped back, the candles spelled out the name “Jenna.” Underneath her name, the flickering yellow and green electric candles and tealights also framed a heart.

Community members hold candles at the Aug. 31 vigil. Photo by Kyle Barr

Jenna Perez, 17, a Selden resident who worked at the Five Guys in Port Jefferson Station was killed Aug. 24 while crossing Route 347 southbound at around 9:25 p.m. She crossed around 300 feet west of Terryville Road, police said. The driver who hit her sped off, and police said they are still searching for that person.

“She was one incredible kid from the day I met her,” said Scott Graviano, the Newfield High School principal. “A very quiet spirit, but always with a smile on her face, always saying hello. And with that sweet, soft quiet personality, she gained the love of support and respect of this entire community.”

For the hundreds of community members looking for ways to heal, remembering Perez as the loving and outgoing high schooler was the best way to deal with their pain. Wearing green, Perez’s favorite color, friends, family, faculty and more from the community held glowing electric candles while the sky slowly darkened Aug. 31. Several friends spoke for her, talking and remembering her fun-loving personality.

“She lived a short life but clearly left a significant imprint,” said Asia Austin to the crowd gathered at the vigil. “As someone who has been grieving recently, I want those to understand that we should not follow down that road in thinking we have no purpose … with support from family and friends, you will find yourself and you will be OK.”

Community members hold candles at the Aug. 31 vigil. Photo by Kyle Barr

Donna Austin was her guardian for the past three years, taking care of Perez and her twin sister Janell in Selden. She had met the twins in 2008 when they were 8 years old living in the Bronx as she went there to take care of one of their relatives. Austin would eventually run a community center out of the building where the Perez family lived, and the twins would always be there to decorate her offices for whatever holiday came up. When their grandmother died, she took both sisters in to live with her back in her hometown of Selden.

“Jenna’s face would have lit up, and she would have been smiling, looking at all of her friends who had come to her like this,” Austin said.

Their caretaker said Jenna thrived in Selden, making innumerable friends and rising higher at Five Guys. She was set to take up her first supervisor training sessions at Five Guys on her birthday Sept. 6. Austin said she had been extremely excited and proud. 

Naziyah Dash, one of Perez’s high school friends, said she has been heartbroken since she learned of her friends death.

“Your story will always be cherished,” she said. “I will keep you alive in my heart.” 

The community is helping monetarily with three separate GoFundMe pages that have been set up in  Perez’s name. The first, which is donating funds to twin sister Janell, has reached close to $9,500. The other two GoFundMe pages are for funeral expenses.

Newfield High School Principal Scott Graviano speaks at the Aug. 31 vigil. Photo by Kyle Barr

“The Newfield community is an amazing place — deep rooted, full of love and support, and that’s evident here tonight,” said the principal. “Janell, we love you very much as a community, I hope you know that. We will continue to love and support you.”

An additional memorial service will be held Sept. 14 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Church on the Sound, 335 Oxhead Road in Stony Brook.

A funeral for Perez will be held at Ortiz Funeral Home, 524 Southern Blvd. in the Bronx Sept. 11 from 4 to 9 p.m. Burial will be at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx Sept. 12 with a time still to be determined.