People of the Year

Larry Ryan was named one of TBR News Media's 2019 People of the Year. Photo from Michael Garguilo

By Julianne Mosher

Larry Ryan of Port Jefferson Station is known to keep busy with different projects and volunteerism, but he stays modest about the work he’s doing within the community. 

Ryan was instrumental in facilitating an inclusive lacrosse clinic in Centereach. Photo by Michael Gargiulo

“He does things with the best interest at heart,” Doreen Guma, a board member with the Port Jefferson/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, said. “He brings smiles to people’s faces.”

Ryan has been with the chamber for a few years and throughout that time has contributed so much to the overall community, his longtime friend Michael Gargiulo said.

“People know Larry Ryan some way or another,” he said. “He works tirelessly and works with so many different groups and is always there to be involved, offering his help and assistance.”

But one of his true passions is helping those with special needs. 

“Larry previously worked for Maryhaven Center of Hope for 28 years, which included running an intermediate care facility that specialized in supporting those with autism,” Gargiulo said. “Throughout that time, Larry interfaced with the community and continued to be a strong advocate for the special needs population.”

Right now, he is working toward his doctorate in special education, all while continuing his community service and working full time. 

“He has a ‘can do’ attitude,” Joan Nickeson, who works closely with Ryan, said. “He’s open and accepting and is always looking to the future. He has a vision for our community and connects with all types of people — some people are called to serve and he’s the real deal.”

Ryan is also the co-owner of Sensory Solutions of Long Island, a gym that supports the special needs population with inclusive programming and recreational activities like art, music, Zumba and yoga. It also helps those who are seeking occupation, physical and speech therapy.  

“He exemplifies all that is good in our community through his work with children and adults.”

— Joan Nickeson

The Port Jefferson Station resident also is part of a nonprofit inclusive lacrosse program that started last summer, bringing both special needs and typical children together to play in a noncompetitive atmosphere. 

“He really tries to unite different people together and is continuing to connect with the community,” Gargiulo said. 

And with whatever spare time he has, Ryan works with Port Jeff Bowl, has his own business, and works with the Town of Brookhaven. 

“Larry will often collaborate with current Councilwoman Valerie Cartright and Brookhaven Town’s District One [D-Port Jefferson Station] on community integration,” Gargiulo added. “You will usually spot him at a local or town event, interfacing with the community or running an informational table.”

Gargiulo added that Ryan’s honor for Person of the Year is long overdue as “he is an intricate part of the community, and continues to make a positive impact, locally and across Long Island.”

Nickeson agreed. “He exemplifies all that is good in our community through his work with children and adults,” she said. 

Long Island Coastal Steward volunteer Bill Negra, president Denis Mellett and treasurer Mark Campo at Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Peggy Spellman Hoey

Coastal Steward Long Island has a three-pronged plan of attack in an unending, dirty battle — the one all environmentalists have been fighting — to keep local beaches and waters clean for years now. And it seems to be working. 

Coastal Steward board members and local divers plunge into Port Jefferson Harbor Aug. 18. Photo from Coastal Steward

What started out as loosely organized beach cleanups led by a local resident has spread to incorporate aquaculture conservation, restoring shellfish to Mount Sinai and Port Jefferson harbors, and marine education teaching youngsters about marine life and water quality. Its education programs include harbor seining and marsh exploration, shellfish hatchery tours and plankton microbiology, in which students use microscopes to identify plankton. 

Through its fundraising efforts, the group is also able to subsidize busing costs for schools that cannot fund field trips to the center.

The organization’s long-standing partnership with the Town of Brookhaven at its beach and marina complex on Long Island Sound in Mount Sinai allows for its educational programs to be run out of the Mount Sinai Marine Environmental Stewardship Center. In the complex’s maricultural center, the oyster seeds are grown for eventual release into the harbor.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) called the organization a good partner and a nice complement to the town and its work to restore water quality.

“They are all about water quality,” she said. “Their message is the right one and their heart is in the right place.”

In addition to its beach-cleaning projects, about four years ago, the group began leading underwater cleanups, recruiting local divers to volunteer their services to remove debris such as garbage, mechanical parts, and household items like furniture that has ended up on the water’s bottom.

The addition of educational programs and underwater cleanups evolved from the group’s efforts to clean beaches after organizers realized something had to be done to address the trash coming in with the tide.

“There is no end to beach cleanups, but if we educate before it gets in the water, we keep it out of the water in the first place,” said Denis Mellett, a dive instructor who serves as the president of Coastal Steward LI.

Ashly Carabetta, the organization’s executive director, said the group has also seen success with one of its newer programs, the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, where youngsters get to listen to guest speakers, including scientists and educators such as aquanaut Fabien Cousteau, a documentary filmmaker and the grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. 

Long Island Coastal Steward volunteer Bill Negra checks oysters cages in Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Kyle Barr

“It’s just a great opportunity for these kids to get to be surrounded by people in the field [of marine science] and talk amongst themselves,” she said.

Another part of the program includes a segment where participants break off into groups and develop a project for which they apply for grant money and then work over the next year to complete the project. The projects can be anything from creating a children’s book about water quality to devising a plan to limit single-plastic use in schools.

Giving the group a final plug, Bonner noted it is always looking for volunteers, and it’s a well-rounded organization with which anyone of any age can become involved.

“This is a nice way to be involved and you are really making a difference — beach cleaning and water quality,” she said.

Carabetta noted the importance of a beach cleanup is that anyone can do it, but the organization does have other roles to fill.

“We are looking for volunteers, part-time educators to try to expand our reach in many ways,” she said.

Rob Bentivegna, center, helped build the Rocky Point EMS building. Photo by Kevin Redding

Rob Bentivegna, a former firefighter and general handyman for Rocky Point Fire District often goes unnoticed. 

Usually a cheerful and magnanimous guy, Bentivegna allows other people to sit in the limelight, but firefighters, according to fire district and department officials, would be at a huge loss if it weren’t for their go-to maintenance man. 

Rocky Point’s Rob Bentivegna was the driving force in reconstructing a historic building. Photo by Kyle Barr

“He’s got a work ethic you don’t see in a lot of people anymore — it’s something to see,” said RPFD fire commissioner Kirk Johnson. “Anything he does do, he doesn’t do the minimum. If there’s a job out there, Rob takes care of it, he’s right on top of everything.”

Bentivegna, a Shoreham resident, has gone far beyond the scope of what his job entails. When RPFD bought a section of property at the corner Hallock Landing and Rocky Point Landing roads, Bentivegna rolled up his sleeves to help reconfigure a new EMS vehicle garage out of what were two rundown buildings. Many thought the buildings were beyond repair. 

Bentivegna also set himself apart on another project: Repairing and revitalizing the old Parish Resource Center, a historical building that has been neglected for years. 

To hear the maintenance man speak of the building, one would think he designed and built it himself back when it was originally constructed in 1849. Bentivegna kept an eye on the details of everything from the molding in the building’s interior, to the hand-blown glass windows, which he stressed needed to remain intact. He built shutters, based off of old pictures, by hand. The constantly flooded basement was reconfigured into a space where volunteers could wash their equipment after a job, and the maintenance man has plans to turn it into a training space. What had once been derelict has been transformed into a useful community center. 

It was two years worth of work, and much of the effort he completed on his own time. 

Tony Gallino, chairman of the board of fire commissioners, said Rob goes far above and beyond, noting that he has saved the district and the taxpayers thousands of dollars by doing work they would otherwise have to contract out. Bentivegna is a perfectionist, he said, who will do anything for the department and its volunteer members. 

When the fire department company 2 needed to move out of their space into a neighboring yard during construction, Bentivegna was instrumental in getting the new space on Prince Road ready to receive all the department’s equipment, trucks and personnel. He even went in to collect pictures and other items at the company 2 house to make sure they were preserved, Gallino said.

Rob Bentivegna points to the windows that had been reinstalled in the old Lecture Room’s interior. Photo by Kyle Barr

“He doesn’t miss a day’s work, and he comes in on his own time, doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas day,” the board chairman said. 

Kristen D’Andrea, a Shoreham resident and spokesperson for Brookhaven town highways superintendent, said Bentivegna offers help to anybody who needs it. He had come by her house to offer landscaping support.

“We had a groundhog in our front yard we couldn’t get rid of,” she said. “He came over, set a trap and removed it. He wouldn’t take money. … He’s just a genuinely good guy.”

Bentivegna had been a contractor for more than 30 years and had joined the fire department as a volunteer around 15 years ago. Unfortunately, life had thrown him a curve ball. What coworkers and friends called an “illness” had left the Rocky Point volunteer in large amounts of pain. Johnson said the longtime firefighter was “crushed” to have to step down from active duty, but even as a paid employee he said the man cannot stop giving his time to make sure things are done well. The Shoreham 9/11 responders memorial had taken years of planning, but Bentivegna’s expertise in contracting and landscaping lent itself toward constructing both the wall of names and the fountain in the center of the grounds.

“For those few who know what he’s going through, actually being able to work and do what he gets to do every day gets him through it,” Johnson said.

Adam DeLumen, chief of Rocky Point Fire Department, has known Bentivegna for around 15 years. He said that Bentivegna has also renovated each company’s back rooms and created a training room at the Shoreham firehouse. He even helped with renovations to DeLumen’s own house several times. 

“Most people don’t know what they have with Rob,” DeLumen said. “He’s just one of those guys, he’ll do anything for anybody.” 

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief, center, with this year's honorees

The 2018 TBR News Media People of the Year in Brookhaven were honored at the Three Village Inn in Stony Brook on March 24.

Publisher Leah Dunaief presented the awards to Linda Johnson, Gloria Rocchio, Brian Hoerger, Andrew Harris, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., Heather Lynch, Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association, Susan Delgado, Angeline Judex, Janet Godfrey, Gina Mingoia, Boy Scout Troop 161 and Boy Scout Troop 204 at the event.

TBR News Media would like to thank Stony Brook University, the Three Village Inn, Dan Laffitte and the Lessing Family for sponsoring the reception, the Setauket Frame Shop for framing the award certificates, and Beverly Tyler for being our event photographer.

Susan Delgado and her husband, John, stand in front of St. Cuthbert’s food pantry in Selden. Photo from Tracy LaStella

One woman’s passion for helping others has benefited many who are in need.

For the past 15 years, Susan Delgado has headed up the food pantry at St. Cuthbert’s Episcopal Church in Selden, and at 79 years old, she has no plans for slowing down.

The Delgados with their children, Paul, David, Tracy and Dan, who they raised in Selden after moving to the area 50 years ago. Photo from Tracy LaStella

Christina Rundberg, the church’s vestry clerk, said when the church decided to offer a food pantry, Delgado soon took over as coordinator.

“The food pantry has become her pride and joy and her baby,” Rundberg said.

Delgado and her husband John can be found working in the food pantry a few times a week, according to Rundberg. Susan Delgado coordinates pickups with drivers from the food banks Long Island Cares and Island Harvest, picks up food with her husband at various locations including Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach and ShopRite in Selden and stocks the shelves.

“I don’t know where she gets the energy,” Rundberg said.

The pantry that was initially opened only Fridays from 6 to 7 p.m. is now open on the same day from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m as well. Rundberg said the additional hours were added when Delgado was worried about people walking and riding bikes at night, especially during the winter months, and she decided it would be helpful to open it to the public on Friday mornings, too.

Rundberg, who volunteers in the pantry Friday nights, said it’s open to anyone in need, not just to congregants. When it comes to holidays, the vestry clerk said Delgado always ensures there are enough food items, so clients can have a Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter dinner. She also helps to raise funds and items for a local battered women’s shelter, coordinates an adopt-a-family program during the winter holidays to buy families in need gifts and helps to collect backpacks filled with school supplies for children in need before the school year starts.

Father Charles Schnabel, a retired priest who helps with church services, said he’s always impressed when laypeople keep a church going, and Delgado is no exception. He said there’s hardly a time he doesn’t see her there working.

“She is very well focused on this area of ministry, and it’s so needed today.”

— Father Charles Schnabel

“What I see in Sue is a woman of great faith and dedication, and it’s rooted, I think, in her faith and membership at St. Cuthbert’s,” he said, adding she’s emblematic of the church’s congregants.

He described Delgado as a quiet, unassuming person, who at the same time isn’t afraid to stand up and speak at services to inform church members about what is needed at the pantry, whether it be food, toiletries and even toilet paper. The priest said she sees those who stop by the pantry as more than clients, and he remembered one time when she made a plea to the church members and was near tears.

“She is very well focused on this area of ministry, and it’s so needed today,” he said.

Delgado’s daughter, Tracy LaStella, said in addition to volunteering at the pantry, her mother works full time for a local IRS office in its mail room. The pantry, the daughter said, on average serves 342 households and 274 individuals per week.

“Every time I go there I can’t even believe how many people need the help and that [the church is] able to help them and give them food,” LaStella said.

She said she always thought of food pantries as only having canned foods, and she’s amazed at the quality and variety of foods that are available at the St. Cuthbert’s food pantry.

She said her mother has also partnered with Middle Country Public Library, where LaStella serves as assistant director for youth services. Members of the teen advisory council there have helped stock the shelves of the pantry before Thanksgiving and make tote bags for the families to use to pick up food.

LaStella said people come up to her in the library all the time and tell her about her mother — and father as well.

“It just warms my heart that they’re doing such great work for the community that they live in, and we all grew up in, too,” she said, adding her mother has four children and seven grandchildren.

The daughter said talking about her mother’s good deeds makes her teary-eyed.

“From what I can remember as a child, she was always helping neighbors,” LaStella said. “She was always helping her sisters. If she grew up in this day and age, she probably would have been a social worker. She has a really big heart. She would give her coat off her back for somebody.”

Pilar Moya, center, stands to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration laws at a Huntington rally this June. Photo by Eve Krief

Generous, warm and intelligent are a few of the adjectives Huntington residents use to describe one Huntington Station resident.

Pilar Moya — also known as Moya-Mancera — has dedicated her life to community activism, in particular aiding Town of Huntington residents and its Latino communities.

“I’ve always been a public servant, always,” Moya said. “That’s my passion, my love.”

“[Pilar Moya] is always standing up for what is right.”

— Eve Krief

During the day, Moya works as executive director of Greenlawn-based nonprofit Housing Help, a certified housing counseling agency that has served town residents for more than 30 years. She helps ensure the organization provides housing counseling, financial literacy, and credit and debit education for residents of Long Island. Her clients often include first-time home buyers, seniors, low-income families and people suffering with student loan debt.

Since taking leadership of the nonprofit in 2017, Moya has initiated several affordable housing counseling and advocacy programs.

“I call my agency tiny but mighty,” Moya said.

Housing Help was able to assist more than a thousand clients last fiscal year.

“That’s for the entire Suffolk County,” she said. “Our impact for the Town of Huntington was 702 clients.”

Moya brings fresh ideas, a positive spirit and drive to the agency.

“She jumps in with both feet at all times,” said Michele Martines, of Huntington. “Whatever she’s interested in or feels like is worthwhile.”

When she’s not working at Housing Help, Moya created the nonprofit Latinos Unidos en Long Island, an organization that aids Latino immigrants by assisting in obtaining and providing legal aid, support and housing help. The organization started in Huntington and rapidly expanded across Long Island.

“She is always standing up for what is right,” said Dr. Eve Krief, a Huntington pediatrician and founder of the Long Island Inclusive Communities Against Hate advocacy group.

I’ve always been a public servant, always. That’s my passion, my love.”

— Pilar Moya

Moya partnered with Krief to assist with the Families Belong Together rallies in Huntington, to protest against the immigration policies of President Donald Trump (R), including the separation of children from their mother at the border.

At the second rally held June 30, nearly 50 organizations and close to 1,000 people attended, according to Krief.

“We hope our rally displays the love and compassion we hope that America can represent as well as the hopeful and powerful nature of our democracy,” Moya said at the event. “Our message to the families separated at the border is, ‘You matter — and our voices are our extensions of yours.’”

Krief shared that she can always count on Moya for help even when she’s “doing a thousand other things.”

In addition to Housing Help and Latinos Unidos, Moya participates in many different local organizations including co-chairing the Hispanic Task Force, Suffolk County Hispanic Advisory Board, serving as a steering committee member of Huntington Township Housing Coalition, and as a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“I guess I have been blessed that I am able to do this work because I have a good team of leaders that work side by side with me,” Moya said.

Linda Johnson presents a check to support Stony Brook Cancer Center to registered dietitian Jennifer Fitzgibbon. Photo by Terri Quinn

By Susan Risoli

Thanks to Linda Johnson, the Three Village Artisan and Farmers Market has become a place of healthy healing, not only through its fresh produce but because of the fellowship and friendship it offers. For her hard work and dedication to reinventing the market, TBR News Media names Johnson one of the People of the Year.

Linda Johnson helps a customer at the Three Village Market. Photo by Terri Quinn

The Three Village Market — as it is colloquially known — sets up shop on the North Country Road grounds of the Three Village Historical Society. This year Johnson stepped up to manage it and ran the event every Friday from June through October. She is scheduled to manage it again in 2019.

Those who shopped at the market say Johnson infused it with the same spirit that flavors her family-run chocolate business, Chocology Unlimited in Stony Brook.

“Linda’s business is about the whole experience of chocolate, and philanthropy, and building relationships in the community,” said Sandy White, Three Village Historical Society office manager.

Johnson turned the market into an opportunity to support survivorship programs at the Stony Brook Cancer Center. She also made it a relaxed gathering spot, where neighbors brought their dogs and kids and enjoyed live music.

The Three Village Market features locally grown and crafted wares, with an emphasis on the freshest of foods. Jennifer Fitzgibbon, a Cancer Center registered dietitian who specializes in oncology nutrition, found the market to be an ally in educating her patients and raising funds to support the Cancer Center. She said Johnson donated a percentage of sales from the farmers market, as well as a percentage of sales from her chocolate business, to purchase exercise equipment and yoga mats for cancer patients and survivors to use.

As part of the Cancer Center’s Healthy Forks program, Fitzgibbon takes people to grocery stores to show them how to shop healthy without spending a lot of money. So taking them on tours of the Three Village Market was a great addition to Healthy Forks, she said. Fitzgibbon said she and her patients appreciated Johnson’s efforts to establish “an uplifting and beautiful experience. It’s just a healthy atmosphere.”

For one vendor, working with Johnson turned into a homecoming. Ann Marie’s Farm Stand, a beloved Three Village mainstay, was for many years headquartered right up the road from the farmers market. Although they’re doing well at their new location in Port Jefferson Station, many in the Three Village community mourned their absence. So Johnson brought Ann Marie’s back, by inviting them to sell their produce at the market every week.

“She was sort of our guardian angel,” said Ann Marie’s owner Mary Ann Deriso. “We saw our old customers again, and that was great for us.”

“She has a lot of positive energy. She always has so many ideas.”

— Jennifer Fitzgibbon

Deriso praised Johnson’s people skills.

“It’s not easy positioning the vendors in their spots and making them happy where they are,” Deriso said. “She’s very good at it. She made us all feel comfortable and welcome.”

Above all, “Linda is down to earth,” Deriso said. “She’s likable and real.”

Fitzgibbon said Johnson created a diverse marketplace that was more than just vegetables.

“She has a lot of positive energy,” Fitzgibbon said. “She always has so many ideas.”

The nutritionist said one example was “at the market there was a bread person, a gluten-free dessert person, a pasta vendor and even a lady who knits.”

Fitzgibbon called Johnson “the heart and the soul and the nucleus of the farmers market.”

Besides setting up the vendor tables every week, “she was literally going through the neighborhood, getting people to come over there and shop.”

White said Johnson put together a farmers market that filled a void.

“Yes, there are other farmers markets in other areas, but we needed one here,” she said. “The market is successful, and we’re happy that Linda took it over.”

St. James resident Scott Posner gives out books at St. James Elementary School. Photo by Donna Deedy

By Donna Deedy

On a gray, mid-December day, Scott Posner wheeled four cardboard boxes into the gymnasium at St. James Elementary School, just as he has done annually for the last 13 years.

“Do you know what a hero is?” he said to the 106 third-graders sitting attentively on the gym floor.  “It’s someone who makes a difference.” 

Posner said the Rotary International’s one million members assist people in need.  Some of the world’s neediest people, he added, often ask for schools. He then handed out to each child a copy of the dictionaries stacked inside his boxes, a gift from the Rotary Club of Smithtown. Feeling fortunate and inspired, the children filed back to class after leafing through their new book.

Scott’s shown me how important it is to immerse yourself in giving back.” 

— David Dircks

Posner, of St. James, is a financial planner. For the last 20 years, he’s worked for Edward Jones in its St. James office. The company encourages its advisers to be active community members. For Posner, that altruism comes naturally.

Posner founded and currently serves as president of the Deepwells Farm Historical Society.  He’s also president of the St. James Chamber of Commerce and past president of the Rotary Club of Smithtown. Each year, he prepares and promotes events such as parades, street fairs, outdoor concerts, a haunted house, Christmas parties and a winter gala. He also raises funds for Angela’s House, a Hauppauge-based charity that provides assistance to medically fragile and terminally ill children and their families.

More than a decade ago, Deepwells Farm, a county-owned historic property on North Country Road in St. James, fell into disrepair. Posner took action.

“The place was left to rot, but Scott formed a foundation to save the structure,” said Howard Essenfeld, treasurer for Deepwells Farm Historical Society. The site serves as an important hub for community events.

For the last 11 years, acoustic musicians have performed for a live audience in the farm’s parlor. The recorded live broadcasts ultimately became the  No. 1 acoustic music podcast on iTunes.

I don’t mind fighting to get money for St. James and Deepwells, but I find myself working harder knowing that someone like Scott is keeping an eye on things”

— Rob Trotta

“Scott’s shown me how important it is to immerse yourself in giving back,” said David Dircks, the program producer. He credits Posner for getting permission from county officials to use the site as a music venue. 

“I don’t mind fighting to get money for St. James and Deepwells, but I find myself working harder knowing that someone like Scott is keeping an eye on things,” said Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

An East Northport native, Posner moved to St. James in 1995 with his wife, Debby Fiorella Posner.  She attended the same elementary school where he now delivers dictionaries to third-graders. They have two daughters: Rebecca, a junior at SUNY Geneseo, and Julianna, a senior at Smithtown East High School.

After his wife was diagnosed and treated for cancer, Posner pedaled 532 miles from Manhattan to Niagara Falls with four comrades to raise $18,225 for the Roswell Park Cancer Center. 

“I could not be more thankful for the incredible leaps in cancer treatment that directly benefited us,” he stated in a 2018 Facebook post. “Many people’s past contributions made those breakthroughs possible. Now it’s our time to fund research for the next generation of warriors that will face the challenge of cancer.”

His wife, Posner said, may participate in the seven-day Empire State Ride next summer.

“This is what Scott does,” said Laura Endres, president of the Rotary Club of Smithtown, a sponsor for Posner’s ride. “He’s just a wonderful human being.”

Members of the Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association lead a prayer vigil at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Photo from Facebook

For approximately two decades, clergy members from a variety of faiths have been working together in the Three Village area to bring residents from different religions together for community discussions. The hope is to achieve a better understanding of the issues that face the world today.

The Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association recently set up a website where members alternate writing blogs. To view the site, visit www.3vclergy.blogspot.com.

The TVICA includes leaders from various religious organizations in the Three Village area including:

Rabbi Aaron Benson, North Shore Jewish Center, Port Jefferson

The Rev. Richard Visconti, Caroline Church and Cemetery, East Setauket

The Rev. Chuck Van Houten, Stony Brook Community Church

The Revs. Margie Allen and Linda Anderson, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook

Ismail Zahed, Islamic Association of Long Island, Selden

Father Farrell Graves, All Souls Episcopal Church, Stony Brook

The Rev. Kate Huddelson, Stony Brook University Hospital

The Rev. Steven Kim, Setauket Methodist Church

Elaine Learnard, Conscience Bay Quaker Meeting

The Rev. Gregory Leonard, Bethel AME Church, Setauket

Father James Mannion, St. James Roman Catholic Church, Setauket

Sister Edith Menegus, St. Charles Hospital and Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky and Cantor Marcey Wagner, Temple Isaiah Stony Brook

The Rev. Kate Jones Calone, Open Door Exchange — Mission of Setauket Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Mary Speers formerly of Setauket Presbyterian Church

Because of this mission, members of the Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association have garnered the honor of being among TBR News Media’s People of the Year 2018.

“The goal of the clergy association, since the beginning, is to promote understanding among the different faith traditions in our community, to learn from one another, and to come together as people of faith interested in connecting with what’s happening in the world and in our community,” said the Rev. Kate Jones Calone, director of Open Door Exchange, a mission of Setauket Presbyterian Church.

Jones Calone said the members organize events where residents can discuss issues such as the 2017 Muslim ban, children being separated from their parents at the U.S. border and gun safety in the country in such a way that helps to build bridges. She said another hope is that the conversations will get residents involved in a positive way that may “allow us to cross the lines that divide us.”

In the past year, events have included the association’s annual Community Thanksgiving Service and prayer vigils for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and those who were separated from their families at the U.S. border. In addition, the group hosted an event titled Interfaith Dialogue on Guns in America and a Good Deeds Day cleanup at West Meadow Beach. The clergy members have also come together to compose letters to the editor, which have been printed in The Village Times Herald.

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said she first learned about the TVICA several years ago when she was invited to the annual interfaith Thanksgiving program. She said she finds the events warm, inclusive and responsive to the issues existing in the country, including political and religious segregation.

“Since that time, my staff and I have attended their events whenever the schedule permits,” Cartright said. “The TVICA is a vibrant, dynamic community group within Council District 1.”

She said the association’s mission is not only of critical value and importance to the area but also to the world.

“The act of bringing together religious and spiritual ministers and leaders from all backgrounds has created a ripple effect that encourages diversity of thought, compassion for others, and respect for the rich cultural and religious diversity that exists in our area,” Cartright said.

Since the association’s inception, Joan Marino, an elder at Setauket Presbyterian Church, has attended many of the events along with her husband, Frank. She said events such as the prayer vigil for Tree of Life not only recognize the pain of those who are suffering but the pain of the mentally ill.

“Everybody has a different theology of various types, but we all recognize the sanctity of life and loving your neighbor and standing up for those who are oppressed,” she said.

“Everybody has a different theology of various types, but we all recognize the sanctity of life and loving your neighbor and standing up for those who are oppressed.”

— Joan Marino

Marino added one of her favorite events is the Thanksgiving service because she enjoys witnessing residents of all faiths coming together to give thanks. She also appreciates how the events are held in different houses of worship.

“That’s really wonderful because you go to be with the people in their place of faith,” she said.

Jones Calone said the TVICA has held educational programs where community members have been invited to learn about each other’s faith traditions, touching on topics such as end-of-life rituals and understanding other faiths practicing of prayer.

Marino said the events make her feel optimistic.

“From singing together to praying together, to lifting each other up — when there’s a world out there that’s pretty full of hate — and to find a way to bring people together into a more loving community, we have that here in Three Village,” Marino said.

Jones Calone said the Three Village community and surrounding areas are religiously diverse, and the clergy members have seen how meaningful the events have been to residents of different faith traditions.

“People are just hungry for opportunities to support one another — to be in a relationship with one another — and hopefully doing events like this gives people that chance to really know who their neighbors are even if we spend worship hours in different places,” she said.

 

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella and two other Comsewogue students. Photo from Joe Rella

Amanda Perelli

Those who know him say Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher at the Comsewogue High School, is an empathic teacher in the classroom and an advocate for service within the community, and that he often goes above and beyond.

Harris recently organized Joe’s Day of Service, a community service initiative where students and community members pledge to give back.

“Sometimes kids are like, ‘Oh, I have to get another five to 10 service hours,’ but with him the kids are so happy doing it. He’s really visionary in many ways,” Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella said. “He moves comfortably between and among the teachers, the administrators, the elementary students, secondary students, and really gets them excited about service. He’s a selfless person and that comes across in everything he does.”

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Harris has been a member of the district for 14 years, but it wasn’t until last year, with the help of his colleagues, that the idea for Joe’s Day of Service was born. 

The name was inspired by Rella for his constant dedication to better the community. 

Harris asked Rella what he thought of creating more districtwide volunteer opportunities and Rella was instantly on board.  

“He said, ‘What do you think about creating some opportunities [in service],” Rella said. “We have different opportunities at the High School level, where kids have to do community service as a part of the National Honor Society — what about if we did it on a district level? I said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea’ and he’s transformed the whole concept of service.”

The superintendent added the community was missing a districtwide event to get everyone involved at once.

Students in Harris’ class pitched how they thought they should spend the day — excited to work outside the classroom and with others within Comsewogue. 

“We had a movement here for many, many years to get kids more involved in their community — giving back, to be more empathetic,” said Joseph Coniglione, the principal at Comsewogue High School. “The goal was to do that through community service in the area. We had a large sum of students who went out and did individual projects and a tremendous group, who went to the Calverton National Cemetery to clean off the head stones and get them prepared for the veterans.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said Joe’s Day of Service was so successful she expects it will only grow in coming years.

 “The Comsewogue community is very close knit, and neighbors have already been working with students, teachers and faculty to improve the lives of others through the Joe’s Day of Service projects,” Cartright said. “Andy Harris and those involved have portrayed this initiative as continuous from the start, so I have no doubt that participation will increase as more members of the community learn about the project.”

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartwright (D). Photo from Joe Rella.

Harris spearheaded the initiative, developing one day-long service event that taught students the value of service while helping out the community. 

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

Harris has inspired students to give back to their local communities, and he also teaches the importance of being a civic leader in service. 

“Andy is a veteran special education teacher, but what sets him aside from a lot of people is his ability to really be empathic toward people,” said Coniglione. “He’s probably one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet in your life. He really tries to make others life better and just happier.”