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At a time when budgets will be extremely tight amid the gradual economic recovery caused by the virus-induced economic shutdown, investing in organizations that help people deal with mental health problems and substance abuse now could save considerably more money later.

That’s the argument Family and Children’s Association Chief Executive Officer Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds makes, particularly as Suffolk and Nassau County Executives Steve Bellone (D) and Laura Curran (D) urge more federal aid for Long Islanders.

“When you have untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders, the county will pay for that one way or the other,” Reynolds said in an interview. “The question is: do you want to pay for it upfront or on the back end,” with the loss of life from drug overdoses.

Jeffrey Reynolds, the CEO of the Family and Children’s Association. Photo from FCA website

Throughout Long Island, Reynolds, who had previously been the Executive Director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said the emphasis on basic needs among families has increased, particularly as the number of unemployed in the area has approached 200,000.

Many of the unemployed are “involved in low wage jobs to begin with” and are living “at the margins,” so there is a need for food, rental assistance, and housing, he said. The basic needs have increased significantly.

The transition to telehealth has been effective for those with mild or moderate challenges and, in some ways, is even easier than walking into a church basement or going to a center. The first step, which is often the hardest in entering any kind of treatment program, involves fewer logistical challenges and allows people to remain anonymous.

At the same time, however, some of these virtual efforts are problematic for those who are dealing with a significant level of impairment.

People who have a more acute mental health condition are “less likely to engage via telehealth” and the same holds true for people with severe substance abuse, Reynolds said. “A virtual session is not the same as seeing them in person and groups are not the same as they were before.”

FCA has seen an increased demand for services for people who were anxious or depressed. Fear or a lack of control brought on by the virus is bringing some of these symptoms to the surface.

“Across the board, we are seeing an increased demand for services,” Reynolds said. “There is now space in which we’re not seeing that request.”

The virus has made health care disparities more visible. The numbers of illnesses and fatalities in Brentwood, for example, are 12 times higher than in Garden City. That relates to preexisting conditions like obesity and diabetes, but also to the crowded living conditions in Brentwood.

The combination of the business closings such as gyms, restaurants, movie theaters, and other enterprises creates anxiety and impacts family structure and family functioning, Reynolds said.

Long Island has had to cope with previous recessions and downturns from disasters like Superstorm Sandy, but this is “even deeper. I imagine we’re going to see the ripple effects for a decade to come.”

Reynolds is concerned about people returning to their normal lives at some point, without addressing underlying problems in the communities or with other families.

Still, Reynolds feels fortunate to work for an organization that has existed and helped communities and neighborhoods for 135 years. That means the group was around during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919.

“What keeps me going is that we’re always had to do more with less,” Reynolds said. “We found hope in people’s lives where it seems like there isn’t.”

Indeed, the group not only survived the Spanish Flu, but also made it through both World Wars, the Great Depression, 9/11, and numerous natural disasters.

Additionally, on the positive side, the FCA can provide services in a much timelier way. People who call with a drug or alcohol problem can get some help within ten minutes. The current environment provides the equivalent of “treatment on demand,” Reynolds said.

The FCA head urged people to get involved, which could mean volunteering time at a school, offering help to a local charity or checking on an elderly neighbor.

He urged people to dedicate some of the time they spend on social media to helping others.

Reynolds has spoken with numerous people who have alcohol dependency. When they finally get treatment, some of them have said, “If it was that bad, why didn’t anybody say something to me?”

He urged friends and family to care for each other, asking about weight loss or prolonged sleep. He suggested having conversations that go beneath the surface.

Children and families benefit from structure, especially in a challenging environment. Reynolds suggested a regular evening meal time and a consistent time and place for homework.

Ultimately, as the head of a 135-year old organization, Reynolds said people need to believe that “you can get through this,” he said. “Even if it feels like the world is ending, it’s not.”

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Scenes from the Eastern Long Island Mini Maker Faire in Port Jefferson Village June 9. Photo by Kyle Barr

Talking to the conductor once the STEM engine comes to a halt, it’s clear that for nonprofits pushing for education among young people, the track ahead is still uncertain.

Like many nonprofits, the Long Island Explorium in Port Jeff, a small haven for interactive learning on the North Shore, has been hit hard by the pandemic, but since so much of its revenue depends on schools’ field trips, the onus has shifted to a virtual approach. That, however, is something difficult for a learning center that has long emphasized interactivity.

Angeline Judex, the executive director of the explorium, said that once COVID-19 hit Long Island, her space along East Broadway was closed, while her museum employees were furloughed and her volunteers sent home. It would take until the end of April before she finally received her Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government, and she was able to rehire several people to help with administrative tasks. Their PPP loans will likely be exhausted by the end of July, Judex said. 

Meanwhile, all their teaching apparatus was transported online, specifically to video conferencing app Zoom. Keeping some of their regulars who often came to the explorium, they were able to transform one planned field trip into an online field trip, but the vast majority of booked school trips were canceled once the pandemic hit. 

Judex said the situation has made the explorium learn to innovate in new ways. So far they have conducted more than 80 live STEM workshops including a virtual science fair, impacting approximately 120 families and 400 students over the past few months. She said general reaction to the programming has been positive from parents and teachers alike.

“The Explorium will continue to scale up and expand on their virtual offerings over summer and beyond to ensure that students of all means, abilities and needs have access to high quality STEM programming,” she said.

One of the benefits of the last few years is that the explorium has started to diversify its revenue streams, from grants, school districts as well as individual donors. The explorium remains financially solvent, she said, despite the obvious hits from the pandemic. Much of their revenue normally came from their work with local school districts, so depending on how well districts are in the fall, which also depends on whether New York State will slash school aid, could leave the nonprofit without 30 to 40 percent of its normal revenue stream.  

“We’re hoping schools have this one year to get back to normal, and by hopefully next year things will get better again,” Judex said. 

The explorium is tentatively planning to open the museum location in August, though it will only be for private sessions, and how they do will determine if the place remains open for the rest of the fall. If not, then the museum has plans to open again in spring of 2021. Currently, she said the nonprofit has enough funds in the coffers to survive until then.  

“As a children’s museum, it’s supposed to be a high touch environment, but if they’re not allowed to touch anything, what are they going to do?” the executive director said. “That’s a huge challenge for museums everywhere, not only mine.”

After several months of hosting learning online, the challenges of keeping students’ attention became apparent. At first, Judex found their online programs became very popular, then when schools started to catch up with computer-based schoolwork, demand dropped. By April and May, she said students were tired of completing schoolwork on a computer and listening to teachers online. Judex said she’s finding the same challenge with her own children doing schoolwork from home. 

“I think I’m Zoomed out,” Judex said. “Meeting in person, there’s so much more warmth to it, whereas on a screen you have to make due. Several months of making due in virtual meetings, it was just too much.”

The explorium has three virtual summer camps coming up in the next few months, with the first one including 14 kids. The next, Judex estimated, will likely contain just 10 children.

She said her team found hosting a single Zoom call with 30 students to be nearly impossible, and they are loath to sacrifice the quality of their learning apparatus in order to facilitate more kids per group. 

“We’re not compromising on the quality of the experience,” she said.

Still, Judex said the online programs were well-received.

“The pandemic allowed us to focus even more on our mission of meeting the needs of all students regardless of means, abilities and needs as well as advance our strategic plan to explore distance learning,” she said.

Port Jefferson village Mayor Margot Garant said multiple nonprofits in the village have struggled to maintain during the worst months of the pandemic. The building the Long Island Explorium occupies right next to the Village Center is in year 12 of a 20-year lease and they are up to date with their rent at $750 a month. 

The explorium requested some kind of rent relief, and at its July 20 meeting, the village board unanimously voted to reduce the nonprofit’s rent by $250 so as to cover utilities. 

“It’s real tangible support, that every little bit counts,” Judex said.

Towards the end of summer, the explorium is crafting its Reimagining the Future strategic plan with steering committees set up with members of the community. This would outline how our explorium will move forward in the next stage of the pandemic.

One of the most well-known activities for the explorium is the annual Maker Faire in Port Jeff. This year’s event got pushed back from June to September, but this week it was announced that all of maker faires in New York State were combining forces to host the online Empire State Maker Faire Oct. 16 and 17, including demonstrations of art, crafts, technology and robotics. The event is free and open to the public. 

People can offer support to the explorium at: longislandexplorium.org/support-us/ or visit the website for a full list of programs at www.longislandexplorium.org.

This article was updated to include info about the Explorium’s future strategic plans.

This article was updated July 30 to add extra info about the explorium’s online learning live streams.

Long Island Cares delivers a shipment of food to Island Heart Food Pantry in Mount Sinai. Director of the pantry Kathy Lahey said they have received a near doubling in clients since the start of the pandemic. Photo by Lahey

This post has been updated April 8 to give information about the Island Heart Food Pantry

By Leah Chiappino

In the wake of COVID-19, local food banks and pantries are struggling to keep up with increased demands, and in some cases decreasing volunteers and inventory.

For instance, Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares, a food bank that operates six distribution centers and has several mobile distribution events, has seen the closure of 44 out of the 349 food pantries to which it distributes. While their donations are down 23 percent, LIC holds more than a million pounds of food in inventory, and anticipates receiving an additional 375,000 pounds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Long Island Cares CEO, Paule Pachter, said the problem does not stem from lack of inventory, but public hysteria. 

“With having to limit volunteers, it becomes hard for us to do mass distribution events when you have people in a panic yelling at our volunteers and staff demanding more food.”

— Paule Pachter

“People are starting to panic,” he said. “When you have people hoarding toilet paper, and coming to multiple distribution events, it becomes hard to handle. There are [some] 300 food pantries open that people can access. With having to limit volunteers, it becomes hard for us to do mass distribution events when you have people in a panic yelling at our volunteers and staff demanding more food.” 

He added he is confident that school districts mostly have the resources to provide meals themselves, and only need limited help from outside sources. The food bank has responded to almost 650 COVID-19 related calls, and is operating a 24/7 hotline for those in need of assistance. LIC is continuing mobile distributions while practicing social distancing and leaving home delivery donations outside people’s doors.

Island Harvest Food Bank, also from Hauppauge, is seeing a dramatic influx of need, too, due to COVID-19, with donations down about 40 percent, according to Randi Shubin Dresner, the organization’s president and CEO.

The food bank started an emergency response plan about two weeks ago, while trying to still deliver food to local food pantries and community organizations. As more and more places closed, Dresner said the organization began to pursue other avenues to ensure those who are in need still have access to food. 

“We have a long list of people waiting to get food from us,” Dresner said. “Every day there is hunger on Long Island, even in normal times. When you couple that with a pandemic, things become very difficult.” 

Normally 90 percent of Island Harvest’s inventory is donated, but recently it had to make a $450,000 purchase of food supplies, an amount Dresner said is likely to double in the future. A large portion of the purchases are “family boxes” of food, enough to feed a family of four for four days. Others are individual meals and meals for seniors. 

“There are tens of thousands of people that are homebound, and we can’t get to them all,” Dresner said. “We’re going to do as much as we can, and hopefully some of our partner organizations will be able to accomplish what we can’t. These are uncertain times and unchartered waters that we’re dealing with. People are scared, and we want to be responsive to as many people as we can, which is what we always do.”

A food pantry donation. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The organization is working to deliver food to homebound seniors and veterans. It is also partnering with school districts such as William Floyd, Copiague, Brentwood and Wyandanch to help supplement the meals the districts are providing and ensure there is enough to bring home to entire families, not just children. 

Dresner said Island Harvest is committed to keeping safe practices. Employees are rotating working from home and going into the office, and field and office workers are separated.

The organization also employs what it calls community resource navigators, to help people apply for food stamps or referrals to other services. Dietitians are on staff to help with nutrition needs. 

Dresner said the food bank has not had a problem attracting volunteers, as people who have to stay at home want to find a way to help out. 

The CEO added Island Harvest is accepting prepared and unprepared food from various restaurants, caterers and country clubs.

The organization prefers monetary donations over food donations, as the organization specifically can buy bulk food at a discounted price. Monetary donations can be made on the organization’s website at www.islandharvest.org/covid. Those in need should email [email protected] or call the headquarters at 516-294-8528.28

Some local food pantries seem to be operating at a reduced level. The Ecumenical Lay Council Pantry in Northport, whose staple is allowing people to come in and feel as though they are shopping, is still operating during normal hours but by a drive-through process. 

The Island Heart Food Pantry, which is located in Middle Island and has operated out of the Mount Sinai Congregational Church for 40 years, has had to reduce its normal bevy of volunteers to just three a day on average, according to director Kathy Lahey. This is the new rule, mostly to maintain social distancing.

Meanwhile, because so many surrounding food pantries have closed, she said they have seen a doubling in the number of people who come to pick up food, especially seeing a large increase in the number of children looking for meals, now that many don’t have access to breakfast and lunch at school.

Before the pandemic, the organization operated as a “client choice” pantry, where people could walk in to choose which foods they got. Now everything is done with the clients inside their vehicles. Volunteers, bedecked in gloves and masks, go to each, in turn, to ask what their preference is, before giving it to them in bags and having them head out as soon as possible.

“We’re adapting and changing things and everyone is getting used to it,” she said. “We want to offer as much compassion and understanding and a smile, especially if they come with kids in the car.”

A sample of foodstuffs at the Island Heart Food Pantry. Photo by Kathy Lahey

Island Heart is currently accepting monetary donations for volunteers to purchase food. They are also accepting food they usually do not receive through Long Island Cares, including tuna, cereal, oatmeal, rice and beans. All these can be dropped off to the Mount Sinai Congregational Church, located at 233 North Country Road in Mount Sinai. While they normally would accept any help in terms of volunteers, they currently wish to practice as much distancing as possible.

The Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, which normally operates from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. five days a week, is only open Tuesday through Thursday this week, and is leaving bags of supplies at the rear entrance for people to pick up, according to its voicemail. It asks that only one person at a time goes into the location, completely eliminating contact. The pantry will continue to update its policies as time progresses.

Lighthouse Mission, a faith-based mobile food pantry, is also suffering from dwindling volunteers and donations. 

“People are afraid,” Pastor Jim Ryan, president of the mission, said. “People are uncertain about their own future and are not thinking about donating. They are making an effort to practice social distancing by keeping people 8 feet away from each other at outreaches and are looking to pre-bag food to limit contact.”

Still, twice a day, Lighthouse Mission’s box trucks cart food, clothing and basic necessities for volunteers to set up in public parking lots, including in Port Jefferson Station and Rocky Point, and give to those in need. For those who choose to listen, a volunteer will give a gospel message and pray with the attendees who ask. The organization, which was started 28 years ago, serves 10 different locations throughout
Suffolk County.

Ryan, who was a 2012 Times Beacon Record Person of the Year, has now begun a program in which volunteers will deliver food to elderly residents at their homes. 

“These are people who always come out,” Ryan said. “They may be in a wheelchair or holding an oxygen mask, but they are always there. Now they just can’t come out because they cannot get this virus.” The pastor added that volunteers will leave the items at the door to mitigate contact.

“We will keep operating as long as there’s food to give.”

— Jim Ryan

The mission, which is not publicly funded and runs solely on donations, is urgently in need of food, clothing and supplies. According to its website, it accepts nonperishable food items (canned goods, pasta, cereal, bottled water, etc.); meats (hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, turkeys, etc.); dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables. It does not take cooked meals. 

Ryan said that paper items, especially plastic bags, would be helpful. Donations can be dropped off at Lighthouse Mission’s office at 1543 Montauk Highway in Bellport. Monetary donations would be appreciated, as the organization recently had a truck break down and is lacking the funds to fix it. 

“I am confident God will send blessings our way,” Ryan said. “We will keep operating as long as there’s food to give.”

Those in need can attend Lighthouse Mission outreaches on Thursdays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. at 499 Main St., Port Jefferson Station, in the commuter parking lot at the corner of Hallock Road and Route 112; on Wednesdays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. at 683 Route 25A in Rocky Point at the Knights of Columbus front parking lot; or on Fridays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. at 2150 Middle Country Road, Centereach in the parking lot near Ocean State Job Lot, on the south side of Route 25.

Those that are elderly and would like food delivered to their homes, as well as people looking to volunteer to deliver the food, can call the office at 631-758-7584. 

Additional reporting by Kyle Barr

Dressed in purple, runners took to the streets for the newly renamed Jill Nees-Russell Power of One Family Fun Run. Photo by Kyle Barr

A wave of purple flooded through Port Jeff May 18 as the Royal Educational Foundation hosted their sixth annual Family Fun Run, now named in honor of Jill Nees-Russell, an active village resident and foundation member who died last year.

Close to 200 people came out for the yearly event, raising funds for the foundation’s efforts to promote and aid the local school district. As the event went under way, foundation treasurer Laura Zimmerman spoke on the verge of tears about Nees-Russell, a proponent of both the foundation and the school district. She was nominated three times for the Power of One award, but was ineligible for the first time, too sick to receive it the second. Instead of giving her the award posthumously, the organization instead decided to rename the entire event in her honor. 

“We wanted to recognize Jill’s contribution to our village, school and community with a lasting tribute to her amazing spirit,” she said.

In addition to their Power of One award, the foundation awarded $750 to Fred Russell, Jill’s husband, who plans to use the money to create a scholarship in her name.

This year’s Power of One award went to Tony Butera, a teacher in the Port Jefferson School District who the foundation said inspires students and others in and out of the classroom. 

“To even be mentioned in the same space as Jill is an honor,” he said.

Port Jeff Chamber wellness fair showcases the bounty of healthy living

After the run, hundreds congregated at the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School gym for the 10th annual Health and Wellness Festival, hosted by the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce.

Visitors could learn more about eating healthy, dieting, exercising and medicine from multiple vendors such as Mather and Stony Brook University hospitals. Participants even had the opportunity for face painting and to participate in goat yoga, doing poses such as “downward kid,” and “stretching goat.”

Army veteran Ludmilla Lamothe sits in her new car for the first time. Photo by David Luces

“I never win anything, I was in disbelief — ‘like me?,’” Ludmilla Lamothe, a U.S. Army veteran, said when she learned a couple of months ago she was nominated by local nonprofits Driving 4 Change and Soldiers’ Angels to receive a newly refurbished car as part of the  National Auto Body Council’s Recycled Rides Program.   

On May 14, representatives from Caliber Collision and GEICO handed Lamothe the keys to a 2013 Mazda 6.  

Ken Lalia from GEICO embraces Army veteran Ludmilla Lamothe. Photo by David Luces

The single mother of two, who was stationed in Alaska during her time in the Army, had been without a car for the past year and turned to using services like Uber and Lyft to get around, but it proved to be costly. 

“This will help so much, taking [my children] to the doctor when they need to, sometimes [before] I’d have to cancel things and change stuff around,” she said. “Now I can just get up and go, taking them to school and not worry about what ride I’m going to take and which one is the least expensive. Now I can just put some gas in my ride and go.” 

The donated car was restored by technicians at Caliber Collision in Rocky Point who volunteered their personal time to refurbish the vehicle for Lamothe. 

Vartan Jerian, director of operations for Caliber Collision New York Region, said it is part of the company’s culture to support veterans as well as the communities in which they work.

“It’s a good way for us to give back and show our appreciation for her service and everything she has done,” Jerian said. 

Jerian has been involved in about 30 of these events and said it has become near and dear to his heart as he himself served in the military. 

“Every person has a different story — It’s great to see the reactions, great to hear how it’s going to help them and their family out,” the director of operations said. “She is a well deserving person — we’re excited to do it.”

Ken Lalia, GEICO Auto Damage manager in Suffolk County, said he felt similarly. 

“It’s our way to give back to the community,” he said. “I feel honored to be able to give cars to military families in need.” 

Lamothe was also gifted a car booster seat and other supplies. Photo by David Luces

Lalia said GEICO has been involved in the recycled rides programs for the past 10 years and has given away hundreds of refurbished cars.  

As part of the program, collision industry companies collaborate to repair and donate vehicles to individuals and families in need of reliable transportation.

Lalia said their goal in this region is to give away 20 cars to individuals in need, and hopes it will make a lot of military families very happy. Lamothe was the fourth recipient of a car this year. 

The Huntington resident said she is so grateful and thankful for the car. Though her children couldn’t make it to the unveiling because of school, they were equally excited. 

“They wanted to be here, they were so excited — they were like ‘What’s it going to look like mom?,’” she said. “I’m probably going to surprise them and pick them up at school.”

Operation Veronica founder Janet Godfrey tapes up a package to be shipped to a solider. Photo by Kyle Barr

Nearly every Friday at St. Anthony Padua R.C. Church in Rocky Point a number of women are hunched over boxes, twine and packing slips.

Though it may be Christmastime, for the women of Operation Veronica, a nonprofit that sends care packages to active military personnel stationed all over the globe, the season of giving has lasted since 2005.

“I’ve been here 13 years, almost since the first day,” volunteer Annabelle Skoglind said. “The government takes care of their basic needs, but there’s always something that could make them feel a little better.”

Operation Veronica founder Janet Godfrey, in back, and volunteers Judi Miranda and Annabelle Skoglind put together items to be shipped as care packages to soldiers across the world. Photo by Kyle Barr

All of it comes from the mind of Wading River resident Janet Godfrey, who has led her team for more than a decade of giving, sending much more than 70,000 items, including food, toiletries, utensils, playing cards, hand warmers, blankets, scarves and items that help those soldiers remember that people back home still care about them and support them.

The many volunteers who work with Operation Veronica have nothing but praise for Godfrey. 

“She never stops, she’s like a dynamo,” Skoglind said.

During packing days Godfrey is a bundle of energy with her packing-tape gun like a magic wand in her hands. Though the weeks vary, the group can send more than 50 boxes out in a single session. These boxes end up in nine different countries and U.S. Navy ships.

The boxes the group dispatches are filled with essentials, but the volunteers often add other items at soldiers’ requests, such as glue traps to deal with vermin. The group is often busy making their own products such as neck coolers made from cloth or survival bracelets made from 550 paracords, the same cordage airborne infantry used making World War II parachutes. 

It’s not cheap to send so many boxes overseas, even using medium-sized flat-rate United States Postal Service boxes. If the group wishes to send a more irregular-sized box, it may cost upward of $30 or $40. Operation Veronica relies mainly on donations from the community, and Godfrey is constantly going out to civic meetings and seeing public officials to help raise funds.

“She takes great care in every package she sends,” said volunteer Liz Meskill. “She goes out to all these places to raise money just for our postage. She goes out and she does it, and she never complains. It gives her the enthusiasm to keep going.”

They often rely upon support from American Legion Post 1880 in Ridge, American Legion Women’s Auxiliary at the Leisure Glen Homeowners Association in Ridge, Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 and The Richard and Mary Morrison Foundation based in Port Jefferson.

Operation Veronica volunteer Irene Stellato braids a bracelet. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Janet, who leads this nonprofit volunteer organization in certainly more than deserving the recognition as person of the year,” said Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249. “Janet would share some of the great responses that the troops send back. They are very appreciative that Operation Veronica cares about them and that they are remembered.”

The genuine feeling of appreciation for the troops overseas is evident in everything Godfrey and the volunteers do. It’s evident in the care and attention they pay to each package they ship out. It’s apparent in simply how they talk about the troops with an absolute reverence.

“She feels for the troops,” volunteer Irene Stellato said. “When something happens with the troops she cries, we all cry. She feels it from her heart.”

Godfrey said while her group isn’t explicitly a Christian organization, she was inspired by the story of St. Veronica The name for the group comes from the story of St. Veronica, who in the Bible is said to have used her veil to wipe the face of Jesus as he carried his cross to the mound. Godfrey’s words describing her organization and what it does ring true beyond all today’s
current politics and issues overseas.

“She couldn’t take him off the walk, she couldn’t change his fate, but she gave him a momentary relief from physical discomfort, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Godfrey said. “We can’t change their fates, we can’t change their lives, we can’t bring them home as much as we want to, but we can cool them off when they’re hot, we can warm them up when they’re cold, we can give them something to eat when they’re hungry, so we do what we can.”

By Kyle Barr

There are 1.3 million active military personnel stationed all around the world according to the U.S. Department of Defense, and while Janet Godfrey and her nonprofit Operation Veronica know they can’t reach all of them, they’ve sure tried to.

The Rocky Point-based organization has worked to ship thousands of boxes filled with food, toiletries, utensils and more to thousands of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen stationed overseas since 2005. Even after all this time Godfrey said she is still amazed just how appreciative the men and women in uniform are after receiving their packages.

“More important than the contents of the box is that the soldiers know people they never met got together and intentionally spent their time, money and effort to send this package to them.”

— Janet Godfrey

“More important than the contents of the box is that the soldiers know people they never met got together and intentionally spent their time, money and effort to send this package to them,” Godfrey said.
“We’re told by the people who receive it that it’s like getting a message from the American people.”

Close to 20 women volunteers have met nearly every Friday at St. Anthony’s Church in Rocky Point since the group’s inception, and over its 13-year lifespan, have helped ship over 70,000 items. The boxes have been sent to soldiers in nine different countries as well as several naval ships stationed all over the world.

If volunteers are not busy packing boxes, they are working a sewing machine making neck coolers for the spring months and polar fleece sweaters for winter. Other women are hunkered down creating survival bracelets made from 550 paracord, the same cordage that airborne infantry used making World War II parachutes. Soldiers can find the bracelets useful in the field for making tourniquets or restraints, for storing equipment or to do something as simple as lacing their shoes.

“This kind of thing is very spiritually rewarding,” Rocky Point volunteer Judi Miranda said. “I’ve always done volunteer work, but there is something very special about what we’re doing.”

The boxes the group ships are filled with essentials, but the volunteers often add other items at soldiers’ requests. This could be anything from glue traps to deal with vermin problems to flip-flops to aid in walking around without fear of getting dust in their boots.

“I’ve always done volunteer work, but there is something very special about what we’re doing.”

— Judi Miranda

“Everybody wants to do something to support our troops, but they just don’t know what to do,” Godfrey said. “We’re an outlet in that regard.”

It’s not cheap to send so many boxes overseas. Using a medium-sized flat-rate United States Postal Service box costs $18 to ship. If the group wishes to send a more irregular-sized box it may cost closer to $30 or $40. The volunteers rely on donations from the local community as well as the support from the American Legion Post 1880, the American Legion Women’s Auxiliary at the Leisure Glen Homeowners Association in Ridge, Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 and the Richard and Mary Morrison Foundation based in Port Jefferson.

“We’re relying on every little penny,” said Irene Stellato, a volunteer from Rocky Point.

Even with the amount of time and money that goes into the work, Godfrey said she sees what Operation Veronica is able to do as a good that goes beyond politics. The name for the group comes from the story of
St. Veronica, who in the Bible is said to have used her veil to wipe the face of Jesus as he carried his cross to the mound. 

“She couldn’t take him off the walk, she couldn’t change his fate, but she gave him a momentary relief from physical discomfort, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Godfrey said. “We can’t change their fates, we can’t change their lives, we can’t bring them home as much as we want to, but we can cool them off when they’re hot, we can warm them up when they’re cold, we can give them something to eat when they’re hungry, so we do what we can.”

To learn more about Operation Veronica visit www.operationveronica.org.

This post was updated July 6 to correct the amount of total items Operation Veronica has shipped to service members.

Tom Lambui leads a dog through an obstacle course designed to distract at the Paws of War Nesconset facility. Photo by Kyle Barr

Those servicemen and women who have had their dog trained at the Nesconset nonprofit Paws of War know the best companion to have when past trauma returns, is a trained service dog at their side.

“You can’t imagine how much dogs make an impact on your life,” said Frank James, a retired police officer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

James is training his dog Bailey for service dog certification through Paws of War, an organization which helps provide service dogs and train them for retired service members. The former police officer said having a service dog has helped him deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after being at the scene of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Russell Keyser sits with his service dog, Artemis. Photo by Kyle Barr

“She’s helped significantly, really significantly,” he said.

For the last five years, Paws of War has provided service dogs and emotional support dogs along with the necessary training to veterans of all stripes, from those in the armed services to former cops and emergency responders. Robert Misseri, a co-founder of Paws of War, said the nonprofit provides the training for service members entirely free of charge.

“If they are approved, we train their dog at the very least, with all behavioral training to work toward a service animal for their needs,” Misseri said.

U.S. Army veteran Russell Keyzer, of Ronkonkoma, said he got his service dog,  Artemis, through Paws of War three years ago. Artemis has helped Keyzer get through the most difficult parts of his post-military life, including managing the effects of his PTSD.

“I was in really, really bad shape when I got her.” he said. “I got her at two months old, and I started training right away. Things were a lot more therapeutic on my end — to get back to that normal life.”

Keyzer said Artemis helped save him during a difficult situation at a June 22 Foreigner concert at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater. When the lights flashed and the music cut through the noise of the
audience, Keyzer said he started to tense up and his PTSD that has haunted him since he left the Army, started to creep into his head. He knew he couldn’t be there anymore.

Paws of War trains service dogs, like Phoenix, for veterans, former law enforcement and first responders. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Get me the (expletive) out of here,” Keyzer recalled saying to Artemis.

With his hand wrapped around the dog’s leash, Artemis helped guide the distraught veteran through the crowd, away from the noise and the lights, until they reached emergency medical personnel.

Suffolk County officials have come to recognize Paws of War and the work it does. On July 2, Suffolk Sheriff  Errol Toulon Jr. (D) announced a 2-year-old black Labrador named Rocky to be trained by inmate Jermaine, a veteran himself diagnosed with PTSD who is currently serving time at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Jermaine will train the dog twice a week for eight weeks, before Rocky will be given to Babylon resident Harry Stolberg, a single father and Marine Corps veteran who also has PTSD.

Those interested can watch Rocky’s training live online at the website www.suffolksheriff.com with the first broadcast scheduled for July 4.

Misseri said that so many veterans have become interested in the program that the organization needs to move into a larger space. They have already picked one out — a storefront located in the same Nesconset Plaza shopping center on Smithtown Boulevard as their current home. Misseri said the new location would provide the organization with hundreds more square feet of space.

Mark Hayward works on training his service dog, Phoenix, at VetDogs in Nesconset. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We could really serve so many more veterans,” Misseri said. “There’s plenty of people who want to go into a class with our current space, but we can only take 10 people per lesson — in this new space we could take 30.”

Paws of War is entirely funded by donations and spends most of its money paying for dog trainers. It is seeking out volunteer plumbers, painters, electricians, carpenters, floor specialists and sign makers to help renovate the new shop.

In the meantime, veterans find hope for the future in the form of their dogs. Mark Hayward, an Army veteran who participated in Operation Desert Storm, walked his dog, Phoenix, through obstacles designed to
distract her. Every time she went through the course without turning her head, Hayward would look down and smile at her.

“It’s between night and day from before I got her in 2016 and now,” he said. “She helps me get out and do things a lot more. I named her Phoenix because, like they say, she is helping me rise from the ashes.”

Those veterans who are interested in obtaining a service dog, or individuals willing to volunteer their assistance in the organization’s upcoming move, can contact Paws of War at at 631-367-7297 or online at www.pawsofwar.org.

Uniqua holds her two new teddy bears tightly. She received the gifts from members of Mount Sinai's Students Against Destructive Decisions club. Photo by Kevin Redding

Just one night at Mount Sinai High School helped to make the season bright for local families in need.

For Christmas, all 6-year-old Uniqua really wanted was an Elf on the Shelf toy, a gift her mom struggled to afford. But Moniqua McGee, who lives with her daughter at Concern for Independent Living in Medford, knew she had nothing to worry about. She had Mount Sinai high schoolers to rely on.

A family from Concern for Independent Living receive gifts from Mount Sinai children through Hauppuage-based nonprofit Christmas Magic. Photo by Kevin Redding

On Dec. 6, during the Students Against Destructive Decisions club’s Christmas Magic dinner in the high school’s cafeteria, a beaming Uniqua not only got her wish, but two new teddy bears and holiday-themed face paint, too. She even met Santa Claus and Rudolph.

“I’m grateful they’re doing this for the families and putting smiles on the kid’s faces,” said Moniqua McGee, who has been coming to the event the past five years. “It works every time.”

The McGees were just one of dozens of families from the Medford nonprofit enjoying the holiday spirit in the room. An 18-year partnership between the Hauppauge-based organization Christmas Magic and the SADD club, the Christmas soiree served as the ultimate payoff of a shopping spree by the students Dec. 1. Under the supervision of SADD club advisors John Wilson and John McHugh, they spent that day rushing around Smith Haven Mall and Walmart to buy gifts for more than 60 boys and girls from Concern for Independent Living, which provides housing and employment help for struggling families, based on wish lists they wrote to Santa. The school district also raised $8,000 for Christmas Magic.

Members of Mount Sinai’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club watch children open up presents. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I’m happy and proud to be part of a program and district that not only encourages, but fosters this type of activity,” McHugh said. “The students involved display the best we have to offer … we have grown our program every year and that makes me feel great.”

With all the gifts wrapped and labeled, every kid left the dinner with at least three presents given to them by Santa, played by rosy red cheeked wrestling icon Mick Foley, who also posed for pictures. Christmas tunes blared through the cafeteria’s speakers as families ate chicken, pasta and desserts, and SADD club members — some dressed up in costume — went around the room with little gift bags of extra toys for attendees. SADD club members also played games and watched “Elf” with the kids.

“It’s so nice to be able to see all the kids here and see them get the gifts we got for them,” said Allie Garrant, an 11th grader and SADD club member, who picked up a lacrosse stick and Rubik’s Cube for a 13-year-old boy. “Just seeing their faces — it’s a whole different thing. It’s like, ‘Wow, these are real people I’m helping’ and you get to see firsthand the difference you’re making.”

Renato Lugo, whose four children were ecstatic over their gifts, expressed his gratitude to those involved in the event.

Students dressed up to entertain children during a Christmas Magic dinner at Mount Sinai High School. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s a beautiful thing to have organizations like these that help out and take care of people in need,” said Lugo, who has been aided by Concern for Independent Living for six years. “The students bring joy and cheer and they make my kids very happy.”

His 12-year-old daughter, Elena, was ecstatic receiving a long-sleeve Unicorn pajama shirt from Santa.

“I think it’s really amazing I got the present I wanted,” Elena said. “And the food is amazing and everyone’s so happy. I love SADD. They’re really like another Santa.”

Kim Dellamura, who’s been at the nonprofit agency for six months, said the event allowed her 4-year-old daughter MacKenzie to have a Christmas.

“It feels good because I don’t know how much I would’ve been able to give her this year,” Dellamura said. “So this really helps out a lot. She loves it.”

For Lawrence Aurigemma, the event is a perfect reflection of what this time of year means.

“This season is all about peace and generosity,” said Aurigemma, a military veteran whose 14-year-old son received Pokemon cards. “These students are just fantastic. They go out of their way to help out the less fortunate people here. It’s a wonderful thing. They knew exactly what to get my son … he’s so happy.”

Smithtown resident and former WWE wrestler Mick Foley dishes out gifts to children. Photo by Kevin Redding

Also at the event was Christmas Magic founder Charlie Russo and representatives of Concern for Independent Living, including case managers Ella Cantave and Julio Villarman, who were excited to see their clients enjoying the holidays.

“It’s a very special day for them,” Cantave said. “It took a lot of effort to make it happen and to make it nice for them.”

As everybody in the room sang “Jingle Bells,” Santa arrived and joined in. Each kid’s name was called out to sit down with the big man in the red suit.

Foley, who has been a volunteer with Christmas Magic since 2000 and officially assumed the role of Santa for the organization in 2014, said he looks forward to the event all year round.

“It’s a great organization — they spread joy and happiness to so many of the less fortunate in the community, and it’s an honor to wear the red suit and represent Christmas Magic,” Foley said before turning his attention to the SADD club. “I make it a point to thank all of them because I think it’s wonderful that they get involved in volunteer work at a young age. They do a great job and it’s really easy for me to show up and get a lot of the credit from children, but the truth is, without them, absolutely none of this is possible.”

Thanksgiving Turkey Trot races benefit Hauppauge-based nonprofit Christmas Magic

By Bill Landon

Thanks to Mount Sinai community members displaced children are once again getting what’s on their Christmas lists this year.

The school district’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club members teamed up with Strong Island Running Club and more than 36 local businesses and families for the 7th annual Mount Sinai Turkey Trot 5K and Fun Run to benefit Hauppauge-based nonprofit Christmas Magic.

According to running club founder John McHugh, the organization receives letters from children who write to Santa from area homeless shelters.

“Many were originally displaced back in 2008 as a result of the housing market crash,” McHugh said. “We get those letters, and with the proceeds of today’s race, we’ll go shopping next week and buy presents for the kids and host a dinner for them and their families.”

The races brought out more than 350 entrants, and Mount Sinai student-athletes swept the top five 5K spots. First across the finish line was Mount Sinai junior Sean Higgins, who is a member of the school’s varsity track and field and cross country teams. He clocked in at a personal best 17 minutes, 26:31.

“I practice at 7 a.m. every day,” the 17-year-old said. “I run for a living.”

Second across the finish line was teammate Ryan Wilson, who tripped the timer at 17:55.88. Mount Sinai runner Jackson Law finished in third with a time of 18:23.38, and was followed by his twin brother Christian who covered the distance in 18:24.97.

The first female finisher was Mount Sinai senior Noreen Guilfoyle, who finished in 18:35. It was her third consecutive first-place finish among females in the event.

“It’s a beautiful morning,” she said.

The event had the best turnout of any year so far, with event proceeds totaling just over $7,500, according to McHugh. After dinner, which will be held at Mount Sinai High School Dec. 6 at 5 p.m., there will be a visit from Santa where the kids will receive their gifts and sing Christmas carols.

“These people all have hearts of gold,” McHugh said. “It is our privilege to help make the holidays special for those children and families in need across Long Island.”

For more information about the collaboration, visit www.strongislandrunningclub.com or call 631-806-4649.