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Rocky Point

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A motor vehicle crash Feb. 18 in Rocky Point killed a woman from Port Jefferson and seriously injured her husband. Suffolk County Police 7th Squad detectives are still investigating the incident.

Florin Tilinca was driving a 2014 Jeep on Route 25A and was preparing to stop for a red light at the intersection of Fairway Drive at about 12:20 p.m. when a 2015 Subaru traveling in the westbound lane of Route 25A crossed into the eastbound lane and struck the Jeep.

The driver of the Subaru, Lucio Costanzo, 73, of Port Jefferson, was airlifted via Suffolk County Police helicopter to Stony Brook University Hospital in serious condition. His wife, Stephanie Costanzo, 73, who was a passenger in the vehicle, was transported to John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson where she was pronounced dead. Tilinca and his 16-year-old son were transported to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson with non-life-threatening injuries.

The vehicles were impounded for safety checks. Anyone with information on this crash is asked to call the 7th Squad at 631-852-8752.

 

A beware of dog sign outside Peter Connelly’s home in Rocky Point. He was the owner of the pit bulls involved in last summer’s attacks. Photo from Matt Tuthill

In the wake of vicious dog maulings in the area, Brookhaven Town Board voted unanimously last week to adopt a new policy that will keep a tighter leash on dangerous dogs and their owners.

“If there’s a message tonight, the message is to dog owners: watch your dogs, protect them, protect them against other pets, and be a responsible owner because if you’re not, the town is putting things in place to act as a deterrent,” Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said during the Jan. 24 town board meeting.

Under the new county code amendment, entitled “Dog Control and Animal Welfare,” which reflects the stricter state law for dealing with dangerous dogs, the definition of “dangerous dogs” has been changed to include not just dogs that attack people, as the code was previously written, but other pets or service animals as well.

Now the town, or the person who was attacked, can present evidence with regard to an attack before a judge or local animal control officers.

“I don’t think anyone who takes a long hard look at the facts of what happened last summer could possibly conclude that the existing town codes did enough to deter negligent dog owners.”

—Matt Tuthill

The owners of a dog deemed dangerous who do not properly house their pets will face large fines. A first-time offender of dog attacks will now pay $500 as opposed to a previous fine of $100, and third-time offenders will pay up to $1,000, and must keep their dogs leashed, and in some cases, muzzled, when out in public.

“It’s an attempt to place the onus on the owner,” Romaine’s chief of staff Emily Pines, who worked closely with town attorneys to craft the revised law, said during the meeting. “If the dog is going to be around in the neighborhood, the owner has a responsibility to keep the neighbors and other people in the community safe.”

The new policy comes after two incidents in Rocky Point last August wherein three loose pit bulls attacked and severely injured a woman and her boxer on a beach. Just a week later, the same pit bulls jumped over a fence onto a resident’s property and killed two Chihuahuas and injured their owner.

The pit bulls, which were returned following the first attack without penalty, were later euthanized by the town.

Rocky Point resident Matt Tuthill, who lives close to where the attacks occurred, spoke in support of the stricter rules on dog owners during the public hearing on the amendments.

Since the attacks last summer, Tuthill said he and his wife keep a knife in their 9-month-old son’s stroller whenever they take a walk around the neighborhood.

“It’s a huge concern to go outside with our son, and we even stopped going outside for a while,” Tuthill said. “I don’t think anyone who takes a long hard look at the facts of what happened last summer could possibly conclude that the existing town codes did enough to deter negligent dog owners. A loose dog that’s allowed to roam a neighborhood is as much a danger to other children and pets as it is to itself.”

He asked that dog owners in opposition to the proposed policy “please support common sense.”

Colin Goldberg, another Rocky Point resident, who founded the website Brookhaven Bites directly following the attack on his neighbor’s Chihuahuas, echoed Tuthill’s call for enforcement on dog owners.

“Let’s not forget that five dogs were killed,” Goldberg said. “If you care about the welfare of dogs, you will choose to support these changes as well as look more deeply into a real solution to this issue.”

“If the dog is going to be around in the neighborhood, the owner has a responsibility to keep the neighbors and other people in the community safe.”

—Emily Pines

Medford resident Rick Palomo said he’s been dealing with loose pit bulls and their negligent owners for the last few years. A year and a half ago, two pit bulls charged up his front deck and killed his cat, which he said was handicapped and “never had a chance” against the dogs. About two months ago, one of the pit bulls attacked and pinned down another cat of his, but his son was able to save it in time.

He said that with town’s previous policy of capturing dangerous dogs and releasing them back to the owner after a small fine, the dogs are back in the streets running rampant and “terrorizing the neighborhood” within days.

“We don’t know what to do; we finally set up traps in my backyard last Friday and police came and captured the dogs,” Palomo said. “We’re doing everything by the book … I’m afraid they’re going to kill a kid or attack somebody and really mess them up. We have to put a stop to it. I don’t want to see the dogs get killed.”

Palomo’s son, Joseph, said the pit bull owners would just laugh at the old legislation.

“It’s time to get legal action involved, they won’t listen to anybody anymore,” he said. “They said ‘Our dogs don’t bite people, they just don’t like cats,’ and that’s very evil.”

While none of the dangerous dog owners were present at the meeting to make a statement against the proposed codes, Laurette Richin, founder of Long Island Bulldog Rescue, told board members that creating strict laws is not the solution.

“I’ve been rescuing and placing bulldogs and pit bulls in [the Town of Brookhaven] for 17 years and I think people need to be responsible with each other and mind their neighborhood by reporting these things,” Richin said. “I don’t think this should be legislated more.”

In response, Councilman Michael Loguercio (R-Middle Island) said that “sometimes you have to pass a law to protect people from themselves, so not only does this law emulate the state’s law but it helps protect the dog owners as well.”

The new policy will be in effect immediately.

Part of the funds will go toward a new wireless network

Rocky Point school district will hold a technology meeting Jan. 26 to gain public input on the preliminary Smart Schools Bond Act spending plan and how to spend leftover funds. File photo by Desirée Keegan

By Kevin Redding

More than two years after New York State voters passed the Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014, Rocky Point school district is moving forward on its preliminary investment plan to fund improvements in educational technology and infrastructure for K-12 students.

At a school board meeting last week, Susan Wilson, executive director for educational services at the district, gave a presentation to the public about how grant money from the state, totaling $2.45 million, will be utilized.

“This is really to provide improved learning and educational opportunities for students in Rocky Point,” Wilson said. “Through the act, every school is getting a different amount of money and the state wants us to develop new and exciting things for school technology.”

If approved by the board of education in a March 20 vote, the district’s preliminary plan will be brought to the state and, from there, funds will kick in for the eventual installation of a high-speed wireless network throughout the school, which would require a full update of the current network.

“It’s a big deal for us because it gives us the ability to expand on our educational programs and allow us to start engaging with online testing.”

— Michael Ring

Of the $2.45 million grant, $525,000 of it will go toward the installation of the networks, while $510,000 will go toward upgrading infrastructure, leaving about $1.4 million left.

Wilson said she and the Technology Committee — the group that’s been working on the preliminary plan for over a year — are considering to use the leftover funds for classroom lab equipment upgrades or tablets or laptops. A technology meeting will be held Jan. 26 in the district office where public input is encouraged.

In fact, the district is offering a 30-day comment period for community members to weigh in on how the extra money should be spent, which started Jan. 9 and will continue through Feb. 9.

“It’s a thorough process that requires a lot of input from various stakeholders,” Wilson said.

Among the major stakeholders are teachers, students, parents, BOE members, higher education and district tech support.

According to Wilson, the turnaround to see the preliminary plan in action is completely dependent on the state and its approvals, but she hopes phase one, the installation of the wireless networks, will happen between September 2017 and September 2018.

The executive director said the initiation of the Smart Schools Bond Act partly served as a jumping-off point toward online testing in the future. New York has indicated that by 2022, all regents and state assessment exams must be taken online.

Rocky Point Superintendent Michael Ring said he’s excited for the upgrades and what it could do for the district.

“Once we have Wi-Fi we can go from having a handful of active wireless users who are on hot spots to thousands with access,” Ring said. “It’s a big deal for us because it gives us the ability to expand on our educational programs and allow us to start engaging with online testing. It’s a long process, but it’s worth it in the end.”

If you have any questions or comments regarding the preliminary plan, contact Susan Wilson at swilson@rpufsd.org. The technology meeting on Jan. 26 in the district office is open to the public.

Community responds to call for help following car crash involving a volunteer fireman

Jimmy McLoughlin Jr. is a volunteer fireman for the Sound Beach Fire Department. Photo by Stefanie Handshaw

By Kevin Redding

Friends, family and community members did their own quick responding for a beloved Sound Beach firefighter who suffered serious injuries in a recent car crash.

A GoFundMe page to support Jimmy McLoughlin Jr. was set up Dec. 23, one day after the 24-year-old volunteer was rushed to Stony Brook University Hospital following a collision with another vehicle on Route 25A and Harrison Ave. in MIller Place at 5 p.m.

Jimmy McLoughlin Jr.’s car following his crash on Route 25A Dec. 22. Photo from Sound Beach Fire Department

According to those close to him, McLoughlin Jr. was pulling into a lot to get a haircut when a driver ran a red light and broadsided his vehicle.

The online fundraiser hit its goal of $15,000 after just two days, and within 10, the fund exceeded the goal with $19,664. So far 350 people have donated, with individual contributions ranging from $5 to as much as $1,000.

The accident left McLoughlin Jr. with two broken vertebrae, and since he’ll be out of work for a minimum of three months, the money raised will go toward the surgery he needed to fuse part of his spine, future medical and rehabilitation costs and the eventual replacement of his totaled vehicle.

The Sound Beach native recently graduated from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut with a communications degree and has been juggling a second part-time job as a freelance cameraman for Fox 5 NY.

Sound Beach Fire Department Chief Thomas Sternberg spearheaded the campaign on behalf of the district, with the hope of giving back to someone he considers “a very dedicated man to the department and the community.”

“I was amazed at how many people stepped up to help him out … we’re very appreciative of anyone who has donated,” he said. “Jimmy has always been there when you need him. He’s always willing to train, always willing to help anybody.”

Sound Beach Captain Darran Handshaw, who compiled the GoFundMe page, said the speedy outpouring and money raised is a testament to McLoughlin Jr.’s character.

Jimmy McLoughlin Jr. holding his Firefighter of the Year award with Sound Beach Fire Department Chief Thomas Sternberg. Photo from Sound Beach Fire Department

“He’s done so much for the community and he’s just an all around great guy,” Handshaw said. “He’s always a reliable firefighter, always on the first engine and somebody that I count on when I get into a fire.”

McLoughlin Jr. has a lifelong commitment to the fire department — in fact, it’s in his blood.

His father, James McLoughlin Sr., currently serves as fire commissioner for Sound Beach and was once the chief.

“When he was born, I was a fire chief,” his father said. “He was part of the department from the time he took his first breath, and there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t stop there for one reason for another. As long as he’s in town, he’s there.”

McLoughlin said it’s heartwarming to see all the support his son has in the community.

“He’s one of the go-to people when somebody needs help,” he said. “Ever since he was a child, Jimmy was very community-oriented.”

McLoughlin Jr. joined the junior fire company when he was 13 years old and served in it for five years while simultaneously climbing the ranks toward Eagle Scout. He graduated from Rocky Point High School in 2011 and on his 18th birthday, he joined the fire department and maintained his responsibilities there whenever he came home from college for summer and winter breaks.

“He got his fire academy training squeezed in while going to college; he just lives and breaths the fire service,” McLoughlin Sr. said. “Even people who went to school locally weren’t able to maintain their fire responsibilities and quotas, and he was able to do it while going to school out of state.”

As driver on one of the fire engines, McLoughlin Jr.’s responsibilities are to maintain the truck, make sure it’s in working order and train every individual that comes into the department. To this day, his father said, anyone who needs to learn how to drive or pump one of the engines, “they go to Jimmy to learn how to do it.”

Jimmy McLoughlin Jr. is a freelance cameraman for Fox 5 NY. Photo from Jimmy McLoughlin Jr.’s Facebook page

In 2014, McLoughlin Jr. was recognized for all his contributions and ability to balance his fire services and academics when he was chosen by the department as Firefighter of the Year, the fire department’s highest honor. He also received his engine company’s award the same year, which is given out by the fire department for demonstrating a certain level of skill performance and recognizes one’s ability to work within a team.

According to the GoFundMe page, he’s “performed so many heroic acts of kindness for the community.”

In 2015, he fought a large house fire inside a fellow firefighter’s family home. McLoughlin Jr. manned the hoseline, went inside the house and stopped the fire that had spread through the basement and most of the main floor.

Afterward, he filmed and produced a video with the family who lost almost everything in the fire in which they shared their experience with the community to teach key fire safety lessons. The video has since been seen all over the world and has been an integral part of Sound Beach’s fire prevention efforts.

According to his father, McLoughlin Jr. is out of surgery and resting at home. He has been able to walk and move around, but because of the procedure, he has to wear a collar support for the next six to eight weeks. He’s still in a lot of pain.

McLoughlin Jr. might have a long road to full rehabilitation ahead, but his usual spirit remains intact.

“He’s determined,” McLoughlin Sr. said. “He’s got a positive outlook … it’s not ‘am I gonna be on my feet?’ it’s ‘when I’m back on my feet.’”

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Rocky Point’s Madison Gennaro shoots. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

For Rocky Point, one of the youngest players on the girls’ basketball team came through big.

Miller Place’s Kelli Ryan drives the lane while Rocky Point’s Nicole Taveras reaches to try to force a turnover. Photo by Bill Landon

In the final minute of the third quarter, the team trailed visiting Miller Place by 15 points, but the Eagles found a way to tie the game at 62-62 with 8.3 seconds on the clock, and Madison Gennaro swished a shot from the top of key to win the game Jan. 3, 64-62.

“I didn’t know if it was going in — I was just going north and south trying to get the foul,” Gennaro said. “We just had to get fouled and get fast-break layups.”

It was Rocky Point’s first League V victory in nearly a decade, according to head coach Scott Lindsay.

The first 22 minutes started out in Miller Place’s favor. Junior Ally Tarantino, on a give-and-go, fed the ball to eighth-grader Alexa Corbin for a layup that gave the Panthers a commanding 53-38 lead with 1:29 left in the third quarter.

But the Eagles refused to go quietly, and their defense presses and aggressiveness forced several turnovers that were converted into points.

Miller Place head coach Joe Read said his team has struggled to put together four solid quarters of play, and it happened again.

“We’ve done this before: We have a really good half, we look up, we get the ball up, we get the ball out, we get down and we sometimes stop doing that and we talked about that at halftime,” Read said. “[We needed] one or two footsteps more getting to the ball, and that was the difference.”

Rocky Point’s Megan O’Neil jumps up the rim. Photo by Bill Landon

Then Rocky Point went on an 8-0 run to draw within four points with 47 seconds left in regulation. Three seconds later, Gennaro went to the foul line and sank both to make it a 2-point game.

Miller Place junior Victoria Iavarone went to the stripe shooting two and split the difference to edge further ahead, 62-59.

With 36 seconds on the clock Rocky Point’s Clare Levy went to the charity stripe and nailed both to make it a 1-point game, prompting a Miller Place timeout.

After a Panther technical foul, Gennaro went back to the free-throw line, and missed the first, but banked the second to tie the game at 62-62.

“That’s the way we play — we’re constantly coming back from behind — this team is just tremendous,” Lindsay said. “That’s the way they’ve played since ninth grade. This team never, never gives up, so it’s a testament to them.”

With eight seconds left in regulation, Rocky Point inbounded the ball one final time, and after three quick passes, Gennaro let the winning shot fly.

The Eagles erupted in celebration, but the officials put 0:00.3 seconds back on the clock for the Panthers’ final possession, but it was barely enough time to inbound the ball.

Miller Place’s Ally Tarantino scores from under the net. Photo by Bill Landon

“We just don’t give up — we keep pushing and we knew we’d come back,” said Rocky Point’s Christina Ferrara. “We just kept chipping away at the lead and we found a way to come back.”

Gennaro led her team in scoring with 20 points and Levy added 16. Tarantino led all players with 27, and Kelli Ryan tacked on 13.

“We had way too many turnovers,” Ryan said of her team’s second-half performance. “We’ve got to communicate more and pass the ball better — not trying to force it.”

With the win, the Eagles are 4-4 overall and 1-2 in League V, while Miller Place drops to 1-7 overall and 0-3 in League V.

According to Lindsay, it was the Eagles’ first league win in nine years.

“What we need to do is to play with a bit more passion early so we’re not in this position where we spend so much energy coming back in these games,” he said. “But this win is a statement for us. It’s a new year and a new beginning, and we’ve written a new page.”

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien, was named Administrator of the Year earlier this year. He is seen with assistant principal James Moeller, on left, during an award ceremony. File photo from Scott O'Brien

By Desirée Keegan

Walking into Rocky Point Middle School, you’re greeted with smiles and hellos everywhere you turn. The hallways are filled with Eagles pride, whether it’s the large painting of the school’s mascot on the wall or children’s classwork lining the hallways.

Students are laughing, working diligently in classrooms or holding raffles for clubs with good causes.

The Middle School was one of just five middle and high schools in New York to receive the 2016 Inviting Award from the International Alliance for Invitational Education.

The feat wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Principal Scott O’Brien, who was also named Administrator of the Year by the Council of Administrators and Supervisors.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien plays air hockey with a student inside the school’s recently-added recreation room. Photo by Desirée Keegan

O’Brien wanders about the hallways, as students smile, wave or greet him, he stops to help a student who is having trouble opening her locker. Rounding the corner he enters several classrooms to see how the teachers’ days are progressing, or to let the home economics teacher know he loved her homemade cookies.

Social studies teacher Dawn Callahan has noticed the improvements O’Brien has made first hand, being in the district for 21 years.

“It was a big change; a 150 percent turnaround of what we were experiencing,” she said, adding that she takes a lot of pride in what goes on in the district, because she grew up in Rocky Point. “Things used to be so close-minded years ago, and he made it that you had a voice. You could run ideas by him and he does the same back — you feel included in what’s going on in the building. I think all the positive change is a reflection of how hard everyone works together, and for the students.”

Because of O’Brien’s dedication to the district, and change in culture he’s created at the helm of the school, he and the rest of the staff at Rocky Point Middle School are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

To O’Brien, 2016 was one of the most productive and exciting years to date.

“We had many new initiatives that yielded incredible results beyond our expectation and imagination,” he said. “Getting to a place where you can be recognized and acknowledged for that high-level atmosphere takes time. I don’t think it’s something that happens overnight and it certainly isn’t something that just has to do with me as a principal.”

As part of the inviting school application process, the staff learned about what they do well, while also learning what areas to improve. Over 60 educators from all around the world came to visit the school, talk to students and observe classrooms.

“It was a proud moment for me,” O’Brien said. “We took the things we needed to work on, and we starting working on them right away.”

A survey to students was created to see what they thought was missing. An overwhelming majority wanted different ways to occupy their free time. So O’Brien partnered with the Parent-Teacher Association to use Box Top funds and create a recreation room where the kids can play during lunchtime. Inside the rec room is a basketball shoot, pingpong table, foosball table, air hockey table, an old school video arcade system, a television with a Nintendo Wii and video games, a stereo system and bean bag chairs.

“It’s really been a big hit with our kids,” O’Brien said. “They love it.”

The school also hosts club fairs at various times throughout the year to show students that there’s no one-time signup. He said he’s seen marked improvement in enrollment.

“You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

— Kristen LaBianca

“This is the age where they’re learning who they are, and they start forming their identity here, so the more opportunities we give kids at the middle school age to participate in activities, the better the end result will be,” O’Brien said. “There’s been a noteworthy increase in student achievement and graduation rate, and I feel very proud to be a significant part of that. I feel that we have such a strong culture and climate for kids and parents and staff.”

English teacher Joseph Settepani, who was named a Teacher of the Year in 2016, runs the Natural Helpers club. The group raised more than $2,000 in November for its Dimes for Diabetes cause and is currently raising money for Dogs for Dylan, after a seventh-grade student lost his three dogs in a house fire.

“I’ve had many experiences in different school environments and this is an amazing building,” he said. “Everyone comes together as a team to do everything they can. These are very, very altruistic, caring kids. They feel they can’t do enough.”

Assistant Principal James Moeller added that other changes he and O’Brien made were mixing the grade levels during lunch.

“You’d think that was a great way to keep things separate so there would be less problems, but we integrated the grades, and we found the kids interacted more with others and there was less influence of clicks,” he said. “They sort of self police one another.”

Since the school doesn’t have a playground, being that the building shares space with the high school next door, it’s tough to have recess, but a system has been worked out where during warmer months, kids can go outside and run around. Moeller said the staff loves it as teachers have noticed when the kids can burn off some energy, they’re more focused during the rest of the school day.

Pride cards were also established as a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Students are awarded pride cards when a faculty member sees someone displaying positive behavior, whether it be holding the door open for someone or picking up a classmate’s books after they’ve fallen on the floor.

This year, the Rocky Point Middle School was named a 2016 Inviting School, recognizing the building, one of five in New York, to for going above and beyond to display a positive and friendly learning environment for students. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“The idea behind it is to reward kids for doing the right thing, as opposed to being reactive and giving them a consequence when they make a mistake,” Moeller said.

Being a part of the school since it opened in 2002, Settepani, like Callahan, has also seen the changes O’Brien made for himself.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” he said. “It’s evolved light years. We’re finally all on the same page. We speak about how fortunate we are to work in this type of environment — to feel supported, respected and validated. No one cares about taking credit for anything, and everyone just thinks about what they can do to help.”

Art teacher Kristen LaBianca, who has been in the district for 23 years, came over to the school the same time as O’Brien and said the positive atmosphere he has created isn’t confined within the school walls — it gets out in the community.

“Ideas are never turned away,” she said. “You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

Spanish teacher Bruce Wolper, who has been at the school for five years, said he’s enjoyed the changes during faculty meetings. He said O’Brien always starts with something positive, asking who has good news whether it be personal or in the classroom, and there’s always a laugh.

“I would walk through fire for him, and for Jim Moeller, too, who is just as good,” the 30-year teacher said. “They’re a great team. They play off each other fantastically.”

O’Brien thinks it’s a great age to feed into the kid’s self-esteem and is constantly seeing students come back wishing they were still a part of the school. Because of that, he takes tremendous pride in the work the school does.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, standing in front of an Eagle Pride wall with students of the month, has been at the helm of the school for seven years. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“Other people brag about where they teach, but I feel like I really mean it,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always been able to get out of bed and say I love what I do, I can’t wait to go in and I look forward to another 20 years.”

While academic rigor and programs that challenge kids are also right up there, he said he thinks that without the right environment, the rest falls by the wayside. Although his plate may already seem full, the principal also teaches an administrative program at St. John’s University and The College of St. Rose, to instill these ideas in other future leaders.

“I know I made the right choice,” he said of choosing to become a special education teacher at the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School 20 years ago, before becoming an assistant principal and principal at the building before making the move to the middle school. “I’ve had the opportunity to impact the lives of thousands of kids for the better and there’s nothing more meaningful than to hear from a parent years later telling me all I did for their children and appreciating the impact we’ve had on them. Not many jobs get to do that.”

He said that while garnering recognition and accolades is appreciated, he feels there’s something almost wrong with the notoriety, and said despite that, the school will continue work on improving.

“We have to challenge ourselves to do more — something bigger, something better — that drive needs to continue,” he said. “I’m so appreciative of the accolades but I feel that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. To get the recognition sometimes feels weird because this is how it’s supposed to be. And I don’t feel like my work is ever done.”

Keith Buehler is hoisted in the air by a Port Jefferson football player after a game in 2014. FIle photo by Bill Landon

By Alex Petroski

In a day and age when heading down the wrong path can happen easily, Port Jefferson students have a counselor, coach, role model and friend who makes drifting much tougher.

Keith Buehler is in the midst of his 20th year in the Port Jefferson School District, where he has served as a varsity coach, an assistant coach and Middle School guidance counselor. He has children of his own but refers to the countless students he has interacted with during his time in the district as part of his family, too.

The feeling is mutual.

For his selfless service to the Port Jefferson School District and relentless dedication to improving the lives of students, Times Beacon Record News Media names Buehler a Person of the Year for 2016.

The Rocky Point resident said his secret to earning the trust of so many kids has been to be there for them at a young age, and that approach has allowed him to keep a close relationship with them beyond middle school years. The counselor said he spends time trying to learn a little something about every student as a way to establish a bond. Buehler said after students move on to Port Jefferson high school, they often come back to visit and seek additional guidance.

Keith Buehler is hoisted in the air by a Port Jefferson football player after a game in 2014. FIle photo by Bill Landon

“I think that Keith has kind of established himself in Port Jeff as a go-to person for the kids,” said Jesse Rosen, Buehler’s colleague and friend. Rosen, who coaches varsity baseball in addition to teaching global history at the high school, needed some help coaching the team last season. Buehler stepped up despite previously retiring from coaching to be able to spend more time with his own kids.

He has become famous for stepping up to the plate and filling multiple roles when called upon for the district.

“I’m ready to give it up, but it’s hard when the kids keep telling you to come back,” Buehler said, referring to the numerous times he’s thought it was time to step away from coaching, only to be pulled back for one reason or another. For the time being, he’s still at the helm for the varsity boys’ basketball team and is an assistant on the varsity football team. In his two decades at Port Jefferson, he coached middle school football and baseball and middle school track and field.

Success in the world of athletics is measured in wins and losses in most cases, but Buehler isn’t like most coaches. He said one year the varsity basketball team was 0-18, and it was one of the most enjoyable seasons he’d ever had. That’s not to say Buehler hasn’t been successful on the scoreboard as well. He has been a part of four Suffolk County championship-winning basketball teams.

The district’s former athletic director Deb Ferry, who was with the district for nine years, remembered her time alongside Buehler fondly.

“Keith is one of the finest assets to the Port Jefferson School District,” Ferry said in an email. “Keith has time and time again been there for all of the students and athletes. During my tenure there at Port Jefferson we always referred to Keith as the assistant athletic director. He truly did know the ins and outs of the athletic program there.”

Buehler has another unofficial title that he picked out for himself. He said he feels like the “mini mayor of Port Jefferson.”

Being the go-to guy for most problems, Buehler found himself helping others cope with some pretty substantial problems and tragedies.

Max Golub, who graduated from the district in 2012, lost his brother in 2001, when he was just 8 years old. His brother had played football for Buehler.

Keith Buehler rides a Jet Ski during a family vacation. Photo from Keith Buehler

“He was pretty vital in my healing process,” Golub said, adding that on certain occasions Buehler would take him out of classes when he wasn’t feeling great and helped him stay out of trouble.

Golub called Buehler his “protector.” He added that although Buehler wasn’t biologically a member of the family, he became like a second father.

It would seem Buehler’s plate is full enough with his own children. His son Hunter is a freshman at Stony Brook University, daughter Asha is a junior at Port Jefferson high school and his 8-year-old son Kougar and 9-year-old daughter Cessarina, from a second marriage, are currently in the Rocky Point school district. Still, Port Jefferson students who know Buehler said he’s always available in times of need.

Buehler recalled a story that has stuck with him during his tenure in the district. One of his students had asked to take him to a baseball game, when that student’s father said he could bring a friend. Confused by his son asking to bring along his guidance counselor, the father asked if he would prefer to bring one of his peers. The boy told his father that Buehler was his best friend and was who he wanted to take. So he did. Buehler said he remains close with the father and son.

“I try to be a true role model for the kids,” Buehler said. “I try to do the best I can to show them how to do the right thing.”

The spelling of Max Golub’s name was corrected in this version Jan. 3.

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch team up to build the homes for returning veterans. File photos

By Desirée Keegan

Receiving keys can be a magical moment for anyone, but for Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch, they’re more excited about handing them over.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 commander and the developer and owner of Landmark Properties, respectively, have been building and giving homes to veterans for the last four years. They’ve created 11 homes so far, and this year, the duo amped up the intensity to build three homes, with a fourth in the works.

For their work in the community and for dedicating their time and efforts to honoring and helping those who served our country, Cognitore and Baisch are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“It’s bittersweet,” Cognitore said. “There’s many candidates that we come across and every one of them deserves the home. Just to hear their stories is amazing.”

Veteran Deborah Bonacasa receives keys from Mark Baisch, developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, to her new home in Sound Beach. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Cognitore first met Baisch at a fundraiser Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) was hosting. Not knowing anyone at the event, the two found themselves sitting at the same table, and Cognitore began talking about the possibility of building a home for a disabled veteran.

“I thought it’d be one and done,” Baisch said, laughing, while thinking about the first home. “I never thought it would get to this level, but what we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this.”

The two recently unveiled the 11th home for returning veterans to the Cote family, who now own a home in Miller Place. The Bonacasas and Johnsons also received homes this year.

“I’m at a loss with words for everything they did for me and my family,” Deborah Bonacasa said. She is an Air Force veteran whose husband, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa from Coram, died after a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan. “They’re professional and thoughtful. I think it’s great what they’re doing for veterans and recognizing and advocating and stepping up to do things for those who do so much for our country. This house is, and they are, a constant reminder that there are great people still out there willing to help people.”

Rocky Point social studies teacher Rich Acritelli said no one cares more about veterans — and the entire hamlet — than Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” he said. “He personifies everything that a citizen should be, in terms of national and local service, between being in the military and always working for the betterment of his community.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was proud to see how the two stepped up for the Cote family, who were kicked out of their home when the landlord let the Sound Beach property fall into foreclosure. The family has also struggled with illness. Mother Renée Cote has acute intermittent porphyria, a rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

Mark Baisch, at left sitting at table, has new homeowner Deborah Bonacasa, right, sign papers for her new home made possible by himself and VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore, standing on right. File photo from VFW Post 6249

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue. Talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

Cote’s husband Glen was a U.S. Army combat medic in the Gulf War, before coming home and suffering an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

“Anyone that met them couldn’t believe what a great family,” Cognitore said. “Especially Zachary, what a little gentleman.”

But Renée Cote said she can’t believe what a great group Cognitore, Baisch and the rest of the developers and donators are.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

Baisch said his contractors and the community showed more support for the Cotes’ new home in Miller Place than on any other house. There were over 30 volunteers, some of whom have been helping Baisch since the first home. Many of them donate windows, garage doors, bathtubs and furniture. Local supermarkets and civic associations also give gift cards to help the new family acclimate to the area.

“They just continue to give and give and give every time we do one of these homes, and they never let me down,” Baisch said of his contractors. “It’s really the only way these homes could come together. We’re not a charity; we consider these homes a hand up, not a hand out. They do the best they can and it’s amazing how much they keep giving. It shocks me after 11 houses that they’re like ‘Mark, let’s do more.’”

Cognitore said he enjoys creating a community of veterans.

“Once they get into these homes, they’re a great neighbor, a great citizen, they keep up their homes, they pay their taxes, so everything works out,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The veterans appreciate that as well.

The Cote family’s new home in Miller Place as part of the local homes for returning veterans program. File photo by Kevin Redding

“It makes me feel at home knowing there are veterans out there like me,” Bonacasa said. “If we ever needed each other, we’re right there.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she’s thankful that most of the homes have been built in her district.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said of the welcome-home ceremonies. “It’s impossible to not get choked up. Especially the most recent one with the Cote family — they’ve had some significant challenges. They were struggling, and Joe and Mark saved them.”

Baisch said that the real tragedy of it all is the fact that without his help, the families wouldn’t be able to remain on Long Island.

“They had no real chance of having a family here and living here if it weren’t for these homes, so that’s the all-encompassing enjoyment out of it,” he said. “These people would have been long gone, and they’re not the types of people we’d like to see leave Long Island. They served their country and they’re Long Islanders, each and every one of them. For them to have to leave because they can’t afford to live here, there’s something wrong with that.”

Bonner said what the “dynamic duo” does shows their true character.

“Mark is very altruistic, and he’s never looking for a pat on the back about it, he just feels passionately about it and does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “And Joe is a tremendous advocate for veterans and a true Patriot. Their hearts are bigger than their wallets. It’s more about doing the right thing than it is about making money.”

Baisch said as long as Landmark Properties is around, he’ll continue to do something like this.

“It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” Baisch said. “I can’t explain it. I can’t come up with words enough to tell how wonderful it feels. The thought of not continuing doing this doesn’t even enter my mind.”

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The Rocky Point cheerleading team gets into formation. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Rocky Point continues to control the top spot.

The Eagles cheerleading team showed why it’s a 13-time regional and three-time national champion when it took to the mat Dec. 18 in the Small School Division I meet. The Eagles competed against 10 other teams and placed first in the event with a flawless two-and-a-half-minute performance that wowed the near-capacity crowd at Comsewogue High School.

The Rocky Point cheerleading team performs for the crowd. Photo by Bill Landon

They were the seventh squad to perform, and took to the mat with a presence. Every tumble was crisp and deliberate, every flip landed in unison and every pyramid was mistake free. The Eagles made it look easy and the girls smiled from ear to ear because they were confident, and genuinely having fun.

Rocky Point head coach Anna Spallina said one challenge her team has had to face with the new rules is getting used to the limited number of practices allowed.

“We still do the three hours sometimes — it’s hard, but three hours is three hours, they know that they have to come to practice and be serious about their work,” she said. “And we keep the level of pride up there.”

She said her girls know the level that they need to uphold, not just for her, but for the judges.

“They know that they’re going to be picked apart a lot harder than any other team,” Spallina said, “because they’re looking for them to make a mistake.”

Senior Kristin Flatley said that with six years of experience, after landing on the mat for the final time, she thought her team aced the performance. Her teammates erupted into celebration, too, because they thought the same thing.

“I think we nailed everything — we work so hard, we practice three hours every single day, we just have to push it out hard,” she said. “We fight for everything, we’re so strong and we know we have it. We bring that excitement to the mat.”

Senior Brittany Reh said her team performed well in every area of the routine.

“They know that they’re going to be picked apart a lot harder than any other team because they’re looking for them to make a mistake.”

—Anna Spallina

“I’m very proud of my team,” Reh said. “We had a lot of energy and I’m really proud of how we executed.”

Spallina told her team that with every competition there’s only one team to beat out on the floor.

“We keep telling them that you actually have to beat yourself at every competition, and that’s hard to do,” she said. “Everyone wants to pick off the top dog.”

Bailey Klein said her team ends every routine leaving it all out on the mat.

“I knew that as soon as the music went on — I looked around and everyone was smiling,” Klein said. “We were having so much fun, we cheer each other on throughout and no one was going to give up.”

Rocky Point senior Morganne Nofi said there’s an element of the routine that only comes with time, which is why the girls are seeing such positive results.

“I think what helped us today is we walked out on the mat with confidence,” she said. “We didn’t hold back anything, we knew what we were capable of and we did show that today. It’s part of our focus — to have a presence when you walk out on the floor. You can’t describe it, but it’s a strong feeling.”

Behind the Eagles were Wantagh, Hauppauge, East Islip and Comsewogue.

Rocky Point hits the competition mat again Jan. 8 at Newfield High School at 9 a.m.

Miller Place Fire Department responded to a structure fire at 5 Ariel Court in Rocky Point. Photo from Miller Place Fire Department

Miller Place Fire Department responded to a structure fire at 5 Ariel Court in Rocky Point to assist Rocky Point Fire Department early on the morning of Dec. 12.

Responders, in conjunction with Rocky Point Fire Department, helped extinguish the flames. Photo from Miller Place Fire Department
Responders, in conjunction with Rocky Point Fire Department, helped extinguish the flames. Photo from Miller Place Fire Department

A fire destroyed the home of the Sanvitale family, who, with their dogs Tilda and Lucky, were unharmed.

A Go Fund Me page was created for the family, to support them after losing their home amidst the holiday season.

The Go Fund Me page was created by David Mathias, and, in one day since it was created, has been shared 228 times and raised $3,125, as of press time, with the help of 56 donations. The target goal is $5,000.

With the donations, some messages were left from members of the community. Richard and Samantha Rishkel wrote “If you need anything, let us know.” Kate Graf added a message, “Sending love and positive energy from Florida,” and Ashley Haskell said, “Sending healing energy.”

To make a contribution, visit www.gofundme.com/sanvitale-house-fire-support-fund.

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