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Port Jefferson

By Bill Landon

Mount Sinai opened its nonleague season opener at home easily dispatching the visiting Royals 91-47 Nov. 29. Topping the scoring charts for the Mustangs was Nick Hurowitz with 24, Alex Rudolph netted 19 and Andrew Korakis banked 16. Leading the scoring for Port Jefferson was Bryce Lewis who notched 15 followed by teammate John Bachman with 12. The Mustangs are back in action Dec. 11 where they take on Sayville at home for their first league game; tipoff is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. The Royals retake the court in another nonleague matchup Dec. 6 where they’ll take on Smithtown Christian. Action starts at 6:00 p.m.

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Thousands of people were swept up in a wave of holiday cheer as the Port Jefferson Village played host to 23rd annual Charles Dickens Festival from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.

A score of volunteers, all dressed up in mid-19th century garb including not a small amount of chimney soot, walked around the village shaking hands and singing carols as if straight out of Charles Dickens’ classic novel “A Christmas Carol.” Attendees had the opportunity to view the village’s festival of trees, make cookies and ornaments, participate in a gingerbread house contest, ice skate and watch several live music, theater and dance performances, all while walking through village streets with stores all dressed up in seasonal decorations.

Veterans struggling with their time served in the military now have the option of seeking peer support through a program at Island Christian Church in Port Jefferson. Stock photo

A Port Jefferson pastor has a message for veterans struggling with actions taken in their past: you are not alone.

Joining the armed services and venturing overseas, leaving one’s family, being tasked in some cases with taking a life, and in all cases being at least an indirect party to that reality, weighs heavy on a human being’s mind. To try to relieve some of that burden in an informal, judgment-free setting, Pastor Pete Jansson of Island Christian Church in Port Jefferson, in accordance with the Rev. Fred Miller of the Suffolk County American Legion, have established a program called Vet 2 Vet, a peer support group where those who have served and are suffering from “moral injury” can meet with someone who has been through the same as a means of healing.

“Post-traumatic stress is the result of a near-death experience or witnessing a tragic event such as your fellow troops being blown up or killed,” Miller wrote on the subject. “Moral injury is mental injury caused by being forced to do or witness things against your moral values, such as the killing or harming [of] others, witnessing death, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders from authority that are against one’s moral values.”

The program features military members, who have struggled with moral injury themselves previously but have reached a place of inner peace, that have been trained in how to help their fellow veterans deal with moral injury through a Department of Veterans Affairs program. The group meets on the third Tuesday of each month at Island Christian, first in roundtable group discussions, then pairing off in a “buddy system” format, according to Jansson. So far two meetings have been held and Jansson is hoping to get the word out to boost attendance.

“The bottom line is they’re believing a lie, and we’re trying to identify that lie and then replace it with truth and that’s where the challenge is,” he said of the idea that carrying out orders while in the military becomes a burden carried by veterans. “There’s this internal struggle that they have as they begin to recognize that they were there for a purpose and asked to perform this task — not asked but ordered — and that they didn’t actually violate a moral code.”

Jansson said the group is prepared to refer attendees for professional mental health services if needed, through the VA or otherwise, but that the idea of the program is to offer an alternative to those hesitant about reaching out for help. He explained why he wanted to be involved in such a program after meeting Miller, who has ties to the American Legion and has dedicated his post-pastoring life to helping veterans.

“I have a real passion for this village and a real desire to meet felt needs in people’s lives,” said Jansson. “We’ve done grief share classes for people that have gone through a tremendous loss. I personally lost my wife to cancer six years ago this month, and so I’ve been through the grief share.”

Those interested in being involved in the program, either in need of support or to help those seeking it, are instructed to contact Jansson at 631-473-9229 or Miller at 631-395-4646.

Coolsmiles Orthodontics in Port Jeff is hosting an event aimed at examining the causes and identifying solutions for bullying. Stock photo

Orthodontists are usually tasked with improving young peoples’ smiles, but the partners of a Port Jefferson practice are taking patient well-being a step further.

Coolsmiles Orthodontics in Port Jefferson is sponsoring an event entitled “End Bullying Now: Here’s How” at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Port Jefferson Village Center, a lecture that will be conducted by Jessie Klein, an associate professor of sociology at Adelphi University and author of the 2012 book “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools.”

The practice will cover the cost of renting the space for the forum and hiring Klein, and the event is open to the public free of charge.

Dr. David Amram, one of the practice’s partners along with Dr. Justin Ohnigan, said he has always viewed his job as not only improving patients’ teeth, but also impacting their overall self-esteem and well-being as a whole.

“When I was younger I had a really great relationship with my orthodontist,” Amram said, which has led him to view his responsibility as broader than just teeth. “I realized what kind of impact that [self-esteem] change could have on an individual.”

Amram said the practice regularly has discussions about trips and events it should sponsor that are meant to foster positivity and build relationships with the families who visit Coolsmiles, like outings to Long Island Ducks baseball games and other similar events and trips. He said the practice’s exposure to dozens of kids everyday inspired them to tailor an event around an anti-bullying message. He shared a story from a young patient that he said has stuck with him.

“One kid asked for a specific kind of jacket for the holidays, he wanted the jacket and he was wearing it, and then it was gone,” Amram recalled. He said the child explained he stopped wearing the jacket he couldn’t wait to get because other kids made fun of it. “I saw that in him and it was heartbreaking … The need for this kind of thing is striking.”

Klein said she is still in the process of planning how the event will actually play out, but summed up the theme as a look at what goes on in society to encourage that kind of behavior from bullies from a psychological and sociological perspective, and to examine ways to foster a more compassionate society. She said she hopes the forum inspires parents to talk to their kids whether they’re being bullied or displaying signs they may be bullies themselves. She called bullying a national epidemic and said more federal and state resources need to be directed toward prevention of the problem, rather than punitive responses and more security to stave off possible school shootings.

“You really need everybody on board with the same message,” she said. Klein commended Coolsmiles for taking on the responsibility of community betterment from the private sector, and setting an example for others, calling their decision to host the event beautiful and positive. “Them stepping up like that is exactly what is needed.”

Those interested in attending can RSVP by email to info@coolsmiles.com or by calling 631-289-0909 by Oct. 25.

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Body tissue belonging to James Nielsen, 17, who died in July, could prove helpful for researchers of aggressive, rare form of cancer

James Nielsen, 17, of Port Jefferson Station, while on a family trip in Tennessee to see the solar eclipse in 2017, just weeks before he and his family learned he had cancer. Photo from Steven Nielsen

Making sense of loss is never easy, though a Port Jefferson Station family has drawn strength from their 17-year-old son’s bravery and desire to help others, even in his last days.

“Bad things happen to people and this just happened to happen to me, and we’re just going to do the best we can with it,” James Nielsen told his father Steven when they learned the 17-year-old had been diagnosed with a form of cancer so rare and devastating only one documented case of survival exists.

James Nielsen, 17, of Port Jefferson Station, after becoming an Eagle Scout. Photo from Steven Nielsen

The Comsewogue High School student was diagnosed with NUT midline carcinoma in December 2017, an aggressive form of cancer akin to a death sentence. Despite the devastating prognosis, the Eagle Scout from Troop 454 engaged in rare, barely fleeting moments of despair, according to his parents, even spending the day he died — July 16, 2018 — playing UNO card games and watching the World Cup.

James’ form of cancer is characterized by tumors that form in bones or soft tissue. No effective treatment for NMC exists, there are no guidelines, and current approaches to treatment are based on discussions among a few oncologists who each have had a single experience treating this disease, according to the writings of Dr. Christopher French, a pathologist researching NMC at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, who also advised James’ family after his diagnosis.

“The cancer type that he had is extremely rare and he has a yet even rarer variant of that cancer,” French said in a phone interview. “His tumor was really quite unique. It had a different gene, a variant that is extremely uncommon.”

In late August 2017, upon arriving at cross-country team practice at Comsewogue, James’ mother Jean Nielsen said she noticed a sizable lump on her son’s leg. She said he brushed off her concern, went to practice, and even ran an additional mile when he got home. That night, she had her husband Steven Nielsen examine James’ leg. He said it looked swollen but not necessarily alarming, but when he touched the tumor it was rock solid. A trip that same night to a walk-in medical clinic led to a visit to Stony Brook University Hospital, and by that weekend the family knew their oldest child of four had cancer.

Initially doctors believed he had Ewing’s sarcoma, a diagnosis with a far higher survival rate and clearer treatment options than NMC. In the early stages of his battle, James’ mother said she wrote “treatable and curable” on the first page of a journal the family kept pertaining to his illness. James began what was expected to be a 10-week cycle of chemotherapy, but by the second week of October 2017, it became clear the tumor wasn’t responding to treatment, and immediate surgery would be necessary.

At about 10 p.m. Oct. 12, 2017, just six hours before he was scheduled to head to Manhattan for surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, James’ surgeon called and informed his parents there was a possibility he would need to remove their son’s entire leg, and not just portions of the thigh muscle and femur as initially expected.

“I’ll never forget, he looked at us, he sat silent for a moment, and he goes, ‘OK — we’ll do what we have to do,’” James’ father recalled. “And then it was pretty much, ‘Good night.’”

During hour 17 of a 20-hour surgery, the Nielsens were finally informed James would be able to keep his leg.

A positive outlook is often cited as essential in situations like James’, and for the Nielsens positivity flowed on a two-way street.

James Nielsen rides around Manhattan on Thanksgiving night 2017 after undergoing a round of chemotherapy. Photo from Steven Nielsen

“I guess we’ve always just kind of been in the place like, ‘It doesn’t help’ — letting your head spin and certainly getting overwhelmed by emotion — you have to kind of keep everything together for him,” Steven Nielsen said. “He made us so strong. We made him strong, but he led the way.”

Being able to salvage his leg was a small, yet short-lived victory. By December, doctors were finally able to pinpoint his diagnosis. Staring down a cancer with such long odds of survival precipitated an unusual response from the Nielsens — a trip to Disney World.

“We didn’t let it control us, we controlled it,” the father said. Self-pity was never in James’ vernacular. “We were never naive about the possibilities of what could happen, but we also, all of us, really felt that it wasn’t worth putting your energy there. Put energy toward your cure. And so we lived life that way.”

The family dedicated their son’s last months to embracing life, spending Thanksgiving evening perusing Manhattan after an eight-hour round of chemo, looking at stores on Madison Avenue, a night his father remembered as “magical.” They visited a ranch in upstate New York just weeks before his death, one of James’ favorite places to vacation. They went to the beach.

While their focus was getting the most of their time remaining, James’ parents were far from ready to give up the fight. Feeling like their experience at Memorial Sloan Kettering left something to be desired, Steven Nielsen did some research that led him to French. James participated in some clinical trials and spent time at the Boston facility, where he and his father even managed to find time to explore the city and visit colleges with notable pharmacy programs, a field in which James had expressed a future interest.

The father’s dogged pursuit of answers for his son led French to mistakenly call him “doctor” during one of their numerous correspondence.

“He wrote in a way that made me think that he knew quite a bit about medicine, I just assumed he was a physician,” French said, laughing. Both Nielsens are teachers in the Comsewogue district.

French is hoping to soon be provided with donated tissue from James for the purpose of research, one of the teen’s dying wishes. His will be the first cancer cell line, which are living cancer cells used for research, with NMC that French will have been able to get his hands on, an essential gift if there’s any hope for untangling the mysteries of the cancer form.

“The tissue that he donated at his autopsy for research was priceless, and potentially a very valuable tool to perform research with,” French said. “He was just a sweet individual. It tore my heart out when I met him very briefly … It was quite riveting to meet him just sort of knowing the truth, that this was likely to not go well.”

For James the decision to donate tissue for research was reflexive and required about two minutes of thought, according to his parents. The teen was known for reusing Dixie cups and napkins because of his aversion to creating waste.

The Nielsen family goes pumpkin picking shortly before he underwent surgery in Oct. 2017 to remove a tumor from his right leg. Photo from Steven Nielsen

“For him it was just what you do — he didn’t think it was a big deal,” his mother said. “What we look to as heroic or whatever is not really that heroic. Sometimes unassuming people are the most heroic, not people who are very vociferous.”

She said the family can take some comfort in knowing there’s a possibility James’ struggles could lead to a better future for someone else.

“I think if you believe everyone has a purpose, you’d like to think such a horrible result would end with something purposeful, like contributing toward the cure for other people,” the father said. “For us to have him taken away, you hope that that’s the reason.”

The Nielsens expressed gratitude for the support and well wishes they’ve received from the community. Some of James’ classmates have taken up fundraising efforts to get a memorial built in downtown Port Jefferson. Members of the school’s marching band wore pins honoring their fallen peer at the homecoming football game this month. Still, his parents stressed James was not interested in pity or ritualistic gestures of remembrance.

“He was very kind, very sweet, very familial — old kind of qualities that aren’t maybe appreciated as much these days,” his mom said when asked how she hoped he’d be remembered. “He was very selfless.”

To donate to aid in NMC research visit http://www.myjimmyfundpage.org/give/nmcregistryfund.

Port Jefferson restaurants Ruvo and Old Fields are back open after sustaining serious damage during a Sept. 25 flood. Photos from Facebook

The skies opened and dumped buckets of water on Port Jefferson Village Sept. 25.

The area was hit with more than 4 inches of rain during the evening into the night, according to the National Weather Service, leading to severe flooding and leaving behind devastating damage. Two Main Street restaurants — Ruvo East and Old Fields of Port Jefferson — sustained significant damage that night, causing emergency evacuations and significant periods with their doors closed while feverish-paced repairs took place.

“I definitely have the best staff in all my restaurants,” said Joe DiNicola, owner of Ruvo. The restauranteur said the possibility of closing the doors to the establishment for good was a distinct possibility, but after weeks of hard work around the clock that possibility went away Oct. 11. “We bonded together and decided we were going to reopen it. Since then that’s been our common goal.”

The restaurant reopened Thursday afternoon. DiNicola said the building was inundated with about three feet of water as the rain poured down Sept. 25. The repair job required the reupholstering of most if not all of the restaurant’s furniture, “gutting” and redoing four bathrooms, a new roof, plumbing and electrical work, and more. He said his staff was all retained through the reconstruction process and nobody missed a paycheck. He said he encouraged his staff to take time off, making sure no one was putting in full seven-day work weeks, though many were there up to six days per week, and DiNicola said he was logging 15-hour days and beyond during the cleanup effort.

“We’ve had water in the past — a little bit,” he said. “This was an event that it was an anomaly. I just don’t understand. It was just rain.”

DiNicola said water poured into Ruvo from the roof, through drains and eventually in the front door. About 20 cars were totaled in the parking lot, he said. The Port Jefferson Fire Department — which sustained substantial damage itself at the Maple Place firehouse — had to assist people in exiting both Ruvo and Old Fields that night, in addition to helping stranded residents out of about a dozen cars. DiNicola and Old Fields owner David Tunney both heaped praise on the fire department for the work they did that night.

“Thank you to all first responders, village workers, volunteers, our staff, and to you, our loyal customers, thank you for all of your support,” Ruvo posted on its Facebook page Oct. 12.

Old Fields, which is just on the other side of Wynn Lane on Main Street north of Ruvo, was able to reopen Sept. 28, according to Tunney, who said he was thankful the situation here was not worse, sending his condolences to those experiencing recent storms in Florida and the Carolinas.

“It has been frantic,” he said. “We worked really hard and diligent to get back open. The water came in quick.”

Tunney’s restaurant was closed for two days, compared to nearly two weeks for Ruvo, though he said the job required a team of about 30 people working to clean and sanitize the soggy eatery. He said even in the moment on the night of the flood, he was able to keep things in perspective, joking that he told a member of his staff who asked if they needed some more rags, “no, get some tequila.”

This post was updated Oct. 16 to correct the date Old Fields reopened.

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Recent tragedies have shown just how good and inspired our community can be if everyone bands together behind a cause.

On Sept. 30 Boy Scouts from Troop 161, based in Shoreham, were hit by an alleged drunk driver while hiking in Manorville. While four young men suffered injuries, 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, a student at Shoreham-Wading River’s Albert G. Prodell Middle School, was pronounced dead the morning after he was hit.

The news quickly spread on social media, and the community rose rapidly to the occasion. Red ribbons still fly across Long Island from mailboxes, street signs and even entrances to Suffolk County parks. A GoFundMe to support the troop has already raised close to $19,000, and the wakes and funeral for the young man were packed by those wishing to pay respect.

We’ve seen this groundswell of community activism in other places in response to hard times elsewhere. On Sept. 25 Port Jefferson Village was inundated with water that in some places reached as high as 4 or 5 feet following intense rain. Port Jeff’s Theatre Three saw the worst of that damage, as the flooding destroyed props, costumes, play scripts, books and thousands of dollars in electrical equipment, not to mention structural damage to the old building. Yet again we saw the community step up to aid its local theater. Galvanized by news stories and online crowd funding campaigns, dozens of volunteers came to the theater to aid in the cleanup, and theater personnel reported it started receiving thousands of dollars in donations the morning right after the flood, which have continued.

The rise of online connectivity can prove a useful tool in times like these, yet still there is a pervading sense that the world is becoming more insular. With election season right on the horizon and with tensions rising, we kindly remind people it’s OK to be a good neighbor even in not-so-tragic times.

We in the news business know just how powerful and stimulating a community coming together can be. Yes, reporters are people too, and it’s hard not to be heartened, even in the face of mind-numbing tragedy, to drive to work every day with countless red ribbons lining both sides of the road like a landing strip.

Imagine if it didn’t take tragedy to excite such fervor in the local community. Two childhood friends in Commack have worked to bring Commack Day back to Hoyt Farm after a near-30-year absence. The lifelong friends and Commack natives James Manikas and Dean Spinato got the community involved by posting the idea to local Facebook groups, driving their support through connectivity.

There are so many issues that Long Island currently faces, from the threat of nitrogen in coastal waters, rising sea levels and a lack of affordable housing, yet we at TBR News Media watched how well the community can come together to get things done in times of need. It would be great to see the community come together more on an average day.

Recent tragedies have shown just how good and inspired our community can be if everyone bands together behind a cause.

On Sept. 30 Boy Scouts from Troop 161, based in Shoreham, were hit by an alleged drunk driver while hiking in Manorville. While four young men suffered injuries, 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, a student at Shoreham-Wading River’s Albert G. Prodell Middle School, was pronounced dead the morning after he was hit.

The news quickly spread on social media, and the community rose rapidly to the occasion. Red ribbons still fly across Long Island from mailboxes, street signs and even entrances to Suffolk County parks. A GoFundMe to support the troop has already raised close to $19,000, and the wakes and funeral for the young man were packed by those wishing to pay respect.

We’ve seen this groundswell of community activism in other places in response to hard times elsewhere. On Sept. 25 Port Jefferson Village was inundated with water that in some places reached as high as 4 or 5 feet following intense rain. Port Jeff’s Theatre Three saw the worst of that damage, as the flooding destroyed props, costumes, play scripts, books and thousands of dollars in electrical equipment, not to mention structural damage to the old building. Yet again we saw the community step up to aid its local theater. Galvanized by news stories and online crowd funding campaigns, dozens of volunteers came to the theater to aid in the cleanup, and theater personnel reported it started receiving thousands of dollars in donations the morning right after the flood, which have continued.

The rise of online connectivity can prove a useful tool in times like these, yet still there is a pervading sense that the world is becoming more insular. With election season right on the horizon and with tensions rising, we kindly remind people it’s OK to be a good neighbor even in not-so-tragic times.

We in the news business know just how powerful and stimulating a community coming together can be. Yes, reporters are people too, and it’s hard not to be heartened, even in the face of mind-numbing tragedy, to drive to work every day with countless red ribbons lining both sides of the road like a landing strip.

Imagine if it didn’t take tragedy to excite such fervor in the local community. Two childhood friends in Commack have worked to bring Commack Day back to Hoyt Farm after a near-30-year absence. The lifelong friends and Commack natives James Manikas and Dean Spinato got the community involved by posting the idea to local Facebook groups, driving their support through connectivity.

There are so many issues that Long Island currently faces, from the threat of nitrogen in coastal waters, rising sea levels and a lack of affordable housing, yet we at TBR News Media watched how well the community can come together to get things done in times of need. It would be great to see the community come together more on an average day.

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Capping off a week of school-spirited events and a parade complete with floats from each grade level, the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Royals football team took the homecoming win against Bayport-Blue Point, 34-16, Oct. 6.

Many spectators were in town to celebrate their 40 year high school reunion and joined in the festivities by riding in the parade and cheering on the Royals. Others lined the streets of Port Jefferson Village as the students and Disney-themed floats, student-musicians led by music teacher Mark Abbonizio, families, board of education members, teachers and administrators shared their royal pride.

Port Jeff schools' 2018 Wall of Fame honorees Heather West-Serignese, third from left; Elizabeth Schwartz accepting on behalf of her mother Honor Gracey Kopcienski, fourth from right; and David Okst, second from right, pose with high school principal Christine Austen, left, and the students who introduced them after the Oct. 5 ceremony. Photo by Alex Petroski

Some of Port Jeff’s best and brightest had their day in the sun as part of the school district’s homecoming weekend.

Port Jefferson School District welcomed three new honorees to its Wall of Fame during an Oct. 5 ceremony in the high school library. The 2018 inductees are Heather West-Serignese, a 1999 graduate who became a chef and was the winning contestant on the cooking show “Hell’s Kitchen,” in addition to her work establishing a support group for mothers suffering from postpartum depression; David Okst, a 1985 graduate who excelled in high school and at Penn State University as a student and track & field athlete and has since volunteered his time to coach several high school athletic teams; and Honor Gracey Kopcienski, a Port Jefferson High School graduate who died in September 2016 at 84 years old, and was the organist at Infant Jesus R.C. Church in the village for more than 50 years, known for her compassion, kindness and dedication to serving the community.

The Wall of Fame was created in 1996 with the goal of honoring former students and faculty members for achievements in their chosen field who were part of the school community for at least two years and have been out of the district for at least five. Honorees must be nominated by another member of the school community.

“They all possess a passion for community service and they have all dedicated their lives to helping others, and I think that is a very important point for our graduates and our students that are sitting here,” high school principal Christine Austen said during the ceremony.

Heather West-Serignese

West-Serignese described herself as someone who overcame many challenges growing up, including learning disabilities and battles with depression. She studied at The Culinary Institute of America after graduation and earned an associate’s degree from Suffolk County Community College. She excelled professionally in the kitchen, winning Season 2 of Gordon Ramsey’s “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2007 and later becoming the head chef at a casino in Las Vegas.

Heather West-Serignese. Photo by Alex Petroski

In 2016, she and her husband John had their first child, Jackson, which led to a period suffering from postpartum depression. In June 2017, the couple lost their second child when she was 22 weeks pregnant.

West-Serignese and her friend Emily Ciancarelli, who also suffered from postpartum depression, started East End Play Dates in 2017, a group meant to help moms deal with the condition by getting out of the house and arranging play dates with others sharing the same experience. The organization achieved 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and has helped more than 8,000 moms since its inception.

“It’s kind of awesome because I had severe problems in high school with learning, and a lot of teachers were very supportive, but at the same time there were kids that you knew weren’t going to succeed and I was probably below that line,” she said. “I was told even in college that I wouldn’t amount to much and I got bullied a lot in high school, and I got bullied a lot in college, and then to kind of come back as one of the successful people, it’s kind of like a ‘told you so.’”

She said she struggled through her school years and embraces that she can be held up as an example for people achieving success even when it seems unattainable early in life.

“When I was in high school I was put at risk for almost committing suicide because things were difficult — things were really hard,” she said. “I’ve been there, I’ve been at that low point where I thought that I wasn’t going to accomplish anything, and I thought that anybody would care, but now looking back, I’m looking back at all the things I would’ve missed out on. Nothing was perfect. It was really, really hard — but if you want something it’s completely possible.”

David Okst

David Okst. Photo by Alex Petroski

During high school, Okst was a member of the National Honor Society and a stand out performer on the track. He continued both of those trends while at Penn State University, and upon graduating, returned to the community where he joined the Port Jefferson Fire Department, a role he has filled for more than 20 years. He currently volunteers his time as a coach for boys varsity cross country, winter track and spring track.

Five years ago, Okst made a substantial contribution to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, which went toward expanding the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

The runner turned firefighter and coach called the induction an incredible honor.

“I think sometimes when we come to school to work or teach or coach we don’t realize sort of the impact we have on kids,” he said. “Every day the things we say and do, even the mood we’re in, you know the kids see all that. I just love being around the kids, seeing them every day, seeing the crazy things they say, the ridiculous things they do, it’s really a lot of fun for me, and I would never trade that for anything.”

Honor Gracey Kopcienski

Kopcienski was awarded with the recognition posthumously, as her daughter Elizabeth Schwartz, pictured below, attended to accept the honor on her behalf. She and her husband Johnny, who also went by Alfred and was also a graduate from the high school, were community members through and through, having married in 1952 and producing eight children and 24 grandchildren.

Her more than five decades at Infant Jesus made her a pillar in the community, contributing her musical talents to hundreds of weddings, funerals and Masses. She was also generous with her gifts, teaching music and accompanying countless children and local performers. She played for the Manhasset Glee Club, Port Jefferson Choral Society, Southold Town Choral Society, Choral Society of Moriches, SUNY Stony Brook, and master classes given by the opera singer Eleanor Steber in her Belle Terre home, according to Schwartz.

Elizabeth Schwartz. Photo by Alex Petroski

Kopcienski was also generous beyond her musical talents, actively supporting the Port Jefferson Rotary Club in charitable efforts, as well as donating a piano to Infant Jesus Parish Center and contributing funds for another at her old high school. She was also a regular contributor and supporter of Hope House Ministries.

“My mother Honor and her husband Al were the kind of people that never said ‘No’ to a need in the community,” Schwartz told the students attending the ceremony. “And when you walk by someone who’s homeless and think, ‘somebody should take care of that;’ or you see somebody who is struggling with mental illness and you say, ‘somebody should take care of that;’ or when you hear about famine in other countries and you say, ‘somebody should take care of that;’ those somebodies were my mother and my father, and I hope today, that being on the Wall of Fame, you’ll walk by that every day and think, ‘I want to be that somebody.’”

She summed up what the day honoring her mother was like.

“Being here is a validation of the importance of people every day giving back to community, and that’s how I feel coming back here,” she said. “This is the way we want to be — this is who we want to be as a society, and I’m hoping that a little bit of that will be left with Honor’s picture behind.”

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