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Francis Pizzarelli

From left, PJSTCA President Ira Costell with Jessica Labia and Dwayne Brown of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless. Photo by Aidan Johnson
By Aidan Johnson

The Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association addressed issues regarding the unhoused at its general meeting Tuesday, July 25.

The civic meeting was joined by Father Francis Pizzarelli, founder and executive director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson, as well as officers from the Suffolk County Police Department and members of an organization that helps the homeless 

During the meeting, Pizzarelli shared his experience assisting the homeless, including his meeting of a homeless Vietnam war veteran 35 years ago who was sleeping in a box village in the middle of winter.

The distraught veteran, who was most likely struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, came to Pizzarelli after one of his friends who was also living in the box village froze to death.

After finding there was little help offered for homeless veterans, Pizzarelli started Pax Christi Hospitality Center, an emergency shelter for men in Port Jefferson.

Pizzarelli expressed that a stronger partnership is needed between social services, the community and law enforcement. However, Pizzarelli also noted that law enforcement’s hands are tied in many situations, though they have always “been willing to be a part of the conversation.”

Pizzarelli highlighted the lack of treatment facilities and steps in place to help people in the homeless community.

“The social networking that was in place 35 years ago is nonexistent,” Pizzarelli said. “It’s just a repetitive cycle of setting people up for failure.”

For example, there is a lack of transitional housing for people once they leave a shelter such as Pax Christi, and the ones that are there, “you wouldn’t want a rat to live in,” he said.

A Suffolk County police officer spoke about what is and is not considered a crime when it comes to homelessness, and the role that the police can play.

“We’re not allowed to arrest people for being homeless, we’re not allowed to arrest people for begging,” the officer clarified.

“It used to be against the New York State Penal Law to stand in front of a business and beg. That was taken off the books, so what we’re left with is a [state] Vehicle and Traffic Law, because realistically, it’s not going to solve the problem, us arresting them at that specific moment,” the officer continued.

The officer said police can write a person a traffic ticket if they are on a road begging, which could possibly lead to a warrant and then an arrest, but reiterated the police cannot simply make an arrest for begging.

There are also laws in place that allow police to take a person into custody if they are deemed to be either a danger to themselves or others. However, the officer explained that the law’s threshold criteria is very high.

The police department has also put the Behavioral Health Unit to effect.

“We have these officers; they go out to these specific locations where the homeless people … are, and we try to attack it [by] offering them social services such as housing and drug counseling, and we hope that they will voluntarily take it,” the officer said.

Jessica Labia and Dwayne Brown of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless were also in attendance to speak on issues. Labia furthered the point of the lack of resources, saying, “The more resources that are put into folks that are experiencing homelessness or low income on Long Island, the more we’re able to help them get into housing.”

She also suggested that arresting homeless people wasn’t helpful, as it can make it more difficult to house people when they have a criminal history.

Labia and Brown reminded everyone that homelessness was not just in the Port Jefferson Station area, but rather Long Island as a whole has between 3,000 and 4,000 homeless people on any given night.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

On April 26 I presided at a funeral like no other in my 37 years within our community. The young man died too young — he was only 25. He came from a loving, tight-knit family. At the end of his funeral Mass, his father came to the pulpit and shared this powerful reflection:

“At my funeral these were my words spoken through my dad. I passed away on April 22, 2016, and I am looking to help those who struggle like I did. This is my story and my truth.

My name is Billy. I want to thank you all for coming and supporting my family. I shouldn’t be in this box but I am, and I’m doing great now. You know I am both a simple and complicated person. I am private, very private and proud. But even though I am so private my family and friends knew so much about me. For those who may not really know me, I’m going to share myself with you.

As a kid, I loved my sister J cause she taught me how to play baseball and everything else. I loved baseball — playing catch and doing pop-ups and grounders with J and my dad. I love my other sister — she was my second mother; she always made sure I was safe. I love my mom —she truly did everything for me. She is a rock — she was my rock. I love my dog Bullet. He was sick and we had to put him down just a few months ago. He always listened to me perfectly. He was my companion and his ashes are right next to me now.

I grew up in Miller Place and I loved baseball with my close friends. Did you know that I didn’t like school? (except of course if the teacher was pretty and of course going each day to see my friends.)

See, I had a problem with pills, actually for long time. This disease tortured and tormented me. My mom and dad took me to rehab many times. I did internal rehabs every minute of every day of my life. At times, I was so successful for long stretches . . . but, then I would give in and I don’t know why. I cannot explain it. It weighed heavy on me…

So, let me tell you what actually happened on Friday, April 22. It was a great day. I went outside. The sun was shining and actually it was a little warm, especially as I shot some basketball hoops in the driveway. I saw my mom, then texted her again later. I went to Stop and Shop for candy. I couldn’t wait for dad to get home — the weekend — cousin Dave’s house on Sunday — Game of Thrones Sunday night.

Then the devil took over. He tormented me like many times before. My heart hurt, my brain wasn’t working right. I went and sold a valuable of mine and I bought heroin. For the first time I thought I had a plan that would last but, of course, instead it killed me. I went softly as God said I had enough. The devil wasn’t going to torment me anymore. I was at home, where I loved to be, and now I’m in heaven smiling.

I’m sorry I have caused you so much pain. I always worried about everyone too.  I need everyone to go back to their routines and be safe. Please listen to me. Hug your loved ones like I hugged and kissed my mom and dad and sisters. Don’t let a minute ago by without saying ‘I love you.’ My pain is over. Enjoy. Be happy for me. Make me proud too. Be loyal to each other.

Lastly, I always struggled searching for what I was going to do with my life — my future. How can I be successful and live up to my own expectations? I now know and I’m smiling, because I actually got asked to be an angel, an angel to watch over my dad and mom and all the people I love and care for. I found my calling and I have a lot of work to do!

Please be smart and be careful. I love you all past the sky … My name is Billy. Don’t forget me!”

What you have just read are excerpts from a powerful letter written by a grieving dad in his loving son’s name. Since his son’s death, he, his wife and daughters have committed themselves to raising awareness to this national health epidemic that is claiming so many lives rich with potential and possibility.

The challenge before us is daunting. We must take the blinders off and realize that together we can eradicate this epidemic in our community if we care enough to stand up and be counted.

*Excerpts are reprinted with permission from the Reitzig family.

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

A few months ago a lead story on the front page of a number of daily newspapers in our larger community supported the headline “I forgive you!” It was the words expressed by the son of a highly respected woman who was killed by a highly respected doctor on the North Shore who drove home under the influence.

The son addressed the judge, the court and the doctor on behalf of his family. He said, “you are still a good man and you are still a good doctor.” He went on to express that the physician needed to move forward with his life and continue to do good for others. “That is what our mother would want.”

The doctor expressed profound regret and remorse. Allegedly all who were in the court that day were powerfully moved. The judge was so moved by the victim’s family’s compassion and forgiveness that he sentenced the doctor to a much lighter sentence than he had initially intended.

This family’s compassion and call for forgiveness is a powerful challenge to all of us. When we are victimized, our initial reaction is to be vindictive and/or get even; forgiveness rarely makes it to center stage.

So many drug- and alcohol-related tragedies are not calculated but are caused by reckless decision-making. Reckless decision-making does not always equal a bad person. A growing number of extraordinary young people are making poor choices that are very costly. They must be held accountable. However, long jail sentences are not the answer. They do not rehabilitate the person; too often they merely reinforce negative behavior.

Long-term incarceration for nonviolent drug and alcohol offenses are not cost-effective or helpful. We spend thousands of dollars to warehouse human beings that need treatment and rehabilitation so they might grow from this tragic circumstance and not become recidivists but rather become productive contributing members of our community.

Recently I presided at the funeral of a young man from a fine family from Nassau County who overdosed on heroin. He was 28. I worked with him in treatment a number of years ago.

TJ had battled addiction since he was 15 years old. He started using at the end of high school. In his early 20’s, his drug use was out of control. With great reluctance, he finally agreed to long-term treatment, after countless short-term programs did not work.

As a broken young man, he found his way to a long-term, nontraditional residential treatment program. He finished his formal treatment in 18 months and elected to stay for an additional two years. His friends and family said those three years were the best years of his life.

After he left that community, his journey was fraught with chronic relapses. His last relapse took his young life. While he was in long-term treatment, he was diagnosed with a depressive and anxiety disorder. He reluctantly agreed to take medication, which helped greatly, but he hated the stigma that came with that decision. When he left treatment, he stopped all his medications and hid behind his smile, his compassionate heart and his generous spirit.

It has been my experience that a growing number of hard-core heroin addicts suffer from the additional affliction of a variety of mental health disorders that unfortunately go undiagnosed and untreated.

The heroin epidemic is a national health crisis. Our traditional approach to treatment is failing miserably. Too many insurance companies are sentencing our young adults to death because outpatient treatment for most opiate addicts does not work — they fail because they die!

Our political leaders at every level of government express so-called concern about the severity of this national health crisis. However, they continue to hide behind their rhetoric that provides great photo ops but no additional money or beds for long-term treatment.

Let’s demand that they deliver on their empty promises!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

It is only February of the new year and yet it is hard to believe that more than a dozen young people from our larger community have died prematurely from reckless decision-making and heroin overdoses.

Researchers in Suffolk County are saying that at least one person a day is dying of a heroin overdose. School districts are training their faculty and staff on how to use Narcan — that new nasal spray that is literally bringing people back to life. One local not-for-profit agency recently trained more than 60 members from the Port Jefferson community on how to use this miracle nasal spray.

Slowly, people seem to be finally recognizing the seriousness of this infectious epidemic. Parents are moving beyond their denial and painfully realizing that this affliction is threatening their children’s livelihood and is here to stay.

Awareness is rising but unfortunately at a snail’s pace; law enforcement and our criminal justice system are finally seeing this epidemic as it should be seen — as a serious health crisis, not as a crime.

Unfortunately, insurance companies continue to have the power over people’s lives with no accountability. They continue to determine, even though it’s supposed to be against the law, who lives and who dies, who gets access to residential drug and alcohol treatment and who doesn’t.

A few months ago, a desperate family sought my assistance for their 25-year-old son T.J. who was a hard-core heroin addict — and they didn’t have a clue! He almost died and finally was open to serious treatment. He said to his mom, “I will do whatever it takes to take back my life and live again!”

Unfortunately, I did not have a bed immediately available — our waiting list has 25 people on it and it is growing exponentially every day. I suggested a number of well-respected, short-term residential rehabilitation centers within our larger community.

Their insurance company would not pay for a short-term residential rehabilitation center until T.J. tried an intensive outpatient program. He did that; on the third day he failed. He overdosed on heroin and died.

Heroin is like no other drug on the street today. People trying it once are becoming hooked. It is destroying children, mothers and fathers and whole families. Bright kids, athletes, the rich and the poor — this drug knows no parameters or boundaries. Anyone who uses it is vulnerable for destruction.

This reprehensible policy is sentencing more and more heroin addicts to a premature death. T.J.’s insurance company should be held accountable and charged with his death!

As a community, we must stand up and say “No more!” What will it take? How many more bright, talented young people have to die before the people in power are ready to do something that really will make a difference?

Recently, at a local community meeting, Sen. Kenneth LaValle said that the State Senate was going to make the heroin epidemic a number-one priority on their agenda this year. Let’s storm the State Senate and the Governor’s office with letters and emails urging and demanding that they act now before another family buries a young person with a limitless possibility and promise.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Little Portion Friary is on Old Post Road in Mount Sinai. Photo by Giselle Barkley

After 35 years, Hope House Ministries is reuniting with its roots.

Earlier this year, in light of financial difficulties and a lack of manpower, the Franciscan Brothers of the Little Portion Friary on Old Post Road in Mount Sinai announced their building was closing. But this past spring, Father Francis Pizzarelli approached the brothers about acquiring part of the property, and now it can still have a future.

According to Pizzarelli, his Port Jefferson-based nonprofit Hope House Ministries began at the Little Portion Friary location, when it rented the friary’s guesthouse. The group has since grown, adding local properties such as the Pax Christi Hospitality Center on Oakland Avenue in Port Jefferson, where it shelters homeless men. Now it will return to where it all started.

Pizzarelli said the brothers were going to sell the 44-acre property to a developer who was going to build condominiums. Instead, Hope House will rent four acres of the lot — with the rent going toward the land’s purchase price — while the remaining 40 acres will go to Suffolk County. Hope House will change the facility’s name to Hope Academy at Little Portion Friary and use the building to further assist and support the people who are battling addiction.

With Long Island facing heroin addiction in particular as a widespread problem, Pizzarelli said he didn’t have enough space to help, so he first purchased an apartment house in Port Jefferson to accommodate those individuals brought in for assistance.

“What the friary is going to provide for me is greater space,” Pizzarelli said.

The young men who currently reside at the apartment house will be moved to the friary, and the additional space will give them more room to reflect and help further their treatment, the priest said.

The building required basic maintenance and renovations, including repainting the bedrooms, replacing carpets and cleaning the facility.

“When the brothers realized they had to leave, they weren’t going to spend money on a building that might have been demolished,” Pizzarelli said.

Hope House began renovating the building in September. Residents like Ann Moran of Sound Beach described the friary as a “little known secret” in the Mount Sinai area. She was pleased about the friary’s new future, saying, “I’m delighted that Hope House is taking it over and the [friary] won’t be closing.”

Pizzarelli said his neighbors were also thrilled that Hope House was preserving the friary’s nearly eight and a half decades of service to the community.

Despite the changes, one local tradition will remain — the bakery is and will still be open for business. For many years, the brothers were known locally for baking bread and have passed the baton to Hope House, which has been selling bread since October.

Pizzarelli said he kept the bakery “not so much to make money, but to basically honor the brothers and their 86 years.”

The labyrinth and chapel will also be available for community members to use.

According to the Little Portion Friary website, the friary helped serve the community through “prayer, study and work.” The brothers of the friary occasionally took in homeless people or others who simply needed a safe place to go.

The Franciscan brothers are currently in San Francisco and were not available for comment, but Pizzarelli said the brothers were also pleased to know the friary would be used for a good cause.

“The Franciscan brothers have always been supportive of this ministry and are grateful that [the] ministry will continue to give life to this holy ground.”

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By Father Francis Pizzarelli

Since my last column, I’m aware of more than a dozen heroin overdoses in our larger North Shore community. Ten are recovering and two others are not among us any longer. These casualties of this infectious drug are young and old, rich and poor, well-educated and not so well-educated, white, black and Hispanic.

The painful reality is that right here in our wonderful North Shore community, our children and grandchildren are socializing with young men and women who are using heroin. Some of you work with them; some others unknowingly have met them on the supermarket line. This drug is everywhere; many of our young adults have connections who drop the drug off at their homes. It is mind-boggling.

The 10 who are barely recovering need to be in a long-term rehabilitation settings — that is, long-term residential treatment programs that are longer than three months. The access to treatment should be yesterday, not tomorrow, or next week or next month; that might be too late.

Insurance companies should not have the right to sentence your loved ones to death. If treatment is recommended by a licensed professional, one’s insurance company should bend over backward to accommodate that referral and pay without argument that claim.

Last year three young adults died waiting to get into residential treatment because their insurance companies said they had to fail at outpatient treatment first before they would pay for long-term treatment! That approach is not only scandalous, it’s criminal. They did fail at outpatient treatment — they died; three great young adults with so much possibility and potential.

Unfortunately, we do not have enough detox beds and enough long-term treatment beds for the epidemic need before us. Everyone is talking about this crisis, but few are doing anything about it. Our elected officials are deaf and blind to this issue. Only one candidate running for office in our county even made reference to the heroin epidemic in her platform. We don’t need another bill that lacks force, or another photo opportunity that gets lost to the archives of social indifference.

What we need is action today. We need people to step up and speak out and to continue to speak out until enough politicians take notice and are really finally willing to do something about this serious health crisis.

How many more vibrant young lives have to be lost before real action is taken — action that truly makes a difference?

What do concerned citizens and caring parents do? I believe we need to come together and provide mutual support for this lethal health crisis. We need to educate one another about the signs and symptoms. We need to remove the stigma around acknowledging the problem and stop the shame and blame game. We need to just care about the growing number of our young people who are being victimized by this lethal epidemic. We need to create a cooperative spirit within our larger community.

We need to network the religious community, the educational community and the governmental community. They need to work together to create resources that are desperately needed for those who have been infected. We don’t have the time to pass the buck; too many lives are at stake.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

JT was the middle son from a wonderful family in our community. He was a senior in the philosophy program at Stony Brook University. This summer he was studying diligently for his LSATs because he was hoping to go to law school next fall. He was bright, handsome, funny, and very compassionate and loving. His family and friends loved him beyond words.

On a Wednesday in mid-August, JT overdosed on heroin. He had been battling heroin since he was 16 years old. His family did everything humanly possible to support his recovery. He had long stretches of excellent recovery, but this drug is so infectious and debilitating. It was hard and challenging almost every day.

On the Saturday after his death, I painfully presided at his funeral in a local North Shore Catholic Church. More than 600 people gathered to honor and celebrate JT’s life and show support for his devastated family. Most who were present were his peers — young people. His short life was senselessly lost because of a destructive choice with so much potential taken away from him in an instant.

Shortly after JT’s body was committed to the earth, a young man who was at his funeral overdosed on heroin. Thanks to the quick response of a friend who had Narcan with him, he lived!

After his release from a local hospital, the young man was encouraged to go back to a rehab center for extended treatment. His insurance made it very difficult. Finally, a rehab was willing to admit him, with the hopes of keeping him for 28 days, but only kept him for six days because that’s all his insurance would pay for.

This young man, at 24, is a chronic heroin user. He needs long-term residential care. The actions of both the rehab that released him because he could not pay and the insurance company who denied payment are equally unconscionable. Their decision-making is scandalous. If this 24-year-old dies, they should be held accountable for their social indifference.

Pope Francis is challenging people around the world to take care of their brothers and sisters, especially the poorest of the poor. We are among the richest country in the world and treat the most vulnerable among us like lepers.

It is very troubling that no one running for public office has the heroin epidemic on their political agenda. What will it take for those who lead us to recognize the senseless loss of young life around us because of destructive decision-making? When are the people in power going to allocate enough funds to increase long-term treatment beds for everyone — not just the rich and the overly insured?

When is the criminal justice system going to recognize that building bigger jails to house more and more young people that suffer from addiction is not the way to respond or ameliorate our epidemic drug problem?

How many more young people have to lose their lives because of this insidious epidemic before those who lead us take their heads out of the sand and do something courageous that will make a difference and protect the quality of life around all of us?

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

August reminds us that the summer is quickly coming to a close. Football teams begin to practice. College students begin to leave for the new semester.

Among our college students leaving for school will be this year’s freshman class. It should be an exciting time in the life of any young person preparing to go away to school. It is the next step in his/her journey.

Unfortunately, too many of our college freshmen are not prepared for the challenges that living away at school presents. For many, it is the first time they are away from home for an extended period of time without any parental supervision or any accountability. No one’s going to tell them when and what to eat, when to shower, go to bed, get up on time and get to class.

The first month is a major adjustment for the new student. There are parties and social events almost every night. College freshmen must learn effective time management to be successful. It’s very easy to get lost in the excitement of this newfound freedom and not invest oneself into one’s most important priority: school.

The freshman who becomes consumed with partying and socializing and puts his or her academic obligations on hold will probably not fare well at the end of the semester. College academic life is very different from high school. In high school, your teachers stay on top of you. They contact your parents when you cut and don’t hand in work. In college, professors treat you as an adult. They expect you to come to class and hand your assignments in on time. They don’t call home if you cut or if you don’t hand work in. Usually you receive a failing grade and/or depending on the attendance policy of the class get dropped from the class.

Parents of first-time college students need to realize even though you might be paying your child’s tuition, the college is not going to communicate with you about your son or daughter’s academic progress. So it would be wise before your student leaves for college to talk about communication; when and how frequently you will connect. It would be advisable to talk about academic performance and your expectations, but most importantly create a climate that keeps the lines of communication open at all costs with your student.

Most colleges and universities have a wellness center. You should make sure your college coed knows where the center is and what services it offers. More colleges are providing spiritual support by recruiting clergy from the major religious denominations and inviting them on campus to provide religious services during the school year.

The college landscape of today has radically changed from 20 years ago. My experience as a college educator is that many of our college students are ill prepared for college life and the challenges that living away from home present.

As parents we cannot control how our children think or how they act. We can lead by example but need to convey our love and support for them especially when they struggle. Most importantly, we need to hold them accountable for all the choices that they make.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Every time a young person dies because of a heroin overdose, I take pause and I ask myself, “What is it going to take to end this horrific epidemic? When are people going to take their heads out of the sand? When will people realize that their voices need to be raised to challenge a government that is broken and misguided and a health care system that is more fixated on finance than on treatment?”

In recent months, every media outlet has done an exposé on the heroin epidemic on Long Island. Each piece has underscored that the epidemic is not getting better — but rather, is getting worse.

The working class person and the poor have few to no options when it comes to residential treatment for addictions; the two treatment options that are free have waiting lists in the double-digit numbers.

The classic insurance company line: “fail at outpatient treatment first and then we’ll pay for a 30-day inpatient treatment program.” Parents who have insurance for outpatient treatment or can afford to pay out-of-pocket are doing this.

A record numbers of heroin and opiate addicts are failing — they are dying! These are senseless deaths that need not happen.

It is unconscionable that insurance companies are allowed to get away with murder!

Parents need to be more vigilant for their children who are trapped in the dysfunction and disorder of addiction and other destructive behaviors. Enabling them is counterproductive and basically harmful, if one is serious about recovery.

Every month, at least two or three families come to see me about their children who are out of control because of drug use. We talk about their son or daughter’s drug history and drug of choice. They ask me what they should do. They ask for recommendations.

When I outline what I think they need to consider, I see panic in their eyes and realize their lack of understanding as to the seriousness of heroin addiction. From my experience as an addictions specialist, most young people between the ages of 18 and 35 need long-term residential treatment, 12 to 18 months, if they have any hope of recovering.

What amazes me is their initial response. I have worked with young people battling heroin addiction for more than 25 years; my training and experience tell me that the average heroin addict needs long-term care if they hope to reclaim their life. After I say that, a growing number of parents begin to make excuses, and minimize the seriousness of their son or daughter’s addiction.

Honestly, these parents are in denial. I further remind them that while their children are in treatment there are no cell phones, no computers and no access to social media. They must be focused on recovery and that is hard work.

Life on a good day is hard work; recovery is even harder when trying to reclaim one’s life. It is a demanding process. It is one day at a time and some days it’s one minute at a time. However, I know change and transformation are possible. I see it firsthand every day, as I witness broken and wounded young men embrace the challenge and the hard work of reclaiming their lives.

As a community, we need to work harder at educating people about addiction and its many faces, and create a stronger community of support, compassion and concern. I am encouraged and inspired every day by our community. It gives me hope that this epidemic one day will end!

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli, SMM

June is the month to celebrate so many wonderful connections. We celebrate the beginning of summer, various graduations and the gift of our fathers.

For many of us, our fathers were our first role models for hard work, compassion and unconditional love.  For many, our dads taught us how to love and forgive by the power of their words and example.

As the summer unfolds, many of us shift gears to better appreciate this season.  We are profoundly reminded of the many achievements of our young people.  Kindergarten graduations, moving-up ceremonies, junior high and high school graduations — each are life moments that mark significant achievements in the lives of our young people.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched — they must be felt with the heart,” said Helen Keller. This year, our schools have been in crisis because of the conflict around the common core, teacher evaluations and empowering students to learn not just academic lessons but also life lessons.

An extraordinary group of young men and women have graduated from our high schools. Our communities are better and brighter because these young men and women have spent time in our schools. They are our future leaders and hopefully they will continue their educational journey with passion and energy, believing that they can make a difference in our world.

Seniors, as you graduate from high school, always look to discover enough goodness in others to believe in a world of peace; be willing to work for peace grounded in justice. May a kind word, a reassuring touch and a warm smile be yours, every day of your life. Remember the sunshine when the storm seems unending. Teach love to those who only know hate and let the love embrace you as you continue your journey in the world.

Think positive and make positive choices. Choice, not chance determines one’s destiny. You may make a living by what you get, but make a life by what you give. Give generously of your heart, your time, your talents and your treasure. The autograph you leave will make a tremendous difference in our world.

Don’t judge a book by its’ cover, or stop at the introduction! Read it through; see the meaning and message it offers for life.  Everyone’s life is sacred, even those who are different from you or you do not like are important.

Be more inclusive than exclusive.  Don’t be blinded by those who tend to use shame, blame, guilt and religion to shackle and divide people. Set people free with your respect and your nonjudgmental way.

May you never become too concerned with material things, but instead place an immeasurable value on the goodness in your heart and in the hearts of others. Find time each day to see beauty and love in the world around you. Realize you have limitless opportunities and possibilities.

May you have enough inner strength to determine your own worth and not be dependent on another’s judgment of your accomplishments. Get up every day and be grateful for what you have.  See every life experience and human encounter as a learning experience, as an opportunity to grow and become more than you are now.

So, graduates, as you take leave and begin a new chapter in your lives, what is your purpose? What is your mission? Your life will be what you create today. No one can take that life from you. There is no blackboard in the sky that has your life outlined for you. You get to fill the blackboard of your life with whatever you feel is important. If you have filled it with junk in the past, wipe it clean. Erase all the hurt and pain that has blocked you from living and loving; be grateful that you are now in a place where you have meaning and the opportunity for new beginnings.

May you build bridges, not walls. Live a balanced life. Learn a little, think a little, dance, play and have a great sense of humor. But most of all, be aware of wonder.

We live in a world that is very deceptive. Don’t let the corrupt political rhetoric of our time blind your seeing, impair your hearing or shackle your dreaming. As you graduate, the social landscape you must navigate is treacherous. Be prepared to sail stormy waters, but don’t lose heart; draw on the goodness that lives within and on the goodness of others to stay the course.

May your moral compass be grounded in respect for all human beings, no matter what their color, race, creed or sexual orientation. May this compass guide you on a path that is committed to working for peace and social justice. As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Congratulations graduates of 2015. Thanks for making the world a little richer, a little brighter and a better place to be!

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.