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Rotary Club

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Josef ‘Max’ Joyner with his social studies teacher Graceanne Fallon

At their Feb. 9 luncheon at Cafe Spiga in Mt. Sinai and via Zoom, members of the Port Jefferson Rotary Club welcomed their newest Most Motivated Student of the Month, Port Jefferson Middle School student Josef “Max” Joyner.  

Max was joined by proud guests including his parents, his social studies teacher Mrs. Graceanne Fallon and middle school principal Dr. Robert Neidig. 

It was Neidig who introduced the youngster and explained why the school’s faculty chose Max for this Rotary honor.  Max, who boasts an extremely high GPA, was praised by his teachers as a school leader who is always helpful in a respectful manner.  

His Algebra I teacher noted that Max “is always willing to offer insightful responses that are both thought-provoking and exhibit conceptual understanding of the topic.” 

Other teachers pointed out that Max helps and motivates his peers in all classes, is described as hardworking, conscientious, kind, a joy to teach — a student who is a very social person, a natural leader, who looks out not only for himself but also for the well-being of others.  

He completes his classwork thoroughly, and even requests extra work before vacations so that he can be better-prepared to learn more and build on previous learning upon the return to school.  

Last year, Max was a Science Olympiad participant.  He has endeared himself to all of his teachers who are thrilled to have this opportunity to honor him because he is such an exceptional, mature, dedicated student.  

Dr. Neidig summarized the reasons for celebrating Max. 

“His maturity, thirst for knowledge, compassionate nature, and leadership abilities will continue to propel him to accomplish great things in his schooling and beyond,” he said. “Thank you for inspiring all of us.”

Courtesy of the Port Jefferson Rotary Club

 

Deirdre Dubato, president of the Rotary Club of Rocky Point, said that when she first heard of the Million Mask Challenge just after Christmas, she knew her club had to get involved. 

Along with other Long Island-based rotaries, the Million Mask Challenge is inspired to help people in need of masks within the community.

Earlier this month, 40 rotaries from Brooklyn to Montauk gathered in Hicksville to retrieve a batch of masks to distribute to schools, food pantries and shelters. 

The Million Mask Challenge — originally created by Rotary International — began when The Rossi Family Foundation donated hundreds of thousands of masks to the local chapter, in hopes that along with the donation, more masks could be acquired and reach a million people worldwide.

Dubato said that since they gathered in early January, 14,000 adult masks and 1,000 kids-sized masks were brought to different organizations.

“Every soup kitchen, food pantry and school district are having issues finding masks,” she said.

So, they decided to help out by donating to local spots that were in need. The 1,000 children’s masks went to the North Shore Youth Council and to Blessings in a Backpack — which helps students in the Longwood Central School District. 

And it won’t stop there. Dubato said that as long as they keep gaining masks, they will continue to distribute them. 

The Rotary Club of Rocky Point covers the Rocky Point, Miller Place, Shoreham-Wading River, Middle Island and Longwood School districts.

Dubato said they’re always looking for new members. 

“If giving back to the community is your goal,” she said, “Then you are welcome.”

Uerda Zena colors before her heart procedure last week. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

A 4-year-old girl from Kosovo is recovering after a life-saving heart operation on Long Island, thanks to the work of local volunteers.

Mom Barbara Zena comforts Uerda as she recovers from her heart procedure. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt
Mom Barbara Zena comforts Uerda as she recovers from her heart procedure. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

It took a village to support Uerda Zena. Rotary groups throughout Suffolk lent a hand to the girl and her mother, Barbara, through the Gift of Life program, which works to provide such stateside heart procedures to children from around the globe. Uerda’s Nov. 4 surgery to repair a hole in her heart the size of a nickel was a milestone effort that celebrated the Rotary program’s 40th anniversary.

The atrial septal defect closure performed on Uerda at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn will add 60 or more years to the little girl’s life, Port Jefferson Rotary member Debbie Engelhardt explained, but the surgery was not available in her home nation.

Engelhardt, who is also the director of the Comsewogue Public Library, said more than 19,000 children from dozens of countries have received life-saving surgeries since the Gift of Life program was born in Suffolk County four decades ago and expanded through Rotary International.

The medical team that took care of Uerda Zena, including Dr. Levchuck second from right, surrounds mom Barbara Zena. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt
The medical team that took care of Uerda Zena, including Dr. Levchuck second from right, surrounds mom Barbara Zena. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

Rotary groups in the county are still going strong with Gift of Life, which is doubling up its efforts by providing doctors and medical staff in other countries with equipment and training to perform the heart procedures themselves.

“It’s a unique, renowned and respected Rotary-run program,” Engelhardt said.

Dr. Sean Levchuck, the pediatric cardiologist who performed the life-saving procedure on Uerda at St. Francis, described it as minimally invasive. To close the nickel-sized hole, he fed a catheter “the size of a coffee stirrer” into a vein in her leg and up to her heart, where the catheter deployed a device that, once placed in the hole, expanded to plug it. The cardiologist had to position the device properly while Uerda’s heart was still beating, mostly using ultrasound imaging to guide him.

Barbara Zena and daughter Uerda have fun at Chuck E. Cheese. Photo from Joe DeVincent
Barbara Zena and daughter Uerda have fun at Chuck E. Cheese. Photo from Joe DeVincent

The doctor said the procedure took between 45 minutes to an hour and required a team of nurses, an anesthesiologist and techs to assist with the imaging. The hospital donated the use of its facility and staff for the procedure.

Levchuck does about 15 of those procedures a year for Gift of Life, he said, with a fair number of the child recipients coming from Eastern European countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. He also sees kids from places like Haiti and Jamaica.

Just like in those other nations, the procedure to repair a hole in a child’s heart is not available in Kosovo, Levchuck said, because the hospitals don’t have the resources to train their staffs to do it. And the kids who are born with those defects are more prone to pneumonia or respiratory infections, which could also be difficult to treat in a developing nation.

“Problems in this country that are seemingly innocent take a whole new look” in places like Kosovo, the doctor said. But he is willing to help: “Keep ‘em coming. … It’s easy to donate time.”

In Uerda’s case, plenty of Long Islanders donated their time, with many people pitching in to make the girl’s medical procedure a reality. Sayville Rotarian Joe DeVincent wrote letters to get the girl a visa, and she and her mother are staying with a host family in Northport while here. DeVincent has also provided transportation to the Kosovan mother and daughter.

Uerda Zena and mom Barbara are all smiles while in the U.S. to repair the girl's heart defect Photo from Joe DeVincent
Uerda Zena and mom Barbara are all smiles while in the U.S. to repair the girl’s heart defect Photo from Joe DeVincent

The endeavor to save Uerda had an additional element of kids helping other kids — students at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, one of whom is Levchuck’s son, raised funds to bring the girl to the United States from her home in the Kosovan capital, Pristina, where her mother works at a bakery and her father at a public works plant.

“They’re a fine group of students over there that championed a cause,” the doctor said about the St. Anthony’s kids. “When you see something like that, you really get a nice warm feeling about the future.”

Uerda will be staying stateside for a little while longer, and Rotarians are trying to show her a good time. She has already gone on a play date to Chuck E. Cheese and visited a children’s museum, DeVincent said, and this weekend she will go into New York City with her mother and some native Long Islanders to visit Times Square and Rockefeller Center.

“Uerda really enjoys being with her mother,” DeVincent said.

And she has more energy to do these things than before.

After a heart procedure, Uerda Zena is now healthier than ever. Photo from Joe DeVincent
After a heart procedure, Uerda Zena is now healthier than ever. Photo from Joe DeVincent

“Her heart’s working better, her circulation’s better,” the Rotarian said. “The kid generally feels better than she has in her whole life. So this is a very happy story.”

Uerda will also appear at a Taste of Smithtown, an event in St. James on Nov. 17, where there will be food from restaurants along the North Shore. The 10th annual event will run from 6 to 9 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz of Smithtown on Middle Country Road and will benefit the Gift of Life program, along with the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry and the Smithtown Children’s Foundation.

The plan is for the Zenas to head home on Nov. 22, to be reunited with Uerda’s father and her 18-month-old brother.

“Her mother is in touch with her family in Europe through her cell phone and … Uerda has spoken to her brother over the cell phone,” DeVincent said. “She’s actually very maternal toward her younger brother.”

It is a happy ending for both the Kosovo family and Suffolk County Rotarians.

“When you’re doing something like this with an adorable 4-year-old child, it brings you tremendous satisfaction,” DeVincent said. “This is the best way to spread happiness, certainly for these children and their parents but also for yourself. Nothing that I do or have done in my life has brought me as much joy.”