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North Shore Youth Council

Big buddies and little buddies from the North Shore Youth Council danced and socialized during their annual reception at Majestic Gardens in Rocky Point. Photo by Alex Petroski

In a day and age when negative influences for kids are easy to find, positive influences are growing in importance.

The North Shore Youth Council celebrated the kids who take part in their Big Buddy/Little Buddy program and the positive influence it has on everyone involved during their annual reception at Majestic Gardens in Rocky Point Tuesday.

The cross-age mentoring program matches up high school students with elementary and middle school students to form a bond built on support and guidance. Big buddies volunteer at least one hour per week year round to spend time with their little buddy after undergoing training and taking a pledge to be a positive influence.

Every year, big buddies, little buddies, their families and the council’s board of directors and staff get together to celebrate the positive effect the program has.

“These big buddies are amazing,” said Samantha Netburn, who has a son and daughter in the program as little buddies. Her daughter is autistic and her son has a learning disability and anxiety, she said. “They make them happy. My daughter looks forward to every week going with her big buddy and my son, it makes him happy that he gets to see his friends and interact more with the kids when he’s with his buddy. Instead of sitting home by themselves, they’re with a nice person who is positive for them.”

‘You never know the huge impact that you’re going to have on these kids.’ — Joe Wilson

Janene Gentile has been the executive director of the North Shore Youth Council for almost the entirety of its 35-year existence. She credited the Youth Advisory Board with driving the program. The board is made up of six high school students who are responsible for coordinating events, setting up outings and arranging activities for big and little buddies to enjoy together.

“They’re probably more important than I am,” Gentile said about the youth advisory board. They were recognized, along with all of the big buddies, individually, with certificates during a ceremony at Tuesday’s reception.

Joe Wilson, 16, is the Youth Advisory Board president.

“You never know the huge impact that you’re going to have on these kids,” Wilson said. “One of the kids in my first year when I was in ninth grade was in seventh grade at the time, so there’s not really too big of a difference there, but he now comes back and he does our open gym nights with us and he volunteers there, so that’s amazing to see — that you could have impacted their lives so much that they wanted to give back themselves.”

Sixteen-year-old Dylan Mulea was a little buddy, and is now on the Youth Advisory Board. He said being in both positions has been a positive experience for him.

“I met so many new people,” Mulea said. “It broke me out of my shell too, so it was awesome.”

Little buddies gave the program rave reviews as well.

“It shows that there is caring in the community,” 12-year-old Alexander Spallone said. “We do crafts and art, we create things and then we usually play games and sometimes we go outside when the weather is nice. We do all fun stuff.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner, on right, attended the North Shore Youth Council reception at Majestic Gardens in celebration of the positive influence the program has on North Shore kids. Photo by Alex Petroski
Councilwoman Jane Bonner, on right, attended the North Shore Youth Council reception at Majestic Gardens in celebration of the positive influence the program has on North Shore kids. Photo by Alex Petroski

The North Shore Youth Council is funded by Suffolk County and the Town of Brookhaven along with private donations, and serves the Miller Place, Shoreham-Wading River, Rocky Point and Mount Sinai areas, with programs set up within each school district.

Laurel Sutton is the president of the council’s board of directors, and her daughter served as a big buddy when she was in high school.

“I think it just is a very, very positive thing more now than ever because so many kids are lost as to what they want to do and who they can talk to and have as a safe haven,” Sutton said.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) and Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) both attended the reception Tuesday and commended the efforts of everyone involved in the program.

For more information about the North Shore Youth Council or the Big Buddy/Little Buddy program, visit www.nsyc.com.

North Shore Youth Council members make blankets with kids during a family service night. Photo from North Shore Youth Council

North Shore Youth Council has been keeping kids from ending up on the streets for more than two decades.

The council’s programs “give them more stuff to do beyond the school day and keeps them active and doing positive things,” office manager Marcie Wilson said.

Offering a myriad of programs, the not-for-profit hosts after school recreation, math tutoring on Tuesdays, social skills groups, child care, open mic nights, youth and family counseling, a Big Buddy/Little Buddy service and even helps teenagers get jobs.

“A lot of the time, young kids learn from other young people, so we try to get the high schoolers involved with the middle school kids,” Laurel Sutton, president of the North Shore Youth Council board of directors, said about the Big Buddy/Little Buddy program. “Any time they’re making good choices, it helps teach the younger kids to make good choices.”

The Youth Council also partners with local businesses and organizations to give children fun and interesting things to do or give them an outlet to help others. Shaolin Kung Fu & Fitness in Rocky Point, Studio E in Miller Place, Creative Zone Inc. in Rocky Point and national organization JumpBunch are just a few of those entities. Zumba instructors also host events for kids who are enrolled in the program.

Last December, six students partnered with Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild a home in Rocky Point. Months later, they were brought back to the dedication ceremony to see the final product.

Local students help in the construction of a Habitat for Humanity build in Rocky Point. Photo from North Shore Youth Council
Local students help in the construction of a Habitat for Humanity build in Rocky Point. Photo from North Shore Youth Council

“What was so great was that the kids were amazed,” Wilson said. “They worked on it and they went into what they called ‘their room’ that they worked on. They were so proud of themselves.”

A summer program is also available. Kids begin as campers and can become junior and senior counselors by the time they turn 16.

“They stick around with us for a really long time,” Wilson said. “Then they go off to college and we see them back in the summer time.”

North Shore Youth Council also partners with the Miller Place, Mount Sinai, Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River school districts, offering counseling and educating the schools on issues that concern today’s youth.

“We’re at each of the schools at 6:45 in the morning and we’re there until 6 p.m.,” said Janene Gentile, executive director of the youth council. “Everybody contributes to this organization. The kids on our Youth Advisory Board are in the schools and understand the issues and tell me the direction we should be heading in.”

According to Rocky Point Superintendent Michael Ring, six student assistance counselors work out of the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary and Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate schools. While primary focus is on middle school and high school counselors, there is a partnership at the elementary level. Emphasis is put on direct counseling, intervention and support services related to substance abuse.

“These counselors run numerous programs to support the social and emotional needs of our students and families, including anti-bullying, mentoring and character education,” Ring said. “Their expertise and support has provided critical resources to our district for more than two decades.”

Gentile, a drug and alcohol counselor with a master’s degree in art education, has been with the Youth Council for 23 years, working alongside Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office to host expressive art classes at the Little Portion Friary in Mount Sinai and working with incarcerated women and youth at the correctional facility in Riverhead.

“We’re trying to help people make good choices,” Sutton said. “North Shore is helping young people have activities to do after school rather than be home and get in trouble. There are enrichment programs, fun stuff and educational things.”

Gentile said she is thankful for all the help she’s received, but those she works with say they’re more thankful to have her around for all that she’s been able to do for the program.

“She’s such a loving, giving person, she’s very involved, she’s extremely creative and she knows her stuff,” Sutton said. “She’s a very in-tune person to what is going on. She basically built this whole program from the very beginning. She’s constantly doing things to improve it, and I couldn’t see anyone else heading North Shore.”

Gentile is more thankful for the connections made with so many other organizations, children, families, schools and businesses across the Island.

“I’m just really grateful that people have the same vision,” she said. “I get up every day and I enjoy being here and helping the young people; they’re an asset in every which way to the community. … I’ll continue to hold the young kids up, because I believe in them.”

Tracey Budd poses for a photo with her son Kevin Norris, who died of a heroin overdose in 2012. Photo from Tracey Budd

Tracey Budd’s son died of a heroin overdose in September 2012.

One year later, Budd, of Rocky Point, was asked to speak at the North Shore Youth Council. Since then, she’s ended up on a public service announcement, “Not My Child,” that’s shown in high schools and middle schools along the North Shore, aiding her in becoming an advocate for drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation. She also teamed up with another mother, Debbie Longo, of Miller Place, and the two have become advocates for prevention and rehabilitation along the North Shore.

It is because of their hard work and dedication to this issue on Long Island that they are 2015 Times Beacon Record Newspapers People of the Year.

“I made the decision not to be ashamed of how he passed away,” Budd said about her son. “Just from speaking that one time at North Shore Youth Council, it was so very healing for me, and so many things have come from that and taken me in a direction that I never thought I’d be in, but it seems like it’s my calling.”

Janene Gentile, a drug and alcohol counselor and executive director of the North Shore Youth Council, helped work on that PSA.

“It was very powerful,” she said. “It was walking her through her grief. She has a lot of courage.”

Budd, who is also a member of Families in Support of Treatment, pulled together as much information as she could, and this past October created a Facebook page — North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates — pooling together families from Rocky Point, Miller Place, Mount Sinai and Shoreham-Wading River to spread the word about the rising concern over dangerous drugs, like heroin, growing in popularity across the Island.

“It just seemed that so many people were inboxing me and asking me for help,” she said. “I created the page so we could have a centralized area where we share information, and organize meetings where the group could all meet up. I also organized meetings once a month so we could to teach people about advocacy.”

Having a 12-year-old daughter, Cristina Dimou attended the meetings to begin to gather information on the issue. About one week ago, someone Dimou knows suffered an unexpected overdose, she said. She immediately reached out to Budd asking for guidance.

Debbie Longo speaks at a Dan’s Foundation for Recovery event. Photo from Facebook
Debbie Longo speaks at a Dan’s Foundation for Recovery event. Photo from Facebook

“She gave me three phone numbers telling me who to call for what and even gave me websites of rehabilitation centers,” Dimou said about Budd. “She checks up on me every day, asking me if I’m okay and what’s going on. I don’t know her personally, but she had a sense of urgency and a willingness to help. I think that speaks volumes.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said with Budd’s outspokenness and Longo’s long-standing knowledge of the issue, they’ll be successful in their efforts.

“These women put their energy, their anger, their frustration, their sorrow into something that is helpful to the community,” she said. “I think they’re going to do amazing work.”

Longo has been involved in advocacy across the Island for the last five years, after her son suffered an overdose 10 years ago. Since then, her son has recovered, and currently lives in Del Ray, Florida as a director of marketing for a rehabilitation center called Insight to Recovery.

She said she found sending her son out of state helped him recover, because once he was done with his treatment, he wasn’t going back to seeing the same people he knew when he was using.

But she too has been involved in outreach and drug abuse prevention, aside from being to co-administrator of Budd’s Facebook page.

“I get a call just about every day from a parent saying they have a kid that’s addicted and they don’t know what to do,” she said. “We’re losing kids left and right. We’re losing a generation, is what we’re losing.”

Longo is a part of a 501(c)3 not-for-profit program, Steered Straight, which spreads prevention in schools. Recovered addict Michael DeLeon leads the program.

“You can hear a pin drop in the auditorium, that’s how dynamic of a speaker he is,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many kids come up to us at the end of the program and say, ‘I have a problem.’”

Longo was the chapter coordinator for New York State for a website called The Addict’s Mom, and is currently the head of Before the Petals Fall, Magnolia Addiction Support’s New York chapter. She is a 12-step yoga teacher to recovering addicts, and does post-traumatic stress disorder programs to help those dealing with grief.

After leaving nursing to go into medical marketing for hospitals, Longo said she thought she’d know where to turn when she found out her son was an addict, but said she really didn’t know what to do.

“There was such a bad stigma about addiction that you didn’t want to talk about it — you kind of suffered in silence,” she said. “If I was a nurse and had these contacts and didn’t know what to do, the average mother may have no idea. I’m trying to open the community up to what we have here on the North Shore.”

Tracey Budd holds a picture of her son, Kevin Norris, at a Walk for Hope event. Photo from Tracey Budd
Tracey Budd holds a picture of her son, Kevin Norris, at a Walk for Hope event. Photo from Tracey Budd

Longo has helped mothers like Sheila “Terry” Littler, of Rocky Point, whose son is a second-time recovering heroin addict. Currently, he is three months sober.

Knowing about treatment and where to get help, because it was something that started for her 13 years ago, Littler reached out to Longo for mental support.

“It was nice to have somebody else that’s gone through it to talk to, to know you’re not alone,” Littler said. “But at the same time, it’s sad that I’m not alone.”

When her son relapsed after being four and a half years sober, she reached out to Budd.

“It takes a lot of guts to come out in the open and do this and help people,” she said. “There are a lot of hurting people out there.”

She recently reached out to Longo about a friend of her son, who is a drug user, and the two were calling each other back and forth to find ways to overcome addiction.

“She cared to take the time to help me,” she said. “She spent a whole day doing that with me — that’s dedication right there.”

With the contacts Longo’s made with support centers and prevention agencies and Budd’s relationship with the county after creating the PSA, the two are teaming up to use their resources to form a coalition based on the Facebook page. It was also have the same name.

It’s in its early stages, but the hope is to help spread awareness about prevention through schools. As part of a coalition, Budd said, you can also apply for grants, which she hopes will help fund the spread of their advocacy.

“I felt Tracey was on the same path that I was on,” Longo said. “She is as tenacious as I am in what we’re trying to do.”

Longo said that she and Budd are trying to be vigilantes and have started Narcan training classes, like ones they’ve previously hosted in Miller Place and East Setauket, to continue to help fight the Island’s drug addiction problem. Narcan is a medication that stops opioid overdoses.

“I think together we’re a good team,” Budd said. “To me, you have a choice. You can either dig your head in the sand and be embarrassed that your child is an addict, or you can be proactive and say, ‘Enough of this, let’s help each other.’ When you speak to another parent that’s going through it, there’s a bond that you automatically create. In a way, I feel like my son is right there with me, helping these families. It’s very important to me, and I’m never going to stop doing it.”