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Smithtown

Lawyers reveal new details on Case

Families of several young women who died in a limo crash in Cuthogue in 2015 gathered in Smithtown for the five-year anniversary of the crash. Photo by David Luces

For the families of the four women who tragically died in a 2015 limousine crash on County Route 48 in Cutchogue, the grief and pain from that fateful day has never gone away.

Families of several young women who died in a limo crash in Cuthogue in 2015 gathered at the five-year anniversary of the crash. Photo by David Luces

The families of Amy Grabina, Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli, and Brittney Schulman gathered by a Smithtown street July 16 that was named in honor of their daughters next to Smithtown High School West. The group tied purple ribbons around the street sign and were also joined by the parents of four women who were injured and survived the crash.

“Due to the irresponsibility of some and negligence of others, those four women did not return, while four passengers returned physically and mentally scarred,” said Steven Baruch, father of victim Lauren Baruch. “It is five years after the fact and we are still tortured by many unanswered questions … that the picture of what actually happened remains unclear.”

At a press conference after the ceremony, Robert Sullivan, a lawyer for the Baruch family, revealed new information on the case. The lawyer showed an email from a Southold resident that was sent to town officials three years before the fatal crash. The resident in the email warned about the potential for an accident to occur on the intersection that killed the four women.

In addition, the attorney showed a newly surfaced ambulance report shows that there was a front-seat passenger in Steven Romeo’s pickup truck when it crashed into the limousine. The report says she refused medical care at the scene.

“It states on the report that she was the front seat passenger in the red pickup truck, so she saw the whole thing, ” Sullivan said. “That information was never given to us for three years. It was never turned over to the families or lawyers. Why is that? It is all part of a cover-up.”

Lawyers for the families have tried to interview the women, but have been unsuccessful as she has been uncooperative, according to the attorney.

“We have tried to depose this lady to find out what she saw, its [been] five years,” Russell said.
The Baruch and Grabina families are suing the Town of Southold and Suffolk County, claiming that they were negligent in failing to make the intersection safe before the accident.

Families of several young women who died in a limo crash in Cuthogue in 2015 gathered at the five-year anniversary of the crash. Photo by David Luces

The limo carrying the eight women, who were out celebrating an upcoming wedding, attempted to make a U-turn on Sound Avenue when it was struck by Romeo’s vehicle. The limo driver, Carlos Pino, was indicted on criminally negligent homicide charges, though the charges were thrown out by the State Supreme Court in 2016. Romeo pleaded guilty in 2017 to driving while impaired and was sentenced to a 90-day license suspension and fined $500.

Family members said they were denied justice.

Following the 2015 East End crash and a 2018 accident in upstate Schoharie County, New York passed legislation aimed at the limousine industry. The bill, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) in January, requires passenger seat belts, drug and alcohol testing for drivers and increased penalties for illegal U-turns and includes a website where complaints can be made.

The families also called for the Safe Limo Act to be brought to President Donald Trump’s (R) desk and signed into federal law. The bill would set new federal limousine safety rules and standards for seat belts, seat integrity and fund crash safety research, among other things.

They said they are hoping something good can come from something tragic.

“The Safe Limo Act will ensure that the industry will follow the same protocols throughout the entire country,” said Nancy DiMonte, a mother of one of the crash survivors. “We have worked tirelessly to help New York become the forefront of advanced limousine safety measures and we are now prepared to institute these bills nationwide.”

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Police are looking for the person (s) who spray painted cars in the Town of Smithtown. Photo from Suffolk County Police Department
Police are looking for the person (s) who spray painted a fence in the Town of Smithtown. Photo from Suffolk County Police Department

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers and Suffolk County Police 4th Precinct Crime Section officers are seeking the public’s assistance in identifying and locating person(s) who spray painted resident’s property in Smithtown and Nesconset.

A person or persons spray painted vehicles, fences, mailboxes and other assorted property with blue and green spray paint in the vicinity of Howell Drive in Smithtown and in the vicinity of Southern Boulevard in Nesconset sometime between June 8 and June 9.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 1-800-220-TIPS.

FIle photo

Suffolk County Police 4th Squad detectives are investigating a motor vehicle crash that killed a man in Smithtown early in the morning July 9.

James Turek was driving a 2007 Nissan Altima eastbound on Route 347, just east of Terry Road, when the vehicle collided with the rear of an eastbound box truck at about 1:15 a.m.

Turek, 33, of Mount Sinai, was transported to Stony Brook University Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The driver of the box truck, an adult male, was transported to the same hospital for evaluation.

Detectives are asking anyone with information on the crash to contact the 4th Squad at 631-854-8452.

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Supporters gathered to show solidarity for law enforcement at a Village of the Branch parking lot July 3. This comes weeks after protesters filled Smithtown’s Main Street in support of Black Lives Matter calling for an end to police violence and racism.

Many waved and held signs supporting reading “back the blue” and “respect our law enforcement.” American, Thin Blue and Trump 2020 flags also filled the Branch Plaza parking lot. Participants said they have seen a significant increase in anti-police sentiment and violence toward police officers.

The rally drew a sizable crowd, though a majority of participants did not adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as many did not wear masks or keep 6 feet apart despite organizers’ requests to do so.

Robert Cornicelli, event organizer for the dubbed “Freedom Rally,” said that the demonstration wasn’t a protest to counter Black Lives Matter or other groups.

“This is a rally to show that we are Americans,” he said. “We love our freedoms. We’ll defend it and fight for it ‘til the end,” he said.

Smithtown resident Cris Melendez, a former New York City police officer, said there should be more support for law enforcement.

“I have never seen anything like this, that the government is not supporting our police officers,” he said. “It’s a disgrace, it’s heartbreaking — I can’t even watch the news anymore. It’s terrible.”

Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk PBA president, blamed “weak” elected officials for the shift in attitude toward law enforcement.

“There is no institutional problem in law enforcement,” he said to the crowd. “The institutional problem is with our elected officials who are too busy trying to keep their jobs instead of doing the job. Start showing some respect for people who are willing to lay down their lives for you every day.”

Jim Jernigan, a retired Suffolk County detective from Central Islip, was also concerned by the recent anti-police sentiment. He joined the department in 1979 and said since 9/11 he has seen the public attitude continue to worsen.

“People loved us, what happened in those 19 years?” he said. “It’s politicians.”

Smithtown Councilman Thomas Lohmann (R) and Mario Mattera, a St. James union leader who is running for State Senate on the Republican ticket, also spoke at the event.

In addition, first responders, veterans and health care professionals were honored at the rally. Bela Snow of Smithtown sang during the rally performing the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless the USA.”

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Protesters returned to Smithtown June 9 to call for an end to racial injustice and police brutality on the day George Floyd was being laid to rest in Houston. The latest demonstration drew a large crowd — at its peak there were more than 1,000 individuals.

The June 9 gathering was the second one to take place in the town in one week.

The protest began at the Smithtown train station on Redwood Lane at 6 p.m., then made its way down Main Street. Groups convened at the intersection of Route 25A and 111 near the Millennium Diner, where everyone began the over 4-mile trek toward Route 347 as they walked down Hauppauge Road.

Additional protesters continued to join the walk as the crowd passed residential areas and neighborhoods. Some residents stood out in front of their homes to cheer on the protesters as they passed.

When protesters made it to the intersection of Route 347 and 111, traffic was shut down in both directions. It was there protesters participated in an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence, the length of time George Floyd was pinned to the ground under a police officer’s knee. Speeches were given, encouraging people present to continue to be a part of the ongoing movement and to call out injustices.

From there, protesters splintered off into separate groups, some headed toward the 4th Precinct on Veterans Highway, while others walked north on Brooksite Drive from Route 347 and some reconvened back at Main Street.

At 9:30 p.m., Smithtown Public Safety reported that hundreds were on Veterans Highway heading east and several hundred were all still on Main Street.

Nursing homes have become a hotbed of discussion over the large percentage of their residents who have died from COVID-19 while in New York facilities. Stock photo

As hospitalizations continue to decline, Suffolk County is poised to enter Phase Two of a four phase economic reopening on Wednesday, which would include outdoor dining.

The number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 fell by 21 to 158 in the day ending on June 6. The number of residents in Intensive Care Unit beds stayed the same, at 50.

Hospital bed occupancy, meanwhile, was at 63 percent overall and at 56 percent in the ICU.

The number of people who have left the hospital in the last day was 26.

An additional four people died over the last day, raising that grim total to 1,935. The number of people who tested positive for the virus increased by 48, bringing the total to 40,377. the number of people who have tested positive for the antibody stood at 15,757.

Amid generally peaceful protesting, Bellone said there was a report of an incident in Smithtown that is currently under investigation.

The allegation in the Smithtown incident, which occurred last night, was “serious” and involved additional resources, including a hate crimes unit, a fourth precinct detective squad, and a plainclothes unit, as the Suffolk County Police Department is giving it “the highest priority,” said Chief Stuart Cameron.

Separately, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said he appreciated Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D) recent decision to allow outdoor high school graduations. The policy, however, only allows 150 people, which will be “difficult on Long Island,” Bellone said on his daily conference call with reporters. He has requested additional flexibility from the state to address the larger communities throughout Suffolk County.

St. Charles Hospital in Port Jeff plays "Here Comes the Sun" every time a patient is discharged during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Kyle Barr

St. Charles Hospital ICU nurse Kacey McIntee, walking through the halls of a hospital in the midst of a pandemic, is just one of  scores of RNs who have watched their world flip the wrong way around. 

Where once the hospital had one Intensive Care Unit, now it has three. Every time she gets to work, she slips into hospital-issued scrubs and she’s assigned to one of the three units. Every single bed is housing a patient on a ventilator, nearly 40 in all. She’s bedecked in a mask, hair covering and face shield. 

Nursing Assistant Martha Munoz is working at St. Charles Hospital during the pandemic

Typically, the ratio is two ICU patients to one ICU nurse. However, now there are cases where she cares for up to three patients, alongside a helper nurse. She starts her day by looking at her assigned patients’ charts, and then spends the rest of her 12-hour shift doing her best to keep these patients, many in such dire straits, alive.

“A lot of times you can kind of expect something is going to go bad just based on blood values alone,” she said. “We mentally prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario with our patients.”

It’s a common story among many medical centers, but local hospitals St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown and Port Jefferson’s St. Charles, both in the Catholic Health Services system, have been on the front lines of fighting the virus for longer than others, having seen their first COVID-19 positive patients March 8.

Jacquelina VandenAkker, a 33-year veteran respiratory therapist at St. Charles and Port Jeff resident, said while the past week has shown what seems to be a plateauing in the number of new cases, the first 10 days of the virus “was hell. You didn’t know the end of it.”

“We felt it was literally such a war zone. You knew you could be a victim to it because you don’t understand it,” she said. 

Hospital officials confirmed there were a number of staff who have contracted COVID-19, but declined to release the number of employees  who have been infected, citing that staff did not want it known if they’ve been previously infected. 

“We see a lot of deaths,” the respiratory therapist said. “I take the same unit. I know my patients. We start to understand the disease a lot more.”

McIntee, a Sound Beach resident, knows the pain and suffering of the COVID-19 patients suffering. It’s hard not to become entangled in the lives of these people, knowing the pain of suffering when the family can only communicate via tablet computer and online video chats.

“Nurses are really, really good at coping mechanisms,” she said. “One of the most useful ones is humor and the other is detachment. We cannot picture our loved ones in the bed — if we hear that one of our loved ones is sick with COVID, all bets are off, we are a mess.”

When it comes to that, when what has universally been the once inconceivable is happening moment to moment, McIntee said they rely on their fellow nurses.

“It’s almost as if we’re all in war together, and we have this bond for life that we will always be connected together, that we had these experiences that really nobody else in the world can experience except during this time,” she said.

The Initial Wave and Beyond

Jim O’Connor, the president of St. Charles and chief administrative officer of St. Catherine of Siena, said hospitals faced initial difficulties but hope things continue to look up. 

“Both St. Charles and St. Catherine had their first COVID-19 patient on the same day,” he said. “We struggled to keep up with it and the personal protective equipment we needed in that first week. Thankfully we seem to have gotten our sea legs.”

Dr. Jeffrey Wheeler, the director of St. Charles Hospital Emergency Department

Only about 25 percent of patients who are diagnosed require hospitalization, but of that 25 percent, 50 percent require ICU care, and many of them require a ventilator, O’Connor said.

Even before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) mandates shutting down all essential businesses, hospital admin said they saw what they call a “surge” of patients. 

Bonnie Morales, the director of infection prevention for St. Catherine, said she and other specialists at hospitals around Long Island had started preparing for the “what ifs” a few weeks before it finally came, but even then, it was hard to estimate just how much it would overtake the entire health care system. 

“I would have to say we were prepared, but that line list [of staff procedures] I went back to in the beginning, has grown from a page to three pages long,” she said.

The precautions for reducing infections became one of the most supreme considerations with both patients and staff, she said. Morales, a Selden resident, said the average patient on “transmission-based precautions” which were before only meant to help patients and staff avoid contact, has now gone from 20 to 30, up to over 100 that are currently on these transmission-based precautions because of the virus.

The hospitals had what the admin called a surge plan, but as the St. Charles president put it, “a man plans, and God laughs.” Learning just how many beds they would have to increase to was staggering, but he thanked the admin team who worked with barely little notice to start the process of acquiring more beds and space.

After Cuomo announced an executive order mandating hospitals increase their bed capacity by at least 50 percent, St. Charles and St. Catherine have boosted the number of beds to 243 in St. Charles and 296 beds at St. Catherine.

Mike Silverman, the COO at St. Catherine, said early on the hospitals decided to close access to the public. It was something that was unpopular to start, but in hindsight has been a smart decision.

Silverman only joined the hospital little more than two months ago and has had a trial by fire in the truest sense of the phrase.

“I don’t think anybody thought this was going to happen,” he said. “There was no playbook for this … It’s a lot of people doing what needs to be done,” he said.

O’Connor said the hospitals hit a high in the number of patients in the previous weeks, but since they have been climbing, inch by strenuous inch, off of that peak. Since the start of the outbreak, St. Charles has gone from eight ventilators to nearly 37 at peak. St. Catherine had 35 at peak. Each hospital has transformed its space to accommodate the massive number of critical patients by creating two new ICUs in each. All elective surgeries have been suspended and those workers have been moved to aid COVID-19 patients. 

“There’s definitely some angst,” Silverman said. “We know how many people are dying in the state, and we would see this many deaths in a week. It’s tough, whether it’s at work, whether its friends or friends’ families.”

Michelle Pekar, in purple scrubs, is part of the St. Charles Emergency Department. Photo by Marilyn Fabbricante

Both admin and health staff agreed the community has done an incredible amount of support for the health care workers. There have been consistent donations of meals, snacks and drinks. There have been a rollout of homemade masks and PPE supplies as well, along with cards and notes thanking the health care workers for all they do.

Still, to say it hasn’t taken an emotional toll would be wrong.

“It has been very tough on the staff because there is a very high mortality rate for people on ventilators,” O’Connor said. “What compounds it we weren’t allowed to have visitors so that really adds a whole different isolation for the patient and the families.”

The hospital has been using tablet computers to connect patients with family members at home, but it has also meant having to give them difficult news about those family members remotely.

“They have their own fears understandably about it. They have their own families they go home to that they worry about spreading it to,” he said. “I give them so much credit for them to put themselves at risk to be in a room with someone with a contagious disease.”

There have been moments of hope throughout the day in between the darkness. Every time a patient comes off a ventilator, the hospital plays “Breathe” by Faith Hill over the loudspeaker. When a patient is dismissed from the hospital, they then play the classic Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun.”

Hospitals’ PPE

O’Connor said the hospitals sterilize the PPE used by hospital workers at the end of each shift, and after the N95 is used three times then it is discarded, though if it becomes “soiled or contaminated” then it is discarded before that. Normally, such masks are not designed to be reused, but with supplies tight, hospitals and other medical centers have been looking to get as much use out of equipment as possible.

Susie Owens of St. Charles Hospital delivered a special message to her colleagues in chalk. Photo from St. Charles Facebook

“We know it is not a perfect system,” O’Connor said. “Nobody expected to have this patient volume, but I think we’ve done a good job, but is it perfect? No.”

The federal Office of Emergency Management has added to supplies, along with donations from companies and other local individuals. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has made guidelines for decontaminating such equipment, and hospital administration said they are following those guidelines. Catholic health systems announced earlier this month they had created an ultraviolet light sterilization system for masks in CHS hospitals.

The New York State Nurses Association has taken issue with the hospital’s practice of reusing such PPE as N95 masks after they’ve been sterilized. The union points to mask manufacturer 3M, who said there were no disinfection methods that would kill the virus and maintain effectiveness, though the CDC’s website cites numerous sources related to the positive results of disinfecting such masks.

Though a union representative could not be reached by press time, nurse representatives have spoken to other news outlets saying that both hospitals lacked PPE supplies, and that unlike systems, nurses in St. Charles and St. Catherine were made to wear gowns for an entire shift that are meant to be disposed of after one patient encounter.

McIntee said at the start of the pandemic, things were confused with PPE, with the CDC changing its guidelines constantly. Regarding gowns, she said hospital workers have a choice, they can either spray down reusable gowns with a cleaning solution in between patients, use disposable blue/plastic gowns, or the so-called bunny suits, the full-body white suits with a hood. With face shields, there are no other choices than rinsing it with solution.

Now, McIntee said if a worker wears an N95 mask continuously throughout the day in a 12-hour shift, they can discard them. If they wear them intermittently throughout the day, then they are bagged and sent to be sterilized at night. Sterilized masks then can be worn intermittently three more days before they are discarded.

“Not once have I ever had an issue with the N95 masks being told ‘no, you can’t have one,’” she said. “I’ve always been able to have access to any PPE I wanted … Now I think we have a system down, and it’s less anxiety.”

St. Catherine April 22 accepted a donation of gowns and masks from the Kings Park Chamber of Commerce, and Morales said the bevy of donations they have received have truly helped in the fight against COVID-19. The hospital has received donations of tie back and bunny suits.

Regarding St. Catherine staff reusing gowns, Morales said “We are giving out supplies for the staff to utilize and they have what they need in order to take care of their patients.”

O’Connor said the hospitals have been doing multiple things to aid the front line workers, including bringing in agency staff and repurposing staff from outpatient to inpatient services to add more hands on deck. The hospitals have developed quiet rooms for staff to catch their breath, and Silverman said St. Catherine has a service where staff can purchase basic items, they have little time to get from working long days during the pandemic. 

“It would be very foolish for us to not keep our staff safe,” O’Connor said. “Why would we possibly not be doing anything we can to keep them safe?”

Smithtown residents reported a number of Easter Bunny sightings April 11.

The essential worker’s helpers organized a few bunny runs throughout the town’s hamlets. Everyone practiced social distancing as the bunnies and their assistants stayed in their vehicles, and parents and children waved from their porches, lawns and cars.

Smithtown resident Matt Kelly dressed up as the Easter Bunny and sat in the back of a red pickup truck as it traveled through Smithtown proper, Nesconset, St. James and parts of Commack and Hauppauge. Kelly said in an email for a few years he has dressed as the famous bunny for Easter and Santa Claus during the holiday season. When he heard of other Long Island towns organizing Easter Bunny drive-bys, he said, he was inspired “to do the same in this amazing community. ”

“It’s all about making others feel better,” Kelly said.

Karisma Salon joined in on the fun by accompanying the Easter Bunny throughout the town April 11 as well. According to its Facebook page, the salon also took requests from anyone who missed the run so the bunny could come back Easter Day.

St. James Fire Department escorted the Easter Bunny throughout the hamlet of St. James the afternoon of April 11. This time around the bunny had the chance to ride on top of a fire engine to wave to all the children who were waiting for him.

 

 

 

 

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Jennifer O’Brien and her daughters and son ready to deliver St. Patrick’s goodies to children.

As more Long Islanders are required to stay home from work and school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smithtown residents have been coming up with ways to help each other.

Nourishing the community

Teresa LaRosa leaves La Famiglia in Smithtown with food for family members. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Last Friday the phone was ringing off the hook at La Famiglia in Smithtown. Like many restaurants in the area, residents could go there for takeout, but the establishment was also offering a bit more. Last week co-owner John Cracchiolo notified patrons through social media that the family business wanted to show their gratitude to the community during the pandemic.

Cracchiolo and manager John Davella decided to donate 50 meals a day to seniors and those in need Thursday and Friday between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Instead of giving out 100 meals over the two-day period, the owner said they wound up handing out approximately 150. Cracchiolo said it was something he wanted to do to keep the doors open and his workers employed. 

“Am I scared, too? Absolutely, but as long as I can afford to do it, I’ll do it,” he said, adding he hopes to give out meals again March 26 and March 27.

Cracchiolo said he has been touched by those who have stopped by the restaurant to donate money to the cause, and La Famiglia has recognized many of the philanthropists on its social media page. Cracchiolo and Davella have received donations including a few even totaling $500 and $1,000, and one woman walked in and donated a gift card as well as $200 in cash. The owner said another woman drove all the way from Nassau County when she heard what the restaurant was doing to donate $50.

“People just started walking in and handing us money,” he said, adding it was a big help for their ability to donate more meals to the community.

The owner said he knows of people in the restaurant business who have had to close their doors during this time, and he’s grateful for the Smithtown community that he said has been good to him in the nearly 20 years since he opened La Famiglia. On Friday, the restaurant also donated food to the staff at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center.

“We’ve been here for so many years,” he said. “The community, the town have been good to me,” he said.

Cracchiolo said he had to cut a few things from his menu as they were hard to get, but most of the selections remain the same for those who are ordering takeout. 

For the free meals, the restaurant offered family-style options that included chopped or Caesar salad, a choice of pasta and sauce and a chicken dinner where people could choose between marsala, francese and parmigiana.

On Friday Teresa LaRosa, of Kings Park, picked up food for family members who are out of work. She said if other restaurants have the money to do so they should do the same.

“We all have to work together and do what we can,” she said.

Keeping the community smiling

Jennifer O’Brien runs a State Farm office in Smithtown where reaching out to the community is a big part of her job.

When it came to St. Patrick’s Day, she was unable to go ahead with an event that she had originally planned and decided to try something different. She posted on social media for people to send their names and addresses to her, and she put St. Patrick’s Day goody bags together that included light-up necklaces and a letter from a leprechaun to deliver to their children.

On March 17, she and her children dressed in green and delivered the bags by leaving them at participants’ doors, making sure not to touch any door bells or knobs. The family covered Smithtown from Kings Park to
St. James.

“It’s nice to know that you are still, ‘quote, unquote,’ touching people personally without physically touching them just by brightening their day a bit,” she said.

O’Brien said she is already thinking of different ways to brighten up Easter for community children, and with events canceled, she has been tapping into social media even more so.

When it comes to her everyday life, she said the State Farm office is closed to the public and a couple of employees are working from home. With her son’s birthday Tuesday, she invited friends on social media to pass by her house in their cars during a certain time frame to honk their horns or sing a song.

Looking for the helpers

Social media is filled with feel good posts during the pandemic.

On the Kings Park Downtown Facebook page, Linda Henninger posted that when she went to the grocery store March 20 to get oat milk, she noticed the market had received items that had been sold out for a while. She said she wound up buying more than originally planned.

“At the cashier, I had to take some items out of my cart,” she wrote in the post. “After I paid and left, the cashier came running out after me with a bag filled with the items I had to leave behind. She said a man in line paid for them for me. I was so touched, I sat in the car and cried.”

During a walk in a local park, one mother wrote in a post on the Smithtown Moms Facebook page that she found little vases with flowers with inspirational notes attached throughout the park, something that she said made her day.

“We need to look for the good because it is always there,” she wrote. “I hope this puts a smile on your face as it did mine.”

Have a story about how you or others have helped during this pandemic, let us know about it by emailing [email protected]

The Shoreham-Wading River Gay-Straight Alliance Club, including co-advisors Ed Stock, center, and Brittany Davis, far right. Photo by Kyle Barr

One may think the LGBT community in Suffolk County is a small minority, until there are more than 100 of them and their allies together in a room celebrating what makes them, them.

On Jan. 28, after close to half a year of planning, the Shoreham-Wading River High School Gay-Straight Alliance club hosted a Gender-Sexuality Alliance Leadership Conference, the first in all of Suffolk County. They were joined by over 100 students from 14 different schools as well as a score of adults, including teachers, parents and school administrators.

Well over 100 people from different Gay-Straight Alliance clubs throughout Suffolk County at the Shoreham-Wading River High School Jan. 28 conference. Photo from SWRCSD

“Not only did it bring together a group of kids that were not only like-minded, but were also there to support each other,” said club co-advisor Brittany Davis. “It really felt like there was a sense of community that was just beautiful, that we did something that changed everyone’s outlook on this and really changed the whole dynamic of the comfortability in the school.”

Senior and club member Ray Colon said it was an event unlike any he has experienced at the school setting. Students who felt they were marginalized or pushed to the boundaries in their own schools could talk freely.

“It was awesome to hear them share their own stories and their own struggles back at home,” he said. “At school, they don’t have that space to be free always — it allows them to open up.”

Between the discussions and presentations, Davis said students flooded into the upstairs balcony in the library for an impromptu dance party.

“They might be that quiet kid in class, but when they’re with others they can finally feel comfortable,” Davis said. “It was really cool to see them be themselves — their energy went throughout the room and made everyone smile.” 

High school senior Emily Mulcahy, the club president, said while they were initially unsure how successful an event it would be, upon reaching out and getting a score of immediate responses, their doubts were eased. In fact, they had so many responses they could simply not fit all into the small space of the library.

Nearly five months of planning led to an event that included discussions about themselves and their place in the LGBT community, but also the recognition of administrators, including high school Principal Frank Pugliese and Superintendent Gerard Poole.

“In our building and district, we celebrate diversity, we don’t look down on it,” Pugliese said. “The fact so many districts felt the same way, I think even strengthened that message even more.”

The principal added he hopes this event will become “a normal part of the calendar.”

Fellow club co-advisor Ed Storck has been at the head of getting the whole event started. The fact that two school administrators could show such open support, he said, means a lot considering where the LGBT community has come from, especially in schools.

“So many kids were saying, ‘I didn’t know how many people were in support,’” he said.

SWR High School senior Ray Colon, of the Gay-Straight Alliance club, is flanked by GSA co-advisers Ed Storck and Brittany Davis. Photo from SWRCSD

Storck said the idea for the conference originally came to light when the club invited Jeremy Thode, an assistant principal at Center Moriches High School and the president of the Smithtown board of education, down to the school to speak to the club. Thode has been advocating for and educating about LGBTQ for little less than a year now. His son, Noah, came out as transgendered last January, and Thode has taken his experiences with his family’s path toward transition and acceptance and used it to advocate and educate both districts and parents.

“This event clearly told us that these kids, when with people who understand them, they are authentically themselves,” Thode said.

The club is planning future events for this year, including a visit this month to the LGBT Network of Long Island, a nonprofit support network that connects services on Long Island and Queens, where club students speak about the importance of allies in the community and how they wish to be treated by them. Later this year the club is planning a positivity week, which the club started three years ago. That week ends with a day of remembrance, where any participating student remains silent throughout the day to honor the people who have lost their lives due to discrimination in the past. On June 5, the district is also hosting the third annual Unity Dance for the other GSA clubs in Suffolk.

But club members also understand they have started something that may become a “legacy,” as Mulcahy put it. With Thode at the helm, the Smithtown school district is planning a similar event May 5. With more space in Smithtown High School West, they are able to fit the districts that were unable to come to the original event due to space.

“Ultimately, what needs to happen is more awareness, education and acceptance, not only in GSA’s, but in the wider community.” Thode said.