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Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco was honored for his impact surrounding gang violence and rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala Nov. 9. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

In 2006, a year after he was elected Suffolk County sheriff, Vincent DeMarco took a huge risk. In an effort to reduce gang violence in the Riverhead correctional facility, DeMarco brought a seemingly ill-fated program into the jail where rival gang leaders and members — Bloods, Crips, MS-13, Latin Kings and Aryan Brotherhood — gather in a room to share stories, make peace and help one another escape a life of crime. In doing so, Riverhead became the first county jail in the nation to embrace Council for Unity, a nonprofit founded in Brooklyn in 1975 to keep gang activities out of schools and communities and replace a culture of despair with a culture of hope. The newly-appointed sheriff’s gamble quickly paid off.

Robert DeSena, Vincent DeMarco, Alex Bryan and Butch Langhorn were recognized for their work. Photo by Kevin Redding

In a matter of months, DeMarco and correctional facility members watched the entire jail system turn around, as inmates who came to the prison as enemies began to form friendships through their similar experiences. The men, many of whom are imprisoned for violent behavior and drug dealing, find careers after they’ve served their sentences thanks to job and education opportunities offered in the program.

Inmate population and the rate of recidivism at Riverhead are now at an all-time low and the jail serves as a model for other correctional facilities statewide. The Riverhead Police Department has since developed its own companion anti-gang program with the organization.

“DeMarco has changed the dynamic in that facility and has created hope for inmates who live without hope,” said Robert DeSena, president and founder of Council For Unity, who met with DeMarco and his staff to pitch the radical concept in February 2006. “He has a tremendous social conscience and his perception of incarcerated people is atypical. He saw they had the capacity to be reclaimed and he went with it.”

DeSena and others involved in the program, including ex-gang members, honored DeMarco for his significant impact surrounding these criminals’ rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala at the Garden City Hotel Nov. 9.

“I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts. You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

— Butch Langhorn

The annual event aims to celebrate public figures on Long Island active in the reduction of gang violence in society. DeMarco, who has served as sheriff for 12 years and decided earlier this year he would not seek a fourth term, was on the short list of honorees alongside Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and Council for Unity alumnus Dr. James Li.

He received a plaque referring to him as a visionary, reformer and humanitarian “for creating a climate of hope and possibility for the inmates in his charge.”

While introducing DeMarco to receive his honor, Butch Langhorn, assistant to the sheriff who oversees the Council For Unity sessions at the jail, recalled the first meeting he and DeMarco had with DeSena.

“While we were listening, I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts,’” Langhorn said. “You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

During his 2005 campaign, DeMarco advocated for more programs that aimed to work with inmates and provide opportunities to change their lives. This came in response to a New York State mandate at the time to build a new $300 million correctional facility in Suffolk as the county was pushing 1,800 to 2,000 inmates per day. He was determined to not only lower the population, but make sure the inmates were working toward a goal beyond bars.

“I thought, this is corrections and we’re supposed to correct their behavior,” DeMarco said at the podium. “The facility isn’t about warehousing people and just putting them back into the same situation they came from.”

Although he admitted being skeptical of the idea of intermingling gang members at first, fearing it would only lead to more violence, the sheriff said he left the meeting with DeSena fully on board.

Mario Bulluc, a former MS-13 gang member, went trough the Riverhead jail program and spoke during the gala. Photo by Kevin Redding

“He did this Jedi mind trick on me and I was spun around,” DeMarco said laughing. “I just kept thinking, ‘this could work, this could work.’ It was the right thing to do and we’ve come a long way. A couple people who went through the program are out now and they’re getting paychecks, they’re married. [The program] got them out of gang culture. That warms my heart and makes it all worthwhile for me. I know we’ve helped change people’s lives, so this is a big honor for me. You always seem to remember the first and last thing you did in a position and Bob was the first meeting I ever took and now there’s this. It’s a nice little cap off.”

Mario Bulluc, 22, who was an MS-13 leader when he was a student at Riverhead High School and now serves as an employee of the council, sought refuge in the program after countless close calls with death and time spent in the Riverhead jail. He now devotes his life to helping kids get out of gangs.

“Council For Unity saved my life — DeMarco and DeSena are the greatest men I’ve ever met,” said Bulluc, who joined the infamous gang when he was 14. “They try and get to the root of our problems and help us see we are the same people no matter our race, gang, or gang colors. If I can change, anybody can.”

Alex Bryant, a retired corrections officer at Riverhead and a Council For Unity advisor, said the council was put to the test in the correctional facility and has been proven to be life-changing. He pointed to DeMarco’s leadership as the reason for its success.

“I’ve been under several sheriffs in my 30-year tenure in the field,” Bryant said. “DeMarco is by far the best. He is progressive and eons ahead of most sheriffs across the state of New York.”

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By Bill Landon

Port Jefferson’s youngest football players practiced alongside the Royals varsity squad Aug. 26 during a camp designed to teach the fundamentals of the game while stressing the do’s and don’ts of safety in the sport.

Royals head coach Andrew Cosci had players break into groups of running backs, receivers, quarterbacks and linemen during the camp for which the idea he said was long overdue.

“I think it’s extremely important to involve the younger players, especially with the way football is being looked at across the nation, along with the NFL, with the emphasis on safety,” he said, also adding the desire to get the younger kids enthusiastic about and interested in the program. “It shows that we’re all in this together. The game is a great game, it teaches a lot of life lessons and you want to share it with the little ones because that’s where a lot of the fear is. When the young kids come up, [they can] see how we teach the athletes the right way to play the game.”

“I think it’s extremely important to involve the younger players … with an emphasis on safety. The game is a great game, it teaches a lot of life lessons and you want to share it with the little ones.”

— Andrew Cosci

For senior wide receiver and strong safety Thomas Mark, practicing with the younger players has been special.

“It’s definitely really important because when I was a kid coming to all the games I looked up to those players,” Mark said of seeing previous varsity athletes. “So to be out here and to see these kids look up to us is really rewarding.”

Port Jeff sixth-grader Shane Wardell said the reason he was at the camp was simple.

“To have fun and to see the varsity team,” he said. “I want to play on varsity some day.”

Senior running back Joey Evangelista echoed Mark’s sentiment, and said he thinks the camp is an important one.

“It shows them what we do up here at this level and it gets them ready for it,” Evangelista said, and then assessed his team’s chances this season. “We have a lot of our backfield coming back, which is awesome. A lot of our line left us last year, but we have some big guys, so I think we can do it.”

Cosci will rely on all 14 of his seniors to set the example for the younger generations and the underclassmen on the team. The hope is to make a deep run in the playoffs.

“From year to year you never know and you always get surprises, but hopefully they’re good surprises,” Cosci said. “We have a couple of holes that we knew we’d have to fill up front because of guys who graduated last year, but every day they’re getting better and they’re working hard and that’s all you can ask of them.”

“I remember when I was that age and we didn’t have a Port Jeff youth program, so it’s nice to be part of … it’s nice to be able to give back to the community and I’m happy that I’m able to be part of it.”

— Jack Collins

The Royals look to improve on the 5-3 conference season from last year, and have a new weapon in their arsenal to get the job done, according to senior quarterback Jack Collins.

“This year we have athletes like we’ve never had before,” the third-year varsity player said. “We have some new kids who are really good outside. We’ve lost some tonnage from last year’s team, so we’re going to have to work on getting the blocks down, but we got players to do it — we have the size to do it.”

Mark said he also likes what he sees in this year’s lineup.

“We have a lot of skill players — our receivers, running backs, quarterback — we’ve got a good bond so far and a lot of really athletic kids, so I’m looking forward to seeing how many big plays they can make,” he said. “But it’s knowing who to block and when, and knowing our schemes.”

Collins reflected on what it means to be involved with the local youth football players in their formative years.

“It’s very important to involve the younger players [because they] are the ones who keep the program going,” he said. “I remember when I was that age and we didn’t have a Port Jeff youth program, so it’s nice to be part of [it]. It’s nice to be able to give back to the community and I’m happy that I’m able to be part of it.”

The Royals will pick up where they left off as they open their season on the road against Miller Place, the team that ended their season in the playoffs last year. The Sept. 8 matchup has a kickoff time slated for 7 p.m.

Cosci said he is optimistic about Port Jefferson’s chances to go further.

“What I like a lot is our skill positions — they’re very dangerous on the football field,” the head coach said. “Even on defense our linebackers and our secondary, we’re very, very strong and as long as we keep going in that direction we’re going to be a dangerous team. Shoreham is the team to beat — we’ve always had a tough time with them, but we’re not just looking to make the playoffs, we’re looking to make some noise when we get there.”

Shoreham-Wading River high school students and Long Island business owners connect during the school’s first School-to-Community meeting in April. Photo from Shoreham-Wading River school district

High school students within Shoreham-Wading River are getting a head start on real-world job opportunities, thanks to a new community networking initiative rolled out by the district.

The School-to-Community Program, which held its first meeting April 3 and a second May 16 at the high school, helps students of all grade levels and interests prepare for postschool jobs by providing access to business leaders from local community organizations who discuss job tours and shadowing opportunities.

Participating students include those in the school’s science research program; AP Capstone program; science, technology, engineering and math program; and special education population, all of whom are in search of mentorships and internships.

They’ve connected with business leaders representing a wide range of companies like ASRC Federal, a service provider that resolves challenges within federal civilian, intelligence and defense agencies; the Tesla Science Center, a not-for-profit working to develop a regional science and technology center in Wardenclyffe; and Island Harvest, a hunger-relief organization that serves both counties. Representatives from Brookhaven National Lab and the North Shore Youth Council have also been involved.

The two meetings held so far will be the first of many in a continued development between the school and community, according to Amy Meyer, director of STEM for grades K-12 at the district.

“We want all of our students to have access so they have a little bit more real-world experience that will go on to help them choose what they’re going to do.”

— Amy Meyer

“We’re preparing students for jobs in industries and areas where it’s changing so much because of technology and everything else … it’s really important to stay current with what’s happening in those industries in order for students to know what they should expect and what areas they should target,” Meyer said. “We want all of our students to have access so they have a little bit more real-world experience that will go on to help them choose what they’re going to do.”

During the April meeting, 26 business representatives, 17 educators and nine students met to brainstorm programs and events that would accomplish the district’s goal for authentic learning experiences, according to the school.

The May event was an annual STEM symposium — a fair-style gathering that brought awareness to 21st century careers. Students showed off their STEM-related projects, which included robotics, while community leaders spoke from exhibit booths about how their industries are involved with STEM and what educational measures students can take to break into specific industries.

John Searing, an ASRC Federal employee and engineer by degree and trade, got involved in the program through a presentation he made in his daughter’s AP Science class at the school. The teacher of the class recommended he get involved as someone adept at dealing with the students in regards to career and STEM opportunities.

“I think it’s an absolute opportunity to work with the kids as they head into college or some other field, especially technical, and teach them some of the soft skills and nuances about the workplace that can help them along,” Searing said. “I’ve suggested working with them an hour or two every week in a classroom setting to bring some real-world problems we find in the workplace and let them try and solve them.”

A career plan is already in place for next year, Meyer said, which will focus on specific growth industries on Long Island.

“One of the thoughts is that if students know what is available here on Long Island, they may be more apt to stay on Long Island and focus their career on those things,” she said.

The School-to-Community initiative, which has the full support of the school board, curriculum and instruction team, was first proposed in March of this year, and approved right away to lay the groundwork for it to be firmly established next year.

“The school and district want to work together to provide learning and growth opportunities for our students,” Shoreham-Wading River High School Principal Dan Holtzman said in an email. “It is an important step in bridging the community and district together to educate students on career paths and exploration.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. File photo by Kevin Redding

The quality of Long Island waters has been on the mind of elected officials from all levels of government recently, and a representative from the federal government has joined the fray, calling for more funding for two Environmental Protection Agency programs.

“There’s much we can do to improve water quality in the Long Island Sound and National Estuary and I’ll continue working in congress to ensure our waterways are preserved for generations to come,” U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirely) said during a press conference March 13.

Southold Town Council members and residents from the 1st Congressional District gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in Mattituck as Zeldin called on the federal government to fully fund at least $10 million to the Long Island Sound Study and $26.5 million to the National Estuary Program in its upcoming appropriations process at the end of April, and also to support the passage of the Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act. He said funding for the two EPA programs is essential to address urgent and challenging issues that threaten the ecological and economic well-being of Long Island’s coastal areas, such as nitrogen, harmful algae blooms and flooding or wetland loss.

East Beach in Port Jefferson is on the Long Island Sound. File photo by Elana Glowatz

“Over the years, water quality around Long Island has suffered from pollution, overdevelopment and other negative impacts…and I’m calling on my colleagues to make sure these programs are fully supported and funded, and certainly not eliminated,” Zeldin said, highlighting the significant impacts each of the programs have had on the region.

The Long Island Sound is one of our natural treasures, the congressman said, and is a precious feature of the life, culture and economy of more than 9 million people living in the coastal communities around it. He voiced his admiration of the Long Island Sound Study for its dedication to water quality and wetlands restoration in addition to local conservation projects to restore beaches and protect wildlife.

He called the National Estuary Program “an important EPA wetlands protection program for 28 estuaries in the U.S.,” two of which being Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay. The program was established by the Clean Water Act in 1987 to provide grants to states where nationally significant estuaries are threatened.

Zeldin said he will continue to work alongside Democrats and Republicans in the region to secure the funding as he did to stop President Barack Obama’s (D) proposed 22 percent cut to the Long Island Sound Study in 20

The Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act, he said, was introduced at the last congress by himself and former 3rd District U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and will propose tens-of-millions of dollars in funding per year through 2020 for a water quality and shore restoration program. Zeldin plans to reintroduce the bill during this congressional session.

Setauket Harbor Task Force Trustee George Hoffman voiced support for Zeldin and his call for funding to protect local waters.

“With Congressman Zeldin’s strong advocacy and leadership, the Long Island Sound Study, a consortium of federal, state and environmental organizations has turned the corner on cleaning up the water in LI Sound and its harbors and bays.”

—George Hoffman

“With Congressman Zeldin’s strong advocacy and leadership, the Long Island Sound Study, a consortium of federal, state and environmental organizations has turned the corner on cleaning up the water in LI Sound and its harbors and bays,” he said. “Federal funding is critical to survival of this important and productive estuary.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell spoke briefly in response to Zeldin’s longtime presence in the area.

“The people of the East End and people of the first congress have made it clear time and time again that the environment is a top priority and the congressman has been a zealous advocate on behalf of us, on behalf of the environment, and on behalf of our natural resources,” Russell said. “Time and time again, he’s disproved the myth that Republicans aren’t friends of the environment…Republicans are and he is.”

Councilman Bob Ghosio took to the podium to speak about the importance of the proposed funding.

“Talking about nitrogen in the bays and creeks and knowing the Long Island Sound and estuaries [here], particularly in Southold are what drives our economy, our tourism, our jobs and our recreation, just tells me how important this is,” Ghosio said. “Getting the funds to keep this area healthy for the future for my kids, my grandkids and generations thereafter is very important to us.”

When asked by a resident what he thinks of some of his Republican colleagues advancing toward eliminating EPA entirely, Zeldin reminded those in attendance he voted against a 17 percent cut to the EPA last year.

“There are 535 members of congress, all with very different ideologies and backgrounds and you get a whole lot of diversity on these issues and so I have a lot of colleagues who would support completely eliminating the EPA altogether,” Zeldin said. “But again, I voted against the 17 percent cut so to ask me how I feel about a 100 percent cut, there’s some precedent in it.”

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