Tags Posts tagged with "Andrew Harris"

Andrew Harris

Chris Friedl, of Backwoods Landscaping and a Comsewogue High School graduate, plants sunflowers for Comsewogue’s graduating seniors. Photo by Andrew Harris

Comsewogue school district is trying to leave its seniors with a little bit more than a diploma for all those who saw their last high school year cut short.

Assistant Superintendent Joe Coniglione and Superintendent Jennifer Quinn look at the sprouts of sunflowers in Jackie’s Garden. Photo by Andrew Harris

The district has planted hundreds of sunflowers in the high school courtyard, known as Jackie’s Garden after the late wife of former Superintendent Dr. Joe Rella, who in February also passed away. 

The seeds number over 320, and should bloom into massive golden yellow flowers by the fall. 

The plantings came together thanks to Chris Friedl, 26, from Backwoods Landscaping. A 2012 Comsewogue graduate, he said he was very empathetic to the 2020 graduating class who were missing out on so much as a normal senior year. 

“It sucks, there’s no other way to put it,” Friedl said. “Going through all they’re going through with all this adversity, it’s incredible.”

Andrew Harris, a special education teacher in the district, said he floated the idea to district officials earlier this year. Friedl jumped at the chance to help. He was also the person who donated material for Jackie’s Garden several years ago. He has come back now and again to provide small upkeep to the flower boxes. 

After clearing and cleaning the empty planting boxes, the district hosted a ceremony May 16 where students’ names were read as the landscaper planted the seeds.

Friedl asked if he could plant a seed for Joe and Jackie Rella. Though the garden was meant for students, Harris told him he could.

“He always remembered my name out of thousands of students,” Friedl said of Rella. “Nobody had a bad word to say about him or Jackie, which just says miles about the kind of people they were.”

A day and a half after they were planted, Harris said he came back to the garden. There, growing in the earth, he thought he saw weeds. Normally sunflowers take five to 10 days before one sees them start to sprout, but the two seeds planted for the Rellas were indeed springing from the earth.

“The hair on the back of my neck started to stand up,” Harris said. “I remembered how when I told Dr. Rella about this particular butterfly that kept coming back to our garden, even though we never had any butterflies before. He told me in his gruff Brooklyn-accented voice, ‘Andy, I believe with every fiber in my body that that is a sign from Jackie.’ I looked at the new sunflower sprout and had no doubt about what it meant.”

Official info on Comsewogue graduations is still to be determined, though students were delivered their caps and gowns this week.

Friedl offered some advice to seniors.

“Stay strong, the entire community is behind you, and keep your path,” he said. “The community really wants you to succeed.”

Andrew Harris’ therapy dog Ransey helped Stony Brook health care workers with a gymnastics routine, shown to nurses and doctors via video call. Photos by Andrew Harris

By Andrew Harris

Ramsey and I look forward to our Tuesday evening visits at Stony Brook University Hospital. We visit the Child Psychiatry Unit and try our best to bring smiles to the young children who may be going through difficult times. We are part of their Volunteer Pet Therapy program and Ramsey is a trained therapy dog certified through Therapy Dogs International. 

 

“Pet Facilitated Therapy has been a practice at SBUH hospital for many years  and has brought joy and peace to staff and patients during stressful times,” said Rosemaria York, the recreational therapy supervisor at Stony Brook University Hospital.

Ramsey knows when Tuesday comes around and looks forward to visiting. He gets so excited once he sees we are on the campus, and he absolutely adores interacting with the children who love him. Ramsey is used to working — especially with children. He can be seen at the Comsewogue school district often comforting and giving lots of love during stressful times like Regents exams and other high anxiety situations.

The first time that we could not visit the hospital due to the Coronavirus situation, Ramsey was in a sullen mood. I took him for a long walk in the woods instead, but it wasn’t the same. He missed going to the hospital and the adoration from the children and staff members. We always get stopped on our way to the unit by staff members, patients, and family members who want to interact with the dog. Once, we had a special request to go visit a staff member’s friend in the cancer unit. I was amazed by how much joy it brought to her and how great he was nuzzling up to the bed and cuddling with her. What I also saw was how so many staff members came by to say hello. One doctor told us that it was a particularly hard day in that unit so she needed some cuddles too, which Ramsey gladly provided.

“Recently, the Stony Brook Medicine Department of Volunteer Services in conjunction with the Recreation Therapy Department worked together with pet therapy volunteer Andy Harris and therapy dog Ramsey to bring Virtual Pet Therapy to de-stress staff on the units,” said York.

The next thing I knew we got a phone call from the folks at Stony Brook asking if we could possibly do a virtual pet therapy visit — this time for all the nurses, doctors and medical staff at the hospital. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but we were certainly willing to give it our best try to contribute to those fine people on the front line. York told us,  “Volunteer Services and Recreation therapy staff thought why not try Virtual Pet Therapy if we couldn’t have the usual visits? Stony Brook Hospital felt that because their employees were all working so hard and long, and in such a stressful situation, that perhaps a virtual visit might help in the same way that our actual visits benefitted the kids and staff. 

A Stony Brook Hospital worker watches Ramsey do stunts via video stream. Photo from Andrew Harris

“Due to the coronavirus pandemic when the hospital was unable to continue business as usual many practices became virtual, telehealth, etc,” York added. “So volunteer Services and recreation therapy staff thought why not virtual pet therapy if we couldn’t have the usual visits?” 

I knew it would be much different then our normal in-person visits and had to come up with some new ideas because we would be doing our thing from the backyard of our house. Simultaneously, the folks at Stony Brook would be working extra hard walking all over the hospital from unit to unit donned in full PPE gear. 

Normally with the kids, we sit down, chat or read a book and just let the kids cuddle with the dog. We demonstrate how Ramsey has learned not to take food from people or off the floor unless he is given permission. We show how he sits, waits patiently and knows all the different commands. As a therapy dog he has learned not to “shake hands” because this and jumping up on them could compromise people with vulnerable skin conditions. He is not allowed to eat any food because this could be a problem too if there are crumbs in the bed or on someone’s gown in a hospital or nursing home setting.

Sometimes the kids like to see the dog “work” and do some finds. They hide some articles of clothing like a glove or hat somewhere in the room as the dog patiently waits outside the room. As soon as he enters he sniffs it out and finds all the articles. Of course he always gets a reward each time he does a good job.

Since my yard is set up with plenty of things to do with the dog, we were ready to not only provide some therapy for the workers, but to entertain and show them what the dog could do. York said, “… so some recreation therapists armed with an iPad with Mr. Harris and Ramsey streaming live brought Ramsey and his athletic agility abilities along with a bark and a close up camera ‘social distanced’ kiss to the staff.”

Andrew Harris’ therapy dog Ransey helped Stony Brook health care workers with a gymnastics routine, shown to nurses and doctors via video call. Photos by Andrew Harris

First I had him doing the normal stuff, retrieve a ball and relayed the typical commands most people are familiar with. As I pointed the camera on my phone at him, I could hear some nurses getting a kick out of it all — so we decided to step it up a bit. The “ooo’s” and “ahhs” were noticeable especially when he climbed up the ladder to our playhouse and went down the slide. He then showed how he could run up the slide. His final performance, and the most difficult, was walking across a twenty foot ladder propped horizontally raised a few feet off the ground. For that he got a round of applause. When we went back inside he was very exhausted, lay down and took a long nap. We were happy to put a little smile to the wonderful staff at Stony Brook. 

York said, “staff stated that they were happy for the opportunity to interact with the therapy dog even if it was brief and virtual as it brought a smile to their day.”

Andrew Harris is a special needs teacher at the Comsewogue school district.

by -
0 483
Gianna Pellela and her family volunteering for those in need. Photo from Pellala

It goes without saying that these are difficult times and many things going on that we have never witnessed before. Many articles and news stories appear daily about some pretty bad things going on. However, the focus of this article will be to look at some of the positive things we are seeing; from the eyes ofboth the young and old.

An Intro

By Andrew Harris

Recently, I have seen so many things going on on during this crisis that I haven’t seen in many years. Some of these happenings have been positive, and I wanted to take the time to stop and point some of them out. The first thing I noticed was something that used to be more common, but I have not heard in many years. It was the sounds of playful laughter of young children outside in their backyards almost on a daily basis. I started to notice more and more positive things that are going on and wanted to focus on these things and see if some of our students might see some positivity for a younger persons perspective. I was impressed by what they were noticing, like how helping others helps to take any negative focus off yourself, how young people are staying connected and supporting each other and finally how our environment seems to be improving on a daily basis.

Helping Others

By Gianna Pellela

Gianna Pellela and her family helped collect items for those in need. Photo from Pallela

In this time of crisis, it can be very easy to focus on the negatives in our lives. My family and I have tried to find ways to both occupy ourselves and help others even though we can’t physically see too many people. Being able to focus on the positives makes this quarantined time a lot easier. The situation we are in can really be a good time of self reflection and personal improvement. It can also be used to be a time of unity amongst all of our communities.

While I have done many things to keep up with my own well being, I have also helped in a food drive. This food drive was held at the cafe owned by my church. Throughout the week, the community dropped off food and supplies that all got disinfected. My family and I went to the cafe where we were alone, and we divided these foods and supplies into bags for the community members in need. We also filled bags for nurses and medical workers. These bags had items such as bonnets, masks, waters and more. Then, people drove through the parking lot one at a time and opened their trunks so that we could place the bags into their cars. This was an amazing event that allowed me to give back even considering the circumstances.

Unity in Distance
By Daniela Galvez-Cepeda

Despite the fact that physical contact has been cut off from us during the quarantine, it is important to remember that we are not alone. Through different social media apps and discussion boards, high school seniors are communicating with others about an array of topics.

I have experienced this first hand. Along with my Student Government co-president, we figured it was important to let our whole community know the talent the Comsewogue Class of 2020 holds. That is why we created the @wogue.2020 Instagram page, which posts pictures of seniors and the colleges they are going to. Classmates “liking” and “commenting” on each other’s posts really shows that we can still be connected despite the distance.

Not only are our Comsewogue seniors interacting online with one another, but they are also meeting the people they will go to college with. Since campus tours and visits aren’t available right now, colleges have created special channels for their incoming students to learn about the school they are going to. Students can send a quick text or email to an upperclassman or dean knowing that they will get a response in a matter of minutes. I, personally, have been connected with so many current students and future classmates from my college that it has made my decision to go there so much easier.

These cases show that, even though we are going through some rough times, we can still find alternative ways to build new relationships and make new lifelong connections.

Noticing the Improvements in Our Environment

By Ashley Doxey and Alyssa Morturano

Since it started, the Coronavirus outbreak has devastated most of the world. On Dec. 31, 2019, the government in Wuhan, China, confirmed that health authorities were treating dozens of cases. Since then, there have been outbreaks in 210 countries and almost 200,000 deaths. But the outbreak is also having an intriguing impact on Earth’s environment, as nations restrict the movement of people.

The Coronavirus has halted tourism. Since the lack of boat traffic, the Venice canals are thriving andare clear enough to see the fish swimming below. This lack of boat traffic has allowed for fish, like mosquito fish, to roam the canals. There is still a lack of water purity, but all of the sediment has settled to the bottom. Even swans and dolphins have been spotted in the nearby port. Now, the canal is filled with tiny fish, scuttling crabs, and an array of multicoloured plants.

Since the Coronavirus outbreak, the arrival of fish in Venice isn’t the only improvement this world has seen. People are using less oil, and carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions are falling too. This leads to better air quality. More animals are roaming the empty city streets. The coronaviruspandemic is terrible, but in this time of hardship, we must look at the positives. These environmental benefits are another reason for us to stay indoors.

These are some of the positive things we are seeing from the current situation. Focusing on helping others helps us not be so self-centered and only concerned with ourselves. Learning new ways to connect with others, even virtually, can be positive and even when things get back to normal may help us make new and more connections. Finally, we are all breathing in cleaner air and seeing new environmental improvements all around us.

Perhaps this can remind us to turn off the television, stop watching all the negativity and start seeing and creating more positive things out of all of this.

Family, My Silver Lining

Derek Order

Quarantine. Who would have ever thought at any point in my life I’d be held to a quarantine. I have only heard of quarantines in movies and television. No friends. No girlfriend. No trip to Europe. No gym. My senior fashion show was cancelled, and both my graduation and senior prom are to be determined. Unbelievable.

From the beginning, my mom has told me to try to find the silver lining. There is always a silver lining?  How could there be a silver lining when my senior year is ruined? I am going to college in the fall, and this is how I am going to spend my last few months; quarantined with my family?

And then it occurred to me. Family is my silver lining. I have spent these two months with the most important people in the world. My mom has taught me to cook. I’ve spent countless hours in Monopoly tournaments with my brothers. I caught up on some classic television with my Dad. Entering this quarantine, I thought it would be miserable, but it is not. It is actually a blessing.

Outro: An Adendum

By Andrew Harris

The students who wrote this article did so completely voluntarily and out of the goodness of their own hearts. The additional writing they do is purely on their own and not part of their normal heavy and challenging workload. They continue to impress me during these challenging times. All people are hit hard with what we are going through, but as a student the new normal has changed dramatically. Learning online can be extremely difficult to navigate. Having your sports, graduation and all your in-person socialization cancelled, as a teenager, is difficult to say the least. I applaud them.

by -
0 886
Kingstone and Miles Fowler practice distance learning. Photo from Kristina Fowler

During challenging times like these, the Comsewogue School District reacted to be fully prepared to not only provide and keep its classes and academic standards at a high level but also to keep the students’ social and emotional well-being stable despite no longer being in the school buildings.

The administration, staff, students and community saw fit to have educational packets and more in place while the upper grades were provided with Chromebooks and resources online available before school was closed. The technology department was in close contact and continues to be communicating with everyone on a daily basis with updates and more.

“I was happy to receive additional training available up to the very last day,” said Camie Zale, a special education teacher.

“Teachers and students are comfortable with using technology and communicating with various websites and apps on a normal basis,” said Andrew Harris, a teacher at the middle and high school. “Unfortunately, I’m nowhere as savvy as most of these students who have grown up with this technology. If I ever have any problem, I can ask any of my students who usually solve it in a matter of seconds … they are amazing.”

Don Heberer, district administrator for instructional technology, said the 1:1 take-home Chromebook program in the high school and classroom carts at John F. Kennedy Middle School had allowed students and teachers to become comfortable with using the technology for education.

Melissa McMullan, a sixth-grade teacher in the middle school, said the school did a great job getting Chromebooks into kids’ hands. The process, she said, has been tricky to find what works and what doesn’t on an online space.

“The kids and I will solve the need for distance learning together like we always do,” she said.

Students in the elementary schools have grade-level packets posted online along with hard copies sent home. The district is also providing support to both teachers and parents remotely on using the technology.

”Comsewogue has always prided itself on being innovative and willing to try something new,” Heberer said. “We know that it will be a challenging change for everyone; however, Comsewogue staff has worked hard to provide the students, teachers and community resources during this period.”

The Comsewogue district has taken to online as well for interteacher-related processes. Harris said teachers received a message from the Pupil Personnel Services department that they will hold upcoming annual meetings on Google Hangouts as part of their annual review process. It has taken time and effort but he feels he has become comfortable and “up to speed” with the various programs.

“For me, I am learning as I go,” Harris said. “The first day I mostly communicated the way I was most familiar with — I picked up the phone and called most parents to let them know what was going on with their child’s education. From there I switched to text messages, and finally have been using Google Classroom and more as I get better.”

After checking in with several of the students, Harris said many teachers realized they were perhaps giving too much work. One parent communicated that her daughter was working from early morning until about 5 p.m. on her assignments and starting to stress out.

“I think many of the teachers didn’t want the students to feel like they were on vacation and get complacent,” said Joe Caltagirone, a teacher at the high school.

Harris said he wanted his very first assignment to be something light and be beneficial to his students and their families. He posted a YouTube video on how to do Box Breathing, a technique of taking slow, deep breaths to relieve some stress and help concentrate.

“I know people are highly stressed so I asked that the student watch this video first,” Harris said. “I also requested that they teach members of their family how to do it. I know from experience when you teach others you become very proficient at what you’re teaching. I asked them all to comment on how it made them feel.”

Harris, also a yoga instructor, said that breath work is easy to learn and perhaps the best thing people can do in these stressful situations.

Having said all of this, there are many in the Comsewogue community that may not be as comfortable as students are with technology, though there are many people willing to help distribute food and other resources to our senior citizens.

“The problem is that they may not know that there is help out there. Where many of us can easily access social media sites, many of these seniors don’t have the ability to do so,” said Ed Garboski of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association.

“Currently, I’m trying to find a way to bridge that gap,” said Harris. “We are trying to put together an electronic way to have our students write letters to the senior citizens who are being quarantined at local facilities. If we have to, we will have the letters printed and distributed to those seniors directly or through the facility’s printer, so they are not compromised.”

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn stated that the whole staff is committed to doing whatever is necessary to make sure the students continue to get everything they need to have a great education, and much more.

Information and quotes provided by Andrew Harris

Comsewogue Won’t Be Stopped by COVID-19

By Deniz Yildirim

Like the rest of New York, Comsewogue School District is facing unprecedented challenges with courage and teamwork. Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) orders, all six of the district’s schools were closed on Monday, March 16, for a tentative two-week period. Administrators and teachers worked hard to create packets and uploaded countless resources onto the district’s website so students can continue their education at home.

Preparing work for over 5,000 students with numerous and distinct needs such as learning disabilities and language barriers could only be completed with hard work and collaboration. Reading teachers, English as second language teachers, teaching assistants and even special area teachers like music teacher Ellen Rios came together to create comprehensive packets that were sent home with students on Friday, March 13. Parents could come in person to pick them up if their child wasn’t in school to get it themselves.

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn has been regularly calling parents with updates and also informed families that the district is even willing to lend out its Chromebooks to students who couldn’t otherwise access the online learning tools.

“This is a scary time for everyone and our students’ health comes first. We want to share what we have to make them feel safe and help them continue to learn,” said Quinn. “Families are advised to call the district so they can prepare the appropriate materials and ensure a smooth and sanitary pick up.

In addition to student work, Comsewogue is continuously posting statements on its website (in English and Spanish) in order to keep families informed. One such notice comes from Robert Pearl, the district’s new administrator for Pupil Personnel Services and Micheala Finlay-Essig, the assistant director of PPS; they have been rescheduling important meetings regarding student services that will now be “teleconferencing” meetings through Google Meet. The instructional technology department led by Don Heberer has never been more critical and everyone can testify to the key role they are playing.

“We’re here to help our students, teachers and community,” Heberer said. “We have been supporting our teachers through technology professional development, so the teachers can support our students’ learning. We are updating the district website and mobile app daily to keep our community informed and provide vital resources.”

Comsewogue graduate, parent and now teacher Kristina Fowler said she’s never been prouder of her community. Fowler has a unique perspective because she’s been in everyone’s shoes, so it’s particularly meaningful to hear her say that Comsewogue is going above and beyond her expectations. She supports her two sons, fourth-grader Kingston and second-grader Miles and lets them “play” with their friends via FaceTime. Most recently, Kingston and Kristina helped classmate Liam Schneph with a question he had about his new hamster.

“It’s so important to stay connected and let kids be kids,” she said. “Comsewogue won’t be stopped by COVID-19.”

Deniz Yildirim is a librarian at the Terryville Road Elementary School

by -
0 1034
Photography, art, science and several other classes do projects at and around the garden. Photo from Andrew Harris

Since the beginning of the school year, students have been gathering in the courtyard at Comsewogue High School on their off periods. 

Comsewogue students gather for festivities at the ‘Town Square.’ Photo from Andrew Harris

“Dr. [Joe] Rella always thought of our Rotunda as our town hall, and now we’ve expanded on his dream, by developing a Town Square,” said Superintendent Jennifer Quinn.

The space started with “Jackie’s Garden” a few years ago after the untimely passing of Rella’s wife, Jackie. Her passing left the school broken hearted, said special education teacher Andrew Harris, making them want to reach out. Harris suggested the idea, and “Dr. Quinn looked at me and said it was a beautiful idea, but asked me if I was sure I wanted to commit … because you know what happens to gardens?”

Harris knew exactly what she meant, having seen several gardens start-up and then eventually fall by the wayside. He promised her that for as long as he is a teacher at Comsewogue, he would make sure to maintain the garden.

The next thing the school knew, Boy Scouts from the High School stepped up and did their Eagle Scout projects to benefit the garden. Joey Rizzo, a junior, built several raised beds. He even created a barrier to protect the garden from other activities. Now-graduate Christian Freda built a raised bed for a student who uses a wheelchair, going further to design and build a bench that has wheelchair access. Last year, James Mantione, a junior, built a trellis that became the backdrop of many senior pictures at graduation. 

“These are amazing students who are doing wonderful things for our school,” said principal Mike Mosca. “These projects took up a lot of their own time and efforts while they developed great leadership skills. By next year, don’t be surprised to see grapes, eggplant, or even zucchini, growing from the trellis.”

Soon, community members and businesses asked to pitch in. Rich Crandle, from 4 Corners Produce in Port Jefferson Station, donated many of the flowers, plants and decorations for every holiday, which Harris called extremely generous. 

 “Ann Marie’s Farm Stand, Agway, and landscapers Chris Friedl, Tommy Deacy and Steve Long are a phone call away and will stop what they are doing just to help out clearing things or delivering soil and mulch,” said Joe Coniglione, assistant superintendent. 

Joe Rella, Jennifer Quinn and Joe Coniglione during the naming of ‘Jackie’s Garden.
Photo from Andrew Harris

The Whole Foods Foundation gave the district a $2,000 grant for the garden, which allowed the garden to expand.

Recently, the school added a sunflower farm in the middle as a result of a class project. 

“This year, students gather by the beautiful sunflowers at every lunch period, it’s quite beautiful,” said a senior posing for pictures with friends. 

According to Rella, sunflowers were Jackie’s favorite. 

“Our life skills class took that idea and ran with it,” said Joe Dimino, who helped with the project-based initiative. 

The students planned, researched and set up the garden, watching it flourish. Harris said that they weren’t quite ready to plant after mid-May, but then the unexpected passing of one of the district students occurred. 

“I told the students that I really didn’t have a good explanation, but I did know that this year we could plant and dedicate the sunflowers to Jackson, the young middle school student who lost his battle to cancer,” Harris said. “We all got out there and got to work to focus ourselves on something positive in his memory. The students were so proud of their efforts to get it done in time.”

Harris described an amazing thing that started to happen. Students, teachers, clubs and administrators started to “plug-in” various projects at and around the garden. This Halloween, the district plans to conduct a hay ride for the kids who visit for the annual Trick or Treat Streets.  Shane Goldberg, who teaches advanced science classes, planted vegetables.

“For a bit, our sprinkler system wasn’t reaching the plants, so one of the AP students designed and implemented a system to keep the soil and plants hydrated,” Goldberg said. “It was the perfect idea and solution to a real-life problem.”

For the past several years, the school’s food service department has served special meals that were designed by and even prepared with the help of Heather Rand’s English Language Learner classes at the middle school. Rand and her classes developed their own “Jackie’s Garden’” at the middle school. 

“The amazing thing to see was that these kids enjoyed their hands-on experience while learning a whole new language as well as science,” said John F. Kennedy Middle School Principal Mike Fama. 

The ELL teacher said new English language learners were excited and passionate about the garden. 

“It became the ideal way to teach science and English because all the students could relate to what we were doing,” said Rand. 

In the first year of the garden, Charlotte Johnson, who teaches drama and chorus, serenaded Rella and his family as well as the whole district during an evening where staff, students and families participated. 

“There wasn’t a dry eye out there,” Harris recalled one of the parents saying. “It was quite emotional.”

Many Comsewogue students have used the garden for public projects. Photo from Andrew Harris

On a daily basis, the school sees students from art, photography, ELA and more using the garden to do their projects. Outside, on a crisp fall day, both Rand and Natalie Rubenstein’s classes were busy measuring plant length and looking into microscopes all while recording data into their science notebooks. 

In many ways, the garden has become the focal point of the school and district. Students can be seen doing fundraisers and other activities, some to raise awareness of what is going on around them locally and even internationally. On one occasion, students displayed pride flags, sold cancer awareness shirts, all while sharing space with recruiters from the armed forces. On another table, they were collecting for Comsewogue graduates who are currently serving in the military. 

“We are a tight community, and we want those men and women serving to know that we remember them,” said Michelle Mortorano, head of the Parent Teacher Student Association. “Some of the elementary students will be putting hand-written letters inside the boxes we send to show how much they care.”

Soon, the district will display holiday decorations, celebrating the district and community. The rotunda is currently being renovated by art students working on an intricate mosaic that people will see as they enter the school. 

“The mosaic in combination with our kind and welcoming attitude — makes this place one of the best places on Earth to walk into,” Harris said. 

Harris described a scene at the garden, where a few students were doing their homework in the garden on picnic tables surrounded by baskets of flowers. 

“One student looked up and said growing up in this school district and community was one of the best experiences of her life,” he said.

Information for this article supplied by Andrew Harris, Michelle Lautato and Comsewogue High School students.

Students got to interact with therapy dogs before the start of their exams. Photo from Andrew Harris

In the Comsewogue High School cafeteria, where the air would usually becomes tense with the anticipation of final exams at the end of the school year, signs were posted on empty chairs during regents week which read, “Come pet me… and chill.”

School Social Worker Taylor Zummo said that the dogs had an incredible impact on the students. Photo from Andrew Harris

Quickly those empty chairs filled up and lines started to form behind them. Sitting in the now filled chair was a student who would be taking their regents within the next few minutes. Opposite them was a therapy dog and it’s handler, both welcoming the student to relieve a little stress with a friendly canine.

“They have a calming effect on people,” said Bill Bodkin, a retired teacher and administrator at the high school. “The animals benefit just as much as the humans do. Medically, it lowers blood pressure and the pulse rate of the person petting them.”

Bodkin’s dog, Corey, was trained with the Smithtown-based nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation, and together they often visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

The idea of bringing in dogs before the regents exams was welcomed by high school Principal Joseph Coniglione. The dogs were an instant hit, with students gravitated to the dogs and some stayed with them up until the instant they went to take their exams.

Several other therapy dogs were sent in from Dog Works in Holtsville, where they go through rigorous training to become certified.

“These dogs are very unique, and not all of them make it through the process.” Said Deb Feliziani, who works for Holbrook-based Dog Works and is the owner and trainer for the hounds Gabby, Bette and Comet, all who levelled their training to aid the high schoolers.

In addition to the therapy dogs, district teachers said students were taught meditation and breathing techniques to help lower stress and anxiety before testing.

“As students waited to take their regents exams, in a room that is typically filled with nervousness and fear, there was a lighthearted energy that took over as they interacted with the therapy dogs,” said Taylor Zummo, a high school social worker. “Between the smiles on their faces and the laughs of excitement, it was clear that these dogs had an incredible impact on the students. There is something quite powerful that happens when dogs are in a room, and it was apparent that the students could feel it too.”

Tom King, a special education teacher, has been taking his own certified therapy dog named Bailey, a Labradoodle, to class for years. King and Bailey walked around to students who had pre-testing jitters and were quickly surrounded by them all wanting to pet Bailey.

From left, retired teacher Bill Bodkin, Teacher Dave Hughes and Principal Joe Coniglione said the dogs lightened the mood for students taking the regents. Photo from Andrew Harris

Overall, the visits were a huge success, said Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher and advocate for therapy and service dogs who helped get the dogs to the high school.

“I saw many of my students light up when a dog comes to visit our class,” he said. “I especially see this for students with Autism and decided to make it a part of my curriculum. You would be amazed if you saw the level of excellence these students rise to when they know a dog is visiting.”

Harris added he has been training dogs for years, though he had taken advice from Feliziani to travel to Canada to find the “perfect dog.” This young hound named Ramsey has learned to alert people with medical emergencies and assist with walking up and down stairs. At only 11 months he can climb ladders, complete obstacle courses and assist people. At home, the dog acts a protector and house pet to him and his family.

“He has been in training since the day he was born and has taken rides on various forms of public transportation and socialized with people and other animals,” Harris said. “I think it helps me be a better teacher because you continually learn positive reinforcement.”

Teachers at the high school said they expect to utilize the dogs in the future in the school district.

Information provided by Andrew Harris

by -
0 639

Giving back and paying it forward. That is what Comsewogue High School teacher Andrew Harris wants his students to get out of the second annual Joe’s Day of Service. Students and staff participated in this year’s event on May 29 and throughout the day engaged in acts of kindness throughout the community.

Harris said the idea of a full day of community service projects came about last year, when students in his classes made pitches on how the student body could spend the day. 

Two students, Julia Ratkiewicz and Rachel Plunkett, proposed the idea of visiting Calverton National Cemetery, where members of the United States armed forces are laid to rest, to spend the day cleaning gravestones and straightening flags. 

Harris immediately took to the idea, and for the second straight year nearly 200 Comsewogue High School students journeyed to Calverton cemetery. 

Joe’s Day of Service was named after Superintendent Joe Rella, who Harris said showcased a belief that students and community members can improve their lives and the lives of others by working together. 

“I wanted the students to know that what they do can impact and benefit so many people,” he said. “Also, I think it’s important to get involved and step up to the plate.”

While the high school students were at Calverton, other Comsewogue kids throughout the district were doing their part. Middle schoolers participated in a beach clean-up at Cedar Beach, elementary school kids at Norwood Elementary School sang songs to senior citizens and others painted rocks as part of the Kindness Rocks Project, an initiative which calls on people to paint inspiring messages on rocks and leave them in places where they will be found by someone in need of an emotional boost.

Students and staff honored Dashan Briggs, a member of the National Air Guard 106th from Port Jefferson Station, who died last year in a helicopter crash in Iraq, along with several members of his unit. The high school chorus serenaded Briggs’ wife Rebecca Briggs and his children, Ava and Jayden, who will be attending district schools next year. Comsewogue student Ava Pearl presented the family with a portrait she painted of the late Briggs, which will be placed in the district schools. 

“We wanted them to feel part of our family,” Harris said. 

The students joined the Briggs family and others at the Calverton National Cemetery to visit Dashan’s gravesite. Once there, they gave the family flowers and painted socks with encouraging messages. Also, this year, students straightened and put flags on gravesites throughout the cemetery. Students took the time to escort family members of veterans as well, who were coming from around the New York metro area, to visit the graves of their fallen family member. 

“It is so nice to see how many kids were able to come out and help,” John Quartararo, a senior at Comsewogue High School, said. “For them to give up a day of school to come out and do this just shows how much a community that Comsewogue really is.”

For the high schooler, to be able to honor Dashan Briggs’ memory in front of his wife and children meant a lot to him personally. 

“I lost my father when I was younger, and just knowing that we are making an impact and showing that we are always there for them means a lot,” he said. “The motto for us has always been to help someone out — ‘once a warrior, always a warrior’ and I feel like that resonated on this whole day.” 

Along with the cemetery visit, teachers and students participated in a track walk to fundraise for a fellow student battling leukemia and whose family is having financial distress due to the treatment costs.

Harris praised the students for what they did on this day.

“I just want you guys to know that you have made a huge impact to the community and the Briggs family. You should be proud of yourselves,” he said.

Comsewogue students clean graves at first annual Joe’s Day of Service in 2018. Photo from Comsewogue School District

By Andrew Harris

Each Memorial Day, people often wonder what they can do to be more patriotic. Some of us even feel guilty because we shopped, barbecued and beached … and came away without any real opportunity to express our appreciation for America’s fallen heroes.

Andrew Harris

This year, one event Comsewogue School District teachers are planning on having will be one of the most impactful and educational field trips for our high school students. Although this may not be your typical run of the mill, fun field trip, we believe that our students will walk away with a new sense of pride, purpose, and a more meaningful self-respect for themselves and others, especially those who have served and given the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

On May 29, we will host our districtwide Joe’s Day of Service initiative. Joe’s Day of Service is about community service, where students and the Comsewogue community pledge to give back. This project was inspired by Superintendent Joe Rella’s spirit and belief that students and community members can improve the lives of others, and their own lives, by working together. One example is the Calverton Project, which was created by students in our consortium program but is available to all students at the high school.

After applying to be “of service” at Calverton Cemetery, which is part of our National Cemetery Administration, Comsewogue students have been accepted to assist with a very special task. Management at Calverton have told us many of the tombstones for our fallen soldiers do not receive full sunlight on a daily basis. Because of this, some of the tombstones start to develop mold and become discolored.

Since the U.S. upholds very high standards at our national cemeteries, they have selected us, and will allow our Comsewogue students to do the very honorable job of beautifying and cleaning the tombstones on this special day — on this very special hallowed ground. It certainly will not be fun, and might even be monotonous and challenging… perhaps even boring. It will also take some good old fashioned “elbow grease” and require hard work; especially when they reflect upon exactly who they are doing this for, and see the names and information as they are working on each tombstone.

This year some of our students will be selected to escort the family members of veterans, who are coming from around the New York City area, perhaps for the first time, to visit the grave of their fallen family member. Some may need assistance to walk, or perhaps to read or even translate the headstone into their native language. Surely a few tears will be shed.

We feel that this act of kindness, selflessness and patriotism will be extremely powerful to our students. Hopefully, the impact will take a student outside of themselves (and away for their cellphones) to be educated, inspired, and humbled by giving service to others.

During this time, they will get a chance to reflect and think about how other men and women of all ages, backgrounds, faiths, races and creeds have laid down their lives for each and every one of us. We realize that this is quite different than the standard Bar-B-Q’s, storewide sales and beaching that we all have become accustomed to around Memorial Day.

Our students may even have to stop, respectfully remove their hats, and bow their heads as young fallen soldiers might be carried through the cemetery, accompanied by their families, to be laid to rest on that day. This field trip is like no other they have ever, or will ever experience. We will be giving special honors to our community’s fallen airman, Dashon Briggs from Port Jefferson Station, whose children will be attending our schools next year. One of our students, Ava Pearl, is doing her project with the creation of a portrait for the family, which will be placed in our schools so his children, and all the students, may see that he was a hero who died so “That others may live.”

Along with the Calverton Cemetery visit, some teachers and students are planning to host a walk to fundraise for a student in our high school whose family is having financial distress due to his recent diagnosis and treatment for leukemia.

Teachers have the opportunity to “plug in” by creating their own Project Based Learning activity that tie into their own curriculum or joining in the many activities around the district, all service projects for our local community.

Local and national news media outlets and politicians will be attending, as well as members from 106th Airlift Wing.

If you would like any more information, please feel free to contact Andrew Harris in whatever way is most convenient for you, at [email protected], phone or text 631-428-2530, Twitter with #JDOS2019, or Facebook at Joe’s Day OF SERVICE.

Let’s do it for Joe.

Andrew Harris is a special needs teacher at the Comsewogue High School.

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief, center, with this year's honorees

The 2018 TBR News Media People of the Year in Brookhaven were honored at the Three Village Inn in Stony Brook on March 24.

Publisher Leah Dunaief presented the awards to Linda Johnson, Gloria Rocchio, Brian Hoerger, Andrew Harris, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., Heather Lynch, Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association, Susan Delgado, Angeline Judex, Janet Godfrey, Gina Mingoia, Boy Scout Troop 161 and Boy Scout Troop 204 at the event.

TBR News Media would like to thank Stony Brook University, the Three Village Inn, Dan Laffitte and the Lessing Family for sponsoring the reception, the Setauket Frame Shop for framing the award certificates, and Beverly Tyler for being our event photographer.