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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.

The home at 73 Henearly Drive in Miller Place has residents on the block up in arms over its purchase for redevelopment by the Developmental Disabilities Institute. Photo by Kevin Redding

Residents in and around Miller Place are rushing to the defense of a group home for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities that will soon open on Henearly Drive after some neighbors said they didn’t want the facility on their block.

The neighbors, interviewed earlier this month, said they believe the Developmental Disabilities Institute home — which will house six, low-functioning autistic adults over 21 years old and full-time staff members — will damage the family-friendly community’s quality of life by increasing traffic flow and lowering property values of homes on the street.

“It doesn’t make any sense — why you would put this in the middle of a neighborhood, how is that fair?” said Janice Simon, a Henearly Drive resident.

Her concerns were not aimed at the six individuals who will live in the home, she said, but the overcrowding of vehicles and possible dumpsters around the property. Other neighbors agreed, adding unease toward the group home’s rotation of employees.

“So sad that we have people so heartless in our town … makes me sick.”

—Maureen Le Blanc

“I don’t want strangers up and down my block … all day and night,” one resident said. “[With] everybody smoking and on their phones and hanging out — no way — it doesn’t work like that.”

But these voices of opposition were not shared by all.

Between Sept. 12 and 14, in a closed Mount Sinai-Miller Place Community Facebook page, waves of support for the group home, as well as anger and shame toward those against it, came from more than 50 North Shore residents in the comments section, when a TBR News Media article about the incoming group home and its critics was posted.

“So sad that we have people so heartless in our town … makes me sick,” Maureen Le Blanc wrote of the neighbors.

Sound Beach resident Patti Kozlowski, who previously lived in Miller Place, said she was horribly ashamed by the comments made by residents on Henearly Drive.

“I say, if you don’t want a group home next door to you, let your neighbors vote to see if they want you to be next door to them,” Kozlowski said. “They key word is group home. It’s the home for people to live. It needs to be a big house in a nice neighborhood. That’s where it belongs.”

Eileen Walsh said no one is better than anyone else.

“We can and should all learn a lesson in kindness and acceptance from DDI residents,” she wrote on the Facebook page. “The only people upset about this are selfish elitists.”

Rich Pistone said the residents on Henearly aren’t setting a good example.

“Teach your children diversity [and] that we occupy this planet with many other people … some a tad bit different than the norm,” he wrote. “Residents on Henearly better get over themselves.”

Suzanne Cloke said the comments made by the residents on Heanerly Drive do not speak for the entire community.

“[The original] article put a bad taste in my mouth, making Miller Place look like a town full of horrible people that would steal candy from a baby’s mouth,” she said. “There are people who would welcome the home with open arms and would also treat the residents with respect and compassion.”

“I would really like them to think, what if it was their child?”

—Wendy Flammia

Several residents who posted in the group also vouched for the reputation of DDI, a Smithtown-based nonprofit founded in 1961 that has launched more than 30 group homes throughout townships in Suffolk and Nassau counties.

“DDI is an amazing company and the developmentally disabled population consists of wonderful individuals who deserve to live in a community just like every other person,” wrote Ryan Nelson. “What some of those people are saying is disgraceful.”

A majority of the people who commented said their own lives have been touched by the special needs population.

Kim-Marie Duckett of Miller Place Road, who travels three hours a day to a group home in Pennsylvania to visit her 18-year-old autistic son, whose behavior she said was too extreme for local homes, said in an interview the Henearly Drive facility will be a welcome addition to the town. Her son will never be able to live on his own, Duckett said, and this could end up becoming a living destination for him down the line.

“It’s just such a positive thing for me because when my son does age and become an adult, the better chance he will have to be closer to me with this home,” she said.

Duckett said the neighbors’ complaints regarding the home boils down to a lack of education, which she’s willing to provide for them.

“It’s just ignorance and people just looking for something to complain about,” she said. “It chokes me up that people have such an opinion. They have no idea what it’s like living in this situation. The individuals have a right to be somewhere. DDI is excellent and I’m sure the house will be kept nice. Shame on Mrs. Simon. I would take the opportunity to use my big mouth and she would feel really small by the time she walked away from me.”

Deanna Landy-Marino, of Tyler Avenue in Miller Place, worked at DDI as a college student and has a 6-year-old nephew with special needs. She said a DDI home is usually the most beautiful home in its area.

“It has a wonderfully cut landscape, there’s no uptick in traffic, it causes no aggravation and the residents of the house are wonderful,” she said, not understanding concerns over an increase in traffic. “There are a bunch of cars all over Miller Place, whether it’s a DDI house, my house or somebody else’s house. If anything, they should pay attention to some of the people that actually speed down their roads. I don’t think it’s going to happen from a DDI house.”

“It chokes me up that people have such an opinion. They have no idea what it’s like living in this situation. The individuals have a right to be somewhere.”

—Kim-Marie Duckett

Kathi Yaldei, a Mount Sinai resident whose 25-year-old son has special needs with life-threatening seizures, challenged the neighbors’ reasoning for complaining.

“I think it’s a cover-up and not what their real issue is,” Yaldei said. “I think they used that as an excuse when in reality they don’t want the residents there. The individuals should be welcomed to any area that a group home has purchased.”

As the mother of a 15-year-old daughter with special needs, Wendy Flammia, who lives on Gristmill Lane in Miller Place, wants to introduce her daughter to the neighbors against the group home.

“She’s a loving kid, and when I bring her out, she makes people smile,” Flammia said. “I would really like them to think, ‘what if it was their child?’ What if, God forbid, tomorrow their child had a brain injury and needed a place for them to go, how would they feel then? It really upsets me, but I think the Facebook comments have shown there’s a lot more support for it.”

But Henearly Drive resident Dominick Caroleo, who is among those in opposition to the group home, said he volunteers at local churches helping cook for homeless people and those with disabilities and maintains that his stance has nothing to do with the special needs individuals.

“It’s not the people we’re against,” he said. “It’s what the home is going to do to the appearance of the neighborhood. There’s always going to be traffic moving back and forth over there and people coming in and out of the house with different shifts and all that [and] they’re not paying property taxes. It’s just going to bring our property taxes up. Time’s going to tell.”

Miller Place resident Taniya Faulk, who has been diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, said the neighbors are basing their concerns on hypothetical situations.

“Let’s not build around the possibility of a problem,” she said. “If there is one, then address it at the point where the problem occurs. I don’t understand what the big uproar is. It upsets me to think that I grew up in a town that is this close-minded.”

To commemorate International Women’s Day and “A Day Without a Woman” March 8, dozens of women, men and children of all ages gathered in front of The Frigate on the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Port Jefferson Village in support of gender equality, ending violence against women, acknowledging women’s achievements in history, and to voice their concerns about the current administration in the White House.

“We all need to know that we are in this together and we need to persist and we will persist,” Port Jefferson resident Kathy Greene-Lahey said over a microphone to the North Shore community members in attendance. “We are so capable and strong and intelligent and courageous, we have grace and style and are simply fabulous. We show up, put our money where our mouths are, stay the course, hang tough and we rock.”

Lahey, a member of the local activist group Long Island Rising organized the “Women Rock Rally” after seeing the success of the sister march she organized in Port Jefferson Station in January, a regional iteration of the Women’s March on Washington following President Donald Trump’s (R) inauguration.

She said she was invigorated by that event’s turnout and spread the word on social media to help women “come together in solidarity.”

Members of the crowd held up signs that read “My Body My Choice, Less Government Less Regulations,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” and “Equal Pay 4 Now” and came to the event for a variety of issues.

Linda May of Sound Beach said she had never been politically involved until the recent election and decided to be more vocal when it comes to protecting women’s reproductive rights and civil liberties for all.

“We are so capable and strong and intelligent and courageous, we have grace and style and are simply fabulous. We show up, put our money where our mouths are, stay the course, hang tough and we rock.”

—Kathy Greene-Lahey

“I want to find a way to bring inclusiveness and equality back,” she said during the event, adding her concern that Trump and his administration are “destroying” all the progress made during Barack Obama’s presidency. “I stand with Planned Parenthood, stand for equal work for equal pay, LGBTQ rights, same sex marriage — we’ve made so much progress in that area and I do not want to go back to the Dark Ages.”

Jackie Rooney, a Nesconset resident and teacher at Brentwood High School who attended the march on Washington, said she wants to keep the momentum going.

“We think it’s necessary to keep the message of equality, message against what this president signifies — which is hate, misogyny and fear of those who are different,” Rooney said. “We are Americans and as Americans we are accepting of everybody no matter what.”

Port Jefferson resident Tom Farriss said he was there for his 14-year-old daughter.

“I’m interested in making sure women are treated equally I want to see my daughter have the best opportunities possible to prosper and have a good life,” Farriss said.

A large sheet called the “Bold Action Wall” was laid down and Lahey encouraged those in attendance to write on it what they intend to do in the future to create change in the world. Some of the messages included “Educate our sisters!” “Elect Democrats from Local to National” and “Protest Protest Protest for Women.”

Eleven-year-old Francesca, from Patchogue, wrote “Making the world a better place for my future.”

“I believe that all women should have exactly the same rights as men,” she said. “We’re just trying to make the world a better place for all of us. When I grow up and if I decide to have children, I want my future and their future to be really good.”

The group ended the event by reading from a list of women’s rights accomplishments throughout history.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on right, gets signatures from residents in support of the Community Protection Act outside Stop & Shop in Miller Place. Photo from County Executive Bellone's office

By Kevin Redding

In light of recent court rulings and pending lawsuits in favor of sex offenders, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is urging the New York State Legislature to follow in the county’s footsteps and get tough on sex criminals by passing legislation that gives the county authorization to uphold its strict laws against them.

On Feb. 11, Bellone and Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) spoke with parents and residents in Miller Place about supporting and protecting the rules within the Suffolk County Community Protection Act — a private-public partnership law developed by Bellone, victims’ rights advocates like Parents for Megan’s Law and law enforcement agencies. It ensures sex offender registration and compliance, and protects residents and their children against sexual violence — much to the dismay of local sex offenders, who have been suing the county to try to put a stop to the act.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Legislator Sarah Anker talk to residents about the Community Protection Act. Photo from County Executive Bellone’s office

“We’re encouraging people to go on to our Facebook page and sign the online petition,” Bellone said. “We want to get as many signatures as we can to communicate to our partners in the state that this is a priority that we pass legislation that makes it clear Suffolk County has the right to continue doing what it’s doing to protect our community against sex offenders.”

While the county executive said Suffolk representative have been supportive of the law, which was put in place four years ago, he wanted to make sure they’re armed with grassroots support to convince state colleagues they have a substantial evidence to prove it’s popularity and show it’s the right thing to do.

Since it was enacted in 2013, the Community Protection Act has been the nation’s strictest sex offender enforcement, monitoring and verification program, cracking down on all three levels of offenders when it comes to their proximity to a school facility or child-friendly area, and reducing sex offender recidivism in Suffolk County by 81 percent. Ninety-eight percent of Level 2 and more than 94 percent of Level 3 registrants are in compliance with photograph requirements, what Bellone said is a significant increase from before the law took effect.

Through its partnership with Parents for Megan’s Law, the county has conducted more than 10,000 in-person home verification visits for all levels of sex offenders, by sending retired law enforcement to verify sex offenders’ work and home addresses and make sure their registry is accurate and up to date. More than 300 sex offenders have also been removed from social media under the law.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, the act is a critical piece of legislation.

“The program has been incredibly successful, which is why sex offenders don’t like it.”

—Steve Bellone

“The numbers don’t lie, there’s a lot of hard evidence and data that shows this act has done precisely what it was designed to do: monitor sex offenders and make sure they’re not doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing,” Deputy Commissioner Justin Meyers said. “To date, I have never met a single resident in this county who didn’t support [it].”

Besides the sex offenders themselves, that is.

The act has made Suffolk County one of the more difficult places for registered sex offenders to live and, since its inception, Suffolk sex offenders have deemed its strict level of monitoring unconstitutional, arguing, and overall winning their cases in court that local law is not allowed to be stricter than the state law.

In 2015, the state Court of Appeals decided to repeal local residency restriction laws for sex offenders, claiming local governments “could not impose their own rules on where sex offenders live.”

In the prospective state legislation, Bellone hopes to close the sex offender loophole that would allow high-level sex offenders to be able to legally move into a home at close proximity to a school.

“The program has been incredibly successful, which is why sex offenders don’t like it,” Bellone said. “This is what we need to do to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect kids and families in our community. As a father of three young kids, this is very personal to me and I think that while we’ve tried to make government more efficient and reduce costs here, this is an example of the kind of thing government should absolutely be spending resources on.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on right, with a community member who signed his petition urging state lawmakers to uphold the Community Protection Act. Photo from County Executive Bellone’s office

To conduct all the monitoring and fund educational resources offered to the community by Parents for Megan’s Law — teaching parents what to look out for and how to prevent their children from becoming victims — costs roughly $1 million a year, according to Bellone.

In addition to the residential restriction, Bellone is calling on the state to authorize the county to verify the residency and job sites of registered sex offenders, authorize local municipalities to keep a surveillance on homeless sex offenders, who represent less than 4 percent of the offender population in Suffolk County, and require them to call their local police department each night to confirm where they’re staying, and require an affirmative obligation of all sex offenders to cooperate and confirm information required as part of their sex offender designation.

“If people really knew this issue, I couldn’t see how they would oppose the Community Protection Act, because sex offenders are not a common criminal; there’s something fundamentally and psychologically wrong with somebody who commits sexual crime and we as a society have to understand that,” said St. James resident Peter , who held a “Protect Children” rally in the area last years. “Residents should know that the sexual abuse of children is out of control.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four girls are abused and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

“It is imperative that we, not only as a community, but as a state, make efforts to further ensure the safety of our children from sexual predators,” Anker said. “We must do everything in our power to ensure that this law is upheld and that’s why I’ve joined [Bellone] in calling on the New York State Legislature to consider an amendment to grant the county the ability to uphold it.”

To sign the petition, visit https://www.change.org/p/new-york-state-protect-our-children-support-the-community-protection-act.

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