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Volunteers

 

Dozens of volunteers were willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to show their love for Smithtown’s state park this weekend.

Boy Scout Troop 565 of Smithtown and Girl Scout Troop 2861 of Hauppauge participated in the annual New York State Parks & Trails I Love My Park Day May 5 at Caleb Smith State Park Preserve. The scouts worked alongside resident volunteers to restore trails and plant flowers.

The groups were part of the more than 8,000 volunteers who lent a helping hand at one of the 135 parks, historic sites and public lands in celebration of New York State’s park system, according to New York State Parks & Trails website. The annual I Love My Park event is hosted in partnership by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the National Park Service, Excelsior Conservation Corps and the New York Commission on Volunteer and Community Service.

By Sara-Megan Walsh

More than 95 Smithtown-area teens rolled up their sleeves to help ready Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve for visitors.

The Town of Smithtown hosted a volunteer cleanup for high school and middle school students at the Commack park April 21 in honor of Global Youth Service Day, also a day ahead of Earth Day. The teens were put to work helping clean up the pollinator and butterfly garden, clearing fallen branches and debris from the apple orchard and sprucing up the animal pens.

Jeff Gurmin, director of Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve, and his staff provided educational lessons on the rescued animals while the students were performing the cleanup. One of these lessons involved learning the importance of Mason bees in the ecosystem and installing new nesting jars for the bees inside the pollinator gardens.

Lawsuit alleges FaceBook post made after September 2017 vote led to unfair suspension, harassment

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

Two volunteers are suing the St. James firehouse and its leadership for violating their constitutional rights in the aftermath of the September bond vote.

Siblings Richard Weisse and Tricia Weisse, third-generation volunteers with St. James Engine Company #1, allege the St. James Fire Department, St. James Fire District, Chief Edward Springer Jr. and First Assistant Chief Ryan Davis illegally prevented them from attending any social events due to a Facebook post made after the bond vote in September. The pair is seeking money for their “emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.”

“We believe that the plaintiffs here were wronged, it’s a clear violation of their First Amendment and Fourth Amendment due process rights,” said David Erhlich, a Garden City-based attorney representing the Weisses. “We believe a jury will be sympathetic and side with our clients.”

The [firefighters] actions against [Richard and Tricia Weisse] amount to sore losers who are taking revenge on the ‘winners”
— Lawsuit

The Weisse family has a long history with the fire department, with their father, the late Richard Weisse Sr. having been a 42-year member and prior captain who was given the title of honorary chief upon his death, Erhlich said.

Tricia Weisse posted a picture of the historic St. James firehouse, located on Route 25A/Lake Avenue, on Facebook Sept. 24, after a $12.25 million capital bond vote failed Sept. 19, according to the lawsuit. Erlich said both siblings were vocal advocates against the bond.

Another person, who was not identified in the lawsuit, wrote a comment under the Facebook post reading, “St. James Fire Dept. Engine Company #1. It is tough, unless you are looking for a new place to party, to see these pics and remain absolutely unemotional about tearing it down. Nice pics,” according to the court documents.

Based on this comment, Richard Weisse and Tricia Weisse claim they received a letter signed by Springer that suspended them and another volunteer, John Tyson, from attending all social events and functions for three months as the comment violated the district’s social media policy. The Weisses said they requested a hearing to have their suspension reviewed, but the district refused.

“The [firefighters] actions against [Richard and Tricia Weisse] amount to sore losers who are taking revenge on the ‘winners,’” reads the lawsuit. “Springer and Davis used and abused their power in the department to punish the plaintiffs for their political decision on the bond issue.”

During this three-month suspension, the fire department hosted several events including its Veterans Day parade, Christmas parade, and Breakfast with Santa where the siblings had traditionally dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Instead, the siblings were forced to sit out.

We made an attempt to reach out to the fire department and fire district via letter and via phone, to resolve the matter”
— David Erhlich

Richard Weisse also alleged in November 2017 that Davis directed that he and other members of Engine Company No. 1 not be transported to a mandatory training, for which he took time off work to attend, and was not able to make it up within the required time frame. As such, Richard Weisse was suspended as a volunteer, according to court documents, and harassed by other firefighters.

“Springer, Davis and the department encouraged and condoned the harassment of Richard,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the Weisse siblings’ “expression and advocacy against the bond issue — including the comment which was wrongly attributed to [them] — are an expression on the issue of public importance and is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution from government interference or restriction.”

The siblings’ attorney also makes case for a violation of the Weisses’ Fourth Amendment due process right, claiming New York General Municipal Law Section 209-1 requires firefighters receive procedural due process before being discharged or suspended.

“We made an attempt to reach out to the fire department and fire district via letter and via phone, to resolve the matter,” Erlich said. “All we received back was a letter saying they we are supporting the fire district.”

Jessica Novins, a spokeswoman for St. James fire department and district, commented only, “Should there ever be any litigation against the fire district, the district would not be at liberty to comment.”

Centereach Fire Department teamed up with Operation Christmas Child to collect shoeboxes filled with gifts to be donated to needy children. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

It wasn’t quite Santa’s sleigh, but it was large, red and carried presents, so an ambulance was good enough for the Selden Fire Department, which took over Santa’s duties last week and stuffed 100 shoeboxes with gifts for poor young children all over the world.

Volunteers help fill a Selden Fire Department
ambulance with shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Most of these boxes are going to go to kids who never even get a gift,” Selden Fire Department Treasurer Vincent Ammirati said. “This is something that will put a smile on a face, and this is the fire department — everything we do here is for other people. All we do is try put a smile on people’s faces.”

The shoeboxes were collected as part of Operation Christmas Child, a function of the evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse. The organization takes the shoeboxes from drop-off points in local churches before sending them to distribution centers that will ship them to poor communities in Africa, South America, Asia and others. The shoeboxes are labeled by age and gender, and usually contain toys like inflatable soccer balls or stuffed animals, but mostly they contain hygiene products like soap and toothbrushes along with school supplies like books and pencils.

All seven companies within the Selden Fire Department helped contribute to the stack, with some companies acting as a group and other members of the fire department contributing indipendently.

Children in Uganda receive shoeboxes of gifts from
Operation Christmas Child last year. Photo from
Danielle McCarthy

Volunteer firefighter and Operation Christmas Child Long Island Coordinator Danielle McCarthy headed the fire department’s collection drive. She said she got the idea of filling an ambulance full of shoeboxes from watching the Los Angeles Police Department and how a funeral home had pulled in with a hearse full of shoe boxes.

McCarthy has been involved with Operation Christmas Child for more than a decade, first packing boxes before becoming a local packing leader, and then area coordinator. In 2012 McCarthy travelled to Uganda to help hand out shoeboxes.

“As we put shoe boxes into their hands and they opened up those boxes I saw their delight,” she said. “To look at them having physical needs met, to be able to see the joy that came to them from these simple things like school supplies and toys and that sort of thing, that impacted me. But what really impacted me even more, and what keeps me packing shoeboxes, were all the kids standing outside the place who didn’t get shoeboxes because there wasn’t enough to give to everybody.”

Shoeboxes for Operation Christmas
Child were collected with gifts to be
donated to needy children.
Photo by Kyle Barr

Every box also comes with a picture book called “The Greatest Gift,” put inside after each is packed. The book depicts a number of biblical stories told in that country’s native language. There was a $9 fee for every package, which pays for both the book and shipping costs. The fire department pulled together $900 to go toward this cost.

“Every one of these shoeboxes to us is not just a gift that we’re giving to a child, but around Christmas time Jesus is a gift we try to give, too,” said Victor Rossomano, an Operation Christmas Child Suffolk County-area coordinator. “It’s in their language and their culture. We try to keep it within their culture; we try not to send America to them, we want them to be who they are.”

Ammirati helped McCarthy drive the shoeboxes to the drop-off point at the Grace Gospel Church in Patchogue. He said he plans on using his officer status with the Suffolk County Volunteer Fireman’s Association to try and spread the idea out to all the different fire departments in the county.

“It’s a great way to show our community presence with the fire department and also for Operation Christmas Child,” McCarthy said. “It’s taken a few years to get this rolling, but when we challenged the fire department to fill the ambulance, as you can see, the guys stepped up.”

The 100 boxes kicked off national collection week, which ran from Nov. 13 to 20. In 2009, Suffolk County gathered 7,100 boxes, but the number has grown. The group is hoping to have 20,000 boxes packed this year

A rendering of what the front of the proposed new St. James firehouse would look like. Image from St. James Fire District

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Firefighters are known for running into danger, but it can be difficult to get to the scene when firefighters are facing significant risk simply getting to their trucks.

St. James fire commissioners are asking residents to consider a $12.25 million capital bond project to build a new 22,458-square-foot Jefferson Avenue facility Sept. 19.

“We are not looking to build a luxurious firehouse, as other communities have,” St. James Fire District Chairman Lawrence Montrose wrote in a letter with other commissioners. “We are simply looking to provide our dedicated volunteers with the basic and modern resources they need to effectively do their job — a job that protects and serves the residents of this community in their greatest times of need.”

The proposal being voted on in the St. James Fire District includes tearing down the Jefferson Avenue firehouse and replacing the structure with one nearly three times as large. Photo from Google Maps

The fire district’s existing Jefferson Avenue facility sustained significant damage in an August 2016 storm. The building’s pre-existing infrastructure issues allowed 6 to 18 inches of water to rise up through the floors, flooding the building, according to the St. James Fire District commissioners through a spokesperson. The flood caused cracks to the weight-bearing walls in the truck bay and worsened stress cracks in the fire chief and commissioner’s offices, in addition to plumbing and electrical damage.

Since the flood, Jefferson Avenue volunteer firefighters have been getting into their gear in one building before running across the parking lot to get on a truck. While this is happening, the fire commissioners said other volunteers are often still entering the parking lot, creating a major safety concern. Volunteers are in danger of being hit by incoming vehicles as they cross to the trucks.

“One instance was almost a catastrophic event,” said the fire commissioners. “One individual fell in the parking lot and was almost run over by an exiting fire truck.”

Other safety issues have arisen. Two of the district’s fire companies are operating out of what was originally the storage and maintenance structure built on the rear of the property. Trucks responding to one of the district’s 1,298 calls in 2016 also had to maneuver through the traffic. Fire commissioner chiefs compared the situation to playing the video game Frogger.

The proposed Jefferson Avenue facility, if approved by voters, would be more than three times the size of the existing 7,407-square-foot building. The additional space would include spaces to serve as accommodations for firefighters and community members during storms or major emergencies, in addition to a meeting room for district and public use. It would be built in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the current firehouse is not.

St. James fire commissioners will be moving forward with selling the historic firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

If voters approve the project, construction of the new Jefferson Avenue facility would start around six months after the vote and would be completed within one year. Volunteer response to emergencies would not be interrupted by the construction, according to the district.

Regardless of voters’ decision, St. James fire commissioners said they will move forward with selling off the Route 25A/Lake Avenue building, purchased by the district for $500,000 in 2013. Due to the facility’s age, it’s not suited for the district’s needs.

The estimated cost of the proposed plan to consolidate to one Jefferson Avenue facility would be an increase of approximately $118 to $198 a year for taxpayers based on their home’s assessed value.

St. James Fire District will be holding a public information session for those who wish to learn more Aug. 29 at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse at 7 p.m. Residents can also tour existing facilities Sept. 9 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sept. 14 from 7 to 9 p.m. and Sept. 17 from 1 to 3 p.m.

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Photo from St. Johnland

St. Johnland Nursing Center in Kings Park honored its dedicated volunteers at a special luncheon on June 15. Administrator and CEO Mary Jean Weber recognized all 114 volunteers and thanked them for their extraordinary service to the residents over the past year. These faithful individuals transport residents to different educational and entertainment programs within the nursing center, bring in therapy dogs, work in the gift shop, host monthly teas and assist with special events and various office functions.

Carolyn O’Brien, director of recreation therapy, also offered her praise and said, “our volunteers’ exceptional attention to the 250 residents here at St. Johnland provides an invaluable service. We are very grateful for everything they do!”

Firefighters with the Mount Sinai Fire Department. Photo by Kevin Redding
Nicholas Beckman. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Mount Sinai Fire Department is among the long list of firehouses on Long Island that has seen a shortage of volunteers in recent years. But the hardworking residents who respond to calls at 3 a.m. wearing MSFD jackets have more than enough burning passion to make up for it.

The department, at 746 Mount Sinai-Coram Road, held an open house April 29 as part of RecruitNY’s federally funded, statewide annual drive designed to help districts recruit volunteer firefighters — anyone 18 or older who wants to serve their community.

While there are still more than twice as many volunteers as career firefighters in the U.S., there’s been a sharp decline.

In Suffolk County, especially, there’s been a drop largely because it’s so expensive to live here, according to Mount Sinai First Assistant Chief Nicholas Beckman.

He added that while the department in the past usually averaged three to four volunteers a year, only one joined in 2016, and there have been no takers yet this year, although a young woman in her early 20s stopped by Sunday to get information and ask questions about the training required of a volunteer.

Walter Wilson. Photo by Kevin Redding

Beckman decided it was time to take advantage of RecruitNY’s services and get the word out.

“I’ll be happy if we get at least one,” Beckman said, adding the department has an agreement with neighboring fire districts, like Miller Place, to help one another when needed.

“Every district around here is struggling and a lot of people are working two jobs and just don’t have the time to make the full commitment,” he said. “It’s hard to juggle personal life, work life and putting in the time here. But without volunteers, there will be no one to get on the trucks.”

Beckman has served 19 years in the department and has been an “honorary member” since he was 9 years old, as the son of the former chief. He said although the training and job itself is tough, there’s nothing more rewarding.

“It’s like a second family when you join here,” he said. “I can always call on the others if I need something, even outside of the firehouse.”

Adam Thomas. Photo by Kevin Redding

Walter Wilson, 77, a former utilities manager at Stony Brook University and volunteer who came out of retirement to join the firehouse after serving the Yaphank Fire Department for 26 years, said once a fireman, always a fireman.

“I had taken about a 10-year break [between Yaphank and Mount Sinai] and retired, but every time a siren went off in the neighborhood, my wife would say to me, ‘you’re like a dog on a porch, getting ready to go chase cars,’” said Wilson, who serves as captain of the fire police controlling traffic. “But it’s great. I got back in, and I love it.”

Adam Thomas, an 11-year volunteer who works full-time as an emergency vehicle technician, said he grew up down the block from the firehouse.

“Just being able to step up and do something and help people is great,” he said. “We’re a close-knit family here, we get along and work together to get something accomplished.”

Janis Henderson. Photo by Kevin Redding

In January, Thomas and another volunteer rescued two duck hunters adrift in 32-degree waters after their boat capsized in Mount Sinai Harbor.

Janis Henderson, 70, a full-time nurse who joined the department in 1974 and made history three years later as the first female recipient of the Firefighter of the Year award — modified for the first time from Fireman of the Year — said she hopes to empower more women to join.

“It’s a wide open thing now and I want them to know they can do anything they want to,” Henderson said. “When I joined, I never found anything I couldn’t do. I never said ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘this is too heavy.’ I love the job and love to get dirty.”

Henderson even suffered serious burns to her hands during an oil tank fire in her early days, because she didn’t want to say anything when her fellow firefighters pushed her too close to the flames while she was holding the nozzle. She said she feels at home in this line of work.

Jaime Baldassare. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s like I inherited 70 brothers — this is my family,” she said. “We take care of each other, and I know they’re always there for me.”

Mount Sinai Fire Chief Jaime Baldassare, who started as a volunteer at the Dix Hills Fire Department when he was 19, said he’s still at it because he feels the need to help.

“There’s nothing quite like when you pull someone out of a fire or out of a wrecked car and you find out the next day that they made it,” he said. “It’s a feeling you can’t describe. I love to do this. We train to be the best we can be so anytime a call comes in, we’re ready to do whatever it takes to help the people of Mount Sinai.”

To volunteer, visit the Mount Sinai Fire Department at 746 Mount Sinai-Coram Road or call 631-473-2418.

Volunteers at a previous Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson line up for the Giant Puppet Parade. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Volunteers from last year's Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson. Photo by Bob Savage
Volunteers from last year’s Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson. Photo by Bob Savage

Here ye! Here ye! Are you looking to volunteer? Do you need community service or acting experience? The Port Jefferson Dickens Festival committee is seeking adults, teens, children and parent chaperones for street character plays and performances including “Scrooge’s Dream” and “Oliver’s Adventures” to be held at the 21st annual Charles Dickens Festival on Dec. 3 and 4. Many key roles are available including Marley’s Ghost and Tiny Tim along with student improv groups, caroling groups and Newsies.

Choose your level of time commitment. Some positions only require availability during the festival. Rehearsals for the street performances are held on either Tuesdays or Thursdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Port Jefferson Village Center, 101A E. Broadway, Port Jefferson.

For adult street character plays and Dickens regulars contact Karen at GPJAC.theater@gmail.com. For students interested in performing and community service contact Carolyn at 631-741-6698 or Jill at 631-418-6699.

By Melissa Arnold

For more than 25 years, the volunteers of Welcome INN have gathered week after week to prepare meals for local people in need.

Volunteers from Welcome INN divide their time between four different churches five days a week. Photo from Marge Tumilowicz
Volunteers from Welcome INN divide their time between four different churches five days a week. Photo from Marge Tumilowicz

They’ve never sought out the spotlight for their work — all of them are unassuming folks who just want to lend a helping hand, says the organization’s president Marge Tumilowicz.

But this week, the Port Jefferson Village Center will unveil a photo exhibit to showcase and honor their commitment to service in the community.

Soup kitchens have been a constant presence in the Port Jefferson area since the 1970s, when members of local religious groups saw countless families struggle during a recession. Over time, these independent groups determined they could do the most good under the umbrella of a larger organization.

In 1989, four area soup kitchens joined the Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN), which feeds and houses people throughout Long Island. Today, Welcome INN serves up to 100 people per meal, five nights a week.

It takes a village
Tumilowicz says it truly takes a village to pull off a meal that large on a weekly basis, but volunteers are never hard to come by. Over 200 people play a part at the INN’s kitchens, helping with setup, cooking, cleaning and anything in between. They are a well-oiled machine.

“Early in the morning, cars will go to the local supermarket for pickups, then bring them back to the [kitchen] for sorting. Whatever supplemental food is needed gets picked up by the coordinator. Then, in the afternoon, the cooks and setup people arrive. By 5:30 [p.m.], our servers are in place and the doors are opened,” Tumilowicz explains.

Guests are given appetizers immediately when they arrive, says Susan Davis, coordinator of Friday night dinners at First Presbyterian Church in Port Jefferson. “We want to make sure our guests have something to eat right away because some of them come to us as their only meal for the day and they’re very hungry.”

Then comes a from-scratch soup, fresh salad, a main course with a protein, starch and veggie and dessert. Guests are also sent home with a sandwich or leftovers.

Coordinator Terri Arrigon oversees Monday night meals at Christ Church Episcopal in Port Jefferson. She noted that many of the guests that frequent Welcome INN are not homeless. Some are unemployed or underemployed, and others are simply looking for camaraderie.

“We want to respect their privacy so we don’t really ask personal questions, but sometimes guests will open up about their situation,” says Arrigon, a volunteer for the past three years. “Working with the INN has really opened my eyes to the diversity of communities here on Long Island.”

Volunteers from Welcome INN divide their time between four different churches five days a week. Photo from Marge Tumilowicz
Volunteers from Welcome INN divide their time between four different churches five days a week. Photo from Marge Tumilowicz

The value of volunteers
As for the photo exhibit, Tumilowicz jokes that there’s an unusual backstory: Last fall, Welcome INN was given the Humanitarian of the Year Award by Jefferson’s Ferry, a retirement community in South Setauket. With the INN’s volunteers scattered all over Long Island, Tumilowicz approached the Port Jefferson Village Center about displaying the award there for all to see.

They offered her something even better — why not display an entire collection of photos from over the years?

Tumilowicz reached out to Welcome INN’s graphic designer Karen Loomis, and the result compiles shots of all four soup kitchens in action along with inspirational quotes.

“It’s demanding work — we’re on the go the whole time and many of us do not have young bodies — but we’re there because we want to be there and we love it,” Arrigon says. “I’m delighted that we’re getting this opportunity to recognize the value of our volunteers, to show them how much we appreciate them. And it’s a great way to let the community know that we’re out there.”

The Welcome INN exhibit is on display for the rest of this month on the third floor of the Village Center, 101 East Broadway, Port Jefferson.

To learn more about Welcome INN, including meal times and volunteer information, visit http://the-inn.org/programs/soup-kitchens/welcomeinn.

 

Welcome INN operates out of the following locations:

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 309 Patchogue Road (Rte. 112), Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776
Hours of operation: Serves lunch Sundays from 1 to 2 p.m. and dinner Wednesdays from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.

Christ United Methodist Church, 545 Old Town Road, Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776
Hours of Operation: Serves dinner Tuesdays, 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.

Christ Episcopal Church, 127 Barnum Avenue, Port Jefferson, NY 11777
Hours of operation: Serves dinner Mondays, 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.

First Presbyterian Church, Corner of Main and South Street, Port Jefferson, NY 11777
Hours of operation: Serves dinner Fridays, 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.

Leon Klempner poses with Dunia Sibomana in front of the Christmas tree. Photo from Amy Epstein

The last two years have been rough for Dunia Sibomana, but now that he has been brought to the United States for reconstructive surgery, everything could change.

Since the 8-year-old was disfigured in a chimpanzee attack — the same one that killed his younger brother — he had stopped going to school because the other children in his native Congo ridiculed him. And being extremely poor, he came to America weighing only 40-something pounds, although the typical weight for a boy his age is almost double that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Above, Dunia Sibomana and park ranger Andre Bauma both give a thumbs-up for school. Photo from Amy Epstein
Above, Dunia Sibomana and park ranger Andre Bauma both give a thumbs-up for school. Photo from Amy Epstein

Despite all he has gone through, volunteers from the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids said Dunia is still a sweet kid.

That group, founded by Poquott resident Dr. Leon Klempner, who until recently was an orthodontist based in Port Jefferson, is hosting Dunia on Long Island and will care for him through a series of surgeries to reconstruct his lips and cheek.

Klempner started his nonprofit organization a few years ago to care for kids with severe facial deformities who are often ignored by similar groups that repair simpler issues like cleft lips.

Dunia lost both his lips and has scarring on his cheeks after the chimpanzee attack two years ago on the outskirts of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near that country’s border with Uganda and Rwanda. While his father was working in the fields, he was playing with his friends and his 4-year-old brother, Klempner said. The chimps “killed and completely dismembered” the brother, but a ranger fortunately found Dunia and rushed him to the hospital.

“He refused to go to school after the injury because the kids were just ridiculing him too much,” the Poquott man said. “He lost most of his friends.”

Dunia Sibomana hugs Eian Crean while playing with Collin Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein
Dunia Sibomana hugs Eian Crean while playing with Collin Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein

Smile Rescue Fund stepped in, bringing Dunia and that park ranger, Andre Bauma, stateside. Bauma was acting as a translator for Dunia, who only speaks Swahili, and helping him get settled with his Hauppauge host family, the Creans, but had to return to Congo last week.

Jennifer Crean said Dunia is getting along well with her three children, ages 10, 12 and 15.

“They have fun with him and he loves them,” she said. “So far so good.”

The family has taught him how to swing at the Hoyt Farm playground in Commack and taken him horseback riding, Crean said. Dunia has also played on an iPad, learned about Santa Claus and gone bowling.

“Everything for him is like brand new. It’s pretty cool.”

After the holidays, when things have slowed down, Crean said, the plan is to take him into New York City to see the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

Dunia’s experiences here deeply contrast with his life back home — Klempner said the boy’s mother died when he was a toddler and his father is indigent, picking up work wherever he can, so they don’t have a home. And there’s not much food to go around.

Dunia Sibomana laughs with Grace Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein
Dunia Sibomana laughs with Grace Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein

At his temporary Hauppauge home, “He eats like a horse,” Klempner said. “He eats as much as Jenn’s teenage son.”

He’s also recently started instruction at Hauppauge’s Pines Elementary School, where he’s in the second grade. Klempner noted the biggest benefit of school is that Dunia is being reintegrated into a social setting, with kids who don’t mock him.

“They’ve been very warmly receiving him.”

He’s already picked up some English — Crean said with a laugh that “he knows the word ‘No’” — and has adapted to the new environment.

JenniferCrean-Dunia-wThe surgeries begin in early January, when Dr. Alex Dagum will put three tissue expanders into his face, under the skin on his cheeks and chin. Over a few months, Dagum will slowly fill those with saline, expanding them and stretching the skin. Once there is enough excess skin created, the expanders will come out and that skin will be cut away and used to reconstruct the lips and cheek.

Stony Brook University Hospital, where Dagum is chief of plastic surgery, has donated the facility and medical staff’s time to operate on Dunia, and is even preparing special meals for him. In addition, Klempner said, “nurses volunteered to be dedicated nurses for him when he comes in for surgery so he sees the same faces.”

Dunia Sibomana meets Santa Claus. Photo from Amy Epstein
Dunia Sibomana meets Santa Claus. Photo from Amy Epstein

All of the work will add up to a new look for Dunia that will hopefully improve his quality of life at home in Congo when he is ready to return.

“He is sweet, and he is fun-loving; he’s got a sense of humor,” Klempner said. “He’s an 8-year-old kid that got a bad draw on life.”

Help needed
Smile Rescue Fund for Kids is searching for a local volunteer who speaks Swahili to translate for Dunia while he is in the United States, as well as volunteers who will spend time with Dunia, as a way of helping out his hosts, the Crean family. Contact Leon Klempner at 631-974-7511 or leon@smilerescuefund.org. For those who cannot volunteer but would like to help, Smile Rescue Fund accepts donations online, at www.smilerescuefund.org.

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