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Middle Country school district

Marc Greene

By Kimberly Brown

Long Island Music’s Hall of Fame announced Marc Greene as its newest 2020 Educator of Note.

Working for several decades in teaching and supervising music education, the LIMHOF explained how Greene has shown exemplary work and passion throughout his career. 

“It is so very exciting and humbling to be recognized as the 2020 Long Island Music Hall of Fame Educator of Note,” Greene said. “So many of the previous honorees are esteemed music education colleagues and mentors, providing very large footsteps in which to follow and broad shoulders upon which to stand.”

After teaching for a dozen years at middle school and high school levels in upstate, New York, Greene took a job at Newfield High School, where he became the director of choral and theater activities. 

Four years later, he was approached by Cecil Ramsey, former Middle Country Superintendent of Schools, who urged him to become state certified as an educational administer. 

Taking on his new role, he implemented a long-term plan to enhance the Arts Education experience for Middle Country students.

In 10 years, some of the programs he established on Long Island were a string orchestra program — that enrolls over 1,100 students annually — specialized kindergarten music instruction, and a music curriculum that would feature the development of social guitar, keyboard and drumming performance skills for middle and elementary school children. 

After serving his tenure at Middle County, Greene then continued to serve as a chairperson for the Suffolk New York State Council of Administrators of Music Education Honors Chorus.

He also served NYSSMA as an assistant to the Zone 14 Suffolk County representative, as a member of the statewide Curriculum Committee, and as an All-State Voice and Vocal Jazz and Choral adjudicator. 

“Upon my retirement from the public sector in 2013, I immediately joined the faculty of the Ithaca College School of Music, serving as a supervisor of student teachers on Long Island and in the New York metropolitan area,” Greene said. 

While continuing to work with the school districts of Long Island in a multitude of ways, Greene also manages a small voice instruction studio and provides vocal performance, as well as piano accompaniment.

“Long Island truly is a great place to make music, to teach music, and to surround oneself with a cadre of people who truly understand the power of music to embellish the lives of children and adults alike.”

And for all he did for students, not only in Middle Country, but across New York State, the honor came unquestioned.

“The Long Island Music Hall of Fame is very excited to honor such an accomplished and respected educator,” said LIMHOF Education Committee Chairman Tom Needham. “He is one of a small group of music educators who have had such a long-lasting and significant impact on so many music students all over Long Island.”

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Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

The Middle Country Central School District (MCCSD) has selected four students — Isabella Zimmerman, Centereach High School; Parker McPhillips, Newfield High School; Michael Ramos Cody, Selden Middle School; and Naveed Bayan, Dawnwood Middle School — as its student of the month recipients for January.

“Students who are selected as student of the month have distinguished themselves as individuals who actively emulate our district’s mission in empowering and inspiring all students in Middle Country,” said Superintendent Dr. Roberta Gerold. “It is with great pride that we congratulate Isabella, Parker, Michael,and Naveed for this tremendous achievement. Each of these students have proven themselves worthy of this distinction by maintaining exceptionally high standards in the classroom and community, and keeping busy with their respective extracurriculars — all with a positive attitude.”

Isabella Zimmerman

Isabella Zimmerman, a senior at Centereach High School, is widely recognized as a natural leader and ambitious young woman inside and outside of the classroom. Upon graduation in June, Isabella will have completed no less than seven college level courses while also balancing extracurricular activities. 

Since the 10th grade, Isabella has been an active member of the Tri-M Music Honor Society and currently holds the position of president. In her role, she spearheaded a Thanksgiving food drive, as well as a holiday greeting card drive as a way to give back to the community during challenging times. Isabella, also a scholar athlete, has been a member of the CHS Varsity Cheerleading throughout high school. Simultaneously, Isabella pursues gymnastics through an outside organization and mentors younger gymnasts in her free time. 

In the fall, Isabella plans to study at Utica College and pursue a career in physical therapy.

 

 

Parker McPhillips

Newfield High School senior Parker McPhillips has a highly regarded reputation for his dynamic personality. He is known as a force to be reckoned with. 

His inquisitive nature, continuously making connections and offering insight to inspire further discussion, has earned him a well-deserved Grade Point Average of 93% and a mentoring role in NHS’s environmental club. 

Parker’s enthusiasm for school and life has distinguished him as a role model for his peers and teachers alikwe. Collectively, Newfield’s staff recognize Parker as an extraordinary individual who has the power to change people’s perspective, and in turn, makes the world a better place.

 

 

 

Michael Ramos Cody

Michael Ramos Cody, an eighth grader at Selden Middle School, possesses the qualities of perseverance and determination at a level not often found in middle school students. 

As a result, his academic pursuits include a 99% GPA for quarter one and he is on track to complete quarter two with the same results. Outside the classroom, Michael’s perseverance and determination are also evident. With his interest in engineering, 

Michael educated himself on computer components, bought the materials and successfully built his very own computer. Michael is also very involved with the community library and has previously volunteered his time as a book buddy, art buddy, and LEGO buddy.

 

 

 

Naveed Bayan

 

Dawnwood Middle School eighth grader Naveed Bayan is well-known as a motivated and earnest student. His genuine inner drive to learn has led him to success in his academics with a 98.8% GPA for quarter one. 

Naveed’s constant striving to excel is well known among his teachers. In Algebra, for example, Naveed’s teacher, Ms. Beukelaer, oftentimes finds herself reiterating to Naveed that his work is exemplary, and he does not need to detail as much work as he performs, full well knowing that Naveed will acknowledge her advice, and continue just the same in his relentless pursuit of perfection. 

In the future, Naveed would like to take his strong interest in medicine and become a surgeon. – MCCSD

Photo courtesy of MCSD

Warmings Hearts and Hands

‘The Mitten Tree’

Unity Drive’s Pre-K/Kindergarten Center in the Middle Country School District warmed more than hearts this holiday season. Inspired by Candace Christiansen’s “The Mitten Tree,” Mrs. Gorwitz and her students organized a drive to collect mittens benefiting those in need through the local organization, Lighthouse Mission.

Stock photo

Local school districts are still maintaining low COVID-19 numbers, while the rest of Suffolk County is nearing 6% in some areas. According to district leadership, that’s because schools have been constantly evolving their plans to keep students, staff and the community safe.

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Middle Country school district covers a large jurisdiction, Dr. Roberta Gerold, superintendent of schools, said. In non-COVID times, there are roughly 11,000 students within the district, though now approximately 7,500 are in buildings due to hybrid and remote learning options. The district has only had 102 positive COVID cases since the start of school, a 1.3% infection rate — with 52 of those cases coming from Thanksgiving break.

“We have such strong guidelines we’re containing it, not spreading it,” she said. “We know where [students and staff have] been and who they’ve been with.”

Like all the other districts, students are required to wear a mask at all times, except during mask breaks. Social distancing has been implemented with barriers on desks, and teachers are asked to keep their windows and doors open.

If a student is showing symptoms, they are immediately placed into an isolation room and brought home.

But that barely happens, according to Gerold. “The community is doing a good job because they’re not sending us positive kids,” she said. “We’re not getting a lot of cases in the schools.”

Ronald Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said that over the summer, local superintendents began putting together plans to better prepare their districts.

“When the pandemic started, there was a feeling of uncertainty,” he said. “But now what we’ve found is we could place a great deal on social distancing.”

Because they have been implementing and following CDC guidelines, he said they’re not seeing spread within the schools.

“Controlled environment helps keep the community safe,” he said. “Even if we see the community numbers rise, I think the government, politicians, leadership and superintendents know how important keeping schools open is.”

A representative from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office agreed, and said the new guidelines released last month are to keep the doors of local schools open.

“We encourage them to not be closed, but to test instead,” they said.

Guidelines now require mass testing in schools in red, orange and yellow micro-cluster zones before they reopen, followed by vigilant symptom and exposure screening conducted daily. Impacted schools can reopen as early as Monday, however students and faculty must be able to provide a negative COVID-19 test result prior to going back to the classroom. New York State will provide rapid test kits for schools wishing to participate.

After a school reopens in a red or orange micro-cluster zone, vigilant symptom and exposure screening must be conducted daily. A quarter of the in-person learning school community — both students and faculty/staff — must be tested per week, and the school should ensure that it provides opportunities to test on school grounds, or otherwise facilitates testing and accepts test results from health care providers.

If the school does not hold a testing event or provide testing on school grounds, test results provided to the school as part of the 25% testing of the population must be received within seven days.

The governor’s representative said that no regions have hit the 9% emergency number, which would close the county again. Schools, however, have flexibility regarding choosing a comfortable closing percentage.

“They can use their own metrics to close down districts or schools as long as those metrics don’t go against the state mandate of 9%,” the representative said. “A lot of things are state law governed. Schools are done by the locals, and we wanted to be within the local district rules.”

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Shoreham-Wading River has seen just a total of 43 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“I would like to thank our parents, staff and students for implementing the required COVID-19 health protocols this year. The daily temperature checks, health screening forms and conversations about washing hands, wearing masks properly and socially distancing have been really effective in keeping or schools open, healthy and safe,” said Superintendent Gerard Poole in an email statement. “The district is fully prepared for a shift to distance learning if a closure is mandated. We have a great distance learning plan and have already shifted this year successfully for a day or two when necessary due to COVOD-19 related school closures.“

File photo of Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. Photo by Kyle Barr

Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said that they are hopeful to remain on their current course, but are prepared to pivot their instructional models as directed by the governor’s office.

“Moving forward, our schools will continue to follow the guidance provided at the local, regional and state levels, including any prescribed steps needed should our area become designed a yellow, orange or red zone,” she said. “We are grateful to our students, staff and community for their unwavering support of and adherence to our initiatives. Their collective efforts have helped to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within our schools and allowed us to keep our buildings open for in-person instruction.”

Marianne Cartisano, superintendent of Miller Place school district, said schools, to date, are the safest places for children to succeed academically, socially and emotionally.

“We are also fortunate to have the acknowledgement of social responsibility in our community, coupled with everyone’s common goal to keep schools open,” she said.

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Three Village has seen just a total of 72 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“Our district continues to follow the guidance of the Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Cheryl Pedisich, Three Village superintendent of schools, said. “We are fully prepared to implement any prescribed measures to keep our schools open, safe and operating in the best interest of all of our students and staff.”

Elwood school district Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Bossert said he agrees with statements made by Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a recent joint press conference.

“Governor Cuomo used the words ‘amazing and astonishing’ to describe how low the infection rates are in schools as compared to many of the communities surrounding them,” Bossert said. “We agree that our schools are safe places for students, faculty and staff. The guidelines that have been put in place in collaboration with the Suffolk County Department of Health are designed to keep students and staff safe and school open.”

Bossert said in addition to mask wearing, distancing and appropriate hygiene, it’s important for those who are symptomatic or think they have been exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 to stay home.

“We are so very thankful to our parents and community members for demonstrating an understanding of the role we each play and acting out of an abundance of caution when making decisions about their children,” he said. “We are confident that we can keep students safe in our school buildings — where we know they will enjoy the greatest benefit of our instruction program, socialization with one another, and have positive interactions with their teachers.”

Smithtown school district superintendent, Mark Secaur, said he is planning for several different scenarios, including the potential of COVID testing in schools, or going back to completely remote.

“Based on the relative safety of our students and staff, providing education for those two things has been at odd at times,” he said. “But it’s the balance we have to navigate because of the pandemic.”

“We have proven that schools are safer than the outside community,” Secaur added. “Kids have been amazing. They’re excited to be with their friends again, and the kids have been more resilient than some adults.”

 

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Schools are staring down the barrel of funding cuts because of the COVID-19 crisis.

While students have been returning to their new normal of hybrid classes, remote learning and plastic barriers between desks, school districts across New York state are concerned about the news surrounding a potential 20% state funding cut.

Elwood Super Ken Bossert, pictured above before the pandemic, said every single school will need to make painful cuts if things don’t go their way. Photo from Heather Mammolito

According to New York State Education Department, the State Division of the Budget has begun withholding 20% of most local aid payments, forcing reductions in some payments to school districts across the state. The reductions in aid, combined with increased costs during pandemic times, could affect not only students, but community members too.  

“All public schools throughout New York state will have to make deep and painful cuts if federal assistance in the form of school aid is not secured,” said Ken Bossert, superintendent of Elwood school district. “The governor’s proposal of reducing aid by 20% will impact districts that rely heavily on aid in a devastating way. Not only will programs and staffing be redacted, the gap between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ will widen.”

Mark Secaur, superintendent of Smithtown school district, noted that during the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, the state adopted a budget that contained three review periods, in which local aid distributions might be reduced on a rolling basis, based on the revenues the state received. 

“On August 18, districts throughout New York state received a state aid payment for the 2019-2020 school year that withheld 20% of the expected payment,” he said. “Also included was a note that all future payments would be reduced by 20% in the absence of federal relief.”

Secaur added that for Smithtown, this equates to a potential loss of upward of $9 million in state aid. 

“When developing our 2020-2021 school budget, the district took into consideration the potential loss of state aid and made adjustments,” he said. “However, these losses, coupled with the unfunded expenditures required for the safe return of students, will likely force the district to significantly utilize the fund balance and reserves to balance the budget.”

In addition, the budget doesn’t cover the costs that are protecting children returning to their classrooms. 

“Cleaning supplies, dividers for rooms … the cost is close to $4 million,” said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country school district.

That sum didn’t include the cost to keeping the schools operational — even when students weren’t in them when the pandemic hit. 

“There was still a cost to keep the schools running,” Gerold added. “It was a rough couple of months.”

Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River school district, agreed.

“In a time when students need more, we won’t be able to provide that,” he said. 

While Poole and his peers are trying to stay optimistic, and are pleased to have students back, he wonders if it will be sustainable. “It’s an uncertain time — it won’t be the easiest thing for districts to put a budget together this year,” he said. “We just have to take it day by day.”

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen.”

— Roberta Gerold

While each district is different on the Island, they can all agree that continuing to plan during an uncertain time is very difficult. 

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen,” Gerold said. “If we have the info, we can figure that out. … It’s a scary time for sure.”

Miller Place school district declined to comment but did release a letter Sept. 3 penned to elected officials, asking for their support.

“As our elected officials we implore you act quickly to stop any and all federal and state reductions regarding payments to New York state school districts,” the letter said. “As district leaders we remain focused on the mission of returning students to our classrooms, and providing them with the social, emotional and academic supports they need in order to achieve their 2020-21 instructional goals.”

The letter continued, “Please recognize any reductions in federal or state aid payments would dramatically reduce our ability to sustain our district’s fiscal health, as well as maintain the support needed to ensure our students and staff physical health.”

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Wendol received a prolomation from State Sen. Ken LaValle, from left, Kevin Verbesey, Director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Edward Wendol, Founding Director of Comsewogue Public Library Richard Lusak, Ken LaValle’s aid Jeff Kito; Comsewogue library director Debbie Engelhardt. Photos by Debbie Engelhardt

For Ed Wendol, of Port Jefferson Station, time is not marked in years, but in decades.

Ed Wendol has spent 48 years on the Comsewogue Public Library board of trustees. Photo by Debbie Engelhardt

How long was he a teacher in the Middle Country school district? Nearly three decades. How long was he on the Comsewogue Public Library board? Two years shy of five decades. 

On his last day on the library board, the institution’s administration and a few lifelong friends held a short reception for Wendol to celebrate him serving his community, and Suffolk libraries, for year after year after year.

Now Wendol, 78, is planning to move down to Florida to be closer to his family. He, like so many other Long Islanders who are part of the exodus down to places like the Sunshine State or North Carolina is doing it with a heavy heart, knowing he’s moving from the place he has lived in and cared for over the past 50 years.

“What I’m particularly proud of, of being a trustee of the Comsewogue library, is that I’ve been elected to that position over the years,” Wendol said. “The public to me is important to recognize what we’ve been trying to accomplish with the library, and to me it’s the cultural center of the Comsewogue community.”

He is a past winner of TBR News Media’s Person of the Year, in 2003, for his work in Civics, specifically the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association when he vehemently opposed the closure of the DMV location in PJS. That DMV still stands today, partially thanks to his activism. Alongside his work in the civic, he has been an active member of the Polish-American Independent Club in PJS. 

It’s rare for people to have such an immediate reaction to hearing about a community member simply taking the well-worn trek to sunnier pastures, but Wendol’s work with libraries goes well above and beyond what’s normally expected with a library board trustee.

Richard Lusak, of Port Jefferson, was Comsewogue library’s first director and stayed in the position from 1966 to 2003. He saw Wendol as one of the most instrumental people for the library’s longtime success. 

When the library first came into being back in 1966, it was conceived to serve the residents of the school district, forming a five-member library board setting up in a rented 1,000-square-foot trailer a year later. Wendol had moved to the area from Queens in 1967, learning to live in a near-rural place like PJS where the sound of crickets kept city slickers like him up at night. He had long been a lover of libraries and books, he himself being an English teacher. Shortly after the Comsewogue library’s creation there was turnover on the library board, and that’s when Wendol stepped forward, being elected to the board in short order in 1972.

Throughout the years, Lusak said the venerable board member became a beacon for what a trustee could be, almost epitomizing everything the library trustee handbook — yes, it is a real book — stood for. While Wendol was working full time, he took night classes and gained a degree in library science, for what he described as wanting to be more knowledgeable and more helpful in the month-to-month decision-making process.

“He was instrumental in keeping everything on an even plane,” Lusak said. “He was a role model for the other board members.”

Current library director Debbie Engelhardt said that the past eight years in her position have been effective and “gratifying” thanks to Wendol’s steady presence and positive attitude.

“Ed understands well and is a true model of excellence in trusteeship,” she said. “Ed is steadfast, a voice of reason and has vast experience. He speaks his mind and is also a great listener. Ed’s positive influence helps us to keep moving forward. The healthy board dynamic Ed helped shape will remain.”

In his time on the library board, he also came to be recognized regionally for his service. He has several times been elected to the Suffolk Cooperative Library System board of trustees, helping oversee all libraries in the Town of Brookhaven. He has also previously served as that board’s president. Doing that he said his priority was to make all the libraries from Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket to Longwood Public Library come together to benefit the whole in their shared mission.

“Ed Wendol has been, for 48 years, the model of what a library trustee and public servant should be,” said Kevin Verbesey, SCLS director. “Ed always understood the critical role that a public library plays in the educational, intellectual and cultural life of a community. He was always informed, polite, active and firm in his support for and belief in libraries. Everyone in Suffolk County who cares about public libraries owes a debt of gratitude to Ed Wendol.”

Along with being active in Port Jefferson Station, for 27 years he was an English teacher in the Middle Country school district. In 2019, Wendol came across a host of copies of Newfield High School’s newspaper, The Quadrangle, sitting in his attic. The dates ran from 1970 to 1976, when he was the newspaper club’s adviser. The ex-Middle Country teacher donated his large collection of papers to the Middle Country Public Library for it all to be digitized.

It’s been a long ride for Wendol, and looking back from how the Comsewogue library progressed, first from its rented trailer location and now into a center where he loves to note that it serves everyone from preschool age all the way up to senior citizen. Libraries now are touchstones for local events, for helping people navigate an increasingly digital world, and all the while still giving people access to his beloved books. Next on the libraries’ plates, he said, is to emphasize culture, and offer people more real-world experiences on some kind of excursion, even if it takes them away from a library’s brick-and-mortar location.

“I think it was a fabulous thing we were able to accomplish,” Wendol said. “I think the aspect of people coming into the library, and wanting to come into the library … I’m happy to say with Debbie Engelhardt and my fellow trustees on the board, we are open.”

Evan Jenkins, Centereach Salutatorian and Gianna Gurovich, the Valedictorian. Photos from MCSD

Evan Jenkins — Centereach High School Salutatorian:

Jenkins finished his high school career with a 101.91 weighted GPA. The senior was an AP Scholar with Distinction, recipient of the Rensselaer Medal and the Centereach High School AP Platinum Award. Jenkins served as National Society treasurer, a Tri-M and All-County percussionist and a member of the All-State symphonic band. 

The Centereach native plans to attend Lehigh University in the fall and will study engineering.  

“I’m going to miss Centereach, I’ve met some of my best friends here and I’ve gotten to know some amazing teachers- especially this year,” he said. 

Jenkins said the decision to take physics this year helped solidify what he wanted to pursue in college. He credited his physics teacher, Al Levik. 

“Taking his class really had a positive impact on me and led me to want to be an engineering major,” he said. 

Jenkins is excited to get on Lehigh’s campus saying that the school is planning on opening back up in August. 

“I’m really looking forward to meeting new people and having that college experience,” the senior said. 

He plans to be involved in performance arts at the college either joining the wind ensemble or jazz band. 

Jenkins gave advice to incoming freshmen. 

“I would say to get involved as much as possible and take advantage of a free public education,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to take AP or college level courses, you learn so much valuable information and it can help you find your career path. Also, it’s important to stay motivated.” 

Gianna Gurovich — Centereach High School Valedictorian: 

Gurovich finished her college career with a 100.36 GPA. The senior was an New York State champion gymnast, recipient of a Silver Medal in World Championships and President’s National Service Award, member of the National Honor Society, Science Olympiad, vice president of the Italian Honor Society and Meinig Family Cornell National Scholar. 

Gurovich will attend Cornell University in the fall where she will be studying biomedical engineering. 

The Centereach native said she’ll cherish her time at the high school and enjoyed being around her friends and getting to know her teachers. 

“We just found out that Cornell will allow us to move onto campus, I’m looking forward to getting involved in their club gymnastics and staying active in the community,” she said. 

Gurovich credits her family, friends and teachers for helping her get to where she is. She also shared some advice for incoming freshmen and lowerclassmen. 

“Be involved as much as possible, go to every event,” she said. “It is also important to stay focused and set goals for yourself.”

Selden residents lay out candles to spell Jenna’s name on the Newfield High School football field. Photo by Kyle Barr

On the green turf football field at Newfield High School, the Selden community, also swaddled in different shades of green, laid out candles in the grass. The crowd came together like a tide. As they stepped back, the candles spelled out the name “Jenna.” Underneath her name, the flickering yellow and green electric candles and tealights also framed a heart.

Community members hold candles at the Aug. 31 vigil. Photo by Kyle Barr

Jenna Perez, 17, a Selden resident who worked at the Five Guys in Port Jefferson Station was killed Aug. 24 while crossing Route 347 southbound at around 9:25 p.m. She crossed around 300 feet west of Terryville Road, police said. The driver who hit her sped off, and police said they are still searching for that person.

“She was one incredible kid from the day I met her,” said Scott Graviano, the Newfield High School principal. “A very quiet spirit, but always with a smile on her face, always saying hello. And with that sweet, soft quiet personality, she gained the love of support and respect of this entire community.”

For the hundreds of community members looking for ways to heal, remembering Perez as the loving and outgoing high schooler was the best way to deal with their pain. Wearing green, Perez’s favorite color, friends, family, faculty and more from the community held glowing electric candles while the sky slowly darkened Aug. 31. Several friends spoke for her, talking and remembering her fun-loving personality.

“She lived a short life but clearly left a significant imprint,” said Asia Austin to the crowd gathered at the vigil. “As someone who has been grieving recently, I want those to understand that we should not follow down that road in thinking we have no purpose … with support from family and friends, you will find yourself and you will be OK.”

Community members hold candles at the Aug. 31 vigil. Photo by Kyle Barr

Donna Austin was her guardian for the past three years, taking care of Perez and her twin sister Janell in Selden. She had met the twins in 2008 when they were 8 years old living in the Bronx as she went there to take care of one of their relatives. Austin would eventually run a community center out of the building where the Perez family lived, and the twins would always be there to decorate her offices for whatever holiday came up. When their grandmother died, she took both sisters in to live with her back in her hometown of Selden.

“Jenna’s face would have lit up, and she would have been smiling, looking at all of her friends who had come to her like this,” Austin said.

Their caretaker said Jenna thrived in Selden, making innumerable friends and rising higher at Five Guys. She was set to take up her first supervisor training sessions at Five Guys on her birthday Sept. 6. Austin said she had been extremely excited and proud. 

Naziyah Dash, one of Perez’s high school friends, said she has been heartbroken since she learned of her friends death.

“Your story will always be cherished,” she said. “I will keep you alive in my heart.” 

The community is helping monetarily with three separate GoFundMe pages that have been set up in  Perez’s name. The first, which is donating funds to twin sister Janell, has reached close to $9,500. The other two GoFundMe pages are for funeral expenses.

Newfield High School Principal Scott Graviano speaks at the Aug. 31 vigil. Photo by Kyle Barr

“The Newfield community is an amazing place — deep rooted, full of love and support, and that’s evident here tonight,” said the principal. “Janell, we love you very much as a community, I hope you know that. We will continue to love and support you.”

An additional memorial service will be held Sept. 14 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Church on the Sound, 335 Oxhead Road in Stony Brook.

A funeral for Perez will be held at Ortiz Funeral Home, 524 Southern Blvd. in the Bronx Sept. 11 from 4 to 9 p.m. Burial will be at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx Sept. 12 with a time still to be determined.

Members of the Carol Putahl Literacy Foundation have access to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which is a collection of classic childhood books. Photo from Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation

Students in the Middle Country Central School District’s Universal Pre-K program are receiving the gift of literacy from the Long Island-based Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation. 

Thanks to state funding secured by the office of State Sen. John Flanagan (R), the foundation is providing free, age-appropriate books each month to the children, in keeping with the foundation’s mission to increase early childhood literacy. The grant will help offset the cost of the program.

The literacy foundation delivers what’s known as the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to each child enrolled in the UPK program as part of a system that includes access to books and family literacy. Founded by the country singer in 1996, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a set of books beginning with the children’s
classic “The Little Engine That Could.” Each month, a new carefully selected book is mailed directly to the home of children enrolled in the program. Registration is free, with no cost or obligation to the family.

“Studies clearly demonstrate that early literacy is the key to academic and lifelong success.”

— Roberta Senzer

The Middle Country UPK is the largest program on Long Island, serving more than 400 youngsters from Centereach, Selden, Lake Grove, Lake Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson Station and Farmingville. Participating family members have been overwhelmingly positive about the program’s impact on their children since it was first introduced last month.

“My son gets so excited to open the mailbox to look for and get his monthly book,” said mother Jennifer Capinigro. “Thank you.”

Flanagan is a long-standing education advocate, having previously served as the chairman of the New York State Committee on Education.

“It is my pleasure to be able to assist the Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation in its mission of providing children in our community with a strong educational base,” he said. “By delivering books directly to young children in the Middle Country school district, the foundation helps ensure that these children enter school already acquainted with reading. This will help them reach their full potential and allow them to succeed in the coming years.”

Research has shown that children raised in homes that promote family literacy grow up to be better readers and do better in school than children raised in homes where literacy is not promoted. This is also supported through the Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation’s Family Literacy workshops, which teach families how a child can be an active participant, rather than a passive one while reading with parents.

“Studies clearly demonstrate that early literacy is the key to academic and lifelong success,” foundation CEO Roberta Senzer said. “The Imagination Library is one way our foundation is working to foster a child’s love of
reading and to put books in the hands of all Long Island children to ensure they have the advantage they need when starting kindergarten.”

To learn more about the foundation or to make a tax-deductible donation visit www.cpliteracyfoundation.org.

Dawnwood Middle School's boys basketball and cheerleading teams. Photo from Cindy Buzaid

Seventh-grader Chris Buzaid may be the smallest kid on the basketball court at 4-10, but when it comes to drive, hustle and spirit, there’s nobody bigger.

During a midseason game against Brentwood North this past December, the 12-year-old guard for Centereach’s Dawnwood Middle School dove onto a loose ball with some physically imposing players from the other team. He ended up with the ball, and a bloody lip. But when his coach, Tim Dowler, tried to take him off the court, worried about the injury, Chris begged to be allowed to keep playing.

Dawnwood Middle School student Chris Buzaid with current New York Knicks NBA player Joakim Noah. Photo from Cindy Buzaid

“I ended up having to take Chris out for a bit, and then, when he eventually went back in, he just took the game over,” Dowler said.

Within a couple minutes Buzaid had three steals in a row and hit three jumpshots to lead Dawnwood to victory. The team of seventh- and eighth-graders would end the season in January undefeated for the first time in school history since 1974 — a feat Dowler said Chris contributed largely to.

“He just went right back out there and faced the same bigger kids, showing no fear,” the coach said. “It would be very easy for someone like him to want to play a little softer and feel a little afraid, but that isn’t him.”

Chris isn’t just a star athlete — he started playing travel basketball in fourth grade, has been on three of the best Amateur Athletic Union boys teams in the New York metropolitan area and is an accomplished cross-country runner. He is also among Dawnwood Middle School’s brightest students; he’s currently in the National Honor Society and has a 99.5 GPA, with a particular interest in science and history, and a tendency to help fellow students who may be struggling in certain subjects.

“He’s an amazing student and such a good Dawnwood citizen — Chris always does what’s right,” Dawnwood Middle School Principal Kristi Leonard said of the district’s former student of the month. “He’s definitely a natural leader and just has a great inner confidence. Chris has so many commitments in and out of school, balances clubs and sport activities while maintaining near-perfect grades.”

Chris Buzaid Photo from Cindy Buzaid

So it makes sense that Chris has been chosen as one of six finalists in a special competition presented by the Brooklyn Nets All-Star Awards recognizing junior high school basketball players within the tristate area that “demonstrate grit, determination and a desire to succeed both on the court and in the classroom.” His mother and coach nominated him in the fall and he was announced as a finalist in January, with Dowler saying he “was the perfect person to represent Dawnwood.”

Chris and the other five finalists, some from Brooklyn and Nassau County and others from Connecticut, will be attending the Brooklyn Nets Summer Basketball Clinic and a Brooklyn Nets v. Chicago Bulls NBA game in April. The finalist with the most votes will be announced during that contest, and win a $3,000 grant for their school’s athletic program.

“Chris is such a hardworking, competitive person and always tries to be the best that he can,” said mother Cindy Buzaid. “And now, I think he’s just in the competitive mode of wanting to win this for his school. He really wants to be able to say, ‘I was able to win this for Dawnwood.’ He loves his basketball coach, he loves Dawnwood and he’s really excited.”

Cindy Buzaid said she felt her son exhibited all the required traits of a stellar scholar-athlete when she put his name in the ring — grit, dedication, character, academics and teamwork. In her nomination letter to the organization, she wrote of her son’s maturity and strength through tough situations. Between the ages of 3 and 6, Chris witnessed his father, Jim Buzaid, be diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin
lymphoma. While his father is now in remission, Chris carried a lot of those early memories with him as he grew up.

“Chris knew what cancer was before any kid should,” his mother said. “It made him a tough kid — made him grow up a little faster than others. Chris is such a fun-loving kid, but I believe the whole thing made him a more serious person and learn not to take things for granted. He was always very protective of me at that time and worried a lot about me getting sick, too.”

Jackie and Chris Buzaid. Photo from Cindy Buzaid

She said it makes sense that her son fell into basketball, as his older sister, Jackie Buzaid has spent most of her life playing the sport.

A Centereach High School graduate, Jackie Buzaid played basketball throughout her adolescence and currently plays as a senior at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.

She remembers her brother always tagging along with her for pickup games at the park and watching her play from the sidelines at school. It also didn’t take long for him to develop his own competitive spirit, she said.

“Christopher doesn’t settle for mediocrity,” Jackie Buzaid said. “I remember when we would go shoot at our local park, he would always have to make three 3-pointers before he could leave. My brother’s determination to constantly improve and excel are what make him stand out from others. But he’s also kind and generous, and has a way of making people smile.”

It’s still up in the air as to what exactly the grant money will go toward within the athletic department, but whatever it is, Chris said he just hopes it will help the school.

“I’m really happy that I might have a chance to win money for Dawnwood, because I really want my coaches and friends and all the other kids in my school to be able to have something new,” he said. “Being a good student and athlete is important to me because I get to be healthy, active, one of the top kids in my class and I really like to help others who need help.”

To vote for Chris visit the Brooklyn Nets website www.nba.com/nets/community/2017-18/allstarawards.