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Celina Wilson

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Bridge of Hope Resource Center founder Celina Wilson is planning to turn a family owned home on Roe Avenue into a shelter for at-risk girls ages 16 to 21. Image from Google Maps

As the old cliché goes, it’s impossible to know when opportunity will knock, just be ready to answer the door when it does. Opportunity knocked for Celina Wilson about 30 years ago, both literally and figuratively. She went on to dedicate her life’s work to the opportunity that was standing at her front door.

The Port Jefferson Station resident founded Bridge of Hope Resource Center with her husband, George, in the late 1990s, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening communities through family communication. The organization for years has been holding seminars, forums, workshops and other similar events to educate the community and arm parents with strategies for connecting with teens and young adults. Wilson and the organization’s overarching ethos is that education and prevention are the best means for keeping kids from falling victim to the ills lurking in society, like drug addiction and depression. In 2018, Wilson is hoping to advance Bridge of Hope’s mission a step further.

Wilson’s in-laws lived in Port Jefferson Station for about 30 years, but 10 years ago, after her husband’s mother died, her father-in-law, John Wilson, decided to move out of the longtime family home on Roe Avenue. The home was left to Bridge of Hope to use as an asset, sheltering families in crisis who had a hard time finding a place to live. Wilson said the only stipulation was the tenants needed to find work and contribute to the rent. Over the course of the last decade, Wilson said three or four families have stayed at the home.

Now, she plans to repurpose it to serve as a shelter for at-risk girls between 16 and 21 years old. The shelter — which will be called John’s House, to honor Wilson’s late father-in-law — will be a place for girls who run away from home or pose a risk of doing so due to conflicts with parents or guardians. While at the home, those staying in the five beds will be supervised and subjected to counseling and other programs in an effort to restore open lines of healthy communication with parents.

The inspiration for the home was several decades in the making for Wilson.

She was living with her now-husband’s family in the same Port Jeff Station home about 30 years ago, she recalled, when a 16-year-old boy knocked on her door. Even though it was 10 p.m., the then-21-year-old answered.

“He was wondering if he could sleep in our house,” Wilson said. “He was tired. He had a fight with his mom, and I’m figuring, ‘He must have knocked at plenty of houses. Why ours?’ We didn’t understand. But he asked us, ‘Please, just for the night, can I just come in?’ What went through my mind was, ‘If we don’t let him in, he’s going to be in the street and who knows what?’”

In the morning, Wilson remembers waking up wanting to hear more of his personal story, but by that time, he was already gone.

“What went through my mind was, ‘If we don’t let him in, he’s going to be in the street and who knows what?’”

— Celina Wilson

“I realized then, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many young people out there, I wonder what his mom was thinking, if she knew he was somewhere safe,’” she said. “The story repeats itself if we fast forward, but it’s
different today because of what our young people are facing.”

Wilson said the home will be funded by donations and some money from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which will also help in placing some of the girls in the home, though space will be available to accommodate the weary traveler like the one who knocked on her door 30 years ago.

“We feel the house is going to be a place where families can send their teens and work on situations that they themselves cannot work on in the home, and prevent them from running away,” Wilson said. “The goal is to reunite that youth back with their family.”

She said the length of stay for occupants will be determined on a case-by-case basis, with an eye toward sheltering those most in need, though she estimated many will be allowed to live there for up to 18 months. Each of the tenants will be expected to participate in counseling sessions and work toward agreed-upon goals, all while Bridge of Hope will be maintaining contact with the families to try to rebuild lines of communication. Wilson said the organization will follow up with the tenants even after they leave the home to make sure they stay on track as they grow up and prepare for independence.

One representative from the resource center will live permanently at the home, who Wilson referred to as the “house mom,” though aides, case workers and other specialists will also be on hand on a rotating basis seven days a week. She said tenants will be supervised at all times and expected to be at the home unless they’re at school, work or an organized activity.

She said admittance into the home will have nothing to do with demographics, as family conflict is common among all segments of society.

“It could be anyone’s child that is out there on the street,” Wilson said. “It could be my child.”

One community member who was helped by Wilson and Bridge of Hope said she sees the organization’s founder as the perfect person for an initiative like John’s House.

“She made things happen for me,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. She said Wilson and the
center worked with her for five years, assisting in finding work and getting her life on track while dealing with a physical disability. “She’s right for these kids. A lot of young people don’t have a place to go.”

She called Wilson a good person and a woman of her word, adding she wished the founder would run for political office.

Wilson said she contacted the Suffolk County Youth Bureau, an entity under the county executive’s purview dedicated to ensuring effective management of county funds for youth services, for assistance in
establishing policies for her initiative. She said the organization also conducted an inspection at the house, which will undergo minor renovations prior to her October target date for opening.

Though members of the bureau’s leadership declined to comment on the dealings with Bridge of Hope, one of its responsibilities includes monitoring and evaluating youth programs, research and planning; information and referrals; and training and technical assistance for community-based youth organizations, according to its website.

Wilson said she sees John’s house as a fitting tribute for the man it’s named after, who migrated to the United States from Jamaica in the Caribbean. He worked for years as a custodian at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital.

“He left such a legacy here and abroad that we thought it appropriate to call it John’s House because he lived a life of service, kindness and love to his fellow man,” she said.

To donate to help Wilson’s cause, visit www.gofundme.com/xtzv6n-hope-for-her.

Helping the Port Jefferson Station community has been Celina Wilson’s, center, mission since the 1980s. Photo from Facebook

By Rebecca Anzel

When Celina Wilson moved to Port Jefferson Station in 1985, she noticed her new community was underserved — and that she could help. Some Spanish-speaking female residents had problems accessing health care, specifically mammograms.

A nurse and Spanish-speaker herself, Wilson worked to partner with the American Cancer Association to bring these women informational materials, teach them how to conduct self-examinations and schedule mammograms with a mobile service.

She founded Bridge of Hope Resource Center in 1998 with her husband to continue helping Port Jefferson Station residents get free health care by partnering with other organizations and community leaders. As other issues the community faced came to her attention, Wilson expanded the scope of Bridge of Hope to include them.

The organization gets feedback from residents and takes them straight to public officials. So far, it has tackled issues such as safety in schools post-Sandy Hook and drug abuse awareness and prevention.

“I believe that the more awareness you raise about issues communities face, the less chance there is of our communities becoming unstable,” Wilson said. “I really want Port Jefferson Station to stay strong.”

For her work advocating for Port Jefferson Station residents and fighting to combat drug abuse, Times Beacon Record News Media is recognizing Celina Wilson as a Person of the Year.

“Celina Wilson is a resource for Port Jeff Station — she’s been doing this for decades,” Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant said in an interview. “She does this because she cares so much about not only her own children, but all our children, and I am just so impressed by her.”

Bridge of Hope uses education as a tool to help show community members why drug use is dangerous. Wilson said she thinks it is important to share information about the “basics” of drug abuse — what changes it makes in a user’s brain, risk factors that might lead to someone turning to drugs and signs someone is using.

“We work to make sure that when you look at Port Jefferson Station, people know it’s a community that’s got it together and can weather any problems.”

— Celina Wilson

She shared that information in an educational forum at Port Jefferson High School in mid-October. Also on the panel was a Stony Brook Children’s Hospital doctor of adolescent medicine and a scientist who focuses on addiction’s effect on the brain. The event marked the first time Bridge of Hope was able to host an educational event in a school.

The goal of the forum, Wilson said, was to educate parents and others in attendance about the “root causes” of drug abuse. She expressed to parents there are signs to look for and risk factors that might lead their children to turn to drugs — such as not understanding the world around them and a lack of confidence and self-esteem — and stressed the importance of keeping an open line of communication with their children.

“It’s important that parents are educated about these things so they don’t feel helpless,” Wilson said. “I found out a week or two later the parents there were receptive to the information we shared at the forum, which was a big accomplishment for us.”

Other educational efforts include publishing an article called “The Amazing Human Brain” on the Bridge of Hope website that focuses on brain function and working to create a traveling museum exhibit to make the community more aware of drug abuse.

Dori Scofield, founder of Dan’s Foundation for Recovery, worked with Wilson on the exhibit, which will launch next year. She said she loves the work Bridge of Hope does making a difference in the community.

“Celina is amazing and I love working with her on community issues,” she said. “She is an inspiration to all of us who work in the field of improving life for all.”

Bridge of Hope also works in Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore, but creating a support system for residents in Port Jefferson Station is not any less important to Wilson now than it was when the organization was founded 18 years ago.

“We really want our community to stay strong and our families to have stability. We don’t want to hear about our youths overdosing,” Wilson said. “We work to make sure that when you look at Port Jefferson Station, people know it’s a community that’s got it together and can weather any problems.”

The organization also offers mentoring opportunities for teens in need of extra guidance.

To contact Bridge of Hope Resource Center call 631-338-4340 or visit www.bridgeofhoperc.com.