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Port Jefferson Station

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The cell tower has been proposed for the southwestern portion of the property. Photo from Google maps

The Terryville Fire District is moving ahead on plans for a cell tower at its main firehouse, one they say could make the difference in emergency situations. 

The fire district has proposed creating a 120-foot monopole cell tower at the southwest portion of the property. Steve Petras, the district manager, said they are working with East Patchogue-based tower construction company Elite-Towers LP, which on its website says it specializes in working with municipalities to build these towers in conjunction with cell service providers (www.elite-towers.com). While Petras said they have not yet confirmed which provider would be on the tower, he mentioned AT&T was currently at the top of the list.

The cell tower, which district officials called a “mobile communications tower,” will include apparatus to extend the reach of the fire department’s radio equipment. 

So far, the final engineering reports have yet to come in, according to Petras. At its last meeting, March 26, the Town of Brookhaven voted unanimously to waive the site plan requirements and building fees for the cell tower, due to the district being a nonprofit. The fire district would still need to bring such a plan before the Town Planning Board in public hearings.

In May of last year, residents living near the Terryville Fire Department’s Station 2 firehouse on Canal Road vehemently protested the proposed cell tower. That tower had been proposed for the rear of the property, closer to the trees on the north side of the facility. 

Residents had complained that it would be an eyesore and decrease their property values. Leaders of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association joined in the protest, saying the fire district had not properly advertised its intentions to residents.

District officials disputed that, saying they had placed a legal notice in the March 16, 2017, edition of The Port Times Record on proposals for a cell tower on Canal Road and Jayne Boulevard as well as broadcasted those plans on all the digital signs outside each firehouse.

“When we sat down at those meetings, nobody from the community came out,” Petras said.

However, the new proposed location for the cell tower is enclosed, not by residential homes, but by retail businesses. 

Sal Pitti, the president of the civic, said he has not been contacted yet by the fire district, but the civic has not yet taken a stance on such a cell tower at the Jayne Boulevard location and would have to talk to the few people residing in the area, such as those living in the Fairfield Gardens on Terryville Road. 

However, of the three firehouses that could house a cell tower, “that’s the most desirable one,” he said.

The district manager said the fire district’s main justification in building a tower is two pronged. One is to eliminate dead zones within the district, while the other is to open up more potential revenue to the district to try and help keep taxes down.

The first point could mean the difference between a quick or slow response, or life and death.

“We’re having a hard time communicating with portable radios,” Petras said. “All our apparatus is outfitted with 4G, but we’re getting really bad reception in some areas — that’s a life safety issue for us … that’s unacceptable.”

The district manager said he did not yet know how much revenue the district would receive from the cell tower, and, depending on which service picks it up, the fire district would not have to spend time or money on building it or its maintenance.

Slurp Ramen in Port Jefferson has set up a unique means of serving customers, with a large screen in between workers and patrons. Photo by Kyle Barr

Local business owners are looking at an uncertain future due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis here on Long Island.

Due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) executive order that shut down nonessential businesses last Saturday in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, entrepreneurs and others are worried if they will be able to survive the financial blow. With bills due at the beginning of the month and with no new income coming in, many are calling on the state and the federal government for help.

Indu Kaur, the director of operations of The Meadow Club, looks at blueprints of new the building in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Kyle Barr

On Tuesday, Congress and the President Donald Trump (R) administration finally reached a $2 trillion agreement to assist people during the ongoing crisis. The new bill includes one-time direct payments to residents of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year or $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child. It also includes a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. Meanwhile, for larger industries the bill includes $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to bail them out as revenue has severely dropped.

Still, the question remains of how small local businesses will remain intact or even be able to open their doors again as the crisis ebbs.

Indu Kaur, director of operations of The Meadow Club in Port Jefferson Station, said, “This is a burden my father and I are trying to figure out, just like everyone else,”

A family of restaurateurs who recently took over The Harbor Grill had plans to open their third restaurant this month. In addition, The Meadow Club was set to reopen after being closed due to a fire in 2018. Kaur said the ongoing health crisis has put both openings on hold.

In the meantime, she said, The Curry Club in East Setauket is taking take-out and delivery orders.

“We had to lay off our staff,” she said. “There are still things like rent, insurance and utility bills that we have to worry about.”

When asked about the recent virus rescue bil from the federal government, Kaur said “it was great news and a good first step. “Many of us are suffering financially right now.”

She also said she is hopefully that Suffolk County can eventually do something similar to help business owners.

Currently, the U.S. Small Business Administration is offering economic injury disaster loans to affected businesses. Funds come directly from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the maximum unsecured loan amount is $25,000.

Kaur said she doesn’t think that is a viable option for her and other business owners.

“I’m not sure we can take out one more loan on what we already have,” she said. “For others there might be no other option.”

Last week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced the launch of the Business Recovery Unit, a component of the county’s Business Response Plan, to address concerns and questions that businesses have amid the coronavirus outbreak. Businesses are asked to complete a comprehensive survey on the county’s website (www.suffolkcountyny.gov).

In a conference call March 23, Bellone said that, with several hundred surveys completed, over 4,000 workers were indicated as laid off or furloughed.

“We keep getting calls and the numbers are going up; we are getting calls from workers who are self-employed who are in the same boat,” Bellone said.

In the new federal relief package, furloughed workers will have their salaries replaced for four months, getting whatever amount the state provides in unemployment plus a $600 add-on per week. Gig workers such as Uber drivers are included in that as well.

“There are still things like rent, insurance and utility bills that we have to worry about.”

Indu Kaur

In an effort to help business owners, New York State Republicans sent Cuomo a COVID-19 action plan that includes extending the payments of monthly sales tax by 90 days, making available no-interest loans immediately to entities that face a dramatic decrease in business and eliminating penalties for late payments of business and property taxes, among other things.

Similarly, over 17,600  people signed a Change.org petition titled Save Small Business Before It’s Too Late. It also called on the city, state and federal governments to take the necessary steps to save local businesses.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, creating jobs, generating tax revenue and providing valuable services,” said New York City Councilman Mark Gjonaj (D), who started the petition.

Lenore Paprocky, president of the Greater Middle Country Chamber of Commerce, said, while a lot of businesses are hurting, she is grateful how everyone is willing to come together and help fellow entrepreneurs.

“It’s difficult right now but we want to keep these businesses afloat,” she said.

The chamber has come up with a list of local businesses that are offering catering/takeout and automotive services.

Paprocky said they are trying to stay optimistic amid the ongoing shutdown, and she hopes elected officials can hash something out to help them.

“The future is uncertain, but we need to stay positive and work together to get through this,” the president of the chamber said.

PJS/Terryville Civic Association vice president Ed Garboski gives blood to the NYBC donor center at 1010 Route 112. Photo from Garboski

As national nonprofits and local hospitals are encouraging residents to donate blood as the coronavirus crisis has not only strained health care facilities but also caused a depletion of the region’s blood supply. 

The American Red Cross said they are facing a severe blood shortage due to an unprecedented number of blood drive cancellations in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Nearly 2,700 Red Cross blood drives have been canceled, and in the eastern New York region 23 blood drives have been canceled. 

In total, cancellations have resulted in 86,000 fewer blood donations. More than 80 percent of the blood the Red Cross collects comes from blood drives, according to the organization. 

The shortage has prompted concerns about how hospitals will treat medical emergencies. According to the Red Cross, a single blood donation can be used to save multiple lives and about one in seven hospital admissions requires a blood transfusion. 

“Unfortunately, when people stop donating blood, it forces doctors to make hard choices about patient care, which is why we need those who are healthy and well to roll up a sleeve and give the gift of life.” said Chris Hrouda, president of Red Cross Biomedical Services, in a statement. 

Similarly, The New York Blood Center is urging healthy donors to donate. In addition, they are extending open hours at their donor centers. NYBC operates 19 donor centers across New York and New Jersey. Its Port Jefferson Station Donor Center, located at 1010 Route 112, works closely with St. Charles Hospital. 

NYBC officials said these steps have maintained the blood supply for now but stressed that blood is perishable and the supply must be continually replenished to avoid a shortage. 

NYBC said they are taking extra precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and advise people who are experiencing a cold, sore throat, respiratory infection or flu-like symptoms to avoid donor centers. 

Stony Brook University Hospital is currently accepting blood donations as well. 

Hospital officials said they are constantly monitoring the blood supply situation at its facilities and assured residents that donating blood is safe. Donors are health screened at the hospital entrance, and the donor room is not crowded. The screening process includes completing a form regarding recent travel history and potential acute respiratory symptoms and COVID-19 exposure.

The hospital is accepting blood donations from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. People can call 631-444-2626 to make an appointment.

The Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

The COVID-19 crisis has affected daily life for every resident, but it has especially created challenges for individuals seeking essential resources, and for the workers and volunteers who provide them. The ongoing health crisis has caused numerous facilities including homeless shelters and other nonprofit organizations to rethink how they operate for the time being. 

For Stephen Brazeau, director of Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson, it has been business as usual at the facility, with a few exceptions. 

“We’ve had an open-door policy at the center, but now we’ve locked the front door and have begun screening individuals who want to come in,” Brazeau said. “We usually have significant walk-in traffic and we’ve definitely seen a reduction in that.”

The director said they have seen anywhere from a 60-70 percent decrease in walk-ins. 

Currently, the hospitality center has a total of four staff members working with a few volunteers, compared to an additional 10 interns and 40-plus volunteers, due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) executive order limiting operations. Brazeau said the center’s 24 beds are occupied, and for individuals they can’t accommodate they are trying to set them up with an official from the county’s department of social services. 

“We are doing our best to make sure these services and basic needs are continuing to be offered,” he said. “At the same time, we want our workers to be safe as well.”

In 2016, 3,960 individuals were deemed homeless on Long Island but more than half of those were children, according to a Long Island Coalition for the Homeless survey count. More than half of the surveyed homeless were children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended homeless shelters minimize face-to-face staff interactions with clients, and limit visitors to the facility during the outbreak. 

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance said in a directive to shelter providers, “congregate facilities, such as shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness, are especially at risk for the spread of communicable diseases due to the number of individuals living in close proximity.”

Brazeau said he is also concerned about undocumented individuals who may need a place to stay as well as food.

“A few of the places that they go to for meals have closed, so we have tried to lead them to churches, schools and other places that are offering them,” the director said. 

For Celina Wilson, president of the Bridge of Hope Resource Center, she and her staff have had to adjust on the fly. Moving away from face-to-face interactions and meetings, they now try to do most of their work through phone calls and other technological means. 

“Even though we are limited in mobility, we are still able to help and advise our clients on a number of issues,” Wilson said. “We call them, text them, FaceTime them and we walk them through whatever they need help with.”

The Port Jefferson Station-based resource center provides a number of counseling, mentoring and education services. It is working on a graphic informational guide on the coronavirus that will be published on its website. In addition, the center will list other resources available on the Island like sites for mobile food distribution. 

“At this point we have to work together to get through this and keep people informed,” Wilson said.

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Robert Niedig, Robin Hoolahan and Sean Leister deliver bags of food to students who need it. The program is expected to continue as long as the schools remained closed. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though schools in the Port Jefferson area may be closed, districts have been working constantly to get food to the children who may need it now more than ever.

Volunteers and staff help deliver meals at both JFK Middle School and the Comsewogue High School March 19. Photo by Leigh Powell

Port Jefferson Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister and a few volunteers stood inside the high school’s cafeteria Friday, March 20. For the weekend, the district was handing out three meals, one for Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. 

The program is based on the district’s previous reduced cost lunch program, but now its being donated to anybody 18 or under free. Nobody has to sign up, and nobody at the door checks if the person lives within the district.

“The program is not restricted, it’s for any child 18 and under that feels they have a need,” Leister said.

When school was normally in session, Leister said the district had 110 students signed up for the program, where around 65 normally picked it up. In the last week or so, the district has been producing around 50 to 60 meals each day. Middle School Principal Robert Neidig has also volunteered to deliver to those resident’s houses who said they were unable to come out to pick their meals up. He said families have been really appreciative, even one young girl who comes to the door so excited to see the meals he’s brought.

“It’s like if I were delivering them candy,” Neidig said.

Each bag comes with a sandwich, bagel or wrap, along with fruit and milk. Any untaken meals are being given to Infant Jesus RC Church for them to distribute any remaining food.

Leister said the district has also applied to New York State to allow them to make breakfast and dinner meals as well. Local residents can get these meals at the Port Jefferson High school from 11 to 1 p.m. on weekdays.

Meanwhile in the Comsewogue school district, staff and a score of volunteers worked Thursday, March 19 at two separate schools to donate around 1,800 meals to children in need within the district.

Volunteers and staff help deliver meals at both JFK Middle School and the Comsewogue High School March 19. Photo by Jennifer Quinn

Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said the staff took everything from the schools cafeterias and even raided the faculty food pantry. Originally the district thought they would be able to only give out 1,100, but they went far above what they expected. 

This is one of the toughest things we’ve ever experienced — we will do what we need to do, together,” Quinn said. “We need to make sure our families are fed and our children are educated, and we are as whole as possible by the end of all this.”

Food included in bags were cold cuts, bread, apple sauce, juice, milk, cereal, cereal bars, and frozen hamburgers and meatballs. Staff and volunteers placed the bags inside the cars of those who drove up to the high school and JFK Middle School. Volunteers also drove meals to families who said they were unable to come by the two pickup locations.

There were around 30 volunteers who came by to offer aid. Quinn said they were offered aid by over 100 residents, but she felt she had to turn most away to try and reduce the chance of any kind of contagion.

The Comsewogue district is expecting nonprofit food bank Island Harvest to donate them another 300 meals come this Monday. Quinn added the district is likely to raid the cafeterias in the other schools, and should have another 1,100 meals after they receive aid from a New York State program giving food aid to schools during the mandated shutdown.

The Comsewogue School District is expecting to host its next bagged food drive Thursday, April 2.

 

Last Saturday, Feb. 29, at the Comsewogue Public Library, people from all over Long Island clutched broken antiques, busted electronics, ripped clothing and many, many battered lamps in their laps. Surrounding them were tables where fixers, experts and simple tinkerers plugging away at all things broken, trying their best to make them whole again.

Richard Feldman, a retired teacher, was one of the volunteers, called “coaches,” helping people fix their items. He’s a tinkerer, the kind of guy who could make you a homemade hammer from stained and lacquered paint stirrers and a head made from junk he found on the side of the road.

“You can fix anything, as long as you know what’s wrong.”

— Paul Orfin

Feldman was helping Centereach woman Blanche Casey open up a small antique safe. It had been closed after too many young hands of her grandchildren had fiddled with it. Casey had taken such an item to other repair shops, but none knew what to do with it. Instead at the Repair Cafe, Feldman fiddled with the safe until it finally revealed its hoard of pennies that spilled out onto the table. Casey thanked Feldman several times, but the tinkerer said sometimes such repairs require a little divine intervention.

“Sometimes, with things like this, it’s just luck,” he said. “It’s just pure fun, and I enjoy it. It’s why I’m here.” 

This is not the first time Repair Cafe Long Island has come to Comsewogue. For the past several years a small group of volunteer enthusiasts have helped save broken items from dumpsters and the landfill. 

Laurie Farber, of Wyandanch, has run the LI chapter of Repair Cafe since 2007, originally hosting her first at the Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch. Under Starflower Experiences Inc., a nonprofit, she has since hosted more all across Long Island, east and west, the North Shore and South Shore, and everything in between. This year she has more cafes planned than the past several years. She has events coming up in both March and April, including one at the Elwood Public Library April 20.

The first repair cafe was started by a Dutch environmentalist in the Netherlands in 2009. The nonprofit Repair Cafe International Foundation now has 16,000 chapters across 35 countries. Farber started her branch even before there was one in New York City.

“The items that come in are usually of sentimental value,” she said. “People go home with something that may have been sitting in the closet for 20 years and it may have been a simple thing to fix.”

Though many of the volunteers see such repair as a hobby, several had quite the resume. Neal Fergenson is a chief electrical engineer for a military contractor. His wife saw an ad asking for people to volunteer their time, and now he’s been at it for two years. 

Just one of his projects that day was helping a woman fix her stereo system. The device had worked fine for over 30 years until this year, when the tuning knob simply stopped working. That Saturday Fergenson was busy jury-rigging a way to get the knob to connect to a post on the motherboard.

“We’re a throw-away society,” he said. “It gives people a chance to recycle things.”

Paul Orfin is an engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory who works in the collider accelerator department, but that Saturday he was more known as the “lamp whiz.” The engineer had originally heard of the event through his local library in Patchogue.

At last year’s event, he had even put his engineering skills through their practice when he helped the library fix its 3-D printer it had on display.

“You can fix anything, as long as you know what’s wrong,” Orfin said.

Not everything can be fixed. Sometimes the items are damaged beyond repair, or, as is common these days, the necessary parts are simply unavailable.

“We already have a garbage problem, and just buying things is not always the answer.”

— Laurie Farber

A movement has been growing all across the county, called the right to repair. Car manufacturers have largely worked under a memorandum, based on a 2012 Massachusetts law providing all owners with documents and information to allow people to do their own repairs, but such ideas have not made their way into the tech sector. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed by Congress in 1998, electronics manufacturers have largely hindered or otherwise completely forbid people from tinkering with their devices. Some states have passed right to repair laws, but the New York Legislature failed to pass one in 2015.

Such anti-consumer practices have even found their way to farm equipment, with farm utilities manufacturer John Deere using a heavy hand to stop farmers from modifying or even fixing their equipment without taking it to a dealer.

Farber said such practices are just another example why these repair cafes have blossomed all across the world. Another, and it is especially important for Long Island, is to stop much of the products from ending up in the trash. 

“I think it’s a shame, we already have a garbage problem, and just buying things is not always the answer,” she said.

Gabriele Guerra, a real estate agent from Dix Hills, traveled all the way to the Comsewogue library for the chance to fix a lamp she found at the side of the road, a marble statue of a Spanish conquistador. 

In 2024, the Town of Brookhaven plans to close and cap its landfill. Once that happens, nobody is sure what will happen.

Though Guerra said there is one sure thing, that people will need to think about throwing less things away.

“Everybody’s throwing things out — instead fix them, recycle, reuse, don’t dump it on the street.”

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Local residents at the February PJS/T Civic meeting contest with developers over a planned addition to the Nesconset Shopping Center. Photo by Kyle Barr

A potential pad building in the middle of the Nesconset Shopping Center parking lot has some PJS community members agitated, but property owners say such an addition will help keep the shops viable long-term.

Design plans for the new proposed pad building at the Nesconset Shopping Center. Photo by Kyle Barr

The shopping center, located along Route 347 slightly west of Terryville Road, is owned by Brixmor Property Group, a national retail property corporation. The proposed pad would include a 7,000-square-foot, single-story island that would house two separate storefronts. 

Brixmor representatives said the two fronts would house a dentist office and a bank, respectively. Plans say the Bethpage Federal Credit Union, currently located at the far western end of the shopping center, would move to the building that would include a drive-through. Reps added they are in talks with Aspen Dental, which has offices in upstate New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, for the other space. Town of Brookhaven zoning for the property would remain the same, retail J-2.

Nicholas Andreadis, the regional vice president of leasing for Brixmor’s north region, said Bethpage Federal Credit Union would likely vacate the shopping center if it isn’t able to secure a drive-through.

At a Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic meeting Feb. 25, representatives of Brixmor and its hired architects came to speak on the proposed addition. 

Some residents had concerns with the location of the pad, especially in how it effectively bisects the parking lot. The lot has three entrances from Nesonset Highway, and the middlemost one would be directly in front of the proposed storefront. A central lane running through the parking lot currently allows drivers to go back and forth parallel to the highway, but plans show the lane would be cut off just before the middle entrance. Cars would have to stop and either go around the pad or stop at several stop signs. Company representatives said this was at the request of the town to slow down traffic through that area.

The changes would reduce the total number of stalls by 25 from 599 to 574.

The shopping center is currently full of stores including a Dollar Tree, Five Guys burgers and fries and Carnival Restaurant & Pizzeria. There is only one vacant location. On Saturday, a new art studio One River  School of Art & Design opened its doors at the shopping center.

Some residents complained they have used the central lane to bypass having to go onto Route 347 and skip the confusing and often dangerous intersection between the highway and Norwood Avenue. Sal Pitti, the civic president, said taking such shortcuts is, in itself, unsafe. 

Site plans for the pad building show a 7,000-square-foot addition in the center of the parking lot, mandating a reconfiguration of traffic patterns. Photos by Kyle Barr

“That’s where a lot of the problems start when people try to come in and out of the parking lot,” Pitti said. 

Will Zieman, 6th Precinct COPE officer, also spoke to the problems of using that parking lot as a cut through.

“Is it reasonable to predict what people are going to do off 347?” he said. “It’s very hard for you, as a driver, to predict what another vehicle will do coming out of that shopping center.”

Though, as Port Jeff Station resident Jennifer Simoes put it, even being forced to drive in front of the storefronts because of the new pad is itself dangerous for pedestrians.

“I don’t want to go in front of the storefronts either, because I don’t want to hit anyone who’s coming out with their pizza,” she said. “I’m not going to want to go in there, and there’s another Dollar Tree and Marshalls in the
other direction.”

Pitti agreed the larger issue comes from increased pedestrian traffic in an often busy parking lot.

Charlie McAteer, the civic’s recording secretary, also suggested the company look at how pedestrians were to get from the pad building to the main shopping center.

“What I’m seeing where you’re walking right now, you’re going to end at a walkway and you’re into striped parking, and you will have to walk between parked cars,” he said. “There will be people who want to go to the bank and then go eat.”

Reuben Twersky, a project director for Brixmor, said people will often ignore walkways and crosswalks and routes even if they were created.

“We would like to do it in as safe a manner as possible,” he said.

The area along Route 347 has been a particular hotbed of issues with both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Last year, 17-year-old Jenna Perez, an employee at Five Guys, was killed in a hit-and-run while crossing Nesconset Highway outside a crosswalk.

In addition to the changes in parking lot design, Brixmor plans to reduce the height of lights to 20 feet and add 19,000 square feet of landscaping to the front of the property bordering Nesconset Highway. 

The company is also looking to redo and move the sign displaying the names stores within. Designs show the proposed sign going 26 1/2 feet up from the ground on new brick pylons. 

Philip Butler, an attorney from Hauppauge-based Farrell Fritz, said the company’s next steps are to submit final comments to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals by March 11. After the zoning board of appeals gives approval for variances, then the company will be back in front of the Planning Board to look at traffic and parking. The company is also awaiting on New York State Department of Transportation on a traffic study before it can move fully ahead.

Superintendent Joe Rella a his last graduation ceremony, 2019. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr and Monica Gleberman

Dr. Joe Rella, the beloved former Comsewogue superintendent who spent just over 25 years in the district, passed away Feb. 21, with Moloney Funeral Homes and the district confirming his death late Friday night. He was 69.

Community members flocked to social media to share their thoughts and memories about their superintendent affectionately known around the district as just “Rella.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

“So much of what I learned about community was through his unceasing example of what it meant to serve the place you call home,” said Kevin LaCherra, who graduated in 2009. “To bring people in, to find out what they need, to fight like hell to get it and then to pass the torch.”

Rella entered the district as a part-time music teacher, making only $28,000 in salary. He would move on to become a full-time music teacher, then the high school principal and finally, superintendent of schools, which was his final position, held for nine years.

In an interview with TBR News Media before his retirement and final graduation ceremony in 2019, Rella had likened the act of running a school district to music, all based in a learning process for both the students and for him.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he said.

The district planned to decorate school buildings with blue-and-gold ribbons come Monday and make counselors available for students who may need it, current Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said Saturday. The district was closed Wednesday, Feb. 26 to allow teachers and students to attend his funeral.

Quinn had worked with Rella for 13 years. In a phone interview Saturday, the current superintendent had nothing but great things to say about her predecessor and mentor. If anything, she said Rella “did not want people to remember him sadly. He wanted them to smile and laugh. He just loved everybody.” 

Rella’s wife, Jackie, passed in 2016 following a struggle with breast cancer. The superintendent himself had been diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in 2017. Despite his sickness, he would stay on in the top position for another two years. 

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23, 2016. File photo by Bob Savage

It was that dedication, even in the face of sickness and loss, that built up so much trust between him and the community over the years. Quinn said he was humble, always the one to take the blame if plans didn’t work out, but he was always ready to heap praise on others.

“He made everyone important,” she said. “He never shied away from a tough problem and tried to make everything better — he always did.”

Others in the district said Rella’s example pushed them to do more and to do better. Andrew Harris, a special education teacher in the high school, created Joe’s Day of Service in 2018. Named after the then-superintendent, the program asked students to do volunteer work around the school and the greater community. Students have traveled all the way to the Calverton Cemetery in both 2018 and 2019 to clean graves and plant flags.

Harris said there are hundreds of examples of Rella’s kindness, such as driving over an hour to take care of a teacher’s mother who was suffering from cancer.

“In many ways, just like they call the middle of our country the ‘flyover states,’ Port Jefferson Station used to be like a ‘drive-through town’ — people were on their way to another town as the destination,” Harris said. “That all changed with Dr. Rella’s leadership. No matter where you went, and especially as a teacher, when you say you are from Comsewogue and Port Jefferson Station, people know where you came from and the legacy. It makes us all proud to say it.”

The school board accepted Rella retirement in November 2018. He had said in previous interviews his diagnosis did not factor into his decision to retire, and it had been his and his wife’s intent to make that year his last.

“Joe and Jackie were the face of Comsewogue for many years,” said John Swenning, school board president. “Their dedication and support to our administrators, teacher, staff, parents and most importantly our students is nothing short of legendary. Dr. Rella is the Italian grandfather that every kid deserves to have. He will be missed dearly.”

School board trustee Rob DeStefano had known Rella since his sophomore year in Comsewogue high, when the to-be super had joined the district as the new music teacher. DeStefano would be elected to the board coinciding with Rella’s appointment as head of schools. One memory that cemented the famed superintendent in his mind, according to a previous column he wrote for TBR after Rella’s announced retirement, was during a jazz band concert he and his wife got up on stage and started to dance the Charleston.

Rella speaks out against standardized testing in 2015. File photo

Despite the loss, the Rella name lives on in the district, particularly in the high school courtyard, full of sunflowers, named Jackie’s Garden after his late wife. As the superintendent participated in his final high school graduation ceremony last year on June 26, students rolled out a new plaque, naming the high school auditorium the Dr. Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center.

His funeral, held Wednesday, Feb. 26, at St. Gerard Majella R.C. Church in Port Jefferson Station, drew huge crowds of family as well as school officials and community members.

Those same Community members and school officials gathered outside the high school Wednesday morning before the funeral. At just after 10 a.m., a hearse bearing Rella and a procession drove around the circle outside the high school, his final visit to the institution residents say he cared so deeply about. Members of both the Port Jefferson and Terryville fire departments hung a giant flag above the ground for the hearse to drive under. Residents and students held blue and yellow signs, all thanking the superintendent for his life of work and service. 

Quinn said they will be working out the details for a larger memorial sometime in the near future.

“He embodied the Comsewogue culture — pushed it and all of us forward,” said 2019 graduate Josh Fiorentino. “To say I know how he wanted to be remembered would be a lie. However, I and many others will remember him as a Warrior. The truest of them all.”

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Bob Rodriguez and Wesam Hassanin, front left and right, the owners of Po'Boy Brewery in Port Jeff Station, started a drive to deliver bags of goods to Pax Christi. Photo by David Luces

Wesam Hassanin, bar manager at Po’Boy Brewery in Port Jefferson Station, had an idea to bring community members together for a good cause. 

“I wanted people to come out for something positive,” she said. 

Volunteers at the Po’Boy Brewery in Port Jeff Station pack boxes of food and other supplies for Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson, which has numerous services for the homeless. Photo by David Luces

The process began at the end of 2019, when Hassanin began spreading the word of what she had planned on social media and to local business owners. Her project was to create 100 blessing bags for the homeless. Over the past two months, Hassanin and others purchased a number of essential items to pack in the bags. 

“I didn’t expect this, I think I posted once or twice about it on social media and we literally had everything we needed for the bags probably within three weeks,” she said. “I can’t believe the amount of responses we got.”

On Feb. 16, close to 30 people came out to assemble and pack bags at the brewery and send them to Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson. Among those who came out to help were customers, family members, friends and fellow business owners. 

“I wanted to help local men and women in need, I reached out to [Pax Christi] and they said they could ‘definitely’ use the blessing bags,” she said. 

Rebecca Kassay, who runs the Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jefferson, praised Hassanin for her efforts to bring people together and help make a difference in the community. 

“It’s pretty incredible to see so many people in the community come together — it makes you want to do more of this,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect, if two or three people tried to do the same effort, it would have taken all day. With the amount of people we had, it took 45 minutes.”  

Kassay stressed the importance of extending a helping hand to others. 

“I want to be someone as a resident, a business owner, who says what can I do to help these problems,” she said. “If I make these causes [in the community], I want to be a part of it.” 

The owner of the inn said this event motivated her to do more. 

Volunteers at Po’Boy Brewery helped donate 100 “Blessing Bags” to Pax Christi. Photo by David Luces

“I volunteer at Hope House, so this inspires me to reach out to them more often,”
Kassay said. 

Bob Rodriquez, owner of the brewery and Hassanin’s husband, was proud of her efforts to help the less fortunate. 

“All the kudos goes to her,” he said. “She approached me with the idea and I said, ‘Let’s do it’ … We really have her to thank for setting this up and the homeless people [at Pax Christi] will have her to thank for the bags.” 

Hassanin said she is already considering what she can do next to give back. 

“I wanted to do more [bags] but I didn’t want to get over my head, we thought 100 bags was a good number,” she said. “Maybe the next time we do this we’ll do more.”

The bar manager of the brewery said she hopes this will encourage others to pay it forward and give back. 

“It means so much that they all came out to help out, we couldn’t have done it without them, Hassanin said. “I want this to motivate other people to do something similar and wanted to show its possible to do something like this.”

Sheriff Errol Toulon is joined by Working Paws CEO Deborah Whitney, with the inmate trainers in the background. Photo from sheriff’s office

On Feb. 10, six female inmates participated in a graduation in a unique puppy-training program at the Yaphank Correctional Facility.  

Inmates at the Yaphank jail graduate from their puppy training courses. Photo from Sheriff’s office

Pawsitive Second Chances is a program designed and developed by Working Paws Training Inc. where puppies are brought into the jail and are trained in basic obedience skills by the inmates. The puppies get exposure and socialization to various different sounds, smells and visual stimuli, and the inmates get the opportunity to nurture the pups. 

“The dog doesn’t ever hold anything against anyone,” said Deborah Whitney, the founder and CEO of Working Paws. “It’s unconditional regardless of what you as a person have done.”

After training, the puppies are available for adoption through Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue, a nonprofit no-kill animal shelter in Port Jefferson Station. Working Paws and Save-A-Pet work as a team to help adopt and save the animals. 

In December 2018, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) unveiled the Choose to Thrive Female Program Pod in the Yaphank Correctional Facility. Directors say the program uses a holistic approach to helping women behind bars get back into mainstream society. From trauma counseling to assistance for the inmates’ children, the women are in a structured program where they can choose the courses or services they want. This is the first program pod offered to the female general population.

“Sometimes it’s just that one little thing that can be transformative and that can put someone over the top to realize what they can achieve,” Toulon said of the program.

The pet-training program enhances a shelter dog’s adoptability and placement into programs. After completing the program, the puppies are highly desirable for adoption and the program ensures long-term success for both humans and canines. At the same time, Working Paws helps to open the inmates’ eyes to a world of training and provides them with options for life outside of prison.