By Leah Chiappino
For over a decade, Smithtown Children’s Foundation has been providing emotional and financial support for struggling families residing in the Smithtown school district. In the wake of COVID-19, the need from the community has only grown stronger, and the foundation has had to cancel the five major fundraisers that sustain its operations, such as its annual golf outing, casino night, holiday breakfast and dinner dance. “We have so many families who need us and so little opportunity to fundraise,” said Krissy Lonetto, executive board member
The foundation was originally founded in 2008 to assist the family of Kaylee Ann Rivers, a local kindergarten student with neuroblastoma. Though she passed away, her legacy inspired the foundation to continue to assist as many local families as possible.
SCF pays medical and utility bills, and purchases medical equipment that is not covered by insurance for families facing a crisis. The foundation arranges delivery of meals for local families facing hardship, whether they are facing a catastrophe such as a house fire or are falling on hard times after losing a job. The foundation also funds a classroom project each year and works with social workers from the school district to provide school supplies, Thanksgiving gift cards and holiday presents. Each family that receives assistance is vetted through application forms, referred to the foundation by social workers or nominated by a loved one.
“People are struggling but are too proud to say it,” said executive director Christine Fitzgerald. “They say they are OK, and in reality they’re not.”
Even with the increased demand in need during the pandemic, the foundation has not turned away families that need assistance. However, there is concern the situation could come to that, due to the drop in fundraising.
“We will probably make a single percentage of the funds that we raised last year,” said advisory board member and local food writer Nancy Vallarella. “The need is so great, and it is very frustrating. We’re just not hitting what we need to hit, and I understand that every foundation is going through the same thing. It’s just very difficult.”
Though the foundation has sustained operations mostly through private donations and reserve funds, they have had to get creative in order to try and fundraise what they can, according to Fitzgerald, who is also a founding member of the foundation. At the beginning of the pandemic, they hosted a restaurant bingo fundraiser, in which participants made a $15 donation, and in exchange received bingo cards filled with local restaurants. When donors ordered from the restaurants and showed proof, they marked the space. Those that won “Bingo!” each received a gift card to one of the participating restaurants, benefiting both the restaurants and the foundation.
In the summer, the foundation launched a farm-to-trunk initiative in which they partnered with Red Fox Organic and Sujecki farms, to sell produce to be picked up curbside at the Watermill.
“We were really grasping at straws to try and provide a service to the community and support local farmers,” Vallarella said. “We did not make a lot of money, but it kept us in touch with the community.”
“There is literally nothing that those families want that we don’t find a way to get for them.” – Krissy Lonetto
She added that people would come from week to week, and then make personal donations or have their businesses donate.
Other events went virtual, like a recent online basket auction, and an online gift registry using the website Elfster, in which donors could directly purchase a gift from the wish list of a local child in need, which totaled around 50 families.
“There is literally nothing that those families want that we don’t find a way to get for them,” Lonetto said. “We’re almost like Make-A-Wish.”
She is a teacher at Accompsett Elementary School who joined the group after it helped her launch the annual Mike’s Hike run/family walk in honor of fellow teacher, Mike Denaro, who died suddenly in 2011. She said that the number of families whose information the foundation received from social workers to receive holiday gifts is normally around 15-20, and this year totaled around 25-30. At Thanksgiving, the number of families who received gift cards to purchase a meal increased from around 15 to 40.
Over the years, the foundation has developed different chapters to expand its reach, and most are in honor of local children who have passed away. Tristin’s Wish, which was started for Tristin Hart, a local toddler who passed away from a bacterial infection, funds holiday presents. The Silent Night chapter, launched on behalf of Dylan Beach, gifts presents to patients at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. The Smi1es 4 S3an chapter was launched in honor of Smithtown West student Sean Cook, who passed away from cancer with the goal of assisting other families who have a child with cancer. Anthony’s Hope was started in honor of Anthony Raso, a Smithtown student who committed suicide after a long battle with depression, in order to raise awareness for suicide, mental illness and opioid addiction in teenagers and young adults.
The foundation has expanded into a Hauppauge chapter which is headed by board member and local insurance agent Jennifer O’Brien, and is devoted to assisting families residing in the Hauppauge school district.