Italian heritage organization celebrates 10 years

Italian heritage organization celebrates 10 years

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Members of UNICO Islip/Smithtown with the Good Samaritan Hospital staff at an Easter event. Photo from Joan Alpers

By Mallika Mitra

While educating their communities on Italian culture and heritage, UNICO members participate in civic engagement to help those in need. And last month, the Islip/Smithtown chapter of UNICO celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Dr. Anthony P. Vastola, who was discriminated against in the United States because he was Italian, founded UNICO  — meaning “unique” in Italian — in 1922. The nationwide organization is focused on funding education of Italian heritage and language, research for cancer and Cooley’s anemia — a type of anemia that occurs in people of predominantly Mediterranean descent — and grants for people with mental challenges, said Pat Pelonero, the office manger of UNICO national and editor of the organization’s publication.

The group also promotes positive images and opposes negative stereotypes of Italian Americans.

According to Pelonero, the 128 chapters of UNICO hold their own events, which range from pasta dinners to gala balls, but all donate to national causes.

Members of the North Shore chapter and Islip/Smithtown chapter, which are within the same district, attend one another’s events, said Ellen Leone, president of the North Shore chapter.

The Islip/Smithtown chapter, chartered in 2003, holds fundraisers and events throughout the year for the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, the Bay Shore United Methodist Church’s soup kitchen, the Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center Pediatric Unit, among others, said Elizabeth Hansen, president of the UNICO Islip/Smithtown chapter.

The chapter also funds six scholarships for high school students of Italian descent.

According to Hansen, some of the fundraising events throughout the year include wine tasting and raffles, but their main fundraising event is an annual golf outing that takes place in July. The UNICO Islip/Smithtown chapter meets once a month at La Famiglia Italian Restaurant in Smithtown, where the members welcome Italian language lessons and speakers who discuss Italian heritage.

Hansen said her family members in Pennsylvania have been UNICO members for generations and convinced her to join her local chapter.

Pat Westlake, the executive coordinator of the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, said of UNICO, “They’re very caring people. They always ask what we need help with.”

The chapter’s members also visit the pediatric unit at Good Samaritan Hospital at Easter, when a member of the chapter dresses up as a bunny and passes out stuffed bunnies to all the children.

“It is even more stressful for children and their families when children are hospitalized [during the holidays]” said Joan Alpers, the director of the Child Life Program at the hospital, and UNICO members recognized that and wanted to help out.

It is “a group that loves to give back to the community,” Alpers said.