Deborah and Lily Bonacasa are a mother-and-daughter team who have distributed thousands of toys to needy children over the last three years during the Christmas season.
When Lily was a second grader, she sat on Santa’s lap as he asked what she wanted for Christmas. She said she only wanted to help children who were less fortunate, those who couldn’t receive gifts. Knowing her story, Santa began to weep.
Deborah and Lily live in Sound Beach. But Deborah grew up in Lemoore, California. After graduating high school, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was sent to a base in Utah. As an information manager, she provided networking and computer support to 75th Air Base Wing members. While in uniform, she met her future husband Louis.
Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa
Louis Bonacasa was a local kid. He graduated from Newfield High School in 2002. Deborah described Louis as someone “who demonstrated a boundless amount of energy toward playing baseball, being with his friends, hiking, shooting and demonstrating humor amongst his loved ones.”
In high school, Louis watched the attacks of 9/11. It inspired a love of country and a commitment to serve, and he soon entered active duty in the Air Force. Louis quickly rose through the ranks, presented with accolades for his devoted duty to the nation. Louis soon reenlisted as a security forces member of the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach. He then transferred to Stewart Air National Guard Base 105th Airlift Wing in Newburgh where he deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar.
Seven years ago, on Dec. 21, 2015, Louis was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Louis was working as a tactical security element truck commander, tasked with the dangerous job of gathering intelligence on the operations of the enemy outside of this major air base. His assignment was hazardous, as he was often the “eyes” of Bagram to protect it from the enemy.
On patrol, Louis was approached by a suicide-bomber motorcyclist. To protect his men, Louis positioned himself between this adversary and his comrades, and he was killed with five of his soldiers.
Louis is honored with several sites by local and state governments to remember his ultimate military sacrifice. On Rocky Point Yaphank Road toward Middle Island, a major thoroughfare connecting the North and South shores was named in his honor. For travelers on the Long Island Expressway, they are reminded of the memory of Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa on the bridge that connects the northern and southern service roads on Yaphank Avenue.
Lily’s Toy House
In 2016, Mark Baisch of Landmark Properties and Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Cmdr. Joe Cognitore presented Deborah and Lily with a new $350,000 home in Sound Beach that was sold to the Bonacasa family for less than $200,000, according to CBS New York.
Deborah was thankful for the altruism shown to her family during that highly delicate moment. After Lily spoke to Santa Claus, Deborah believed it was time to pay it forward.
Deborah spoke of her desire never to want to turn down families that are unable to purchase gifts. The Bonacasas have created two nonprofits, Lily’s Toy House and the SSgt Louis Bonacasa Memorial Fund. Working with Long Island Helping Hands, they target needy families.
In 2020, Lily was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on the “Today” show. Lily presented a brilliant smile and spoke to America about her goals in helping other children have a lovely Christmas.
The holiday demand has grown due to COVID-19 pressures and rising inflation. Three years ago, there were about 1,000 donated toys collected. Today Lily’s Toy House has distributed over 3,000. Deborah hopes to expand this program to accommodate families across this state and region, especially to military families.
Lily is a sixth grader at Rocky Point Middle School, where she is a well-rounded student, determined to help others. As a young lady who lost her father, she can speak to others about handling adversity at an early age.
Reactions from the community
Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) has followed firsthand the efforts of the Bonacasa family. “Staff Sergeant Bonacasa gave his life for his country, so we can all live free,” Bonner said. “Deborah and Lily have honored his service so meaningfully with their annual toy drive.”
The councilwoman added, “Lily is a remarkable young girl, who faced a great loss, decided to follow in her father’s footsteps by helping others. The community appreciates all that Deborah and Lily do to bring joy to children in need.”
Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) said he is reminded of Louis every time he drives to the Riverhead Correctional Facility. The county sheriff appreciates Lily’s thoughtful spirit and compassion.
Lily is an “inspiration to all of us, despite losing her father at a young age while he protected Americans in Afghanistan,” he said. “She was still able to think of others before herself, and her dedication to ensure that those most in need have a wonderful Christmas through Lily’s Toy House reminds all Suffolk residents of the true meaning of Christmas.”
First Lt. John Fernandez, of Rocky Point, is in awe of the patriotic spirit that Lily inspires. “What does it mean to give?” he said. “Staff Sergeant Louis Bonacasa did not lose his life for our country. He gave it heroically for his family and nation. Despite his family’s unfathomable sacrifice, his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Lily, found the strength to continue to give by donating toys to children during the holidays and those who continue to serve today. This shows a depth of courage and love that should be emulated.”
Cognitore described the immense cost the family paid in defense of the nation, calling the support toward the family mortgage “not a handout, but rather a hand up.” He reflected on the positive work the family has done since.
“It has been a wonderful experience to see Lily speak at veterans and charitable events,” the post commander said. “There is no price that could be attached to the valuable community initiatives that both mother and daughter perform for our citizens during the last several Christmas holidays.”
James Moeller, Lily’s middle school principal, said he is amazed by her fortitude. “Lily is a hardworking and quiet girl who is always willing to help her teachers and classmates,” he said. “On a regular basis, she is a positive young lady who always wears a big smile on her face. It’s no surprise that Lily is a driving force behind this wonderful toy drive that her family continually organizes.”
Through her charitable endeavors, Lily continues to follow in her father’s footsteps by sharing love and generosity toward others during Christmas.
For adding light and joy into the lives of others and for honoring her dad’s legacy, TBR News Media recognizes Lily Bonacasa as a 2022 Person of the Year.
Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College.