Times of Huntington

 

Hundreds of people gathered in Port Jefferson Station Tuesday to mourn the loss of Suffolk County Police Department Lt. Robert Van Zeyl, the county’s first active duty officer to die from COVID-19.

Van Zeyl lost his life Jan. 20 after testing positive for the virus Jan. 3. He was hospitalized a week later. 

Members from the law enforcement community joined Van Zeyl’s family to say goodbye with a full military-style precession featuring police motorcycles, pipes and drums, and an American flag arched by two fire trucks.

Uniformed officers who came out from as far as Manhattan saluted the decorated casket as it drove up to St. Gerard Majella R.C. Church on Terryville Road.

“It is with great sadness that we mourn the loss of an exceptional member of our law enforcement family, Lieutenant Robert Van Zeyl,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a statement. “Lieutenant Van Zeyl’s more-than three decades of exemplary service are a testament to his commitment to public service, and even in the midst of a global pandemic, he was on the frontlines every day helping residents in need. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Van Zeyl family during this difficult time.”

Van Zeyl joined the Suffolk County Police Department in February 1985 and served in the 5th Precinct in Patchogue upon graduation from the academy. In 1994, he was promoted to sergeant and then lieutenant in 2003. 

He served as the commanding officer of the Applicant Investigation Section and the Administrative Services Bureau before transferring to the 2nd Precinct in the Town of Huntington in 2015 where he worked until his death.

“Bob was a wonderful person, a dedicated member of our department, and a pleasure to know both personally and professionally,” Inspector William Scrima, 2nd Precinct commanding officer, said in a statement. “He was a person who genuinely enjoyed his work and was liked by people of all ranks who knew him and worked with him. He will be truly missed by this department and by the 2nd Precinct in particular.” 

During his more than three-decade career, Van Zeyl received more than a dozen recognitions for his contributions to the police department including two Cop of the Month honors and the Excellent Police Duty Award for amassing 12 or more self-initiated DWI arrests in a single year.

The Selden resident leaves behind two children, Hailey and Tyler, and his ex-wife Christine Zubrinic.

“Lieutenant Van Zeyl was really just a fighter the whole way,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said after the ceremony. “He was out in the frontlines battling for his communities, his whole career was dedicated to service and today we say goodbye to him. I know that his family will always be with us. For his beautiful daughter Hailey and son Tyler, this has such a difficult time for them, and we just really want them to know that we’re here for them.”

“They will always remember their dad, who was really a hero, and will always be remembered by this department,” the commissioner said.

Hart added that during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 87 SCPD officers tested positive for the virus. Van Zeyl’s death is the first.

He was 60 years old.

A sharing table at Heritage Park. Photo by Julianne Mosher

By Julianne Mosher and Rita J. Egan

Give a little, take a little — sharing is caring. 

A new phenomenon that has made its way across Long Island — and now the country — is a discreet way to help those in need. 

The Sharing Tables concept, of New York and California, was started up in November by a Seaford mom and her young daughter. 

“I woke up on Sunday, Nov. 22, and me and my 6-year-old daughter didn’t have anything to do that day,” Mary Kate Tischler, founder of the group, said. “We went through our cabinets, got some stuff from the grocery store and started publicizing the table on Facebook.”

The Sharing Table is a simple concept, according to her: “Take what you need and leave what you can, if you can.”

Tischler, who grew up in Stony Brook, said the idea is that whoever sets up a table in front of their home or business will put items out that people might need, with the community coming together to replenish it.

“The very first day people were taking things and dropping things off,” she said. “It was working just as it was supposed to.”

When the table is set up, organizers put out anything and everything a person might need. Some put out nonperishable foods, some put toiletries. Others put toys and books, with some tables having unworn clothing and shoes. No one mans the table. It’s just out front, where someone can discreetly visit and grab what they need.

“Since there’s no one that stands behind the table, people can come up anonymously and take the item without identifying themselves or asking any questions,” Tischler said. ”Some of our neighbors are in a tough time where they can’t pay their bills. I think the Sharing Tables are really helping fill those needs.”

And they’re popping up everywhere. In just three months, the group has nearly 30 Sharing Tables in New York, with one just launched in Santa Monica, California.

Mount Sinai

From clothing to toys, to food and books, Sharing Tables, like the one pictured here in Mount Sinai, are a way to help in a discreet and anonymous way. Photo by Julianne Mosher

On Sunday, Jan. 18, a Sharing Table was put outside the Heritage Trust building at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

Victoria Hazan, president of the trust, said she saw the Sharing Tables on social media and knew that the local community needed one, too.

“It was nothing but good, positive vibes,” she said.

When she set up the table with dozens of different items that were donated, people already started pulling up to either grab something they needed or donate to the cause.

“Some people are shy,” Hazan said. “What’s great is that you set up the table and walk away. There’s no judgement and no questions asked.”

What’s available at the tables will vary by community and what donations come in.

“The response from the community blew my mind totally,” Hazan said. “This was the right time to do this.”

St. James

Joanne Evangelist, of St. James, was the first person in Suffolk County to set up a Sharing Table, and soon after, other residents in the county followed.

The wife and mother of two said it was the end of the Christmas season when she was cleaning out drawers and her pantry. On the Facebook page Smithtown Freecycle, she posted that she had stuff to give away if anyone wanted it, but she would find sometimes people wouldn’t show up after she put something aside for them.

“So, I put it on a table outside — not even knowing about the group or thinking anything of it,” she said, adding she would post what was outside on the freecycle page.

Joanne Evangelist stands by her table in St. James filled with food, cleaning supplies and more. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Tischler saw the Smithtown Freecycle post and reached out to Evangelist to see if she would be interested in setting up a Sharing Table. The St. James woman thought it was a good idea when she heard it. While Evangelist regularly has food, toiletries, cleaning products and baby products on the table, from time to time there will be clothing, toys and other random items. Recently, she held a coat drive and the outwear was donated to Lighthouse Mission in Bellport, which helps those with food insecurities and the homeless.

She said she keeps the table outside on her front lawn all day long, even at night, unless it’s going to rain, or the temperatures dip too low. People can pick up items at any time, and she said no one is questioned.

Evangelist said she also keeps a box out for donations so she can organize them on the table later on in the day, and the response from local residents wanting to drop off items has been touching.

She said helping out others is something she always liked to do. 

“I was a candy striper in the hospital when I was younger,” she said. “I just always loved volunteering, and I’m a stay-at-home mom, so, honestly anything I could do … especially with the pandemic.”

Evangelist said she understands what people go through during tough financial times.

“I’ve used a pantry before, so I know the feeling,” she said. “I know the embarrassment of it.”

Northport

Lisa Conway, of Northport, and two of her five children, Aidan, 16, and Kate, 14, set up a Sharing Table after their garage was burglarized on New Year’s Eve.

Conway said her children, who attend St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, were looking for a community outreach project. She had seen a post about the Sharing Tables on Facebook and was considering starting one, but she was debating how involved it would be.

Then the Conway’s garage was burglarized where thousands of dollars of tools were stolen, an electric skateboard, dirt bike and more including a generator that was taken from the basement. The wife and mother said the family felt fortunate that the robbers didn’t enter the main part of the house.

Conway said after the experience she realized that some people need to steal to get what they need and decided the Sharing Table would be a good idea.

“They can come take what they need without having to steal from anyone,” she said.

Her children have been helping to organize the items they receive, and every day Aidan will set everything up before school and clean up at night. He said it’s no big deal as it takes just a few minutes each day.

Aidan said there have been more givers than takers.

“People are a lot more generous than what I expected them to be,” he said.

The mother and son said they have been touched by the generosity of their fellow residents. Conway said she’s been using the Nextdoor app mostly to generate contributions. She said she started posting on the app to let people know what they needed for the table. One day after a posting indicating they needed cleaning supplies for the table, they woke up to find the items outside.

The family has also received a $200 Amazon gift card to buy items, and another person bought them a canopy to protect the table. 

Conway said every once in a while, she will be outside when people are picking up items. One woman told her how she drove from Nassau County. Her husband was suffering from three different types of cancer, and he couldn’t work due to his compromised immune system. She told her how they had to pay the bills first, and then if there was money left over they could buy food.

Another day Conway went outside to see that someone had left gum and mints on the table.

“I just was so touched by that,” the mother said. “They wanted to leave something they didn’t just want to take, and that’s all they had.”

Conway said it’s a learning experience for her children to know that there are people on public assistance who can’t use the funds for items such as paper goods or cleaning items, and there are others who are struggling but not eligible for any kind of assistance.

“My youngest one is 9, and even he can’t believe when he sees people pulling up,” she said. “He’s not really in the helping phase but I love that he’s seeing what we’re doing.”

Aidan agreed that it is an important learning experience. He said before he wasn’t familiar with those who had financial issues.

“It’s not good to know that there are people out there with financial issues, but it’s good to know that you can help them,” he said.

Conway said the Sharing Tables came around at the right time as she was suffering from “COVID fatigue,” and it changed her outlook on life.

“I feel like my faith in humanity has been restored,” she said.

How you can help

Tischler said that if people would like to donate but cannot get to a Sharing Table, there is an Amazon wish list on the group’s Facebook page. Items ordered through the site will be delivered to Tischler’s home, where she will personally deliver to the Sharing Tables across Long Island. Addresses for locations are listed on the Facebook page.

“It’s been such a whirlwind,” she added. “I have to stop and pinch myself and take stock of what’s happening.”

SBU Journalism Newsroom

Stony Brook University recently announced that the School of Journalism will be renamed to the School of Communication and Journalism. The School is the first, and only, in the 64-campus SUNY system that is accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC).

The new name aligns more closely with the School’s expanding undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and with the increased demand for professionals with backgrounds and experience in different communication-related disciplines.

“Communication goes beyond journalism, and Stony Brook’s School of Communication and Journalism will offer new opportunities for our students to explore important fields in science communication, health communication and mass communication, in addition to journalism,” Fotis Sotiropoulos, interim university provost and dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences said.

In the past year, the School has begun to offer graduate programs in science communication, in collaboration with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and in public health, in collaboration with the Stony Brook Program in Public Health. Additional programs are in development.

“Faculty at the School and the Alda Center work closely on communication research, particularly in the field of science communication, and by renaming the School, we will be able to foster additional communication research,” said Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School, executive director of the Alda Center, and vice provost for academic strategy and planning at Stony Brook. “Effective communication builds trust among people, enhances mutual understanding, and creates opportunities for collaboration. Now more than ever, we need effective communicators, and Stony Brook is eager to help fill that need.”

The School of Journalism was founded in 2006 and enrolls approximately 250 students. Its faculty include Pulitzer Prize winners, award-winning international and foreign correspondents, and experts in digital innovation. Graduates have gone on to work as reporters and media professionals at organizations around the country, including the New York Times, Buzzfeed, Moth Radio Hour, Council of Foreign Relations, Major League Baseball, and Nieman Lab.

The School is home to the Alda Center, the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting and the Center for News Literacy. It also offers the Robert W. Greene Summer Institute for High School Journalists, a one-week intensive program designed to introduce students from across Long Island and New York City to the possibilities of journalism as a career.

Learn more about the School of Communication and Journalism at www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/journalism/

Doug and Kelly Jansson have been chronicling Doug’s near-death experience with the virus, and want people to know it can happen to anyone. Photo from Kelly Jansson

Doug Jansson hasn’t been home in over six weeks, and his story is being heard all around the world. 

Right now, the lead pastor of Living Word Church in Hauppauge is in the Intensive Care Unit at Stony Brook University Hospital, said his wife Kelly Jansson. But the good news is he’s alive and heading toward recovery after a terrifying battle with COVID-19. 

On Nov. 30, the Jansson family tested positive for the virus. After 10 days, his wife said, Doug was getting worse so they called an ambulance.

“I got a phone call the day before Christmas Eve that he was declining,” Kelly said, her voice breaking. “They didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Doug, a healthy, athletic 42-year-old father of three from Smithtown, shouldn’t have gotten the virus, she said. 

“I think I remember him being sick only a handful of times in the 20 years we’ve been married,” she said. “When we got COVID, he was worried about me — nobody was worried about him getting hit this hard.”

Kelly said the next day he was put on a ventilator. “He was not doing well,” she said. “They weren’t sure if he was going to make it half the day.”

But she said the doctors and nurses at SBUH have been “amazing” toward her husband and family.

“I got a phone call saying they had a plan to save his life,” she said. 

Doug spent six days on life support and 13 on a ventilator. Eventually he was moved to the ICU where he sent his wife a text after more than two weeks.

“It was the best day of my life — it was incredible,” she said. 

Doug Jansson. Photo from Kelly Jansson

After being in the ICU for not even two days, he began complaining of severe pain. A CT scan revealed a pleural effusion (fluid in the chest), a secondary pneumonia, pleurisy and a small pneumothorax (air in the chest). His right lung collapsed.

Early on in the battle, Kelly — who isn’t on social media herself — decided to update Doug’s Facebook friends on his page, chronicling what was going on inside the hospital walls. His story has been shared hundreds of times thus far. 

“That’s Doug’s personality,” she said. “He’s so down-to-earth and real — I knew people would pray for him knowing what was happening.”

And the prayers are working. Throughout his illness, members from Doug’s church made it known they were praying for him.

Early on in the pandemic, Doug organized prayer parades around the hospitals. He held drive-in services to eliminate in-person gatherings. Now, he’s the one receiving prayers.

“I’ve gotten messages from people in other countries saying they’re standing and praying for him,” she said. “Now that Doug is fully awake and reading all these comments on Facebook with such encouraging words, he is so blown away that this was happening.”

Although Doug is still in the ICU, he’s stable. His oxygen levels are gradually going up, his voice is coming back and he can FaceTime with his family and friends from his hospital bed. He said that God was watching out for him these last six weeks, and that all the support from his neighbors and strangers has been emotional for him. 

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “All these random people praying for us, believing in us and praying to get me out of here … it literally brings tears to my eyes.”

Doug said he is so thankful for being able to tell his story, especially since he almost lost his life.

“There’s always hope in God,” he said. “During impossible situations, he comes through.”

His wife said it’s not over yet, and he has a long battle ahead of him. “But every day is a step forward, and any step forward is a significant step.”

While his titles are father, pastor, husband and son, Kelly said she has another name for him now.

“There is no doubt this is a miracle — God responded and did something,” she said. “I call him Miracle Man … God did this.”

Stony Brook University. File photo

Stony Brook University has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospital staff has treated and comforted residents stricken with the virus and researchers have worked tirelessly on a range of projects, including manufacturing personal protective equipment. Amid a host of challenges, administrators at Stony Brook have had to do more with less under budgetary pressure. In a two-part series, Interim Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos and President Maurie McInnis share their approaches and solutions, while offering their appreciation for their staff.

Part I: Like many other administrators at universities across the country and world, Fotis Sotiropoulos, Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Interim Provost of Stony Brook University, has been juggling numerous challenges.

Named interim provost in September, Sotiropoulos, who is also a SUNY Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, has focused on ways to help President Maurie McInnis keep the campus community safe, keep the university running amid financial stress and strain, and think creatively about ways to enhance the university’s educational programs.

In January, Stony Brook University which is one of two State University of New York programs to earn an Association of American Universities distinction, plans to announce new degree programs aimed at combining expertise across at least two colleges.

“We have charged all the deans to work together to come up with this future-of-work initiative,” Sotiropoulos said. “It has to satisfy a number of criteria,” which include involving at least two colleges or schools and it has to be unique. Such programs will “allow us to market the value of a Stony Brook education.”

Sotiropoulos said Stony Brook hoped to announce at least two or three degree ideas by the middle of January.

Fotis Sotiropoulos. File photo from SBU

Under financial pressure caused by the pandemic, the university has “undertaken this unprecedented initiative to think of the university as one,” Sotiropoulos said. Looking at the East and West campus together, the university plans to reduce costs and improve efficiency in an organization that is “complex with multiple silos,” he said. At times, Stony Brook has paid double or triple for the same product or service. The university is taking a step back to understand and optimize its expenses, he added.

On the other side of the ledger, Stony Brook is seeking ways to increase its revenue, by creating these new degrees and attracting more students, particularly from outside the state.

Out-of-state students pay more in tuition, which provides financial support for the school and for in-state students as well.

“We have some room to increase out-of-state students,” Sotiropoulos said. “There is some flexibility” as the university attempts to balance between the lower tuition in-state students pay, which benefits socioeconomically challenged students, and the higher tuition from out-of-state students.

While the university has been eager to bring in talented international students as well in what Sotiropoulos described as a “globally-connected world,” the interim provost recognized that this effort has been “extremely challenging right now,” in part because of political tension with China and in part because Chinese universities are also growing.

Stony Brook “recognizes that it needs to diversify right now. The university is considering strategies for trying to really expand in other countries. We need to do a lot more to engage students from African countries,” he said.

Sotiropoulos described Africa as an important part of the future, in part because of the projected quadrupling of the population in coming decades. “We are trying to preserve our Asian base of students,” he said, but, at the same time, “we are thinking of other opportunities to be prepared for the future.”

While the administration at the university continues to focus on cutting costs, generating revenue and attracting students to new programs, officials recognize the need to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts for students. “Assessment is an integral part,” Sotiropoulos said. The school will explore the jobs students are able to find. “It’s all about the success of our students,” he added. The school plans to assess constantly, while making adjustments to its efforts.

Pandemic Response

Stony Brook University has been at the forefront of reacting to the pandemic on a number of fronts. The hospital treated patients during the heavy first wave of illnesses last spring, while the engineering school developed ways to produce personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and even MacGyver-style ventilators. The university has also participated in multi-site studies about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Stony Brook has been involved in more than 200 dedicated research projects across all disciplines, which span 45 academic departments and eight colleges and schools within the university.

Sotiropoulos, whose expertise is in computational fluid mechanics, joined a group of researchers at SBU to conduct experiments on the effectiveness of masks in stopping the way aerosolized viral particles remain in the air, long after patients cough, sneeze, and even leave the room.

“Some of these droplets could stay suspended for many minutes and could take up to half an hour” to dissipate in a room, especially if there’s no ventilation, Sotiropoulos said, and added he was pleased and proud of the scientific community for working together to understand the problem and to find solutions.

“The commitment of scientists at Stony Brook and other universities was quite inspirational,” he said.

According to Sotiropoulos, the biggest danger to combatting the virus comes from the “mistrust” of science, He hopes the effectiveness of the vaccine in turning around the number of people infected and stricken with a variety of difficult and painful symptoms can convince people of the value of the research.

Sotiropoulos said the rules the National Institutes of Health have put in place have also ensured that the vaccine is safe and effective. People who question the validity of the research “don’t understand how strict this process is and how many hurdles you have to go through.” 

Part 2 will appear in next week’s issue.

Stock photo

They said the American flag belongs to everyone — not a single party or point of view. 

With the recent events at the United States Capitol and the riots that ensued from pro-Trump groups, local residents are joining in a national campaign to Take Back Our Flag.

Beatrice Ruberto, a Sound Beach resident, said the campaign, which started online around the 2020 election, implies that the American flag has become a symbol of President Donald Trump’s (R) beliefs.

“We started searching the internet, wondering how the American flag was being used,” she said. “We saw that over the past four years, it became shorthand for MAGA.” That’s Trump’s campaign slogan of Make America Great Again.

During her research, she found that after the election, many people on all sides of the political spectrum were ready to take it back. 

“We want to make the flag a unified symbol rather than a one-sided symbol,” she said.

So now, Ruberto and many members within the community, are looking to make sure the flag stands for its initial emblem, a symbol of We the People.

Ruberto and her group are hoping to persuade all people to hang their American flags outside their homes the day of the U.S. presidential inauguration, next Wednesday on Jan. 20.

“This is not a message of division,” she said. “It’s a message of inclusion.” 

After making its rounds online locally and nationally, Ruberto said the feedback so far has been generally positive, although some has been otherwise. 

But the message is simple, Ruberto noted. “Fly the flag,” she said. “Continue flying the flag, no matter what your point of view is. Everyone should be flying it.”

Groups gathered outside local congressional offices demanding that President Donald Trump (R) be impeached and convicted, and for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) to be expelled from Congress following his vote against the certification of Electoral College ballots. 

On Monday, Jan. 11, the group Suffolk Progressives organized the protest and created a petition, demanding Zeldin leave his position. 

Shoshana Hershkowitz, from South Setauket, who founded the group, said they are against the congressman’s vote challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election — even after the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. 

“He continued to talk about his feelings despite the evidence from the country,” Hershkowitz said. “On Jan. 2, he put a tweet out saying this is a lie. … Those words unfortunately they came to fruition on Jan. 6.”

After the mass attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, Zeldin still voted to object the election of President-elect Joe Biden (D), and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D). 

“The combination of all of it, and then going back into the chamber after all of this violence and death, refusing to accept those results, trying to overturn the people … it was mind-blowing,” she said.

Upon Zeldin’s vote, Hershkowitz and her group penned a petition that is now up to nearly 2,000 signatures, calling for his expulsion.  

“I was hoping that after all this he would change his tune,” she said.

On Monday, Jan. 11, a group of more than 100 people gathered outside of Zeldin’s Patchogue office. A smaller group of counter-protesters stood across the street. 

Members further west rallied outside Rep. Tom Suozzi’s (D-NY3) Huntington office, asking him to demand that Zeldin be accountable. Suozzi supports the removal of Trump through the 25th Amendment or impeachment. 

The day of the insurrection, Zeldin released a statement.

“This should never be the scene at the U.S. Capitol,” he said. “This is not the America we all love. We can debate, and we can disagree, even on a January 6th following a presidential election. We can all passionately love our country, but in our republic, we elect people to represent us to voice our objections in the House and Senate on this day.”

He added that there must be “zero tolerance for violence in any form.”

Hershkowitz said she will be sending the petition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). 

“I believe that these people shouldn’t be sitting in Congress,” the group organizer said.

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.”

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.”

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.