Plain Talk

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The holiday season is quickly unfolding right in front of us. It’s hard to believe that another new year is almost here. 

We are so polarized as a world and troubled by the war between Israel and Hamas; impacting Israelis and Palestinians as well.

Our world is so infected with hate, violence and discrimination. The world is bleeding with no real healing in sight.

Constantly, I hear people complain about how selfish and self-centered the world has become. However, I’ve recently seen a different world. 

On November 1, I finally had the hard cast removed after six weeks. I felt so good to be liberated as I walked out of the surgeon’s office like a new person. I have been struggling with my knee and a tendon repair for almost a year due to a ski accident last year.

On my third day of liberation, I ended up back in the hospital due to an infection. Thankfully, the infection was contained. After a week and a half of intravenous antibiotics, I was able to walk out of St. Charles Hospital slowly and very carefully.

I went back to teaching this semester at St. Joseph’s University and Fordham University. I also usually teach a class at Suffolk Community College but due to poor enrollment my regular class was canceled.

It was great being back with my students. It’s the end of the semester and I returned just in time for final oral presentations. At Fordham, my graduate students were finishing their final papers.

I love teaching. I love my students. Every semester, I learn something new from my students. My graduate students inspire me to stay the course by their powerful commitment to wanting to make a difference and serve others.

Since coming back to school, especially graduate school, it has not been a walk in the park. To protect me from falling, I have my good friend Ethel my walker to keep me balanced.

Everyone complains about how violent the world is especially New York City. I have been teaching on Tuesdays at Fordham University for almost 20 years; I have never seen a violent act. To the contrary, I have seen compassion.

Every Tuesday I take the 5:38 AM train from Ronkonkoma. It is an express train to Pennsylvania Station. Whether I’m getting on the Long Island Railroad or getting on the subway, immediately someone pops up to offer me a seat or to assist me; it has amazed me beyond words, especially since I’m not dressed as a priest.

On the contrary, some would say I look like a homeless man! I am forever grateful for those random acts of compassion. Holiday blessings, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Allison Van Cott-McEntee

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The war in the Ukraine continues to rage on with countless innocent people dying. In the Middle East, the war between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas in Gaza continues to take innocent lives. When will the violence and the hate end?

Social media is not helping. It is misrepresenting the truth on both sides and fueling hate and not peace.

Despite the complicated landscape we must navigate, there are still courageous men and women who are making a difference and attempting to protect the quality of life around us. The Play It Forward Project was founded after a sister had to bury her brother senselessly because of addiction. Instead of becoming bitter and angry, she decided to use her gifts and talents to help other families who are struggling with addiction to find help and support in a world that is out of control.

The primary goal of The Play It Forward Project is to break the stigma, bring awareness and offer resources to people and families struggling with addiction. Allison Van Cott-McEntee is the foundress of this creative approach to providing support, education and awareness in regards to this national health crisis. She and her team, Taylor Solomon and Kurt Hall, have created a dynamic podcast that airs every other Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. on 90.1 FM — Stony Brook University’s radio station.

Since their podcast has aired, they have interviewed Frank Tarentino from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York Division, Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney and Executive Assistant DA Megan O’Donnell, along with members from the police department and EMS. Probably their most powerful interview was with a father and son who are now both in recovery. Their story is emotionally very powerful and an important reminder that people do get better and live happy, productive lives.

The Play It Forward Project’s long-term goal is to have a mobile podcast that travels to local schools and to hold assemblies where students can get involved and share their stories. Their greatest hope is to create a peer-to-peer advocacy group that can bring young people into our schools to share their stories of struggle, recovery and hope.

Since the pandemic, drug use is even more out of control. Fentanyl is more lethal than heroin and is being laced in everything. Our present generation of young people, for all of their access to technology and information, are still grossly uneducated when it comes to using illegal substances that potentially can kill them.

The Play It Forward Project is a refreshing response to a devastating epidemic that we need to address today not tomorrow but now. This creative initiative needs our support. As someone in the trenches, I am grateful for their courage, their energy and their commitment to make a difference.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelliather Frank

These are painfully polarizing times. The recent behavior in Washington D.C. is a disgrace. The language used by some of our public officials is reprehensible. Our former president continues to act in public with language that is clearly unpresidential and not respectful. Who should the next generation look up to?

The power of positive example is clearly missing. In the past, no matter what your political affiliation, you could always have civil conversation. No matter what your political side, both sides could work together for the common good.

The blatant lies, manipulative dialogue, lack of truth and destructive ad hominem attacks make us look weak and foolish on the international stage. In simple terms, it is an embarrassment.

The weaponization of religion is even more disturbing. It is shocking that all major faith traditions including my own have remained so silent in all that is happening. This silence borders on the immoral. By this silence, they are complicit!

Many of us in the trenches are concerned about the next generation. What kind of example are we setting for them? Many talk about their moral compass being broken; I think our moral compass is destroyed.

Our schools are not being allowed to educate. Non-educators are butting in and infecting our curriculum with half-truths; some schools are being forced to rewrite American history.

Meanwhile, too many are blinded to the impact that the two years of the pandemic have had on our children’s development. Their basic academic skills are not on level. Many of their critical thinking skills are weak, and in some cases totally lacking.

However, what I find most disturbing is our children’s tendency to isolate and their fear of human connections. I have seen all of this firsthand in all of my freshman; many of them are exceptionally bright but very impaired.

What are we doing to address these concerns? Too often we get lost in the weeds and forget about our most valuable treasure — the next generation. I have seen firsthand their untapped talent and giftedness.

Our schools are the center of most of our communities. We need to work harder at supporting them fiscally and emotionally. We need to hold them accountable but we also need to allow them to educate our children and provide all of the support resources that are critical for our children’s holistic development, academically, socially and spiritually.

Education is one of our most vital resources that needs to be strengthened and supported. We need to invest in more creative ways to support our students to become the best version of themselves. They are our invaluable future.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

The statue of St. Charles outside the hospital. Photo by Marilyn Fabbricante

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

September is National Substance Use Disorder Awareness Month. Saint Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson began substance abuse awareness month by acknowledging International Overdose Day.

People from our local school communities and local elected officials were present, as well as our town supervisor, Edward Romaine. Representatives from other treatment and support programs were also present. The program was simple but to the point. Fentanyl and heroin overdoses are out of control across the country and locally. It is a growing epidemic in every town and village across the nation. I was asked to share a reflection that day as someone who has spent more than four decades living and working with people battling substance use disorders and mental health issues.

Saint Charles Hospital has been a leader in the field of detox and rehabilitation treatment for decades. Their dedicated professional staff has done and continues to do an extraordinary job with those battling addiction. Saint Charles continues to give voice to this epidemic need but unfortunately due to the insurance industry and politics, addiction treatment still gets buried in the weeds because it does not break even.

They have the space to increase the number of beds desperately needed for treatment. As a community, we need to stand up and give support to these vital services for our local and larger community. Saint Charles is leading our region in partnering with our school communities, and other not-for-profit resources that support people battling substance use disorder and mental health issues.

Every morning when I get up, I look out my bedroom window on the grounds of Little Portion Friary. I am greeted by the 120 crosses representing the 120 young people from our community that have died due to an overdose since the pandemic. Our Garden of Remembrance has become a safe place for a growing number of families who feel so displaced and shunned because they buried a son or daughter due to addiction.

It is scandalous that insurance companies have so much power when it comes to authorizing vital treatment for people who are battling addiction and mental health issues. The insurance protocols that determine whether or not someone will be approved for detox, residential treatment and outpatient treatment services are ridiculous. It’s not about the person in need of services, but rather about how much it will cost; that attitude is shameful and out of control.

In the past 10 days, I buried two young people who overdosed and one young woman who killed herself due to addiction. These senseless deaths are not decreasing, they are escalating. We do not have enough treatment services to keep up with the epidemic need.

We must stand up and support programs like Saint Charles, and other programs that are going the distance and so much more to protect the quality of life for the growing number of young people that are struggling with substance use disorders and mental health issues.

Every day I see firsthand the miracles of change and transformation for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues, who have the opportunity to work on themselves and reclaiming their lives; we can do better in this regard. People do get better and reclaim their lives; families are healed and renewed.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.


METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that the summer is almost over. Many of our college students are already getting ready to begin college for the first time and/or returning back for another full semester.

As our college freshmen are preparing to leave for school for the first time, I am sure there is a lot of excitement about being away, being on one’s own, but also some anxiety on how to manage all of this freedom.

College is not high school where everyone was constantly reminding you of everything you needed to take care of. It is in college where you learn how to act as an independent and responsible adult. No one will chase after you regarding getting to class on time, coming home at a reasonable hour or handing in assignments when they are due.

Time management is in your hands. You will have to design a schedule that works for you. Balance is probably the most important concept that you must learn during your first semester.

It is very easy to get lost in all of the newfound freedom. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s important and how to balance everything out. Balance is not just about your schoolwork and your school related activities; it also relates to your social life and your mental health.

Too many young people are still suffering from post -pandemic stress and anxiety; they have become overwhelmed by the simplest things that too often become overwhelming.

Communication even before the pandemic was weak; now it’s a disaster. Too many young people are obsessed with their technology and devices. They would rather text than talk; social media is their top priority over human relationships.

Interpersonal relationships have gotten lost by the wayside. Human connections for the right reasons are things of the past. We have to work harder at helping this year’s freshman class reclaim some very basic human dynamics.

Over the last three decades, I have watched firsthand this shift in my college classroom. My college students of just a few years back were not afraid to communicate. They valued human connections and were not driven by so much anxiety and depression.

However, what has not been lost in the shuffle is their generosity of spirit; their wanting to reach out to those in need and their commitment to volunteerism. Each freshman class continues to inspire me by their hearts of compassion and commitment. In the midst of all the chaos, they genuinely do care for others. I hope they don’t lose any of that caring concern during their next four years.

They are the hope for tomorrow; may we give them all the support they need to thrive and succeed.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

These are polarizing times. The days of civil conversation around delicate issues are long gone. Social media is a blessing and a curse. As a graduate school educator, it is a blessing if you need to have evidenced-based research in an instant. It is a curse because so much of what is posted is opinion, at best masquerading like it is evidence-based research.

Critical thinking is a thing of the past. Too many people believe whatever they see online, especially if it supports their own position. What happened to the days of genuine give and take conversation? What happened to agreeing to respectfully disagree?

We are still reeling from the pandemic; especially our young people. Mental health and human relations have really been impaired.

No one was prepared for the pandemic’s aftermath. We are still not well equipped or trained to navigate into the future. This present generation of young people is profoundly wounded mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We are failing to prepare them to deal with the divisive world we have created and are living in. 

 Our schools are central to empowering the next generation to wellness and wholeness. Instead of always ripping at our schools and our teachers, we need to work harder at collaboration. We need to be committed to a holistic approach to learning — body, mind and spirit.

Our children should be exposed to evidence-based material in every subject area. We need to be more conscious of the impact, for better or for worse, of the smart phone. That little device can build people up or with the push of a button destroy someone.

At what age should children have a cell phone? What restrictions should be imposed? Should elementary and middle school students have cell phones in class? Should we create universal guidelines in this regard?

The other issue that needs to be addressed is how parents parent their small children with tablets to keep them busy. How and where do our children learn about human connections? How do they learn about their feelings and how to express them?

There has to be a partnership between parents, school and community. Together we need to foster positive human connections grounded in love, respect and radical inclusiveness which our nation is founded on. 

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

Another graduation season is upon us. So many graduates at every level have achieved extraordinary goals. Beyond that they will definitely contribute to making our world a better and safer place to be.

Over the years, I have witnessed firsthand not only our local schools’ academic excellence, but their openness to community service by choice and not by obligation.

Port Jefferson, Comsewogue, Three Village, and Mount Sinai school districts have gone the distance and then some for our students at risk. My collaboration with these school districts in the early years of my work at Hope House has inspired me to stay the course and be a voice for the voiceless. Our mutual focus has always been on empowering students to be the best version of themselves.

Forty-three years ago on the grounds of an Anglican Franciscan monastery in Mount Sinai, Hope House Ministries was founded. We rented their small guesthouse for two years. It was primarily for runaway teenagers who had dropped out of school for a whole host of reasons. Thus began our partnership with the Port Jefferson school district.

Our mission has always been dedicated to reaching out to the most vulnerable and broken within our community. Six years ago we moved back to where it all began and thanks to this 100-year-old five acre monastery grounds, we have been able to expand our outreach to a growing number of young people battling the affliction of addiction and mental health issues.

Two years ago a high school dropout who is a documented immigrant was entrusted to our care at Hope Academy on the grounds of the old monastery in Mount Sinai. He enrolled into Mt Sinai High School. The school community welcomed him with open arms. They made his transition from dropping out of high school in the 10th grade and starting in a new school with no friends a seamless process.

Since beginning at Mount Sinai two years, this young man has played football and soccer. He has spoken in the middle school and in the high school about his journey of transformation. The collaborative spirit between the high school administration and the student body has transformed this young man’s life. Not only did he graduate, he graduated as an honor roll student.

Thanks to the generosity of so many in the Mount Sinai community, he was able to participate in all of the wonderful senior activities that the school provides. He went on the annual senior trip, the prom, and countless parties. One family was even kind enough to host a party just for him and the friends that he made at the high school

At the beginning of June, he completed his treatment program for addiction. Faculty members, a school administrator and countless students came to support their classmate and friend. It was an amazing night. It powerfully reminded me that hope lives on.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

On Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in the early afternoon, a local icon died of a massive heart attack at the age of 51; his wife found him sitting in his office chair. A local EMS worker who lives down the street came running and tried to revive him. He had already passed; I arrived just after he was pronounced.

Matthew “Matt” LoNigro left his lovely wife Julia, a local tenured schoolteacher and two extraordinary children: Matthew Jr., 20, and Abigail, a 16-year-old student at Miller Place High School. Matt was very actively involved in the Miller Place school district as the dynamic director of the Miller Place Boys Lacrosse.

Lacrosse was one of his many passions. For many years, he was actively involved on the Board of Directors for Suffolk County PAL Lacrosse. During his early career, he was actively involved with Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, a family business. He was a salesman for school districts seeking sports equipment and sports uniforms. He was such a dynamic salesman; he probably could’ve sold the Pope the Brooklyn Bridge.

Matt spent most of his adult life doing for others. He was actively involved with Christmas Magic, Backpack Pirates and countless other activities that reached out to the disadvantaged in our larger community. If somebody was in trouble and needed good advice and/or a helping hand, Matthew was the go-to guy. He was a tremendous mentor for young athletes who wanted to be lacrosse players.

We have lost a powerful example of what community and reaching out to others is really supposed to be about. These are crazy times. We need more people with Matt’s passion and commitment to helping others, with the purpose of giving back. His heart and random acts of kindness were the hallmark of his life.

I first met Matt when he was in middle school. As most know, he was part of a very large loving family. It was his family that taught him how to love and to be of service to others. Like many young men in their 20s, Matt struggled. He spent time living with me at Hope House. Even during those struggling days battling conflict, he was a power of example for the men he lived with.

When Matt completed our program, he started giving back and has not stopped for more than 20 years. Before he passed, he would come by every week to encourage the men in our community; especially those who were struggling to stay the course. His power of example that life can be better and one can change inspired so many over the years to take the risk to embrace change and transformation. 

There was not a week since Matt lived with our community that I have not received a text or visit always making sure he ended both with “thank you for saving my life!” The world is a better place because Matt LoNigro walked among us. His power of example and his profound gratitude will live on to inspire so many others to embrace the process of change and transformation and to realize that they too can make the world a better place. 

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

What will it take for the country to push the pause button and then reset? We are a nation that is out of control. The pandemic has only underscored how out of control we are.

We are losing hundreds of young people every day due to fentanyl, heroin and suicide. The nation has declared that we have a national heroin epidemic but what is being done to address this tragic health concern that is killing more than 100,000 lives a year?

Yes, we are making Narcan more available but what about holistic residential treatment beds? There are no beds anywhere. Yes, a few for-profit programs have emerged in the midst of this crisis but what about the working class and working poor? How do they pay for evidence-based treatment for their children?

No one wants to challenge the insurance empire that is sentencing so many of our at- risk people to death. It is scandalous that an insurance gatekeeper with no training decides whether or not your son or daughter gets treatment! So many of these gatekeepers are clueless about addiction; our silence in this regard is deafening

How many more young people have to die before we say enough? If human life is such a priority, then challenge our paralyzed leadership to work together for systematic change in the treatment of substance use disorder and mental health.

Our social welfare system in Suffolk County needs to be overhauled department by department. Instead of empowering the broken and wounded to healing and change, our system is setting people up for failure. Your tax dollars are being wasted on a system that is inept and incapable of breaking the cycle of poverty and dependence among the people they are supposed to serve.

For more than 40 years in the trenches I have seen firsthand our destructive system at work I have seen countless homeless men set up for failure because we have no real transitional housing for them. We do not have enough case managers and social workers to assist them for so many of them are mentally ill and dependent.

The state is once again using fancy rhetoric to trick us with their new initiative to keep troubled youth at home. These troubled youth are young people between the ages of 12 and 17 who already have stolen cars, assaulted people and some are even in dangerous gangs. We have few to no mental health services in our local communities to support these young people and their families.

The few programs that do exist are being forced to close; soon we will have no help and no resources for families in need.

We are blessed to have a dynamic commissioner of social services in Suffolk County in the person of Frances Pierre. She is a talented and gifted professional who is being shackled by a legislature that lack the vision and commitment to the most vulnerable and broken among us. Our commissioner needs to be free to do her job. We need to raise our voices in support of her!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Photo by Mary Pahlke/Pixabay

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

Every newspaper, every news channel, no matter what their politics are talking about the serious concerns around the mental health of the young people in our country.

The mental health of our youth is on the verge of becoming, if it has not already, a national health epidemic!

Social media is out of control. The pandemic has not helped this national crisis. Candidly, it has intensified it. So, what do we do? First, we need to destigmatize any kind of mental health and substance use disorders. We have to have the courage to act bravely to provide competent, cost-effective treatment services for mental health and addictive health.

Telehealth is a great resource but is already overbooked and is geared more to working with the middle/upper class. They have waiting lists that are endless. Private practice is overloaded as well. The clinics of yesteryear who are capable of reaching out to the underserved need to be resurrected and properly staffed.

Our local hospitals need additional funds to build on the excellent services that already exist but do not meet the epidemic need. Mental health must become a priority; too many young people are toying with suicide. Most don’t want to die they just want the pain and anguish to stop.

Too often that pain is intensified due to our social media platforms, which can be unbearable triggers for those who are already struggling with self-esteem and self-worth. We need to challenge our schools to be more effective in teaching better coping skills and also creating more safe places where students can go and talk without fear of judgment, shame, and guilt.

Most school districts should consider increasing their social work staff. If they don’t have any social workers on their staff, they should consider hiring competent social workers with plans to better serve our children who are at risk. We need more of a collaborative effort between mental health staff faculty, administrators and support staff. This kind of collaboration really does make a difference.

TJ was 16; he was shy to begin with. The pandemic made him even more self-conscious and shy. His only outlet was social media. When given the freedom to go out, he stayed in and spent his life on social media. He was a good student, a good young man at home. No one really knew how addicted he had become to social media. He had joined a growing number of invisible young people who are in so much pain and are so closed that they are falling between the cracks.

We need to stop talking and need to think outside the box. We need to demand funding that will allow us to create life-giving opportunities for all of our young people to build their self-worth, their self-confidence and their self-value so that they will know they really matter and can make a difference that counts!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.