By Kevin Redding
Since the untimely passing of Tom Cutinella in October 2014, the memory of Shoreham’s beloved student-athlete has lived on within the district, from the dedication of the high school’s athletic field in his name to a life-size bust and memorial wall close to it.
But perhaps no remembrance captures the kindhearted spirit of the fallen football player quite like the newly built “buddy bench,” to be installed on the playground at Wading River Elementary School.
“Character is what sets us aside from one another. This ‘buddy bench’ will inspire you all even more to be like Thomas and Kaitlyn … to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”
Adorned with the inscription “Be A Friend Make A Friend” underneath the dedication “In Loving Memory of Thomas Cutinella,” the bench serves to eliminate loneliness and promote friendship among children — when those feeling alone or bullied sit on the bench, other students are encouraged to take a seat next to them and ask if they want to be friends.
It was donated in Cutinella’s honor by Kait’s Angels, a North Fork-based non-profit started just weeks after Mattituck resident Kaitlyn Doorhy, a 20-year-old college student at Sacred Heart University, was struck and killed by a car in August 2014.
So far, the organization has installed more than 10 benches in her memory at every elementary school on the North Fork, including Cutchogue East and Greenport, as well as a senior center in Southold. This is the first one built in someone else’s name.
“This bench defines what Tom stood for,” Kelli Cutinella, Tom’s mother, told students, administrators and parents packed into the elementary school’s gym for the bench’s ribbon-cutting ceremony June 16. Speaking directly to the students, she said, “character is what sets us aside from one another. This ‘buddy bench’ will inspire you all even more to be like Thomas and Kaitlyn … to do the right thing, even when no one is looking … have that character that sets you aside from everyone and always let your peers know they have a friend and are never alone.”
“Their legacy has come together for a special reason and Kaitlin and Thomas will always be remembered here. Even though they’re not here in the flesh, their spirits live on.”
It was during his years at the elementary school that Cutinella started being recognized as someone special, who took the school’s teachings about trustworthiness, respect and caring to heart.
He was a kind, selfless kid who was quick to help others and make friends with anyone he crossed paths with, no matter who they were.
“[Tom] was a friend to everyone, and I mean everyone,” said Cutinella, who was joined at the event by her husband, Frank, and their children. “He was a natural helper and a best buddy.”
Cutinella’s life was was tragically cut short nearly three years ago following a head-on collision with an opposing player on a football field during a high school game.
Darla Doorhy, Kaitlin’s mother, reached out to Kelli Cutinella around Christmas time to discuss collaborating on the dedication, which took about six months to come to fruition. The bench was purchased by Kait’s Angels from Belson Outdoors in Illinois.
She said Tom and her daughter — who had been a Girl Scout ambassador, National Honor Society member, multi-sport athlete, musician and organizer for countless fundraising efforts — were very similar in their generosity towards others, right down to being registered organ donors.
“Their legacy has come together for a special reason and Kaitlin and Thomas will always be remembered here,” Doorhy said. “Even though they’re not here in the flesh, their spirits live on.”
“The truth is that every one of you has the power to transform the world in the decisions you make. If you see anyone sitting on that bench, that means you go up and ask, ‘Hey, can you come and play with me?’
Cutinella agreed there’s a special connection between their children, and said she was humbled to be approached by Doorhy and Kait’s Angels.
“Certainly there’s a commonality of the tragedies,” President of Kait’s Angels, William Araneo, said. “Although physically there will always be an empty chair, her presence remains strong … she continues to find ways to bring us together and this is one example of that. And just like Tom, Kaitlin reserved a place in her heart for those who may not have been popular, and persevered to make friends with those who might be developmentally challenged.”
Wading River Elementary School Principal Louis Parrinello called on a few students from each grade, starting with second, to place notes they wrote earlier in the day into a large basket next to the bench.
Scribbled on the notes were ways in which a student could make friends with another; one student wrote, “I can make a friend by playing with them,” while another student’s note said, “I can make a friend by talking to them about what they like.”
A small group of students who knew Cutinella personally were called up to cut the ribbon and be the first to sit on the bench.
“We learn about people in history, like Abraham Lincoln and Betsy Ross … people who have transformed the world,” Parrinello said to the room of students, “but the truth is that every one of you has the power to transform the world in the decisions you make. If you see anyone sitting on that bench, that means you go up and ask, ‘Hey, can you come and play with me?’ It’s about opening up and starting something new.”