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Friends of Karen

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Dana Urbinati and her team of students took a break from rehearsals Monday night to pose for a photo. Photo by Heidi Sutton

For the past 29 years, students  at Comsewogue High School have showcased their eclectic talents with the community at “A Night for Jason,” a student-run variety show produced in honor of Jason Mariano, a child in the school district who succumbed to leukemia in 1987. This year’s event will take place on Friday, March 18, at 7 p.m. in the school’s auditorium.

The money raised from the event benefits Friends of Karen, a tristate children’s charity with an office in Port Jefferson, that offers emotional, financial and advocacy support for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families in order to keep them stable, functioning and able to cope.

“This is always such a great way to keep our students involved in caring for our community,” said Dana Urbinati, a teacher at the high school and coordinator of the event. “Along with the talents and energy of everyone involved, we want people to know that the funds raised are going to help some very special families in our communities.”

A diverse  mix of talents have graced the stage in the past and this year is no exception. Emceed by Jason Kellar, Eli Smith, Aleyna Kaya, Nicholas Keller and Ethan Wright, the evening will feature 22 acts including musical performances by the high school’s Jazz Band and female choir, Tapestry, along with singing, dancing, comedy and student bands. “This is an extremely talented, hardworking group and I’m just so grateful that we are able to help such an amazing charity,” said Urbinati.

Comsewogue High School is located at 565 N. Bicycle Path, Port Jefferson Station. Tickets for this one-night event are priced at $12 in advance by calling 631-474-8179 or $15 at the door. For more information about Friends of Karen, call 631-473-1768.

Richard Panico, of Miller Place, speaks as the Friends of Karen’s honoree at the organization's Long Island Gala. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Richard Panico is a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.

So it took some convincing when Friends of Karen wanted to honor Panico, a Miller Place resident, for his charitable nature during their third annual Long Island Gala on Friday, Dec. 4, at the Stonebridge Country Club in Smithtown. The organization’s Regional Director, Nancy Mariano, approached Panico earlier this year, asking to spotlight him at the event. Initially, he wasn’t thrilled with the idea.

“I read this somewhere [that] if more than one person knows you did a good deed, it’s no longer a good deed,” Panico said. “So … to me it’s just not necessary to have that kind of ego.”

Panico got involved with Friends of Karen three years ago when he purchased the building on Perry Street in Port Jefferson that the organization operates out of. Currently, Panico’s company Symbio, which provides clinical trial management services for pharmaceutical companies, and Friends of Karen share the building. He turned his efforts toward helping the organization, which aims to offer emotional and financial support to families of children with life-threatening illnesses, but his efforts didn’t start with Friends of Karen.

In 2003, one year after Panico’s company was established, he kickstarted its annual bike-a-thon at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai to help raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It held the fundraiser for seven years and raised more than $50,000.

“It was good for the company,” said Susan Swamback, an employee of Symbio. “It was good for all of us to feel like a team. … He loves that.”

Swamback also helped with the annual bike-a-thon, but the fundraising stopped after the company didn’t raise as much money as it had hoped, despite its efforts.

Over the past few years, Panico has donated skin creams to families that frequent hospitals and helped one child and his family attend a New York Mets baseball game. Panico’s nephew Tom McGuire added that his uncle also tries to help his family and friends.

During the gala, Mariano said Panico “is the kindest most generous father, husband and friend to all.” Mariano added that the organization was proud to acknowledge Panico at the event.

While the gala was a means to highlight people like Panico, it also helps Friends of Karen raise awareness and money to further its mission. In the organization’s 37 years, it’s helped around 5,500 sick children and their families. Panico said the organization works hard to achieve its goal, and even continued his own effort to help the organization during his honoree speech.

“If you are able to donate — if you’re able to buy raffle tickets, if you’re able to [participate] in the silent auctions, that would be fantastic,” Panico said during the gala. “If you can’t … tell your friends, spread the word.”