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2019 People of the Year

Ann Pellegrino, with volunteer Elaine Gaveglia and caretaker Peter Castorano, brought Bethel Hobbs Community Farm back to life more than a decade ago. Photos by Laura Johanson

By Laura Johanson

Many people face difficulty in their lives — some struggle, many endure — and then there are those that transcend. Ann Pellegrino, founder and director of Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach, is one of those rare individuals. She has faced hardship and heartache and transformed both into gestures of generosity and hope.

“Ann is an incredible, hard-working woman who always shines brightly with her smile and by her continued and valued efforts in our community,” said Tom Muratore, Suffolk County Legislator (R-Ronkonkoma). “We’ve watched her and her loving family go through crisis and challenges that only focused her and showed who she really is.”

Jeff Freund, president of The Greater Middle Country Chamber of Commerce, also has praise for her.

“People like Ann are the lifeblood of our community,” Freund said. “Her selfless devotion through her efforts at Hobbs Farm are in my mind heroic.”

The accessible Garden of Ephraim, at the farm. Photos by Laura Johanson

For more than 100 years Hobbs Farm in Centereach was a working farm, but it was only a vacant lot in 2007 when Pellegrino began the initiative to bring its barren soil back to life. The idea of a farm came to her years before when, as a single mother, she had to visit a local food bank. Pellegrino saw firsthand that the only items available to those in need were boxed or canned goods. The seed of an idea was planted.

Back on her feet and remarried in 2006, Pellegrino began to reflect on her turn of fortune. Deciding it was time to give back, she planted a small garden in her yard in the hopes to grow enough produce to donate. “I was on a mission, rented a rototiller and started ripping up our beautiful, manicured lawn,” she said. “My husband wasn’t too happy.”

It didn’t take long for Pellegrino to realize she needed a lot more land. That’s when the vacant lot down the road came to mind.

“I knew it was once a farm and that the owner had died,” Pellegrino said.

Alfred Hobbs, owner of the land, was a second-generation farmer and part of the first African American family-owned farm on Long Island. Upon his death, Hobbs bequeathed the land to Bethel AME Church in Setauket. Pellegrino was hopeful when she sought out the church’s pastor.

“I thought it would be easy to convince him to let me work the land,” Pellegrino said. “I gave it my most enthusiastic pitch but the response I got was ‘we will pray on it.’ I was devastated. I remember afterward falling to my knees to pray for guidance,” Pellegrino recalled. “I went back to the church and on my second visit spoke with Rev. Sandra, the pastor’s wife. It was she who finally convinced him to let me give it a try. So, I planted a few tomato plants that were donated by a local greenhouse and brought the harvest back to the church.”

The following year, with the church’s blessing, Pellegrino recruited family, friends and other volunteers so that Hobbs Farm could begin its incredible rebirth. Peter Castorano was among the first farm volunteers and now serves as caretaker.

“Many people volunteer an hour or two and are very helpful, but Ann and I are here all day long, day after day,” he said.

Today, the farm is self-sufficient with most of the 50,000 pounds of food grown donated to several local food banks. Farm expenses are covered by money raised at fundraisers held throughout the year.

Tragedy amid growth and triumph  

In 2011, tragedy struck the Pellegrino family. Pellegrino’s son Christopher was paralyzed in a terrible car accident. She faced the heart-wrenching reality of having to care for her now disabled son while struggling to also nurture the growing farm.

“He was 19, paralyzed from the neck down and on a ventilator,” Pellegrino said. “It was so hard, after helping to build the farm, Chris was no longer able to even visit, and I was limited because I couldn’t leave him alone,” she said. “We’d spoken about creating access for disabled veterans before Christopher’s accident.” 

“People ask me why I do it, and I answer if your child was in need wouldn’t you want someone to make that choice?”

Ann Pellegrino

She confessed that those discussions had always been put on hold because of the difficulties of construction.

“It frustrated me,” Pellegrino said. “Everyone saying it was too hard. I didn’t truly understand until my son was in a wheelchair.” 

Refusing to give up, Pellegrino pushed forward and once again turned “something bad into something good.” With the help of people at Stony Brook University, she approached the Christopher Reeve Foundation and secured a grant for a wheelchair-accessible garden.

“We were able to create an asphalt walkway to the road and rows of raised beds,” the farm owner said.

The new space, officially opened in 2014, was named the Garden of Ephraim, which means fruitful in Hebrew. Now all individuals, wheelchair users or otherwise, have access to community gardening at Hobbs Farm.

Pellegrino attributes Christopher’s strong will to a sort of transformation over the next few years.

“After the accident, he really gained focus and started to live,” she said.

In addition to gardening, he began talking to local groups about his disability and clean living.

Heartbreak and a gift in 2018 

“Years ago, I was a recipient of donated corneas,” Pellegrino said. “Last fall my driver’s license needed renewal, and I once again marked myself down as a willing organ donor. I remember mentioning it to Chris. He said he too wanted to donate someday. ‘Why not mom? When the time comes, I won’t be needing them anyway’ he told me.”

Sadly, the time came only a few months later when Christopher experienced a severe brain aneurysm.

“He was brain dead,” Pellegrino said softly. “I knew what he would want me to do, and we donated several of his organs so that a small part of him could live.”

Pellegrino entered 2019 with a renewed passion. She continues her work at Hobbs Farm and now also volunteers with LiveOnNY, a nonprofit that promotes organ donation.

“People ask me why I do it, and I answer if your child was in need wouldn’t you want someone to make that choice?”

Today, Hobbs Farm supplies countless people with fresh produce; residents with restrictive disabilities have a space to garden and grow; and three men live on because of the gift Pellegrino and her son made through organ donation.  

“She truly deserves this recognition and honor, because Ann Pellegrino is and has always been my person of the year,” Muratore said.

 

Students surround Werner Reich after one of his presentations at Smithtown High School West in 2017. Photo by Christina Cone

By Leah Chiappino

Holocaust survivor and Smithtown resident Werner Reich first began speaking about his life experiences at Smithtown High School nearly 25 years ago. He saw an article in the newspaper announcing the school would begin to offer a Holocaust Studies elective. Newly retired from his career as an industrial engineer, Reich offered to speak to the class.

After giving his testimony for about 20 minutes, he allowed students to ask questions. He recalls students asking if there was an exercise room in Auschwitz, if the camp had kosher food and what type of weekend activities were conducted. “I realized that they didn’t know the first thing about the Holocaust,” he said. “They were mixing up the concentration camps with a summer camp.”

Compelled to educate the students, Reich prepared a presentation to accompany his story. He expanded to several schools throughout the Island, but realized he could not tell both his story and the history of the Holocaust fully in a single period. He increased the time to two-period assemblies and uses about 350 slides filled with history, old photos and diagrams that help to tell his story. “I try to emulate television because that is what kids are used to,” he said.

“My suffering is an illustration of what happened, but I want them to learn that being a bystander is a terrible thing.”  

– Werner Reich

Reich recognizes that even with sharing his experience so intimately, unless someone lived through the Holocaust, it will be very difficult to fully understand. “Even I, who have lived through that garbage, have a very difficult time understanding the full Holocaust,” he said. “It speaks against all of our natural instincts and all of the basic ethics we have been taught. It’s difficult in this world of peace for you to understand, for instance, on the death march I didn’t eat for seven days.”

Instead, Reich uses his platform to stress the importance of standing up for what is right and against bullying. “I never want to walk away from a presentation thinking ‘Now they know how much I suffered,’” he said. “That is unimportant. My suffering is an illustration of what happened, but I want them to learn that being a bystander is a terrible thing.”  

More recently, Reich has expanded his presentation globally. He has spoken at a Jewish community center in Hong Kong about eight times and has given several presentations in Germany, Macau, Portugal and Israel, as well as various locations throughout the United States.

Reich is also a docent at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove and has been honored for his activism by the New York State Assembly and Suffolk County Legislature. He is still active at Temple Beth David in Commack, and in his free time practices magic, a hobby that was first taught to him while he was in Auschwitz by a bunk mate. That story was told in the 2014 novel, “The Magician of Auschwitz” by Kathy Kacer.

Christina Cone, a social studies teacher at Smithtown High School West says the impact he has had on her students has been nothing short of powerful. “To me, he is the Energizer Bunny as his energy and passion for teaching others does not tire,” she said. “Each year, my students share how much they appreciate hearing his message. They admit that it’s a heavy presentation but they seem to genuinely internalize his words. He is encouraging and inspirational and has, and continues to make this world a better place through his actions. I admire him immensely.”

Reich’s words have had a particularly special impact on former Smithtown High School West student Helen Turner. Having been so inspired by his presentation, she studied the Holocaust in college and is now the director of education at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove. “When I first met Werner … I was so taken aback by this incredible man, “ she said. “He was funny, witty and strong and yet had been through so much. At the time, I was researching the genocide in Darfur for school and I was so enraged and upset at Werner’s experience and horrified that it had happened and was continuing to happen to other people all over the world that I really felt I wanted to do something about it. While my meeting him was maybe an hour of my life, it’s something I will never forget. He’s an incredible man. I’m lucky to know him.” 

 

Residents of all ages participate in the annual regatta and barbecue, one of several events that the group coordinates with the help of the foundation’s student board. Photo from Nissequogue River Foundation

Nissequogue River State Park, located on the grounds of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, has been a popular destination for area residents who enjoy hiking, jogging, bird-watching and the marina. 

In 2008, the community formed the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation. Its mission: to enhance and beautify the park for present and future generations. 

Since New York State began incrementally transferring the hospital’s grounds to the park’s office first in 2000 and then again in 2006, the foundation has worked tirelessly to make important improvements to the 521-arce site. 

“I’m proud of the work the board has been able to accomplish, it’s been hard work but we’ve been successful on a lot things.”

– John McQuaid

John McQuaid joined the organization as a volunteer seven years ago and in 2013 became its chairman. He said the non-for-profit has contributed remarkable improvements to the park, like removing buildings, forming youth groups and getting a master plan approved in Albany. 

“I’m proud of the work the board has been able to accomplish,” he said. “It’s been hard work, but we’ve been successful on a lot of things.”

Improvements began back in 2006, when the state demolished a number of buildings, tunnels, roadways, walkways and removed hazardous materials thanks to funding secured by Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport). The objective now is figuring out what to do with the other existing buildings on the old hospital grounds. There have been discussions about repurposing some land for sports fields, a concert area and a community center.

Three years ago, the foundation created a student board and began working with local high school students. 

“It has been terrific on a lot of levels; it has given them a voice on the [foundation] board and real-life experience they can use in the future,” McQuaid said. 

The members of the student board are tasked with helping to fundraise, promote and run a number of events for the foundation including the Regatta on the River, the annual Turkey Trot and 5K Sunset Run. 

“We are very proud of the work they’ve done, they are really passionate about our mission and promoting this ‘diamond in the rough’ to the community,” the chairman said. 

The group has also been backed by Charlie Reichert, owner of five IGA supermarkets in Northport, who sponsors all the foundation’s events. Reichert said the park has the potential to be the Central Park of Long Island. Over the years, the business owner has given his time and resources to the foundation. In 2018 alone, he donated $1 million to the NYS Department of Parks to help complete renovation of the park’s administrative offices.

Residents of all ages participate in the annual regatta. Photo from Nissequogue River Foundation

 Mike Rosato, former chairman and current board member, said Reichert’s contributions over the years have been instrumental to the organization. 

“He has been the anchor of the foundation, we’ve been able to accomplish so much and make a lot of progress on the park,” he said. 

Rosato lauded McQuaid for his efforts to get the younger generation involved. 

“It is great to be able to get young people involved in the foundation and that care about the park in general,” he said.

Rosato also praised the group’s efforts into bringing the community together for its event. 

“[On average] 2,000 people have attended the annual Turkey Trot, it has become a family tradition,” he said.  

While the foundation has made strides throughout the years, McQuaid stressed the need for a master plan for further development of the park. 

In June, New York State lawmakers passed a bill sponsored by Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) that would require state park officials to begin a master plan for the park. The foundation is still waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature on the bill. 

The introduction of a master plan would include input from residents, state agencies and other stakeholders. It would also include assessing park resources, outlining future goals/cost of development and allowing the demolishing of a number of dilapidated buildings on the grounds. 

“The master plan is for the next phase and the future of the park,” McQuaid said. 

In the meantime, the chairman is encouraged by the progress the foundation has helped steward at this point. 

“The foundation is a vehicle for the community, it is not just one individual, it takes a group effort to get things done,” McQuaid said.  

Guide Dog Foundation honored Townwide Fund last year, naming a puppy “Charity” as a special tribute to the group. Photo from Guide Dog Foundation

By Daniel Dunaief

They put their money where their heart is. The dedicated volunteers at The Townwide Fund of Huntington contribute to charities that provide everything from meals to visiting nurses to guide dogs. Founded in 1961, Townwide Fund, which was originally called Huntington Township Charities Inc., has donated over $12 million to charities with the hope of ensuring that the town meets the needs of its residents.

Times Beacon Record News Media is pleased to name the members of Townwide Fund as its People of the Year.

Executives from several area charities appreciated the ongoing financial support from Townwide Fund.

“The need is greater and the funding gets less,” said Susan Shiloni, the executive director of Literacy Suffolk, which has received financial backing from Townwide Fund since 2001. “We are so grateful for these other sources of revenue like the Townwide Fund that help us out. I don’t know where we would be” without places like the fund, which provided $3,000 this year.

Literacy Suffolk helps build literacy among adults. Townwide Fund’s contribution supports training for one-on-one tutoring.

Charity, one year later. Photo from the Guide Dog Foundation

Guide Dog Foundation, meanwhile, has received financial assistance from Townwide Fund for over 20 years that adds up to about $60,000. In the past three years, the fund has helped with new puppy vests and equipment and supplies for the nursery. This year, it also helped buy a portable ultrasound scanner for a home whelping program.

“With this vital piece of equipment, we can scan a mother dog after she has given birth to ensure everything has gone well,” Theresa Manzolillo explained in an email. “We don’t have to bring her to a vet, which reduces any potential health risks to the puppies and helps keep the mom’s stress level low.”

For Island Harvest Food Bank, Townwide Fund has stepped up with $15,500 in the last four years, which helped provide about 31,000 meals.

“The Townwide Fund of Huntington enables us to provide residents who may be struggling with hunger and food insecurity with supplemental food support and essential services to help guide them from uncertainty to stability,” Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest, wrote in an email.

One of the longest standing organizations supported by the fund, Visiting Nurse Service of New York has been receiving contributions from the fund’s inception, in 1961. Prior to the creation of Medicare, the fund helped support a wide range of expenses. In recent years, the fund helps support services Medicare and insurance don’t cover, like acupuncture, which helps with pain control and symptom management, said Linda Taylor.

The fund is “very community oriented” and “supports the people who live here,” Taylor said.

David Altman, a founding partner of the law firm of Brown & Altman, became the president of the fund this year.

The money the fund provides is “really affecting our community to make a better life,” said Vita Scaturrro, who

is on the board of the fund and is also the co-chair of the grants committee. “The grants we give have a return.”

Scaturro said the grants committee reviews all the applications, writes up its recommendations and then presents them to the board. Grants need to be submitted by the end of July.

Townwide has several fundraising events. They host the Charity Gala, St. Patrick’s Run, Classic Golf Outing, Comedy Night and Thanksgiving Day Run. The fund also collects donations through a year-end annual appeal, Corporate Sponsorship Program, Coin Box Program and online Round Up Program.

Scaturro is pleased with the way the funds benefit people who live in the area.

“I’ve been involved with different not-for-profit organizations,” said Scaturro, who has lived in Huntington for 36 years. The money from Townwide Fund “is given for the right purpose.”

People interested in learning more about the fund can visit the website, at www.townwidefund.

 Prevention Program Sparks Interest in Emphasizing Community Wellness

In 2006, the Northport community created the Drug and Alcohol Task Force. The program today has evolved into an important part of the community. Photo from the Northport Drug and Alcohol Task Force

In 2006, at the age of 21, two young adults in Northport died of an opioid overdose. To honor these lives and help prevent other overdoses and addictions, the Northport community created the Drug and Alcohol Task Force. The program today has evolved into a very exciting part of the community. TBR News Media would like to recognize the efforts of all those involved in their community’s drug prevention efforts.

In 2017, after being awarded a Drug-Free Community grant, the Northport/East Northport Drug and Alcohol Task Force created a youth coalition, called 1LIFE, and hired social worker Catherine Juliano to develop the curriculum.

“Everything we do focuses on health, wellness, kindness and connection,” Juliano said.

“We want to let people know that it’s OK to ask for help.” 

Catherine Juliano

The idea is to empower teenagers and build their leadership skills so they can identify issues impacting the community. Once the group zeros in on a concern, they strategize and implement an action plan.

“The kids are very smart,” said Juliano, a 2007 graduate of Northport High School. “If you only say: ‘Don’t do drugs,’ people will be turned off.”

She meets once a week with a core group of 25 kids and together they talk about issues that impact their peers. In 2018, the coalition sponsored a mental health awareness day. This year it became a mental health awareness week, which was comprised of a series of speakers. They sponsored an after-school retreat to teach coping skills that included using music, yoga and meditation to reduce or eliminate stress. More than 250 students attended. 

“It should be all year,” Juliano said. “We show students that teenagers struggle, and mental health is real. The idea is to promote self-care health and wellness.”

The program also informs students about the school’s resource center, which includes free counseling services with access to a drug and alcohol counselor. Reducing stigma, creating a culture that sees addiction as a disease, is part of their mission. The program helps students identify feelings and teaches how to reduce stress in themselves and recognize the qualities in others.

“We want to let people know that it’s OK to ask for help,” Juliano said. 

Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) said the program is making a difference.

“Since 2006, the task force has made a big impact in our town,” he said. “Working together with students, parents and educators, they have successfully engaged the community to reduce the use of drugs.”

Developing healthy relationships is also part of the curriculum.

Every year for the last three years, the group has pulled together a community fundraiser called The Color Run. Students dress in light-colored clothing and traverse a trail, where they encounter event sponsors, typically community groups, who ultimately splash them with colored cornstarch in spray bottles. Last year, more than 700 people participated in The Color Run.

“It’s such a great thing,” said Juliano. “Kids find it thrilling; elementary kids are running around and want to be sprayed.”

The money they raise is used to support the coalition’s activities.

They are currently planning a workshop for fifth-graders on how to use technology in a safe way.

Juliano and her co-chair, Anthony Ferrandino, also implemented a popular Family Feud night, morphing the Too Cool for Drugs curriculum into a trivia game show with two tables of fifth-graders. A high school student dresses up like Steve Harvey to MC the event. 

1LIFE also partners with the local library and Suffolk County police to coordinate a medication take-back, which gets unused pills out of the home for safe disposal.

It also does environmental cleanups at known hidden drinking areas, documents paraphernalia that is found and shares the data with the adult task force. The aim is figuring out ways to prevent kids from going back to that spot.

Ultimately, they are teaching children to make healthy choices: Instead of drugs, let’s do something else.

The Faces of Addiction

For many Long Island families whose members are struggling with an opioid addiction, recovery can seem like an endless financially and emotionally draining cycle of rehabs and relapses. Increasingly, though, people who have miraculously overcome their own narcotic dependencies are openly sharing their stories to deliver a welcomed message of hope and a promise of freedom.

Their testimonies are among society’s most effective tools to beat this epidemic. As one reformed narcotic user put it, “If you could see inside my head you would see the light bulb. It finally hit me: I needed to listen to other recovered people and rely on their guidance.”

We would like to recognize a few of the many people in our circulation area who have overcome their addiction, their sponsors and the families and organizations that have supported everyone’s efforts as People of the Year.

“Yes, It is possible to recover, and it is so worth it.”

Chase Bernstein

Some reformed narcotic users were teenagers struggling with anxiety who started drinking alcohol or experimenting with drugs at a time when powerful opioids were abundantly dispensed, hooking many young children. Others sought relief from chronic physical pain often caused by injuries and accidents. Each circumstance is unique. So is their recovery story. Success, though, has a common denominator: It is often spiritual in nature. The virtues of faith, hope and charity play a role.

Chase Bernstein lost his father one year ago. He now works as a behavioral health technician and is one year sober. His entire recovery and his quality of life, he said, rest on his spiritual frame of mind. If he doesn’t pray in the morning, it impacts his whole day.

“Yes, IT IS POSSIBLE to recover, and it is SO WORTH IT,” he said. “I am a member of an anonymous 12-step fellowship and owe my life to the program. If it wasn’t for the steps, my sponsor, the meetings and helping other people even when I’m not getting paid, I would be dead, in the hospital, in jail, or … and I think this would be the worst of any of them: still actively using.”

Bernstein finds sobriety thrilling. 

“My life isn’t boring or bland, it is fulfilling and exciting, another misconception I had about sobriety,” he said. “I’ve started working at a job I love, I have friends, my family relationships have never been better, and I’ve even been able to experience the trials and tribulations of dating, while in recovery as a young person.”

Another reformed narcotic user, Sarah Smith, was addicted to opioids and alcohol as a young teenager. Today, eight years sober, she works full time as a treatment specialist. Helping others has given her life deeper meaning.

“I don’t know if I would have stayed sober, if I wouldn’t have had this sense of purpose,” she said.

In high school, Smith was an all-county champion softball catcher. Two years ago, she had the idea to form a softball team comprised of people recovering from narcotics use. She pulled a team together, with the help of Will Astacio, who worked at the time as a peer-to-peer mentor for veterans combating depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues. People were so enthusiastic they managed to form two different teams. With Smith as captain, the team, called THRIVE , won the 2019 county title.

“If it wasn’t for Sarah, they wouldn’t have won the championship,” Astacio said. “She’s great at bringing people together.”

Sarah also regularly advises elected officials who want to know what they can do to help address the epidemic. Her recommendations in a nutshell: more access to effective treatment, more emphasis on continuity of care, removal of insurance obstacles and offering more jobs and better pay to mental health professionals. In regard to legalizing marijuana, her advice is a firm NO.

Medical schools are also relying on reformed narcotic users to inform their curriculum.

This past summer Stony Brook University’s medical school invited several recovered narcotic users to act as teachers. One eloquent speaker, who wants to remain anonymous so we’ll call her Claire, shared her story with first-year medical students. The session was impactful, according to Dr. Lisa Strano-Paul, the assistant dean of the medical school. She expects the instruction to stick with the medical students their whole life. Claire also found the experience rewarding.

Recovery, she said, is miraculous.

She doesn’t consider herself a religious person but said that the power of prayer somehow opens you up. She came to terms with her own spirituality by appreciating the awe of nature. 

Recognizing your own self-centeredness also prompts you to change, she said. It’s a key part of the 12-step program.

Bernstein has also found this to be important, “There’s a popular line from a Biggie Smalls song that goes something like ‘check yourself before you wreck yourself.’ I think about that line all the time. I know it sounds corny that an old rap lyric helps me in my recovery, but it does! If I leave my motives unchecked, I start to make selfish and careless decisions without regard for the people in my life.”

This type of mindfulness is also used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Often called CBT, it also incorporates being honest, goal setting, establishing incremental steps toward reaching a goal, rewarding or celebrating successes and verbalizing happiness.

Patricia Tsui  practices nonpharmacological approaches to pain at Stony Brook University Hospital’s pain center and has helped Long Islanders overcome addiction after they were prescribed narcotics for chronic pain.

Artemis Shepard and Nick Giulintano are among her patients. Shepard suffered with three herniated discs and couldn’t get out of bed. Giulintano worked as a construction laborer for 30 years. He was seriously injured in a four-car collision driving at 60 mph. He was given bags of medicine, he said, including opioids that he took “like tic tacs.”

“You get used to taking medication and the induced-high,” Shepard said. “But it changes you.”

She lost friendships and developed kidney disease, she said, from the medication. Their quality of life without narcotics, they both agree, is far more satisfying.

Giulintano now has a spinal implant, which has helped with the chronic pain. In group talk sessions at the pain center, they ultimately found alternate ways to cope to overcome their addiction.

Talking with the group at the pain center was an important part of their healing.

 “I know, I’m not the only one,” Giulintano said. “And I’m always happy helping other people.”

This tribute is for them and for all the other unnamed people who shared their recovery story with our newspaper and all the people hoping for recovery. Help is a phone call away.  

The 24/7 hot line is 631-979-1700.

Bossert meets monthly with the student body to brainstorm and get input. Photos from Heather Mammolito

The 5-square-mile hamlet of Elwood is known as a tight-knit community with a strong sense of heritage and pride. So, when Kenneth Bossert joined the Elwood school district, four years ago, to take over as superintendent, he wanted to bring that sense of closeness to the district community as well. 

In those four years he has done just that, and so much more. 

“He has such a dynamic personality, he has made a lasting impact in the community,” Heather Mammolito, district board of education member and Elwood resident said. 

Mammolito said before Bossert took over, the district was in a weird place, with a lot of administrative turnover. 

“The goal was to bring someone that could rein everyone back in, and that’s what we did,” she said. “I haven’t seen a greater sense of pride in the district community in a while.”

The board member said Bossert’s presence at the district has already paid dividends.  

Elwood celebrates members of its community during homecoming festivities. Photos from Heather Mammolito

Last year, Elwood-John H. Glenn High School was designated as a National Blue Ribbon school, which was a huge honor and designation for the district. His other accomplishments include the creation of the Elwood school district Wall of Fame, which honors people who have made a mark on the community before the homecoming football game. He’s opened board of education subcommittee meetings to the public. Under his leadership the district has seen significant increase of reading and writing scores. He also hosts roundtable talks with John Glenn seniors. 

“I feel like he has really started a domino effect … he knows how to work with people, it is infectious,” Mammolito said. “It starts from the top, it has been a culture shift.” 

She said Bossert makes sure every staff member feels accepted and welcomed and is very approachable. 

“He is really present, he goes above and beyond. He makes it a point to get out of his office and visit every building in the district, every classroom,” Mammolito said.  

In April, Bossert was elected to the Executive Committee of New York State Council of School Superintendents. He has also been past president of the Suffolk County School Superintendent’s Association and a member of the Suffolk Superintendent’s Legislative Committee. Over the years, Bossert has worked in the Middle Country, Longwood, Eastport-South Manor, Three Village and Port Jefferson school districts.

Ronald Masera, superintendent of Center Moriches School District, has known Bossert for more than 20 years. They were both in the same Stony Brook University educational leadership program. 

Bossert, left, along with other school officials honor a student-athlete. Photos by Heather Mammolito

“Very early on you could tell he was one of those individuals that had that presence and insight,” he said. “He has always been an engaged and committed person.”

After completing the program, the duo went on to work as assistant principals in the Longwood school district. 

“He just hasn’t been a colleague of mine but a friend as well over the years; this job can be a little isolating with a network of people you trust,” he said. “He’s one of the first people I reach out to if I have an issue or question and we text back and forth.”

Lars Clemensen, superintendent of schools at Hampton Bays, had similar sentiments to say of Bossert. 

“He is my top go-to person to reach out whenever I have a question,” the superintendent said. 

He said Bossert is a student-first and community-oriented administrator. 

“He really looks at the big picture and tries to do the best he can for the public,” Clemensen said. “It is not surprising to hear of he’s been able to build at Elwood.”

The Hampton Bays superintendent said as they both became parents over the years they become close friends and is proud of the work Bossert’s been able to accomplish. 

“He has that gene, whenever he walks into a room he is seen as a leader,” Clemensen said. “When you are a superintendent you are the face of the school … he has done great work and the community is proud.”

Port Jeff Village trustee Kathianne Snaden has made waves in her first year as village official. Photos by Kyle Barr

The smaller into the levels of government you get, the less visible an official usually is.

That’s not much of the case with Port Jefferson Village trustee Kathianne Snaden. 

The number of events and meetings she has been willing to attend has been far above average, especially for a trustee of a 3 square-mile village on the North Shore. She’s often seen at school meetings, Business Improvement District meetings and other gatherings involving Brookhaven Town. But beyond her short yet active time in village government, those who have interacted with her said it’s Snaden’s willingness to reach out to the village community and be there for questions, and her willingness to get her hands dirty, that’s giving her renown.

“I believe people like Kathianne are the future of this village.” 

– Margot Garant

“There’s very few people who will come to the table, roll up their sleeves and do what they were going to do,” said Mayor Margot Garant, who has known Snaden since she originally came to the village. “I believe people like Kathianne are the future of this village.” 

When she first came to Port Jefferson, she was a single mother of two, originally hailing from upstate around the Finger Lakes region. After she met her husband Bill, who originally hailed from Connecticut, she was inexorable in her desire to stay in the village. 

“Kathianne is unlike many people, if she sees something isn’t right, she will figure out how to get involved and make it better,” Bill Snaden said. “She does not do something unless she knows she can do it 100 percent.”

Snaden has become more involved with the community over time, having immersed herself with the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption. She and her family were big players in putting on the recent Greek Festival and other church events. 

“I have always appreciated what she does for Port Jeff village,” said Louis Tsunis, Greek church parish council member, who said he has known her for around four years. “I have a lot of gratitude for what she does for the community.”

Snaden became involved in local politics after the school district received a shooting threat in 2017, shortly after the dreadful shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Her husband said since so little information was available, his wife helped organize a town hall-style event for residents to get the information they needed.

Kathianne Snaden, right, at the annual Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson. Photos by Kyle Barr.

Running for trustee in 2018, Snaden lost by only four votes, though instead of bowing out, she refocused her efforts, attending numerous board meetings and becoming even more involved in village activities. 

Garant said one moment, in particular, this year exemplified Snaden’s passion for the community. When a tragic incident at Port Jeff Liquors in October saw a man shot after nearly assaulting the owner with a sword, Snaden, along with fellow trustee Stan Loucks, was there soon after the police, calling the school district constantly as she knew there was a bus that usually drops off students in front of the library’s teen center. 

“Her response was immediate, her communication with the school district was immediate,” the mayor said.

As a mother of three, with one child in each of the Port Jefferson School District’s three buildings, she started her public office career with children and young parents in mind, her husband said, looking to bridge the oft-perceived disconnect between the district and village.

Attempts to bridge that gap was epitomized with the recent homecoming celebration, one that Snaden helped facilitate. PJSD trustee Tracy Zamek worked with Snaden on the celebrations that brought hundreds of students and alumni to Caroline Field. Zamek said she has found more collaboration between village and district since Snaden came on board.

“I feel like she’s a connection with the school, she’s the liaison someone I can go to, bringing ideas or issues,” she said. “Homecoming was a great school community event that helped build that bridge between the village and the school. I look forward to continuing to build that bridge, and I think trustee Snaden will be a key piece in building it as well.”

 

Sound Beach firefighter Cheyenne Enlund shows dedication in her volunteer work despite trying times at home. Photo by Stephanie Handshaw

By Peggy Spellman Hoey

Family has always been important to firefighter Cheyenne Enlund, so it is no coincidence that when she joined the Sound Beach Fire Department’s Explorer program as a teenager, she soon found a new extended, adoptive family of brothers and sisters. It’s a family that she never let down despite trying times at home, friends and public officials say.

“Even with her father passing, she kept going and going, and she never quit,” said Chief of Department Michael Rosasco.

Enlund, a 24-year-old Sound Beach resident, has been credited by officials for continuing to take an active role, volunteering her time with the fire department all while juggling a full-time job at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, where she now works as a patient care technician. But what makes her stand out is that she showed dedication to her volunteerism during the illnesses and subsequent deaths from cancer of both her parents, first her mother, Linette, two years ago, and then her father, Patrick, just last year. It’s that dedication that earned her the department’s 2018 Firefighter of the Year award.

She’s very giving, always caring for other people — she puts others before herself, she’s an all-around amazing person.” 

Molly Searight

“She’s a beautiful person,” said Suffolk Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who nominated Enlund for The Village Beacon Record’s Person of the Year after learning of her story while attending the fire department’s award ceremony.

Normally, firefighter of the year is an honor reserved for a firefighter who makes a save during a working house fire. However, because the hamlet can be relatively quiet, the department in the past has also chosen individuals who go above and beyond the minimum requirement in their service, according to Rosasco.

“She was always very clearheaded,” he said. “She was always very cheerful, even though you know it was hurting her. She was always a good ray of sunshine for someone when you saw her.”

Enlund joined the fire department’s Explorer program in her early teens and worked her way up through the ranks to become a full-fledged firefighter, now serving as chief rescue truck driver. Other roles in the department have included organizing the department’s picnic, competing on the muster team, and advising junior firefighters in the Explorer program.

Friend Molly Searight, 19, first met Enlund five years ago when she trained under her guidance in the explorer program. There, Enlund served as a female lead, teaching young women the ins and outs of fire training and first aid, often offering even the tiniest pointers to help her inexperienced charges improve their first-responder skills.

Searight describes Enlund as “strong willed” and the type of person who “persists through everything” and “tries her hardest” at whatever tasks she faces.  

“She’s very giving, always caring for other people — she puts others before herself,” Searight said, adding, “She’s an all-around amazing person.”

Anker said she is most impressed by Enlund’s dedication and outreach in the community.

“I feel that she is so deserving of recognition, and I am sure that she does not want the recognition, but those [people] are the type who should be recognized — people who are helping people for the right reason,” she said.

 

Donna Smith, director of education at Three Village Historical Society, welcomes every fourth-grade class in the Three Village school district to the Setauket Elementary School’s auditorium. Photo from Three Village Historical Society

The Three Village area is filled with history and no one knows this better than educator Donna Smith.

A former four grade teacher at Setauket Elementary School and the current director of education at the Three Village Historical Society, Smith has gone above and beyond to ensure that residents of all ages are educated on the importance of the area’s history. In addition to her work with the historical society, she is also an active member of Stony Brook Community Church, where her co-lay leader Gail Chase described her as “an energizer bunny,” who just keeps going and going. 

Smith’s daughter, Kerri, credits her mother’s energy to being young at heart. Describing her mother as her best friend, she said Smith, who grew up in Stony Brook and still lives in the hamlet, loves connecting with the community, especially when it comes to sharing her knowledge of local history.

Smith dresses as Alice Parsons. who went missing in Stony Brook in 1937, for the 2018 Spirits Tour. Photos from Three Village Historical Society

The subject was often a point of conversation in the Smith home, where Kerri, who is now a history teacher, said she and her brother Brendan heard many history stories from their mother and father, James. Kerri Smith said she feels her mother developed her passion for the subject growing up with a father who was passionate about education and giving back to the community.

“I think it was just growing up here and having a fascination with understanding our roots and sharing that with other people,” her daughter said.

Beverly Tyler, TVHS historian, has known Smith since the 1990s when she invited him to talk to her fourth-grade students. One of her projects involved the children choosing a historic house in the community and learning more about it. They would often ask the homeowners questions, but when they weren’t available, they would talk to Tyler — or if they chose a church or library, someone associated with the entity.

During her tenure with the school district, Smith and Tyler worked together on a countrywide/local history manual project called Pathways through the American Association for State and Local History.

Smith was about to retire from teaching when her husband died in 2005, so she decided to remain with the school district for another few years. For the 350th anniversary of the Town of Brookhaven, Tyler said she invited all fourth-graders in the town to the Village Green to be part of the reenactment of Native Americans signing over their territory. The day inspired the Founders Day program, where Smith and Tyler joined forces with town historian Barbara Russell. Tyler said Smith was instrumental in convincing the school district that the program was important.

The duo later added a walking tour of various historical properties in the area to the project and, for a period of time, the auditorium of Setauket Elementary School was opened for all to view the Vance Locke murals depicting local history.

This summer, the American Association for State and Local History presented an award of excellence to the historical society for the program.

“The person who really coalesces this together was Donna,” Tyler said. “She’s the teacher. She’s the one who knows how to ask the right questions, how to pose things and do it in a way that would reach the kids.”

Smith continues to educate through her work at the historical society with in-school programs that at times can have 50 children on the Woodhull walking tours, where Tyler and Smith teach one class each.

“She’s been very instrumental in being the person who really helps to coordinate this whole activity with the kids in the school, and has gotten the educational program going in the Three Village Historical Society,” he said.

Donna Smith, right, with her daughter on Culper Spy Day. Photo by Micheal Rosengard

The local historian said Smith took history programs used by the society in the past and narrowed them down to the activities she knew people wanted. In conjunction with Betsy Knox, a librarian at R.C. Murphy Junior High School, Smith and Tyler worked with a history club at the school toward an updated Founders Day program geared at the junior high school level. They also work with high school students, using original historical documents and encouraging them to be active in the discussions.

“Without Donna it would have been impossible to do any of these programs,” Tyler said, adding she has an incredible grasp of teaching methods.

The historian said Smith worked with him on the book “Discover Setauket, Brookhaven’s Original Settlement,” and he said she was instrumental in producing the book and getting it to a point where it was more effective.

In addition to her work on the educational side of the historical society, Smith assists at many of its events and has played characters in the society’s annual Spirits Tour as well as at Culper Spy Day.

Chase agreed that Smith is impressive when it comes to history.

“She has certainly made that come alive, and she takes those responsibilities very seriously,” Chase said. “It’s a pleasure to watch her in action when she gives her talks about the local history and her involvement with the Culper Spy story.”

Chase said Smith’s passion for community extends beyond history with her church work, and added that she’s known the educator since the 1960s. As a co-lay leader, Smith sits in on every committee, and is co-chair of the church council and the church’s annual Apple Festival. In the past, she has also contributed to the church community as a Sunday school teacher and superintendent. 

“She had and has a very active life in the church and is very important to us,” Chase said.

Chase described Smith as outgoing, welcoming and loyal in her friendships.

“She really takes pleasure in doing things for other people, especially welcoming new members of the church,” Chase said. “If anyone is ill or having a tough time, she will often make them a dinner. She’s just a terrific person.”

 

David Prestia, third from right, at the 2019 Three Village Community Trust annual gala. Photo from David Prestia

By Leah Chiappino

For David Prestia, the owner of Bagel Express in Setauket, being part of the Three Village area is more than being a business owner, he also gets involved in the community.

He consistently takes time out of his schedule to give back to the area in the form of donations, volunteerism and community engagement. He’s the machine behind the hot chocolate at the Three Village Electric Holiday Parade and the cook at the annual Three Village Chamber of Commerce Barbecue at West Meadow Beach.

Having grown up with a family who owned an Italian deli, Prestia says he was the only one of four brothers who didn’t work in the deli when he was growing up. However, after receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. John’s University in Queens, he began working with his father and fell in love with the food business. He then opened Fratelli’s Market Place in Astoria, Queens, and expanded it to locations in Roslyn, Forest Hills, Manhattan and Stony Brook village.

“David brings a businessperson’s perspective to trust operations along with his good humor and enthusiasm for our preservation mission.”

– Robert Reuter

When he first moved to Setauket 30 years ago, he jumped on the opportunity to open a bagel store. He has owned Bagel Express in Setauket, along with his partner Eric Keller and brother Michael Prestia, ever since. Having sold Fratelli’s Market Place, his focus is running the Setauket location, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and supplying Bagel Express in Smithtown and Sayville.

While running his business, he manages to contribute to the community and is on the board of the Three Village Community Trust, a not-for-profit land trust. Vice President Robert Reuter said Prestia has been instrumental in the business aspect of the organization.

“David brings a businessperson’s perspective to trust operations along with his good humor and enthusiasm for our preservation mission,” he said. “He shares that interest with his considerable network of friends and associates who know his dedication to our community and the result has been many new supporters.”

Having been a history major in college, Prestia said the rich history is one of his favorite things about the Three Village area, which inspired him to get involved in the Three Village Historical Society. He has donated food for the annual Candlelight House Tour for the past several years.

“Usually, if you ask, [Prestia] will donate, ” said Steve Healy, the president of the historical society. “People like Dave are not just in the community; they are the community. He is always willing to roll up his sleeves and help out.”

Prestia is also on the board of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce and involved with Seawolves United at Stony Brook University. He has sponsored Staller Center for the Arts receptions and the food concession at university basketball games. For the local business owner, getting involved was simply not a question.

“I’m very lucky,” Prestia said. “We’ve been successful with the business. It’s so important to give back to the community. There are so many things going on all the time. It’s a great place to raise a family, and the schools are wonderful. We’re so lucky to live here.”