People of the Year

From left, Frank Franzese, Dr. Don Heberer and David Rebori are Comsewogue’s tech team responsible for transitioning the school into online/hybrid learning. Photo from Heberer

Sometimes it takes a village – sometimes it takes a whole district.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, workers in North Shore school districts had to buckle down and create a new game plan from early on. March saw the closure of schools and the introduction of distance learning. September brought a return to in-person, but a host of new issues.

With constantly changing guidelines, they had to reconstruct their plans. Superintendents had to lead their districts to continue learning and to keep their students safe, while teachers, librarians, custodians, librarians and so many more worked and sacrificed to do the best they could, often exceeding what was expected. 

Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River school district, said it was a collaborative effort. 

Superintendent Gerard Poole. Photo from SWR school district

“So much had to happen for all of this had to be in place for the start of the school year,” he said. “Administrators who didn’t take any time off this summer, to teachers who had to move around classrooms. There were a lot of things that had to be done.”

One of those things that were applauded by community members was the reopening of the vacant Briarcliff Elementary School in Shoreham, which helped increase social distancing and lower the class sizes.  Poole said that in June, after they learned the 6-foot requirement between students and their desks was going to be in place, by opening up the formerly closed school they could have every student in five days a week.

But the superintendent stressed they couldn’t have done it alone. The school board was instrumental in making this happen, maintenance workers helped move supplies and nurses were there early on ready to work. 

“It was an easy academic decision to make, but equally as important socially and emotionally,” he said. “This year seems now like a major win.” 

And while SWR had to implement a plan to reopen a closed school, Cheryl Pedisich, superintendent of Three Village school district, said early in the spring the district formed a committee that would look at the narrative, and implement a school opening plan with the ultimate goal to go back to school, as normal, five days a week.  

“The issue of health and safety was most important,” she said. 

Pedisich said they initially developed a hybrid model, but the more she and her colleagues discussed it, they became concerned of the lack of continuity, also the mental, emotional and social impacts being on a screen would have on students. 

Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich. Photo from Three Village Central School District

“We wanted to bring our students back to school,” she said. “What we experienced during the spring were a lot of students’ mental health [issues]. The children felt very isolated — it was hard to connect. There was a lot of frustration in terms in the remote learning.”

By creating an education plan early on that opened the school up to five days a week head on, the district was able to hire more staff, and prepare for socially distanced learning. 

“Even though they’re wearing masks, they’re happy to be there,” Pedisich said. “We’ve had cases like anyone else, but no more cases than districts that went hybrid.”

And schools that run independently also had to figure out how to cope with these unprecedented times, including Sunshine Prevention Center in Port Jefferson Station, a nonprofit that offers an alternative education program. The CEO, Carol Carter, said they had to work with staff to handle the change. 

“We provided support to the staff and a strong leadership to the staff, so the teachers felt comfortable,” she said. “Then we did training on it. They had to learn along with us as we’re learning — they’re learning how to run classes online, how to put homework online and how to communicate with the students.”

While their school has a very small staff, they continued to help kids who were struggling at home. 

 “We would try and reach out to students and their families almost daily,” Holly Colomba, an English and science teacher at Sunshine said. “We were trying to check in, whether it’s with their mental health or educationally, just trying to keep in contact with them and let them know we’re still here — and that we were there to help them.”

And technology was huge in every district as the COVID pandemic was navigated. Joe Coniglione, assistant superintendent at Comsewogue School District, said the district wouldn’t be running smoothly without the help and initiative from the technology department.

 “These guys made it possible with going remote and doing hybrid instruction,” he said. “They orchestrated training every teacher in the district and worked around the clock to make sure kids were learning. They went way above and beyond to help us operate in time.”

From left, Frank Franzese, Dr. Don Heberer and David Rebori are Comsewogue’s tech team responsible for transitioning the school into online/hybrid learning. Photo from Heberer

Don Heberer, Comsewogue district administrator for instructional technology, said he remembered the day well. It was March 13 and he was at John F. Kennedy Middle School, scrambling and making sure every student had a device to use at home. They delivered about 300 Chromebooks to families who didn’t have devices. 

“I relied on my staff,” he said.  “And our number one focus was how can we make learning possible.”

Heberer and his colleagues — Jan Condon, David Rebori and Frank Franzese — made sure that communication was getting out to members of the community, students and their families. Teachers were constantly being trained and students were able to access their work online.

“We were in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “We have to remember people are losing their jobs, their lives, their entire livelihood. It’s important to be empathetic to that and doing everything we can to make it a little easier — students, teachers, parents and the community.”

He said they kept people in the loop using the districts app, which has roughly 7,000 people logged in. 

School librarians, too, had to change shape to keep kids reading. 

Monica DiGiovanni, a librarian at Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School in Rocky Point, said she and her colleagues focused this year on teaching students Sora, a reading app by OverDrive. 

She said that Sora is an electronic version of their library, so kids would still be able to access books and read them on their Chromebooks. 

Along with DiGiovanni, Rocky Point librarians Jessica Sciarrone, Catherine O’Connell and Bettina Tripp have been responsible teaching students how to use the system since the school library cannot be used due to the pandemic. 

Monica DiGiovanni, the school librarian in the Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School, was instrumental in getting kids e-books during COVID.
Photo from DiGiovanni

“As librarians, we were like, ‘Oh gosh we can’t give them books?’ That was a huge issue,” DiGiovanni said. 

After researching platforms to get them e-books, all four librarians decided to devote most of their library budget to the electronic reads.

“There’s so much that books provide that children get out of it,” DiGiovanni said. “They enjoy going to other places — fantasy worlds — so they can get that now with e-books.”

She said they’re definitely utilizing the service. 

“Some kids prefer them,” she added. “They like to be able to finish a book and go onto something new right away.”

At Port Jefferson high school, the Varsity Club is traditionally a group that inspires a sense of community involvement in student-athletes. Teachers and advisers to the club — Jesse Rosen and Deirdre Filippi — said that what their students usually do to get involved with the community was altered or canceled because of the pandemic. 

“As a result, some new events were created by our students and we found alternate ways of giving back to the community,” Filippi said. “We were especially impressed by the fact that our students saw this phase of their life as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.”

Along with reading programs paired with the elementary school, Edna Louise Spear,  and hanging of flags on 9/11 and Veterans Day, the club hosted a Halloween trick-or-treat drive-thru event at the elementary school. 

“Oftentimes, when we feel somewhat helpless about our own situations, the best thing we can do is help those around us,” Filippi said. “This event was a perfect representation of our club´s mentality.”

A good part of the community came to the school to experience a unique and safe trick-or-treating experience. 

Students from the Port Jefferson Varsity Club during their drive-thru trick or treat event. Photo from PJ School District

“The idea was simple, the communal impact was overwhelming,” she said. “This speaks to what we try to achieve as educators. Our students recognized an opportunity within our community and they developed and executed a plan perfectly.”

The impact the club and its students made was overwhelming for Rosen and Filippi. 

“As educators, the actions of our students often inspire us,” Filippi said. “It is rewarding to see our students take the initiative and do whatever they can to put a smile on the face of their fellow students and community members.”

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

It would be impossible to commemorate every government worker in a single article, but the massive number of people busting their back in the midst of the pandemic helped an immeasurable number of residents when the worst was underway, whether they were custodial staff cleaning buildings for people to work in, or post office workers delivering mail, there are innumerable people the community owes their thanks to. 

In this case, it was a collective of government workers from the federal government on down whose job it was to keep those of us in pandemic hot zones up to date. For that, local municipalities depended on small communication offices to relay the most up-to-date and accurate information to both government and citizens, while residents were aided by public safety and food programs for homebound seniors. 

Communications

In any battle or crisis, those on the ground will tell you what helps most is having the latest information possible.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), was at the lead in getting the information from New York State on down to the local governments on Long Island. Her office included Theresa Santoro, a Miller Place native who was in charge of reaching out to Suffolk, and Andrew Mulvey, who was in charge of Nassau.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for the state intergovernmental affairs office, worked alongside Theresa Santoro and Andrew Mulvey to get up-to-date info about the pandemic out to local municipalities. Photo from Santeramo

Santeramo was just coming back from maternity leave at the end of March but suddenly, as infections grew and places started to shut down, the small intergovernmental office was a focal point for every county, town, village, as well as the dozens of civic and chamber of commerce organizations for learning about new regulations, protocols, closings and reopenings. For months, Santeramo said her office was performing multiple daily calls with different groups from town supervisors to village leadership. They were also sending out constant email updates to inform what changes were happening, even during the middle of the day.

“On Long Island, we have these nuances we have to work through, such as all the different layers of government,” she said. “I joked with electeds that we were spamming their inboxes, but more information is better.”

It was a constant rush of sending information up and down the chain of government. Down the line was Nicole Amendola, the director of intergovernmental affairs for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). Amendola rose through the ranks to become director in April, and where she and others in the executive’s office worked long hours to supply local government with the latest information.

Amendola, who reiterated it was a team effort, said that along with her communication work, she was also on the side of making sure different bodies such as fire departments or hospitals were getting the PPE or resources they needed.

“Things were changing so rapidly, not even from the state but even from the federal level, so we had to make sure that we were able to communicate properly and efficiently to all levels of government,” she said. “The work, definitely, was very, very top heavy in terms of hours in the beginning of everything because there was just so much we didn’t know and understand, and things were literally constantly changing.”

Once new regulations and lockdowns were underway, any new information coming in from the governor’s office was immediately poured through. Both state and county offices watched every one of the governor’s daily press conferences to make sure they could get that info to local government. 

Even with such things as trick-or-treating for Halloween, Amendola said they made it their jobs to let people know what was permitted and what was not. When people complained about what was or wasn’t allowed to open and which businesses were included in which reopening phases, their office also sent those complaints back up the chain as well.

Others in local governing offices made consistent remarks to TBR News Media on the good job both Santeramo and Amendola’s offices did during this hectic time. Their near-daily updates on COVID-19, what regulations and what restrictions may have changed, was a huge boon for people struggling to make heads or tails of what they needed to do. 

Now that numbers are spiking, both offices are on constant calls about what may or may not be coming down the pike. And with vaccines also in play, a new kind of communications blitz is incoming.

“I never thought I’d have to deal with people’s safety,” Santeramo said. “But this year and the work we did, it will be the most important work I think I’ll ever do in my life.” 

Public Safety

The year 2020 is going to go down in the record books locally not just because of the pandemic but because of other major events throughout the year. The May killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd sparked waves of protests throughout the country, including several largely peaceful demonstrations on Long Island. Interactions between law enforcement and protesters in Suffolk were mostly harmonious, but in a few places the reaction to those protests grew into a hotbed of misinformation and rumor, especially in the Town of Smithtown. While officials tried to quash those rumors, it was the Smithtown Department of Public Safety that was in the middle of the storm, both figuratively — and it turned out later in 2020 — quite literally.

The Town of Smithtown Public Safety Department made several water rescues during the summer 2020; just one of a few complications to a complicated year. Photo from Thomas Lohmann Jr.

Thomas Lohmann Jr., director of the town public safety office, said when the pandemic first hit, their office was in charge of restricting who could and could not enter town buildings, as well as handling the distribution of PPE throughout Smithtown. While other offices were being cut or shut down, Lohmann’s, with his 55 or so sworn officers and 50 additional civilian staff, was seeing a rapid need for more assistance.

“Everybody here really had to step up and work,” he said. “The communications section, which not only do they dispatch — we also serve three fire departments in the township — and they were extremely busy handling alarms for COVID-19 calls.”

Once things started to reopen, they were there in the local community enforcing restrictions on beaches and in parks. This year, with more boaters out on the water, they completed several water rescues. In enforcing compliance, Lohmann said it was not so much about shutting down businesses as much as talking with owners face-to-face to get them to meet restrictions.

“We recognize the businesses were faced with challenges, and from early onset what we focused on was voluntary compliance,” he said.

During Tropical Storm Isaias in August, the town safety office also became engaged in the work of checking up on people who lacked power. The year 2020 has been fraught with challenges, but for many law enforcement out there, as COVID numbers have risen dramatically in the past two months, the work does not stop.

“We can’t hang a shingle and say we’re shutting down,” Lohmann said, “We’re doing everything we can.”

Government Meal Programs

When the pandemic was at its zenith in late March and early April, the thousands of people who relied on government meal programs found themselves at an even greater loss, unable to get out of the house to even go to the local deli. As senior centers and government offices closed, the many people responsible for getting people food did not back down.

The Suffolk County Office for the Aging works with towns throughout Suffolk in their weekly meal programs. Holly Rhodes-Teague, who heads up the office, is not only in charge of a network of meal programs throughout the 10 towns, she had to keep up with case management, home care, transportation and home repair to allow older adults to remain at home while the pandemic raged outside.

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

Before COVID hit, the office was helping to arrange meals for around 2,700 seniors in congregate programs and home deliveries. Once the shutdowns occurred, that jumped to 4,200 people. To this day, those numbers have only slightly dropped to a little over 4,000 folks who depend on these daily meals.

“We were able to transition overnight to adding onto home delivery — we took the current program and made it into a grab-and-go type program for meals,” Rhodes-Teague said. “It was amazing how fast they did that. They didn’t skip more than a day.”

And it wasn’t just food. Through the towns, Holly-Teague said they managed to give out items like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, especially when such items were vacant on store shelves. In between everything, her office was calling elders, some of whom are over 100 years old, to just check up and see how they were doing. In one instance, a caseworker could not get a hold of one of their clients after August’s tropical storm. After visiting the elder at home, the caseworker found the electricity was gone, and the person’s life support had gone out.

“All our people stepped up to the plate,” she said.

In the individual towns, the separate Meals on Wheels programs were suddenly inundated. Laura Greif, Smithtown’s senior citizens program director, said the number of seniors they service doubled during the beginning stages of the pandemic, to over 320 meals a day. What made the situation harder was they had half the staff on, and half off. Other staff within the town came through to help instead. With the Smithtown Senior Center closed to visitors, she said they were making over 2,000 calls to elder folk within the town to check up on them regularly.

Once things calmed down, she said her crew even started taking some seniors food shopping. She thanked everyone who worked with her.

“In the beginning it was difficult as we were half-staffed,” Greif said. “Without such an amazing staff and town, it would have been difficult to get it all done. We’re very happy to do this much-needed service.”

Alison Karppi, commissioner of Housing & Human Services at the Town of Brookhaven, said before the pandemic they were supplying meals to 130 homebound seniors, plus those in their congregate program. Once the senior centers closed, that number jumped to over 500 seniors a day. Additionally, the town’s senior citizen division delivered 208 boxes of food to residents in need through Suffolk County’s food insecurity program.

It would take a whole host of Brookhaven employees to reach every single one of those who needed food every day, and not just those from HHS. Workers from other town offices such as the parks department would become drivers to get meals out to seniors spread throughout over 500 square miles. Karppi said unlike other municipalities that were forced to make meals cold, thanks to the town’s cafeteria in Town Hall and its food contractor, Florian Food Service, Brookhaven was regularly sending out warm meals to its seniors. 

Making sure the food stayed warm took a whole lot of effort on the part of multiple employees, and Karppi wanted to thank all those drivers whose constant work provided such a necessary service, as well as Dawn Marcasia, who created the route list for drivers every day of the week. Delivering meals also served as a way to check up on seniors, and when there was no response at the door, that information was passed onto the senior citizen division.

Through all of that, the town workers helped deliver over 75,000 meals to seniors at their homes from March through December. 

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) expressed how this service has been critical, even as we’re still not out of the woods yet.

“This pandemic is far from over, we’re at least another year anywhere back to where we were before,” he said. “This has been a lifeline to so many of these people.”

Fairfield at St. James residents wanted to help the Smithtown community by gathering and donating tons of groceries to those suffering from food insecurity. Photo from Nicole Garguilo

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday people felt that it was their civic duties to step up and make a difference. Some made masks, some drove around supplies, others gathered food for those who were hungry. 

Many of these people had jobs, families and their own struggles at home, but they knew they wanted to be a part of something bigger. They chose early on what side of history they were going to be on, the side that helped others and made a difference. 

“The sacrifice everyone made was apparent,” Carmela Newman with Operation Headband, said. “I grew tenfold from working with such amazing people.”

Operation Headband started out when Newman’s friends at local hospitals said their ears were red and raw from wearing uncomfortable masks all day. An avid sewer, she would volunteer and help sew costumes for local theater productions before the pandemic. 

“Me and my sewing buddy Bernice Daly put buttons on headbands and attached the elastic from the face masks, so it was off their ears,” she said. 

Then it took off. Her nurse friends began requesting them, first at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson and then at Stony Brook University Hospital. Quickly, hospitals and facilities across Long Island were reaching out to Newman and her sewing friends in hopes they could get these comfortable accessories. The demand became so high that they ended up making a Facebook group and recruited other volunteers. 

The Ronkonkoma native said she couldn’t have done this alone. Newman credits Terry Ginzberg, Peter Graber, Teresa Mattison and Jeffrey Sanzel for being part of the team. 

“It was a fabrication of everyone coming together,” she said, the pun being intentional. “Everyone jumped on board to help. We became fast friends and family.”

Toward the end of the first wave of the pandemic, Newman said Operation Headband created 6,000 headbands and bandanas overall. Over 40 people volunteered to deliver the items while 15 sewers put the pieces together. In a little over four months, the group’s headbands helped health care professionals from the East End to Manhattan, in seven different states and made their way overseas to the U.K. “The group cared so much to be a part of this horrific thing that was out of our control,” she said. “There was no way we weren’t going to do this.”

Volunteers from LIOSMS. Photo from Kassay

Although it seems that everywhere one looks now there are masks, early on they were hard to find. That’s why Port Jefferson resident, one who would later become village trustee, Rebecca Kassay, started up a volunteer group that delivered over 40,000 PPE and comfort-care items to essential workers. 

Long Island Open Source Medical Supplies-Nassau and Suffolk County is celebrated for creating a Facebook group of hundreds of volunteers across the Island who gathered, purchased, created, donated and delivered PPE for frontline workers. 

“From mid-June through September, we continued to accept donations of PPE from makers, as well as connecting volunteers who want to continue making them to community groups that will get PPE to low-income families and students in school districts, individuals in shelters, Indigenous populations and other at-risk groups,” Kassay said.

More than 300 seamstresses, crafters and makers made and donated more than 15,000 face masks, 2,800 caps, 5,000 face shields, 12,000 ear savers and over 10,000 comfort-care items. Their fleet of 68 volunteer drivers worked hard to deliver the homemade PPE to over 130 facilities and collaborated with other volunteer groups by donating and exchanging fabric and materials.

It started when Kassay, with other local volunteers, began to see the demand for PPE and the need for help in hospitals. Her home, The Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jeff, became “the hub” that got things going. She and her fellow volunteers created a group that allowed people to communicate with one another with extraordinary teamwork. 

“After about a week it was growing so fast,” she said. “It ended up with 10 administrators managing a couple of hundred volunteers, selling masks, driving around materials, donating 3D-printed face shields, communicating with hospitals. The effort was to make everything much more efficient.”

But she said she truly couldn’t have done it alone. 

“Eleni Stamatinos was the mask coordinator and also helped train and coordinate with the other administrators,” Kassay said, adding that Stamatinos would work alongside her for 10-14 hours a day. “She has grown to be a dear friend of mine. While there has been immense tragedy during the pandemic, we have found beauty in the connections that might not have happened otherwise.”

And then there were volunteers she worked with, who spent hours helping out. 

“There are also countless Port Jefferson and surrounding area residents who contributed more time, heart and materials than I could’ve ever hoped for,” Kassay said. “We were driven by the satisfaction of bringing comfort to others. Other opportunities and priorities were pushed aside because of the urgency we all felt in the moment, and none of us regret it.”

While masks and other PPE were needed for frontline workers and the rest of the community, other volunteers dedicated their time at home to feed those who are struggling with food insecurity.

Fairfield at St. James residents donated tons of food. Photo from Nicole Garguilo

Nicole Garguilo, public information officer with the Town of Smithtown, said Fairfield at St. James, a senior living community, stepped up to help.

“They knew that they were high risk for the virus, but still wanted to help,” she said. “So, every month they’d get in a car caravan together, loaded up with nonperishables and meet us at the Gyrodyne parking lot.”

The town then delivered the food to Island Harvest of Hauppauge on their behalf. 

“It was really something to see our seniors put helping others in need before their own safety,” Garguilo said.

Carol Walsh, an 82-year-old resident at the community, was just one of the dozens of seniors who wanted to help.

“I know there are so many people who are hungry,” she said. “The feeling of isolation is so overwhelming, and people forget that others are out there who want to care and make people feel better. If we can make people smile and provide food it’s worth it.”

Walsh said their food caravans would often have between six and eight cars full of food. In September and October, they donated their collection to Island Harvest, but this month they brought more goods to the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry. 

Denise Tortore & Rosane Ackley at Mather Hospital with Meals on Wheels. Photo from Meals on Wheels

And while these seniors collected nonperishables, the local chapter of Meals on Wheels brought hot and cold meals to those who were unable to leave their homes. 

Barbara Siegel said the Three Village Meals on Wheels group consists of about 150 volunteers and has been delivering food to those in need five days a week for 38 years.

Partnering with the kitchens at Port Jefferson’s Mather and St. Charles hospitals and Setauket Village Diner, a cold lunch and a hot dinner are delivered to people who are homebound. Siegel said that other chapters of Meals on Wheels had to temporarily shut down during the pandemic but not the Stony Brook operation, which covers from St. James, across the North Shore into Mount Sinai, down into Coram and toward Lake Grove. 

“We got more calls during pandemic,” Siegel said. 

And although Siegel thanks and appreciates all the volunteers who gave up their free time to drive around Suffolk County delivering these dishes, she said it wouldn’t have been possible without the office staff coordinating it all: Ruth Spear, Ronnie Kreitzer and Linda Bernstein.

Siegel said Spear is a caring individual, always cheerful when someone calls the office, willing to help them with whatever inquiry they have. Bernstein takes care of the financial side of things, while Kreitzer coordinates the driver routes. 

“The three ladies that are in the office are just invaluable — they never stop,” Siegel said. “They go to sleep at night and their heads are still going thinking about tomorrow. They do it from their heart and soul.”

But Spear was modest, saying it was a collaborative team effort.

“It’s just our job,” she said.

Kathleen Weinberger, Aramark Nutrition Services food service director with Kings Park school district, helped feed hundreds of students throughout the pandemic.

Aramark Nutrition Services delivering food. Photo from Weinberger

Weinberger said that at the start of the pandemic, she reacted and considered what the safest way to help families would be during the crisis. Aramark employees worked alongside the school district to incorporate a breakfast and lunch grab-and-go window at the high school. They also incorporated a Meals on Wheels bus delivery system with district bus drivers to those families who had no means of transportation.

From March 16 until June 30, they distributed 28,406 meals, seven days a week.

“There were many special moments from seeing their smiles on their faces and the wonderful handwritten ‘thank you’ notes and pictures drawn by the kids that really warmed my heart,” Weinberger said. 

The Kings Park resident said it’s important to consider others, not just during a crisis but every day. 

“People should gather together in good times, as well as difficult times, as it makes stronger ties within the community,” she said. “I’m willing to do whatever I can to lend a helping hand.”

Many North Shore businesses made and donated face shields to help health care workers in the beginning of the pandemic when PPE supplies were low. Photo from Dr. John Folan

North Shore businesses found themselves turning into chameleons during the pandemic, having to adapt to new hampering COVID-19 regulations and restrictions.

But many of these small shops and companies took the extra time the mandatory state shutdowns created by using their resources to reach out to their communities to lend a helping hand. While some made face shields, others sewed masks, helped those short on cash keep their living spaces and workplaces clean, among many other aids and services.

Beyond that help, in a time of rampant unemployment and job loss, many of these small businesses focused on keeping busy and keeping people employed, even in these difficult times.

Zaro’s Cafe

Members of the Huntington Community First Aid Squad pick up face shields at Zaro’s Cafe earlier this year. Photo from Zaro’s Cafe

The lack of face shields for frontline workers in hospitals and first responders was an issue identified as soon as the infection rates for the coronavirus climbed. Several business owners who own 3D printers were ready to make whatever their local health care facilities, fire departments and more needed for battle.

While a restaurant may seem like an unlikely spot for making face shields, it wasn’t for Edmund Zarou, owner of Zaro’s Cafe on Jericho Turnpike in Huntington Station. On the side, he sells nightlights using 3D printers along with his cousin Alex Solounias.

In March, Zarou said he was going a bit stir crazy during the afternoon hours. With restaurants prohibited from indoor dining at the time and restricted to providing curbside service, he said many diners were not coming in for lunch and there was a lull until dinnertime. He and his employees were there for hours just prepping and cleaning.

“I’m not a person that likes to be stagnant, I always like to be doing something,” he said.

When he heard there was a need for face shields in the community, he turned Zaro Cafe’s dining room into a face shield production center using the 3D printers he had. He said through word of mouth and Facebook postings, he would get about 20 phone calls a day with people asking for at least five or 10 shields for fire departments, EMTs and nursing homes.

Zarou said he was busy making masks until about mid-May when production chains began to catch up and the restaurant businesses also started to pick up with the warmer weather and more people venturing out.

He ended up making close to 1,000 shields, and still can’t understand how the pandemic created such a need.

“I couldn’t believe these big companies or hospitals, that they would run out of that,” he said.

He added he was happy to help though.

“It was so easy for me to do it, because I had the know-how, machines and equipment,” he said. “So, once I was able to do it, I just did it.”

Railex Corporation

Railex Corp. in Copiaque went from producing conveyor systems to making face shields to donate to health care workers during the pandemic. Photo from Railex

At the same time Zarou learned of the need for face shields, so did Setauket resident Richard Sobel, who along with Old Field Village trustee Steve Shybunko, owns the conveyor system company Railex Corporation in Copiague.

Sobel first heard of the need when faculty and students at The Stony Brook School, where his son Owen attends, were using 3D printers to make face shields for Stony Brook University Hospital. When he heard of the need, he knew Railex could help and even produce more for them.

Four days after the business shut down due to state mandates, Sobel was able to reopen again and keep employees working. After the company produced 5,000 shields to donate to SBUH, they went on to make another 20,000 over the next five to six weeks.

Like Zarou, he said once the supply chain caught up, and businesses were able to open up again, he found they were able to go back to producing conveyor systems.

The philanthropic opportunity also brought two new ventures for the company. First they sold some shields to local doctors’ offices, and they also began creating mobile area guard partitions with polycarbonate shields that many places, including courthouses, are using to separate people and enforce virus restrictions.

Sobel said it would have been difficult to tell employees they were shutting down for a few months. As a manufacturing company, there aren’t many opportunities to work from home.

“It was a huge deal to be able to do that, keep the business open,” he said. “I would say that our mantra was work safely and stay a little bit paranoid.”

While they navigated new waters in working during a pandemic, that mantra worked as no one in the company came down with COVID-19.

He said he was impressed with the donations facilitated from The Stony Brook School from stores such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and P.C. Richard & Son.

“You would call them up, and they would say ‘yes,’ right away,” he said.

71 Visuals

Craig Geiger, CEO of 71 Visuals in Hauppauge and a Stony Brook resident, also rose to the occasion when he heard health care workers and first responders were in need of face shields.

“There were people pulling up that were literally crying, saying, ‘You have no idea how important this is to me.'” — Craig Geiger

The business usually provides signage products including light boxes, trade show booths, LED signs and stages, banners, posters, counter wrap, window tinting and wall graphics, with most of their customers in retail. With industrial machines, Geiger said he knew his company could meet the demand for face shields quickly.

Like Sobel, the CEO said that the company was not only able to help health care workers and fire departments but also keep approximately 25 to 30 employees working. He also took on an additional 60 employees, many of whom were friends with his nephew, a senior at Commack High School.

The company also started a GoFundMe page where Geiger said they were overwhelmed by the generous donations. The company got to a point where they were making 8,000 shields a day.

The CEO said he was surprised by the need and the number of calls he received from hospitals and surgeons including St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown and Stony Brook University Hospital, and even medical facilities outside of Long Island.

“I remember reading that Stony Brook was excited that they were able to use some of the equipment they had on their premises for the college to make face shields, and I think they were able to do like 50 or 60 a day like it was,” he said.

After learning about the need at SBUH, 71 Visuals created 5,000 shields for the hospital.

Over the months, the company made more than 400,000 shields. In addition to keeping its employees at work, additional projects came out of the philanthropic act as they then began making and selling acrylic barriers for hospitals and small three-sided acrylic barriers to about two dozen school districts. The barriers are used at students’ desks and are portable.

While Geiger is grateful for keeping his company open, he said one day when they arranged a curbside pickup to fulfill requests for shields, he was amazed when there was a line down the street and traffic police had to manage the flow of cars.

He said it was an emotional day.

“There were people pulling up that were literally crying, saying, ‘You have no idea how important this is to me,’” he said.

SERVPRO

SERVPRO of Port Jefferson was recently recognized by the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce. The company provides services to customers in Port Jefferson as well as the surrounding areas in the field of handling fire, water and mold cleanup as well as restoration.

The chamber thanked the company for cleaning its historic train car for free. Owner Risa Kluger said they also have done some free cleanings for fire departments as well as regular customers who were unable to pay their bills.

With many worrying if they could catch COVID-19 from surfaces, the company’s signature microbial misting, air-duct and air-scrubber commercial cleaning service provided peace of mind to many.

When regular customers, who needed a general cleaning for their business or a specific one for their home due to a COVID-19 reason, mentioned being short on cash, Kluger said they were happy to provide a free service.

“If there’s a repeat customer or someone who has a situation where they are in need, we always listen and try to help,” she said.

She also credits being able to assist free of charge to some due to her business being considered essential during the pandemic as she was able to stay open and keep employees working.

“Sometimes people choose to clean up things themselves a little more often, but we didn’t take as big of a hit as others,” she said.

Home care aides on Long Island have been essential in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in homes. Photo from Home Helpers of Huntington Facebook page

By Kimberly Brown

The  responsibilities of home care workers and health aides to support the daily activities of those who are incapable of doing so themselves are always vital. However, since the pandemic began, home care aides on Long Island have become some of the most essential group of workers needed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 from entering their patients’ homes — all while still performing their normal duties. The work of Long Island home care workers has been noted by not only the companies they work for, but their communities, too. Veronica Stokes from Home Helpers Home Care of Huntington expressed what work has been like since the pandemic started to take hold in March. 

“It’s very hard to be [emotionally] distanced when working with the elderly,” Stokes said. “I’m learning how to do it. I do everything except sign on their checks to pay the bills. I take [a lady] to get her nails done, shopping, going to the bank, everything. I cook for the weekend, and I put everything in the freezer and label it Saturday, Sunday, lunch, dinner.”

Though activities are already limited for high-risk patients, COVID-19 has further prevented them from partaking in day-to-day affairs. Workers like Stokes put in a valiant effort to ensure her clients feel some sort of normalcy while the pandemic still remains a threat. 

“Every day I used to pick sunflowers, and I would get little cups, put ice in them, and put them by everyone’s bedside,” she said. “Even if they can’t see the flowers, they can smell them. Or I would even use jasmine too, so they know someone was here. It’s the little things that help take their mind off what’s going on.” 

Many elders, as well as ordinary sick patients, have been unable to see their families due to the new rules that have been implemented at hospitals and health clinics. Home care workers like Pamela Garruppo from Critical Health Care in Port Jefferson shared stories about her patients and what they have been going through as they prepare for important surgeries and medical procedures. 

“I have a patient who is waiting for a liver transplant and she can’t see her family,” Garruppo said. “She couldn’t wait anymore because she needed the liver so badly, but couldn’t have any contact with her family since the hospitals shut down. I watched her husband cry because he couldn’t even go in to hold her hand.”

This isn’t Garruppo’s only patient who hasn’t been able to see their family. She describes another instance where a patient of hers, who lost her husband, was only allowed to see him for an hour a day before he passed. 

“Only two family members were allowed to see him, so they had to choose between one son or the other to go see their father before he died,” Garruppo said. “But that’s COVID, unfortunately.”

One of the best feelings Garruppo has is when she goes to see her patients and they express to her that they’re feeling better. 

“My patients are like my family,” she said.

An outside look at the Town of Huntington Senior Center. Photo from Facebook

The struggles home care workers have faced this year have been strenuous on their mental health and daily life. Despite the obstacles put in their way, Critical Health Care’s Regina Varacchi explained she doesn’t feel like the one who’s suffering the most right now. 

“I can’t even say that I’ve struggled so much, it’s really my patients that are struggling,” Varacchi said. “I’m the one who’s getting out of my house, working and seeing people. My struggle is watching what’s going on and seeing the depression. Just thinking about it breaks my heart.”

One of Varacchi’s patients, who she considered to be family, had been fighting cancer for eight years. Then the patient unexpectedly contracted COVID and passed abruptly. 

“This guy was the most amazing man ever, and he was a fighter,” she said. “Since he was compromised, they immediately admitted him and I think it was only one day later that they put him on the ventilator, and within two days he was gone. People don’t take it seriously until they lose someone they love.”

One good thing that has come out of the pandemic for Varacchi is that it initiated a reset. Being able to express her creative side by doing crafts and taking part in outdoor activities such as going to the beach, are things she would’ve never done if the pandemic didn’t exist. 

“It was a reset in life, and it makes you realize what you took for granted,” Varacchi said.

For other Critical Health Care workers such as Gail Crichlow-Hall, personal health was of the utmost importance when caring for others. Due to her position in working with patients free of COVID-19, she was more concerned about them than her own wellness. 

“If I’m ill there is a high possibility that I could pass that on to the patients, and you just don’t want to play that game,” Crichlow-Hall said. “I had to make sure I was healthy and that my household was healthy because ultimately that would affect my job and the patients.”

For Crichlow-Hall, one of the many downfalls COVID-19 has caused is the inability to create a bond with patients. She now has to consistently distance herself and believes social distancing in compromised patients will carry on for many years to come.  

“In the office, we used to be able to offer simple things like candy, coffee, things like that,” she said. “We no longer do that because it was in a common space where everyone could go and touch. You can’t get to know your patients or give them a friendly hug during the holiday time.”

Being a person of faith, Crichlow-Hall says the pandemic helped to solidify her beliefs in God. Her experience while working throughout the pandemic has proven to her that there is a higher being.

“And there is no way you can convince me moving forward of anything else,” she said with a laugh.

Dr. Christopher Winkler, owner of the Suffolk Veterinary Group Animal Wellness & Laser Surgery Center in Selden with a client. Photo from Winkler.

By Chris Cumella

Social distancing has been accompanied by a loss of companionship that people yearn to have once again. Fortunately, pet-service workers have committed themselves to making sure people’s furry, feathered and scaly friends have remained healthy, even as the worst of the pandemic raged. 

The coronavirus has completely shifted the social norms of being around other people, but pets have remained steadfast companions even as many people remained isolated from friends or family. 

Suffolk Veterinary Group

Dr. Christopher Winkler, who heads up the Suffolk Veterinary Group clinic in Selden, explained that while COVID-19 has been difficult to navigate, it has been satisfying to help clients and their companions. 

“It has been very gratifying to be able to help in this way,” Winkler said. “We are seen as frontline workers because we are managing medical for what people call their ‘fur babies.’”

He began working at the Suffolk Veterinary Group out of medical school, where the owner met him working at the local emergency room down the street. He would eventually purchase the practice in 2006, with his wife Nicole as a manager. The company prides itself on introducing laser surgery to its clinic in 2010 and since then has expanded the practice into their primary care services, such as airway procedures for pugs.

According to Winkler, pets fulfill a vital role in the family dynamic. He detailed how clients have told him that their pets help lower blood pressure and bring a calming presence during stressful times, especially now. The veterinarian is reassured that keeping all pets in good health “helps with the dynamic of the lockdown, the anxiety and possibly even the loss of family members.”

Animal shelters have had the difficult task making sure that creatures have warmth, food and love, all while having to cut down on staff. Many animals have come to these shelters from those who have passed due to COVID-19.

Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue

Dory Scofield, president
of SaveAPet Animal Rescue with a furry friend.
Photo from Scofield

From Port Jefferson Station, the Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue and Adoption Center takes in abused, abandoned and homeless animals and helps them find loving permanent homes. The organization offers programs in educating the public — especially children — on the importance of responsible pet ownership and humane treatment of all animals.

While feeding her horses and chickens at home during a phone call, Dori Scofield, president of Save-A-Pet, explained that her line of work had given her hope during these troubling times.

“Animals’ lives depend on all of us, and we strive on donations,” she said. “We are always here for the animals, and we hope the community is too so that we can help them.”

Working with cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets and more, Scofield manages the operation with 10 employees and over 200 volunteers, only four of which are allowed to come in on an average day.  

Scofield said she has taken in pets from half-a-dozen owners who have passed due to COVID, but remains positive due to the newfound safety and love that they can provide to each new face in the shelter. She remains humble in terms of rescuing animals from poor or unsuitable living conditions, saying, “We are just the catalyst; the public is the ones saving them.” 

Scofield’s plans with Save-A-Pet involve opening an animal sanctuary with a specific demographic of farm animals. Construction was temporarily halted in June but is expected to pick up again next month. It will be located in Massachusetts, expanding over 25 acres and hopefully home to horses, goats, chickens, pigs and more.

“More animals have been adopted, now is the time to get an animal when you’re stuck at home,” Scofield said.

According to an August article from the Washington Post, pet adoptions have been increasing steadily since July, as many search for that missing sense of being around others that people can safely enjoy with their pets.

Town of Huntington Cat Shelter

Ashley Davide, manager of the Town of Huntington Cat Shelter in East Northport which is overseen by Little Shelter Animal Adoption Center, said that it is more difficult for the shelter to take in cats and analyze if they would be a good fit with the others, but it does not stop her from finding homes for those currently there. 

“We had gotten a crazy, feral cat, he was not friendly, but he was going to die because of an infection in his paws,” Davide said. “It took months of surgery, but he pulled through. Slowly as he became better, he became a friendly, ridiculously purring cat that sounded like a pigeon. I didn’t think he would be adopted at 7 months old, but a woman came in and fell in love with him, and after four years, he finally went home. She loved him more than life itself.”

Davide’s shelter operations have shifted from a Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule with shorter weekend hours to appointment only, with only one client allowed at a time. Before the virus became mainstream, the shelter allowed clients to sit in rooms with the cats and personally get to know them  — who they were, what their personalities were like, and how compatible they found themselves with each other.

Now the shelter must require people to take as little time as possible, which led to the reluctant decision to limit interactions to 30 minutes. 

“It’s not really fair to the cats,” Davide said. “The people shouldn’t have to be rushed to choose the cat they love the most.”

Health care workers at Stony Brook University Hospital received meals delivered by Stony Brook Village Center restaurants. Photo from Ward Melville Heritage Organization

During the pandemic, helping to feed those with food insecurities came not only from expected organizations such as food banks and church pantries but also restaurants across the North Shore. Several stepped up to the plate to help out as their dining rooms remained empty due to mandatory state shutdowns.

Whether it was the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce working with small businesses to donate food to local hospitals or nonprofits like Island Harvest facilitating meals for those who needed it, here are just a few examples of those who went above and beyond.

Long Island Cares

“We are seeing a lot of people for the first time, and I think that a lot of it’s due to unemployment, job loss, furloughs.” — Claire Fratello

Long Island Cares, the Hauppauge-based food bank, is in the business of making sure residents in Suffolk and Nassau counties don’t go hungry. According to Claire Fratello, LIC’s assistant to the CEO for administration and media relations, the nonprofit, which regularly has 374 member pantries and six satellite locations, established during the pandemic 18 emergency pop-up food distribution sites, a food-box packing center in Hauppauge to make up emergency food boxes, and a consumer-choice pantry in Bethpage, modeled after a supermarket..

From March to November, LI Cares has assisted more than 220,000 people all across Long Island, and the number of new people receiving emergency food assistance due to COVID-19 has increased to 146,919. Food insecurity is up 58% compared to 2019.

LI Cares collected enough food items to give out nearly 12 million meals throughout the pandemic.

“We are seeing a lot of people for the first time, and I think that a lot of it’s due to unemployment, job loss, furloughs,” she said.

Fratello added that LI Cares has tried something new with virtual food drives, and they have seen an approximate 33% increase in donations compared to last year.

“I think the generosity has been kind of fueled by the fact that there are people out there who know that others are struggling,” she said.

In September, LI Cares started creating food boxes for workers of a few Long Island restaurants. The owner of the restaurants expressed concern for his employees who were working less than usual and receiving fewer tips. Each week the workers have been able to pick up food boxes at LI Cares’ Huntington and Hauppauge locations.

Axis Food Pantry

Among the food pantries providing help to local residents is a new one established by Axis Church. Pastor Kara Bocchino said the church has members from all over and three locations, Port Jefferson, Medford and Patchogue, and the new food pantry operates out of the main building in Medford.

“We were sitting home thinking how we can’t just sit home when we’re an outreach-focused church,” she said.

Committed to doing something, the church members called the Patchogue-Medford school district in April, and discovered there were several families in need. Congregants donated a large amount of food and would drop off donations on Sundays. The collected food was delivered to 60 families a week and about another 60 families would pick food up at the church every Saturday.

After the school year ended, church members continued to deliver to the families. However, when the need died down, it inspired the church to start a food pantry. Bocchino said she began receiving calls from the New York State Department of Health asking if they could help deliver food to nearby residents who were quarantined. While they mostly bring food to those who live up and down the Route 112 corridor, they have also helped out those in areas surrounding Port Jefferson.

Bocchino said when she can’t deliver to a person due to distance, she connects the DOH with a church that can.

One family she delivered to was in Rocky Point. She said the drive was worth it when she learned the woman in the household was a foster mom to five children. Bocchino added that the chain Chick-fil-A donated a tray of food to the family.

After food was dropped off for a family in Selden, Bocchino found out the parents needed help buying their children Christmas presents and purchasing oil to heat their house. She said church members quickly stepped up to the plate to help them.

The pastor hasn’t been surprised by the generosity she’s witnessed from congregants and businesses.

“What happens is when people hear of a need, they’re willing to fill it,” she said. “When they don’t hear of the need, they can’t do it.”

La Famiglia, Smithtown

Teresa LaRosa leaves La Famiglia in Smithtown with food for a family member who was furloughed early on during the pandemic. The restaurant began donating meals to community members back in March. Photo by Rita J. Egan

During the pandemic, many restaurants took the lead in offering free food to seniors in their communities and delivering meals to health care workers at local hospitals.

As soon as restaurants were prohibited to provide indoor dining, La Famiglia in Smithtown posted on its Facebook page that the restaurant would donate 50 meals a day to any senior who wanted them over two days. The word spread fast, and soon regulars were stopping by to donate money, which allowed co-owner John Cracchiolo and manager Giovanni Divella to donate 150 meals that weekend.

But the donations didn’t stop there, Divella said, and the restaurant has continued giving away free meals throughout the pandemic, delivering them to St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center and Suffolk County Police Department’s 4th Precinct among other locations to say “thank you” to health care workers and law enforcement.

Divella said there was no question about helping out in the community during difficult times. The restaurant has stood on the corner of Jericho Turnpike and Brooksite Drive in Smithtown for 20 years.

“This community is by far the most tight-knit community I’ve ever met,” he said. “And not just Smithtown, but all the surrounding areas: St. James, Kings Park, Commack and Hauppauge.”

Divella said he and Cracchiolo didn’t think the pandemic would last this long but feel fortunate to have been able to stay open during the pandemic, even with the changes in capacity, increased cleaning and mask mandates.

“We’re learning every day to reinvent ourselves,” Divella said. “We’re learning every day to kind of go with the curve.”

Stony Brook Village Center

Thanking the health care workers at Stony Brook University Hospital took a village, as restaurants in Stony Brook Village Center banded together to put together meals for health care workers during the pandemic.

Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization which manages the village center, said the Three Village Inn, Fratelli’s, Crazy Beans and Sweet Mama’s all took part in delivering meals to the medical professionals at Stony Brook University Hospital. In addition, The Crushed Olive, Village Coffee Market, Chocolate Works, Premiere Pastry, Brew Cheese and Penney’s Car Care delivered a variety of snacks, cheeses, pastries, cookies, drinks and much more. More than 11,000 meals and breakroom foods were distributed to SBUH from the beginning of April toward the end of June.

Rocchio said the initiative was called Stony Brook Village/Stony Brook University Hospital Healthcare Meal Program, and it began after it was discovered that a few of the restaurants in the village center were already delivering food to the hospital after receiving donations from customers. Claude Cardin, owner of Fratelli’s, spent $15,000 of his own money to deliver food to the workers.

She credited the work of the restaurants being made a little easier with generous donations to WMHO totaling $25,000 from local residents and businesses as well as people from Nassau County and out of the state.

“It was all of the community coming together as one, to take care of one cause — to care for essential workers,” Rocchio said. “It was so heartwarming.”

The Sunshine Prevention Center in Port Jefferson Station has worked to make sure its students had coursework during the pandemic, even driving materials home to students. Photo by Kyle Barr

When the first weeks of the pandemic hit, when everything from restaurants to gyms to playgrounds were being shut down, schools were forced closed as well.

As the many different districts across Long Island scrambled to implement distance learning, a new crisis loomed. For the many men and women who still worked, especially those on the frontlines in hospitals or elder care facilities, they could no longer depend on school districts to take care of their children for most of the day. 

George Duffy, the CEO of SCOPE Education Services, was instrumental in providing child care during the pandemic’s early months. Photo from SCOPE

And as parents scrambled to find ways to take care of their children, a few groups stepped up to the plate. Many parents owe a great deal to those organizations that took care of their children during the pandemic’s worst months, many of whom were trailblazers for what kids would come to expect when schools finally reopened in later months.

Organizations from all over kept their child care services going when they were needed most. The Huntington YMCA, while suspending many of its other youth and adult programs, kept running its child care services and food pickups for families. This was even amongst huge economic hardship caused by the loss of membership dues. 

Eileen Knauer, senior vice president of operations for YMCA of Long Island, said their child care programs ran for four months out of their Huntington facility as well as a school in the South Huntington school district, up until their summer camp programs started again. While it initially ran free of charge for parents, having been supported by stipends from the school district and Northwell Health, they did end up having to charge parents some cost for the program. For those parents who did not have enough to pay, they fundraised to help support their children.

“The ‘Y’ is here for our community — we respond to what the community tells us we need,” Knauer said. 

SCOPE Education Services, a Smithtown-based nonprofit chartered by the New York State Board of Regents, operates child care programs all over Long Island. Though SCOPE normally works with school districts from all over, in March, when districts were mandated to provide child care even while their buildings were closed to normal activity, they turned to SCOPE, according to George Duffy, executive director. 

The nonprofit operated 25 locations throughout Long Island to provide that child care, with more than 800 children in total enrolled. From March through August, SCOPE workers kept children in safe spaces, allowing them an opportunity to socialize when many were feeling the emotional constraints of isolation.

Though districts pay a weekly stipend to help run the program, for parents who desperately needed people to take care of their children while working, it was effectively free.

Lori Innella-Venne, a district manager for SCOPE operating in the Huntington area, said it was soon after the closures were coming into effect that she and her workers sat together to come up with a plan, creating something entirely new on the fly, even when restrictions and medical advice seemed to be changing on a daily basis. Despite all that, the program never saw a positive COVID-19 case amongst its children, she said.

“We took one breath when schools closed and we immediately got to work, reimagining how we did everything,” Innella-Venne said.

Over in Rocky Point, the North Shore Youth Council, a nonprofit that services districts from Mount Sinai to Shoreham-Wading River, was also caught up in that first COVID wave that crashed upon Suffolk County. Their summer camp, which featured 100 kids, was so effective in its procedures that it did not see a positive case in the several months the program ran.

NSYC Executive Director Robert Woods said they also had the benefit of good relationships with the Rocky Point school district, and that it was the district’s custodial staff who were “rock stars” in helping to prepare children for these activities. 

It was difficult, of course. Children could not even play board games together. Innella-Venne said they had to draw up an entirely new curriculum. Activities had to focus on being spaced apart. Equipment that was once shared now had to be restricted to individuals, and then sanitized after use.

“When we were still waiting for guidelines to come out, we already had a fully realized program, one that we found well within the guidelines and in some cases exceeded them,” she said. “There was fear in the beginning, but also incredible pride for what we were able to accomplish.”

The Huntington YMCA struggled during the pandemic but still offered childcare during the peak months. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Once school started again, the demand for child care did not relax. The youth council’s afterschool program now follows in the footsteps of the local school districts’ cohort system, following those so that they don’t mix students who may have been kept separate for a significant time. They also developed a kind of study hall for those students in the hybrid model who are studying electronically, allowing parents to work even when their children are not allowed inside schools, according to Cyndi Donaldson, the youth council’s school-age child care program director.

Knauer said the YMCA has also started a program to allow children a place to do their remote work while their parents are at their jobs. Though that program had stalled once students were allowed back in school full time, it will likely start up again after December as the number of COVID cases climb and local districts expect to take a longer-than-normal Christmas break.

“If you’re a working parent, you don’t have the luxury of taking time off,” she said.

There are so many stressors with young people having to deal with so much, whether it was hearing the news and the number of people dying, or it was seeing the anxieties of their parents. It was especially hard on more at-risk kids, the kind of population serviced by The Sunshine Center in Port Jefferson Station. Carol Carter, CEO/co-founder of the organization, said they had to transfer much of their child care services online once the pandemic struck, whether it was live on Facebook or YouTube, or constant calls to catch up with parents and their children on what was happening. They took to driving out to children’s households with homework and activities or even food, trying to keep those participants engaged. The center created a blessing box where needy parents could pick up supplies and food that were donated by the wider community.

“We knew immediately how important support was through this time,” she said. “Our main focus was on positive social skills. People were feeling anxiety and other tough feelings, so developing coping skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills that kids could use during this time was important.”

All program directors agreed that their services provided a kind of stability for children during a tumultuous year.

“A parent said to me the other day that our programs are the only constant in their childs’ lives,” Woods said. “Their children look forward to coming to our programs, they are able to socialize in a different way. They are a thriving testament to what [our organization] does.”

Just like many businesses and other organizations during the pandemic, COVID has hurt their bottom line. Knauer said the YMCA is currently running at 50% below their normal revenue, as membership dues have dropped off significantly. She said anybody looking to start memberships or to donate can contact her through the YMCA at 631-421-4242.

Other programs also operated at a loss.

“SCOPE ended up losing money,” Duffy said. “We thought they were going to be running this for four-to-six weeks. We ended up running it for six months.”

But for the nonprofit service, the point was to provide that niche when it was needed.

NSYC camp councilors stood with 100 young people who participated in this year’s Summer Buddies camp, where there were no reported infections. Photo from NSYC

“We felt it was a valuable service that benefited families and the community,” Duffy said. “We were happy to do it — it kept people employed who would have been forced to do something drastic, like leave their job.”

The child care services were truly the first bulwark of dealing with children and students in a pandemic. Both SCOPE and NSYC officials said school districts reached out to them when coming up with their own procedures when reopening in September.

“A lot of school districts looked at what we did over the summer, asked for our input, and a lot of what they’re doing now is what we did in March,” Duffy said. 

The work of these and other groups has been recognized by both school districts and parents. SCOPE has received numerous positive comments from superintendents from Brentwood to Middle Country to Comsewogue. One of the districts SCOPE operated in was Miller Place, where Marianne Cartisano, the MP superintendent, said her district would not have been able to come out of the first-wave months still with their feet under them if it weren’t for Duffy and his program.

“Parents would come back and say, ‘I didn’t worry about my child today,’” Cartisano said.

The Port Jefferson EMS team has been on the front lines of the pandemic since its start. The team covers the Mount Sinai, Port Jeff and Belle Terre communities. Photo from Michael Buckley

By Iryna Shkurhan

The work of first responders is indispensable to communities across the country, but during an exhausting year like 2020, it was even more so. They are the first on the scene of emergencies, and time and again put their lives at risk when they respond to all types of 911 calls. With COVID-19, it meant untold hours of difficulty and hardship, but their work helped secure the safety of thousands.

So, this year gave EMTs, paramedics and firefighters the added challenge of directly responding to the invisible killer, COVID-19, as the pandemic took on communities across Long Island, all while still responding to their usual fires and non-COVID related medical emergencies. Leaders and service members, some paid but mostly volunteers, weathered changes such as increased safety precautions and the rising demand for their assistance. 

Wading River Fire Department, made up of about 80 volunteer members, responds to over 1,000 calls every year. When asked if one person stood out this year for their work, Chief Branden Heller agreed that their whole department demonstrated above and beyond work.

“We say the entire department because of all the events that transpired this year,” he said. “Members exposed themselves to more hazardous situations then they were normally used to. Overall, it’s been a very busy year.”

This year his crew of fire and EMS volunteers as well as two paid paramedics overcame a PPE shortage and also dealt with a rise of brush fires, on top of a surge of COVID cases, as emergency calls spiked up in the spring.

Daniel Dongvort, third assistant chief of Smithtown Fire Department, lauded Ann Shumacher, a lieutenant and volunteer EMT for her contributions this year, and throughout her 15-year tenure. She is a mother and full-time nurse, working two jobs, who still found time and energy to devote countless hours to the department whenever she could. 

“She was nonstop helping riding ambulances and helping the community all throughout 2020, but what she’s done over her tenure is probably more telling of her personality and her dedication,” Dongvort said. “Her overall enthusiasm, passion and willingness to come out for the next call, time and time again, is something that’s contagious, especially to the younger members.”

Miller Place EMS Capt. Rob Chmiel, far right, leads a team of volunteers during the department’s 10th annual Stuff a Bus event Nov. 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

Rocky Point Fire Department, with over 130 active members, serves the Rocky Point and Shoreham communities. Volunteer members in the department respond to thousands of EMS and fire calls every year. The department’s David Singer was named an EMS firefighter of the year by Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) in October. 

This isn’t the first time that Singer has been honored for his service to the community. 

As a member of the fire department for over 18 years, he has received his fire company’s Number One Responder Award and the Captain’s Award. 

Roselyn Coleman, an EMT for Riverhead Fire Department and volunteer for Miller Place Fire Department was nominated by Larry Fischer, fire commissioner and a retired EMS. “She’s one of our best,” Fischer said. Coleman has devoted her time to the community this year and showed consistent dedication by splitting her time between both departments.

Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Corps provides emergency medical services and EMS protection to thousands of Long Islanders at all hours of the day. During the height of COVID, volunteers at Port Jeff EMS were working close to 180 hours in a two-week period. Many of the volunteers are students at Stony Brook University, who balance their EMT duties with their academic responsibilities. Nestor Kissoon and Adam Jones are two student-volunteer EMTs who were enrolled in SBU this year. 

“They did not shy away at all through the pandemic, and increased their hours to help meet the needs of the patients and the community,” said Virginia Ledford, administrative director of Port Jeff EMS. “They went beyond what was asked of them this year, and both always maintain a positive attitude.” 

Two full-time paramedics — Rob Stoessel, chief and executive director, and Mike Presta, deputy chief — worked tirelessly this year for their department. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, they stayed at the building for what felt like weeks to make sure everyone was safe, prepared and that  the needs of the community were being met,” Ledford said. 

Miller Place EMS Capt. Rob Chmiel, far right, leads a team of volunteers during the department’s 10th annual Stuff a Bus event Nov. 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

John Quimby, chief of Mount Sinai Fire Department, was commended by his first assistant chief, Randy Nelson. Quimby’s first year as chief came at the same time as COVID, and such a time required making tough but necessary decisions to prioritize the safety of his team. This year was especially difficult for the department after a few members passed away.

“Ensuring that in everything that we do, the members’ safety and health has always been paramount in all the decisions that he’s made,” Nelson said of the chief. 

Quimby made the decision to halt volunteer training in April, which Nelson said was crucial to the department, especially to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The chief also made the decision to conduct all meetings virtually. 

“It makes me feel a lot better about the work that we do, and a lot more comfortable given the situation,” Nelson said. “It’s an uncomfortable situation to be in, but his decision-making through it all has certainly made it a bit easier to accept.” 

Stony Brook Fire Department Chief Pete Leonard was also named an EMS firefighter of the year, this time by county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) for her legislative district. Leonard has dedicated his time and energy to the fire department for over 35 years and has been a crucial asset to the Stony Brook community, this year especially.

In addition to his duties as chief, he also works as a full-time paramedic with Stony Brook University Hospital, where he is the first to provide care for critically ill patients being transported to hospitals. He continued to work throughout the pandemic as his department received a massive 10% in calls in the spring. 

Leonard described managing both responsibilities as “a delicate balancing act” where he worried about his health and safety on the job as a paramedic, and then came home worrying about the safety of his 75-member department.  

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them,” he said. “And there isn’t a thing there they wouldn’t do for their community. Between our volunteer and paid staff, they have been exemplary and beyond words.”

He also described the cooperative relationship between all the fire departments on Long Island as they endured shortages of PPE. If one department was low on supplies, another department would chip in to offer theirs. They reached out to other departments to help out whenever necessary and, because of their cooperation, no department has had to go without PPE this year.

“It was a very cooperative relationship, and really showed the true spirit of what it is to work in this industry, and work together,” Leonard said. 

St. Catherine Chief Nursing Officer Mary Jane Finnegan gives a flu shot during a free mobile clinic at the end of September. Photo from St. Catherine hospital

They lost patients, sleep and time with their families and yet, through some of the most difficult conditions in over a century, they persevered, brought together by the shared goal of saving lives threatened by the pandemic.

The Times Beacon Record Newspapers is pleased to honor the health care workers who put themselves in harm’s way to offer comfort, cures and solutions for COVID-19.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) described health care workers as “heroes beyond belief.” He added, “There are folks who have gotten sick and died, simply because they were just doing their jobs.”

Unusual Requests

Indeed, in some cases, these health care workers took on tasks that aren’t typically a part of their job description or training.

Tricia Coffey on the phone at Huntington Hospital. Photo from Coffey

Take Kristen Thomas, a registered nurse at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson. A priest came up to her in the halls of the hospital to ask for an unusual favor. A person had died and the family, who couldn’t be by his side, asked for last rites. The priest knew he couldn’t enter the room.

He asked, “Would you mind taking holy water and anointing the patient?”

She approached the patient, made the sign of the cross and prayed, as the priest stood outside the door.

“A moment like that, you never really plan to do that,” Thomas said. “We tried to give the family a little bit of closure. They didn’t get to attend the normal [rituals].”

For the community and health care workers, normal took on new meaning, especially in the first few months of the pandemic, when Suffolk County became an epicenter of the virus.

With family unable to sit by the bedside, nurses often stepped up, holding up iPad and phones so the family could spend time together virtually.

Marilin Dilone, Emergency Department nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital, called the young family of one of her patients.

Marilin Dilone, emergency department nurse at SBUH decked in full PPE gear. Photo from SBUH

His wife “put the baby on the phone — the baby looked like he was maybe 10 months old. The baby was making noises. I swear [the patient] opened his eyes. The wife is crying. Such a moment, we take for granted. He could hear her say, ‘I love you.’ To be able to provide that was very humbling for me.”

Like Dilone and so many other nurses, Robert Collins, a nurse at Mather Hospital ,shared how he held an iPad up to patients whose conditions were deteriorating so they could say goodbye to their families.

He had to stay in the room because some of the patients couldn’t hold the iPad.

“You do that once or twice, it kind of sticks with you,” Collins said.

Deep Connections

The connections the medical staff made to the families of patients extended well beyond the typical interactions.

“We had patients for an extended period of time,” said Patricia Coffey, nurse manager of the Critical Care Unit at Huntington Hospital.

Coffey, who spent 11 weeks actively caring for patients as her managerial duties “went to the wayside,” said the staff talked to families for extended periods of time. She spoke with some families daily, spending as much as two-and-a-half hours each day on the phone.

The nurses felt like members of the family because the normal support system couldn’t provide bedside support.

“You were channeling the family to the patient,” Coffey said. The nurses were “rooting so hard” for the patients.

When one of those patients who was in the hospital died after a long battle, she said it was “unbelievably heartbreaking — you felt like one of your own family members had died.”

She still keeps in touch with family members.

Mather Nurse Robert Collins. Photo from Mather

Coffey said one of her neighbors was admitted to the hospital with COVID and was on her floor. Coffey’s children and her neighbor’s children grew up together and their daughters were friends.

She not only spoke with his wife every day during her 60-hour weeks, but she also called her coworkers over the weekend to ask how he was doing.

The conversations with the neighbor’s wife were “a little hard. I wanted to be honest with her. He was very critical. At the same time, I was trying to be hopeful. It was a hard balance.”

Coffey said he was “one of the lucky ones who survived.”

Dilone of SBUH described how the work was more physically demanding.

She would “try not to ask for people” as she didn’t want to expose others if it wasn’t necessary. “You are taking care of patients more by yourself, turning them and doing chest PT [physiotherapy] — it was physically more demanding,” Dilone said.

Dark Moments

Watching patients who died took its toll, even on people who have been in the medical profession for decades.

MaryJane Finnegan, chief nursing officer at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, described the unusually high number of people dying from the virus. The hospital was running out of space for the dead. The morgue was filled and an additional refrigeration truck outside also filled quickly.

Mather Nurse Kristen Thomas. Photo from Mather

“One day, eight people died — usually in a week, you can have eight people die, but not eight in a day,” Finnegan said.

Nikki Fiore-Lopez, chief nursing officer at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson said a nurse was present for the death of her mentor. Watching her die was “one of the darkest moments” for the nurse, Fiore-Lopez said.

Many medical professionals encouraged their patients to fight through the worst of the virus.

Stony Brook’s Dilone stayed with a patient whose blood oxygen level kept dropping. She wouldn’t let him fall asleep because she was worried he’d get intubated. She reminded him of his family and that he needed to help himself.

“I felt like Nurse Ratched,” Dilone said, referring to the dreaded nurse from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Dilone spent hours with this patient. Later, a doctor told her keeping the man awake prevented him from getting intubated.

Unexpected Challenges

With a virus no one had battled before, health care workers had to be flexible, learning about everything from new protocols for admitting patients to the latest and best treatments.

Chief Nursing Officer at St. Charles hospital Nikki Fiore-Lopez delivers flowers to patients at Christmas with Foundation Board Chair member Doug Casimir in 2019. Photo from St. Charles

The staff had to confront the “speed with which everything changed,” said Dr. Eric Morley, associate professor and clinical director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine. “Every day, there were new protocols, new ways to deal with things.”

Hospitals had to create a forward triage system to deal with the flood of COVID patients amid all the other potential emergencies hospitals routinely have.

These efforts required hundreds of employees to “get on the same people to sort people out,” Morley said. Training staff to manage the flow of patients required constant communication.

Even some of the smaller elements of managing the crisis took Morley’s time, such as getting new traffic signs to direct people to an alternate site.

Hospital managers were continually confronted with numerous unexpected challenges.

Ken Roberts, president of Mather Hospital, said the hospital had to ensure the PPE was hospital grade and not counterfeit.

“There were a lot of suspicious and unscrupulous suppliers when supply and demand was unbalanced, and everyone was in crisis,” he explained in an email.

Health care workers tapped into their personal skills to connect with patients.

Angel Figueroa, a registered respiratory therapist at SBUH who grew up in New York City and learned Spanish thanks to his Puerto Rican heritage, walked into some rooms and spoke Spanish to patients.

When he greeted patients in Spanish, “I would see their eyes open up [and think], ‘Somebody understands me.’”

They would ask him numerous questions, particularly because the medical information came at them so quickly. 

Mather’s Collins described how the routine changed so dramatically the moment he arrived at work.

Mather President Ken Roberts holds a sign thanking health care workers. Photo from Mather

“Rapid response bells were going off as soon as you walked in,” he said. “You didn’t take your coat off” before patients needed attention. “People were not doing well. That was happening more frequently than before. That was an adjustment.”

On the other side of the struggle, health care workers felt a tremendous sense of relief when patients continued their recoveries at home.

“When people were discharged, the staff was thrilled,” St. Catherine’s Finnegan said. “We’d play the [Beatles] song, ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ A lot of hospitals did that. People would gather as many as possible to wish the person well as they were wheeled out.”

Teamwork

Through the difficulties, though, Morley appreciated the support from the community and the families, along with the teamwork and camaraderie from so many departments and staff that all pulled together.

Roberts expressed similar sentiments.

“I was extremely pleased at the teamwork displayed by all hospital staff during the height of the pandemic,” he said.

The Mather president was also grateful for the letters, cards, donated meals, handmade masks and donated PPE.

“The local communities we serve gave us and continue to give us tremendous support and encouragement,” Roberts said. “That has meant so much to the staff to know that the community was supporting them and recognizing their efforts.”

Stony Brook Respiratory Therapist Angel Figueroa wearing mask and shield. Photo from SBUH

Coffey, from Huntington Hospital, was impressed with how, even amid such extraordinary and challenging times, numerous groups collaborated.

“In many ways there were positive things — the community, the team, everyone working together,” she said. “Parts of it were so uplifting. As hard and as difficult and sad and heart wrenching [as it was], so many other parts, you just saw such humanity. It was amazing.” 

Lasting Thoughts

Finnegan said the staff was incredibly appreciative of all the food local restaurants donated.

In fact, some of them joke that they gained the “COVID-19,” referring to the weight they put on while they were working numerous shifts and benefiting from all the donated food.

Morley “rediscovered” Twinkies during COVID in the break room. He has since been able to lose the weight the snack cakes added.

While gyms were closed, Collins relieved stress by buying a 400-pound tractor-trailer tire that he flipped up and down along his driveway. He also took a sledgehammer and “beat on it.”

The exertion would make him tired enough that the stress would dissipate for the day.

Dr. Eric Morley from SBU participates in COVID testing. Photo from SBU

Ultimately, what made an ever-expanding job — that affected so many aspects of health care workers’ personal and professional lives — manageable was the shared sense of purpose and the inspiration people drew from each other.

“The fact that the staff was out there doing it” helped give her energy, St. Charles’ Fiore-Lopez said. “We had patients to care for, we had shifts. We had days and weeks and months to get through. They put one foot in front of the other and I needed to do the same.”

Morley appreciated the way the Stony Brook staff pulled together during an intense and challenging time.

“Although it was grueling, it was a special thing to go through with that group of people,” he said.