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TBR Staff

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TBR News Media covers everything happening on the North Shore of Suffolk County from Cold Spring Harbor to Wading River.

Superintendent Joe Rella a his last graduation ceremony, 2019. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr and Monica Gleberman

Dr. Joe Rella, the beloved former Comsewogue superintendent who spent just over 25 years in the district, passed away Feb. 21, with Moloney’s Funeral Home and the district confirming his death late Friday night. He was 69.

Community members flocked to social media to share their thoughts and memories about their superintendent known around the district as just “Rella.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

“So much of what I learned about community was through his unceasing example of what it meant to serve the place you call home,” said Kevin LaCherra, who graduated in 2009. “To bring people in, to find out what they need, to fight like hell to get it and then to pass the torch.”

Rella entered the district as a part time music teacher, making only $28,000 in salary. He would move on to become a full time music teacher, then the high school principal and finally, Superintendent of Schools, which was his final position, held for 9 years.

In an interview with TBR News Media before his retirement and final graduation ceremony in 2019, Rella had likened the act of running a school district to music, all based in a learning process for both the students and for him.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he had said.

The district plans to decorate school buildings with blue and gold ribbons come Monday, and are making counselors available for students who may need it, current Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said Saturday. The district will be closed Wednesday to allow students to attend his funeral.

Quinn had worked with Rella for 13 years. In a phone interview Saturday, the current superintendent had nothing but great things to say about her predecessor and mentor. If anything, she said Rella, “did not want people to remember him sadly, he wanted them to smile and laugh. He just loved everybody.” 

Rella’s wife, Jackie, passed in 2016 following a struggle with breast cancer. The superintendent himself had been diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in 2016. Despite his sickness, he would stay on in the position for another three years. 

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella speaks against standardized testing during an event with Congressman Lee Zeldin in 2015. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

It was that dedication, even in the face of sickness and loss, that built up so much trust between him and the community over the years. Quinn said he was humble, always the one who to take the blame if plans didn’t work out, but he was always ready to heap praise on others.

“He made everyone important,” she said. “He never shied away from a tough problem and tried to make everything better … He always did.”

Others in the district said Rella’s example pushed them to do more and to do better. Andrew Harris, a special education teacher in the high school, created Joe’s Day of Service in 2018. Named after the then-superintendent, the program asked students to do volunteer work around the school and the greater community. Students have traveled all the way to the Calverton Cemetery in both 2018 and 2019 to clean graves and plant flags.

Harris said there are hundreds of examples of Rella’s kindnesses, such as driving over an hour to take care of a teacher’s mother who was suffering from cancer.

In many ways, just like they call the middle of our country the ‘flyover states,’ Port Jefferson Station used to be like a “drive thru town;” people were on their way to another town as the destination,” Harris said. “That all changed with Dr. Rella’s leadership. No matter where you went, and especially as a teacher, when you say you are from Comsewogue and Port Jefferson Station, people know where you came from and the legacy. It makes us all proud to say it.”

The school board effectively accepted Rella retirement in November, 2018. He had said in previous interviews his diagnosis did not factor into his decision to retire, and it had been his and his wife’s intent to make that year his last.

“Joe and Jackie were the face of Comsewogue for many years,” said school board President John Swenning. “Their dedication and support to our administrators, teacher, staff, parents and most importantly our students is nothing short of legendary. Dr. Rella is the Italian grandfather that every kid deserves to have. He will be missed dearly.”

School Board trustee Rob DeStefano had known Rella since his sophomore year in Comsewogue high, when he had joined the district as the new music teacher. DeStafano would be elected to the board coinciding with Rella’s appointment as head of schools. One memory that cemented the famed superintendent his mind, according to a previous column he wrote for TBR after Rella’s announced retirement, was during a jazz band concert he and his wife got up on stage and started to dance the Charleston.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23, 2016. File photo by Bob Savage

Despite the loss, the Rella name lives on in the district, particularly in the high school courtyard, full of sunflowers, named Jackie’s Garden after his late wife. As the superintendent participated in his final high school graduation ceremony last year on June 26, students rolled out a new plaque, naming the high school auditorium the Dr. Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center.

Visitation is being held Monday, Feb. 24, 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Moloney’s Funeral Home in Port Jefferson Station. His funeral is being held Wednesday, Feb. 26 at St. Gerard Majella RC Church in Port Jefferson Station at 10:30 a.m. The district said they are expecting huge crowds for both.

Quinn said they will be working out the details for a larger memorial sometime in the near future.

He embodied the Comsewogue culture — pushed it, and all of us, forward,” said 2019 graduate Josh Fiorentino. “To say I know how he wanted to be remembered would be a lie. However, I and many others will remember him as a warrior. The truest of them all.”

 

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Fifth-graders at St. James Elementary School in the Smithtown Central School District held a wax museum for their classmates and families Feb. 14. 

After researching a historical figure of their choice, the students dressed the role and became part of the living museum. They portrayed famous historical people, sports stars and entertainment legends. When someone “buzzed” them, the figures came to life and were able to animate themselves and give a biographical history of their character.

A Brit Reviews the UK’s Eventual Withdrawal from Europe

Stock photo

Part 3 of 3

When I started this series in March 2019, I wanted to give U.S. readers a Brit’s inside view on Brexit. The term has now become such common currency over here, rather like the Latin phrase “quid pro quo,” that all I need explain is that Brexit refers to Britain exiting the European Union, which it duly did Jan. 31 of this year. On the same date the U.S. Senate rejected further witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump (R). It was hardly a red-letter day for western politics.

John Broven Photo by Diane Wattecamps

After publication of the first two articles, I was approached by residents of all age groups at the Stony Brook railroad station, in a deli, at a mall, in a coffee shop, at a party, even at an outdoor art show. Everyone expressed an intrigued interest in Brexit and, it’s fair to say, concern for my English home country. What on earth was going on? Why indulge in such potential self-harm?

When I left you with my June article, the United Kingdom and EU had agreed on another revised exit date, Oct. 31, but with no parliamentary majority the way forward was still far from clear. “Will there be a general election, second referendum, another EU extension or a hard no deal?” I asked.

It came to pass there was a general election Dec. 12 and a further EU extension to Jan. 31, with no second referendum or precipitous hard deal (to date). With the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU, what happened in the interim?

A third prime minister in three years

For a start, on July 24, Boris Johnson achieved the prize he had wanted from his days as a privileged aristocratic youth at Eton College and Oxford University: the prime ministership of the U.K. After being elected as leader of the Conservative Party (also known as the Tories), he took over from the hapless Theresa May (C) who was unable to deliver on her promise to leave the EU after three years in the hot seat.

Brexit had thus claimed another victim, making Johnson the third prime minster since David Cameron (C) fell on his sword after a dismal and inept Vote Remain campaign during the June 2016 referendum.

Without a working majority, Johnson was confronted by a parliament determined to ensure that if Brexit happened there would be no hard deal. The new prime minister even tried, unsuccessfully, to suspend parliament for five weeks in an effort to stifle debate and ram through the withdrawal agreement by Oct. 31. Queen Elizabeth II was inadvertently embroiled when she dutifully signed the prorogation request of Johnson, who made the flimsy pretense of needing time to prepare for the Queen’s Speech, but the U.K. Supreme Court ruled otherwise. I suspect Her Majesty was not amused. 

There was clearly a power battle being fought between parliament and the prime minister, reminiscent of the current war of attrition between Congress and Trump. 

The generally pro-Brexit Tory Party, with its band of rabid hardliners, was armed with the 52-48 percent Voter Leave victory of the 2016 referendum. Amid calls from the Brexiters for “democracy” to be respected and with a definite all-round war weariness in the nation, it was clearly going to be difficult for the main opposition parties — Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and the Greens — to overturn “the will of the people.” 

At one time, the charismatic speaker of the House of Commons, John Burcow, even invoked an arcane 1604 parliamentary principle to stifle a government motion. (Think about it, that’s 16 years before the Mayflower landed on our shores.) However, the opposition could not find agreement among themselves for a unified approach, even with voting support from 21 Tory rebels. This rump included former Chancellor of Exchequer Philip Hammond, Father of the House Ken Clarke and Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames. Incredibly these respected establishment figures were thrown out of the Tory Party in petulant retribution. You see what I mean about parliamentary drama.  

With time running out, the EU begrudgingly extended the Oct. 31 deadline to Jan. 31 after a last-minute fudged agreement with Johnson over the vexatious Irish border backstop question.

December general election

Parliament was still in deadlock, but eventually a general election was called for Dec. 12. Campaigning on a resonating “Get Brexit done” ticket, Johnson won a huge working majority of 80 seats to break the parliamentary impasse. His Conservative Party brushed aside the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats, also Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Labour, in its worst general election result since 1935, ignominiously saw the demolition of its “red wall” in the industrial north of England, the traditional home of socialism. The Lib-Dems, under Jo Swinson, went all out with a remain message. Yet this bright young leader couldn’t articulate on the stump the benefits of staying in Europe and she even lost her own parliamentary seat. 

The main opposition winners were the Scottish Nationalist Party, under Nicola Sturgeon, which swept Scotland. Watch out for a possible future referendum for Scotland to leave the U.K. and become a member of the EU. 

Richard Tapp, of Burgess Hill, West Sussex, added in an email, “Besides the Scottish Nationalists, the pro-EU parties in Northern Ireland also did well, at the expense of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party whose leader in Westminster lost his seat to the nationalists of Sinn Fein who campaign for a united Ireland — and so remain in the EU.” 

Johnson had targeted the disaffected, forgotten part of the nation — the provincial middle class as well as the working class — with a Trump-like populist message, just as the new prime minister had done beforehand with the referendum. The general election was a damning indictment of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, both for his far-left policies and his “sit on the fence” approach to Brexit. 

Interestingly, there are concerns in the U.S. about the Democratic Party following the Labour/Corbyn route to self-destruction in the next election with a progressive socialist agenda. James Carville, President Bill Clinton’s (D) 1992 election-winning strategist, was particularly animated on the subject in the Financial Times and on “Morning Joe,” referring to the unelectable Corbyn by name.

Brexit is done

And so, with no obstacles in his way, Johnson “got it done” by signing a withdrawal agreement with the EU, meaning Britain officially left the union at the end of January after almost a half-century of membership. Brexit is now fully owned and controlled by the prime minister and his Conservative Party, with the background help of Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign’s victory in 2016. 

The coverage on BBC World News in Brussels revealed genuine European regret at the loss of Britain as a vital contributing member to the EU, including politicians from Poland and Sweden. Yet the expected party atmosphere in the U.K. didn’t materialize because the country was still split right down the middle — and it was raining on Farage’s celebration parade outside the Houses of Parliament. Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper had a perverse explanation for the low-keyed reaction: “On Jan. 31, many Brexiters spent their ultimate moment of triumph attacking elitist traitors instead of celebrating.” This revenge, he said, “is so much of the point of populism.” 

Those Brexit voters expecting a brand-new dawn, with a return to the glory days of the British Empire free of the EU yoke, will have to wait until at least Dec. 31 this year for all kinds of trade, security and legal negotiations to be agreed before the cord is cut. 

During this transition period the U.K. will continue in the EU’s custom union and single market, while still complying with EU rules (but without any more say in the lawmaking process in the European Parliament). Johnson has indicated there will be no extension, leading to the nightmare scenario of a possible no deal commencing Jan. 1, 2021. It will not be an easy negotiating ride.

I’m still of the view that a people’s referendum should never have been considered by Cameron on such a critical and complex matter, which will affect generations to come. His irresponsible bet was compounded by the Brexiters never explaining the downsides — and dangers — of leaving Europe, including diminished influence on the world stage. Already China is waiting in the wings.

Michael Hanna, of Hassocks, West Sussex, echoed my thoughts in an email on the night of Jan. 31: “In about two hours time Boris and his Gang will tear us out of the European Union on the say so of just 17.4 million, a mere 37 percent of the electorate. This is politically the saddest day of my life. For the last 47 years we have been members of the great European family of nations to which we should naturally belong. This has given us huge benefits which the Tory government is knowingly throwing away.”

With thanks for their on-the-spot observations to my British friends Roger Armstrong, Chris Bentley, Mike Hanna, Martin Hawkins, John Ridley and Richard Tapp. 

John Broven, a member of the TBR News Media editorial team, is an English-born resident of East Setauket, who immigrated to the United States in 1995. He has written three award-winning (American) music history books and is currently editing the first book on New York blues.

Installation of the pre-treatment septic tank at Tom O'Dwyer's home in Strong's Neck. Photo from Tom O'Dwyer

By Perry Gershon

Suffolk County has a water crisis. We must do all we can to control our nitrogen waste to protect our drinking water, our soil, our rivers and our bays. The county and many of our towns have initiated rebate programs to encourage homeowners to install clean, nitrogen-removing septic systems. Suffolk County’s program, known as the Septic Improvement Program, or by the acronym SIP, has become a political football, and it’s the public and the environment that are the losers.

Perry Gershon. Photo from SCDC

SIP was designed to direct county payments directly to contractors, bypassing individual participants so their rebates would not be taxed as income. Suffolk County’s tax counsel delivered an opinion to the county attorney ruling that 1099 forms from SIP should go to contractors and not to consumers. This should have been the end of the story. However, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy (R), while engaged in a campaign against County Executive Steve Bellone (D) during the elections last year, disagreed with the tax opinion and inquired of the IRS if county payments might be taxable to homeowners? Despite protestations from the county and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the IRS, always in need of funds, said yes, why not? The ruling was issued earlier this month. So now unsuspecting homeowners are receiving 1099 forms reporting unforeseen additional taxable personal income. What is essentially a new tax is sure to both impact those who already participate and dissuade future participants.

What can be done? Bellone and his administration are working to come up with alternative structures for the SIP program. Perhaps more can be done to clarify that transactions are between the county and the contractors to satisfy the IRS? Or perhaps an offsetting tax rebate can be legislated? Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-NY3) has written a letter to the IRS demanding they reconsider the decision. But Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) remains silent. Instead of joining Suozzi, Zeldin seems to support his fellow Republican Kennedy and once again ignores ways to save money for his constituents.

Does this surprise you? It should not, given Zeldin’s poor record historically on environmental and financial matters. Or that Zeldin has recently worked against New Yorkers on the repeal of the SALT cap and on Trump’s retaliation against the state by suspending New York applications to the Trusted Traveler program. Zeldin’s Twitter feed offers perpetual praise of the president, attacks on our governor, but not a word on the septic taxation issue. Long Island needs representatives who will work for us — who have our back when the federal government takes shots at us. Zeldin doesn’t fight for us. We have a chance in November to show him how wrong that is.

Perry Gershon is a national commentator on business, trade, policy and politics. A congressional candidate for New York’s 1st District, he holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley.

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Brian Kaufman has been arrested for allegedly illegally running Men's Health of Smithtown. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney's Office

A local health practitioner is not who he pretends to be, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.

Brian Kaufman was arrested for allegedly running an illegal health clinic. Photo from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office

D.A. Tim Sini (D) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration New York Division Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan announced Feb. 21 the arrest of Brian Michael Kaufman, 45, of Smithtown, for allegedly posing as a medical professional and illegally operating a health clinic, at which he allegedly illegally sold and injected patients with steroids.

Kaufman is charged with three counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance; three counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance; reckless endangerment; two counts of identity theft; two counts of identity theft; and unauthorized practice of a profession. The clinic, Men’s Health of Smithtown, is located at 329 E. Middle Country Road, Smithtown.

“This individual put lives in danger and posed a clear threat to public health by masquerading as a medical practitioner,” Sini said. “He did not have patients; he had victims.”

“This case is significant because it unearthed a convicted felon playing doctor who jeopardized his ‘patients’ lives,” Donovan said. “In order to safeguard our communities, law enforcement has to act fast when they see someone threatening public health and safety. In this case, Brian Kaufman’s alleged testosterone trafficking ring put people in harm’s way while committing several crimes.”

An investigation by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and the DEA’s Long Island Tactical Diversion Squad revealed evidence that from as early as August 2019, Kaufman was allegedly running the medical practice despite not having a medical license.

Kaufman allegedly purported to be a medical professional and would treat patients, including injecting them with testosterone. He also allegedly instructed employees of his clinic to perform injections or other medical procedures, such as drawing blood. Upon his arrest, Kaufman is alleged to have made statements to law enforcement admitting that he was not licensed to practice any medical profession and had no training to provide medical services or provide testosterone replacement therapy.

Brian Kaufman has been arrested for allegedly illegally running Men’s Health of Smithtown. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office

The investigation revealed that Kaufman allegedly ordered testosterone, a Schedule III controlled substance, by using the information of licensed physician assistants working at his office without their permission or authority.

Pursuant to the investigation, a search warrant was executed at Men’s Health Clinic Feb. 19, which resulted in the recovery of unused syringes, blank prescription labels, and various bottled prescriptions and controlled substances in manufacturers’ containers.

The District Attorney’s Office is asking any individuals who received medical services from Kaufman or at Men’s Health of Smithtown to call the District Attorney’s Office at 631-853-8087.

Kaufman was arraigned Feb. 20 and was released with conditions of GPS monitoring, drug testing and a travel restriction that he must stay within New York State. He is due back in court on March 24.

If convicted of the top count, Kaufman faces a minimum sentence of two to four years in prison and a maximum sentence of three and one-half to seven years in prison.

Kaufman’s lawyer Jason Russo, of Bayshore, did not respond immediately for comment.

Chairperson Jennifer Martin presents a proclamation to Hon. Derrick J. Robinson. Photo from the Town of Brookhaven

The Town of Brookhaven’s Black History Commission hosted its 29th Annual Black History Month celebration on Feb. 7 at Town Hall. 

This year’s program included presentation of academic achievement awards to more than 77 top African-American high school seniors from 14 school districts who achieved a cumulative grade point average of 90 or higher.   

The commission also recognized its honoree and keynote speaker, Derrick J. Robinson, acting Suffolk County Court judge presiding over Drug Court and Mental Health Court. He is also president-elect of the Suffolk County Bar Association. 

The theme of this year’s Black History Month celebration was African Americans and the Vote. The evening included musical performances by the Brookhaven NAACP, the Faith Baptist Church Choir and Taylor Niles, as well as a dance performance by Eugenia Woods. 

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie M. Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), the first woman of African American descent to serve on the Town Board, also serves as the Town Board Liaison to the Town’s Black History Commission. 

The Black History Commission’s next event is the 6th Annual Juneteenth Celebration June 20.

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The Rocky Point cheerleading squad shows just who is number 1 after their victory at the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championship. Photo from Anna Spallina

By Julianne Mosher

Rocky Point’s varsity cheerleading squad won the national title earlier this month after an intense and successful season of victories. 

The Rocky Point Cheerleading squad during the homecoming game September 2019. Photo by Bill Landon

The team has won all five of its competitions this year and then made its way to Orlando, Florida, to participate in the 2020 UCA National High School Cheerleading Championship at Walt Disney World held last week. 

“The girls executed a flawless routine and hit everything in sync,” said Anna Spallina, team coach. “It’s what every coach dreams of.”

Since 2011, the school has been in the top three at the national cheerleading championships and held this highest ranking three times prior to this win: 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Competing in the medium varsity Division II category, the girls knew how important it was to hit every movement and tumble. “We were going to have some tough competition,” Spallina said. 

“That’s what makes cheerleading so exciting and amazing,” she added. “It’s the biggest stage of the year and they were totally prepared to take the mat.”

Training all summer, the team of 19 was ecstatic to hear that they were the new national champions again. 

“I can’t even explain the feeling… they were so happy and were crying happy tears,” Spallina said. “The parents too, they made a lot of sacrifices this year for the team and they were thrilled.”

But what was especially exciting was that the graduating seniors were able to receive several different titles after some were brought onto the team in the seventh grade. 

“The one thing they needed was a national title before they leave,” she said. “And they got it. I’m so happy for them.”

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A student shakes hands with Valerie Cartright after receiving an award for a video created to highlight health and safety benefits of sidewalks. Photo by Andrea Paldy

By Andrea Paldy

The Three Village school board welcomed Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County officials Feb. 12 for a special presentation. 

Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) presented awards to four Ward Melville High School students for their public service announcements advocating for sidewalks to ensure safety in the community. 

Sidewalks for Safety, a local grassroots organization, sponsored a video contest to encourage high school students to highlight the health and safety benefits of sidewalks in neighborhoods and around schools. Student projects were sponsored by the Ward Melville art department.

Contest winners were Benjamin Dombroff and Nicole DeLucia, who tied for first place and received $500 each. Mia Schoolman was awarded second place and Elyas Masrour placed third. 

Three Village resident Annemarie Waugh, founder of Sidewalks for Safety, addressed those gathered for last week’s meeting and presentation. The organization’s vision for the community is to have “a minimal number of strategically placed sidewalks on only a few connector roads to enable students and residents to walk safely,” she said. 

Ward Melville Principal Bill Bernhard also spoke. He recalled an appointment with Waugh six years ago, when he was principal at Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School. 

“We had a rather unorthodox meeting,” Bernhard said. “We took a walk around the neighborhood. It was a picturesque, beautiful day … and what we saw, besides the beautiful nature, was something rather disconcerting, which was the lack of available places for our students to walk — our lack of sidewalks.”

The Town installed sidewalks in front of the junior high school in 2016. The $300,000 project also included a pole with flashing LED lights that could be activated by pedestrians with the push of a button. 

Waugh indicated that there is still more to be done.

“Our roads are not comfortable for pedestrians and cyclists,” she said. “They are full of dangerous blind corners and speeding, distracted drivers.”

The student videos, which were screened during the meeting, echoed those concerns.

“Walkable communities are associated with higher home values,” Waugh said. “Imagine your kids being able to walk safely to school, to walk safely to their friends’ houses. Imagine being able to jog safely to West Meadow Beach. Imagine being able to walk for a coffee and to walk to local shops.” 

Romaine commended the students.

“Your students really know how to advocate and make a point,” he told school board members.

Also honored last week were members of the Setauket Elementary School student council, who raised more than $700 for Australian Wildlife Rescue, and varsity athletes who competed in fall sports. 

The school board also finalized the 2020-2021 school calendar. The first day of school will be Sept. 8, 2020.

Photo by J. Marcus

Resurrection Byzantine Catholic Church, located at the corner of Edgewater and Mayflower avenues in Smithtown, invites the community to take part in its 10th annual Pysanky egg decorating class on March 22 and 29 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.

The two-day workshop, which will take place in the church’s Social Hall, is open to all levels of experience. Learn and complete your first egg, discover new patterns and tips or show your skills and enjoy the company. Bring your dyes and tools or start fresh with a new kit, available for an additional fee. Each participant must bring a candle in a holder, pencils and a roll of paper towels.

The two-day class fee is $20. Advance registration is required by calling Joanne at 631-332-1449 or email joanne.pysanky@gmail.com. Deadline to register is Feb. 23.