Faces of Long Island celebrates the uniqueness of everyday Long Islanders. In their own words, they tell us about their life experiences, challenges and triumphs. Newsday launched this social media journey into the human experience to shine a light on the diverse people of this wonderful place we call home.

‘I walked with my 30-pound bag until the skin was coming off my feet when I decided to rest…I walked into the woods, grabbed a bunch of branches, and made a kind-of hut.’

Babylon

“I think it was where I grew up that made me ready for what happened. I was born in the Dominican Republic, where we had a house in the country. There were cows and goats, and sometimes electricity; that’s just how it was at the time.

“After moving to Queens, things got bad. It all started in 2017, when I lost everything due to a scam someone pulled on me. I lost $40,000 and all my forms of identification. I was going to school and had an apartment, but without money and ID, I lost it all. I contacted a friend who said she was living in a house in Baiting Hollow. I asked if I could stay with her until I got back on my feet. She said yes, so the journey starts May 30 with a train ride to Riverhead around 11 o’clock at night. I arrived at the Ronkonkoma station and was told the trains to Riverhead had stopped for the night. I called my friend to come get me, but she never showed up, so I slept there overnight.

“In the morning my phone was dead, and I had no money in my pocket, so I started heading toward Riverhead on foot. I walked and I walked. I tried to flag people down, but nobody stopped to help me. I walked, carrying my 30-pound bag, until the skin was coming off my feet when I decided to stop to rest. I’m country, so I walked into the woods and grabbed a bunch of branches and made a kind of hut. I ate some wild berries, and found some blueberries, but I went two days without drinking water, and I was attacked by animals in the woods. My Abba Kadosh sustained me.

“Once I started walking again, I ran into people working at a vineyard, and I asked for a few grapes but they told me they weren’t allowed. At this point, I was hallucinating, imagining I could see rivers of water.

“Eventually I made it to Sound Avenue and found an abandoned house. I saw there was a hose, and when I unscrewed it, water came out! I felt like the heavens opened up for me. I found a working socket and charged my phone. I finally made my way to my friend’s home in Baiting Hollow, and stayed there for about five days, but then the real owner arrived—my friend said it was her home, but it wasn’t—and the owner told us we had to go.”

I’m not going to question God and ask why all these things happened, but even though I’m still traumatized, I survived.

“I reached out to social services, and they placed me in a shelter. I’m a trans woman, and they tried to stick me with a bunch of men, and anyone who sees me knows I am not a man. I got a lot of stress in the shelter when they found out, and it was tense. At the same time, things outside were dangerous too, like gangs and stuff all around. I remember one time a bunch of guys came up to me on the street and told me they were going to take me! I ran and they chased me, I found a farm and I hid. I was convinced my platinum hair was going to give me away, but after hiding for about 45 minutes, they gave up and I got away.

“Things at the shelter finally got out of hand when somebody slapped me. I defended myself, fought back and ended up banned for 30 days, so I went back to the woods again. I was lucky though, as after three days someone from social services found me and the ban on me was lifted. I was brought back, only this time not the shelter but more of a house-like scenario, and that was where things took off with my partner.

“We had known each other for a long time at that point, but honestly I never paid him any mind, as I wasn’t ready before and neither was he, but by this time he was settled down and working. We got to know each other, and after I was able to get back some of the money stolen from me, he helped me learn to handle and invest my money. We have been together now for three years since July, and we live together in our home in Babylon Village. I’m now back in school studying radiology and working.

“Sometimes I can’t believe what happened to me, but I realize that everything happens for a reason. If I had never went to that girl in Baiting Hollow, I would never have met my partner. I’m where I am now because I took a risk, and even with all the bad things that happened, I succeeded. I’m not going to question God and ask why all these things happened, but even though I’m still traumatized, I survived. There are people who’ve had it worse than me, and I guess God found mercy for me. At the same time, wherever I go I shake the trees, take the coconuts, and then go. I’m a survivor.”

‘We learn math and science in school so I would love to see a course on self-esteem and self-worth. Learning to love ourselves just makes for a kinder world.’

Babylon

“I thought perhaps my story could help someone out there who’s grieving. I lost my brother to suicide 10 years ago. One of my brother’s legacies is definitely his uniqueness. He was so fun and just an amazing person.

“The reason I wrote my memoir, “Worthy,” is that during my grieving process, I realized that my brother and I weren’t all that different. I had my own struggles around worthiness. I want people to know that they matter, and if I could somehow heal myself, which I have, and live my best life, that would be the best way to honor my brother.

“It took me many years to get to this point — 10 years to finish the book – and I have done a lot of the work that other people are doing right now. We are all worthy of an extraordinary life. When everything falls apart, we have the opportunity to redefine ourselves if we choose. Our mindset is such a powerful tool, and we can live from the perspective that life happens for us and not to us.

We need to be able to talk about the difficult things and be able to say when we’re not okay.

“When bad things happen, what are you going to do with it and how are you going to make the world better? I think it’s really important in this day and age to have these types of conversations. We need to be able to talk about the difficult things and be able to say when we’re not okay.

“This World Suicide Prevention Day and National Suicide Prevention Month are so timely and important this year because people are suffering. People have lost jobs; people have lost people and people are uncertain.

“Giving more education in schools around worthiness and value and inclusivity is something that we need. We learn math and science in school so I would love to see a course on self-esteem and self-worth. Learning to love ourselves just makes for a kinder world.”

‘My childhood in Babylon Village was a process of self-discovery, and I didn’t even know what being queer looked like.’

Babylon

“When I was growing up, being open and yourself was not always accepted. My childhood in Babylon Village was a process of self-discovery, and I didn’t even know what being queer looked like. I knew I was different but didn’t understand what that meant. There weren’t many, if any, open LGBTQA+ people here that I could look to when I was a child discovering my sexuality and identity.

“I moved to Southern California around age 13, where I started to semi-understand who I was, but even after many positive experiences as a teen I felt that my growth was done there. I wanted to come back home.

“Things were different in Babylon Village when I returned in my 20s. It was heartwarming to see my hometown evolved into being more open minded and respectful toward local LGBTQA+ people, but even with all this development, I still saw a need for something more in Babylon, for the showing of acceptance, appreciation and acknowledgement of our queer community. There was a need to mark progress and visibility, and that was beginning of what now has become Babylon Pride!

My pride journey is far from over, and I don’t know where the finish line is, but I’m excited to educate and evoke positive change along the way.

“Bob, a Babylon Village resident, and I got together and made it happen for the first time in 2020 during the pandemic. We went to the mayor’s office, and they agreed, saying our village needs a little uplifting, as the world was a heavy place at the time. We reached out to businesses and residents to make it happen, mainly by word of mouth, and pulled it together in seven days.

“I was in the last car to turn the corner onto the 2020 parade route. It was such a feeling of acceptance and love. A whole town coming together to support the LGBTQA+ community, tears came down my face.

“From last year to this year, the parade attendance doubled, which is kind of surreal for me. My pride journey is far from over, and I don’t know where the finish line is, but I’m excited to educate and evoke positive change along the way. We need to create change where we see and most desire it. I wanted to show that Babylon and Long Island can embrace our LGBTQA+ community and let that be known to our queer youth! Having acceptance in our own backyard speaks volumes.”

‘Don’t be cocky; be confident. There’s a really big difference in that.’

Sal DiBenedetto, Babylon

“At 14, I got into the restaurant business. I started as a dishwasher, moved my way to a busboy, and eventually became a waiter. I fell in love with the industry and guiding people through the dining experience. That was the inspiration for my blog, @TheGrubfather. Instagram gave me an opportunity to be a waiter to the world. It’s the most followed food blog on Long Island. I present people with unique dishes and tell them about them. It feels like I am continuing with that spirit of the industry in a way that evolved with the times.

“There’s something beautiful about the dining experience and coming together for food. Now, I am a content creator, an entrepreneur, a writer and a photographer. I’m always looking for dishes that have a ‘Wow!’ factor, that make people excited and evoke feelings. Food is the ultimate storyteller, whether it’s about someone’s heritage or a crazy idea they had when they were drunk. I try to bring that to life with the blog. It has shaped a lot about who I am, and now I’ve opened a restaurant called The Grub Shop in Huntington Village. It takes the different things I’ve learned about the world, businesses, restaurants and the Long Island community, and it brings it into one hub.

There’s something beautiful about the dining experience and coming together for food.

“I was inspired by Anthony Bourdain. I stumbled onto his show, Parts Unknown, and it changed my life. I booked a flight to Thailand, Paris and Hawaii right after I finished the third episode. It kickstarted my blog and everything that I have now. At the Grub Shop, I am honoring his legacy with a huge mural done by Andaluz, a local artist. I’ve started to invest in the idea that I can do anything I put my mind to, especially the things I am passionate about.

“Many people have fantastic ideas and everybody has what it takes to see them through. People get lost due to a lack in confidence. You’ll be successful once you get that inner desire to chase your dreams and turn them into goals. You have to look on the inside of yourself and use that to shape how the world sees you. Don’t be cocky; be confident. There’s a really big difference in that. It’s all about your attitude, humbleness, and appreciation for the people who get you where you are.”

‘So that’s why we share our story. Because we were blessed to survive—but she wasn’t.’

Babylon

“We were coming home from a rock concert and were about a mile from our house when we got hit head on by a young woman. She was doing about 60. We were doing about 40. What they tell us is it’s like hitting a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour when it’s head on like that. It’s been nine years now and I think the biggest reason that I try to get the story out and try to educate people not to text and drive is because that young lady driving the car that hit us, who was texting, lost her life.

When I went to the junkyard after I got out of the hospital, the gentlemen there drove me to our vehicle and he said, ‘I didn’t think anybody survived this.’

“There was a couple that stopped, and I heard one of them say to the other, ‘Oh my God, I think she’s dead.’ And that’s when I knew there was another car involved. Up until that point I didn’t know what happened because it was just all chaos. It was a freezing November night and the gentleman that was part of the couple gave me his coat. And I don’t know who they are, but I still have his coat. When I went to the junkyard after I got out of the hospital, the gentlemen there drove me to our vehicle and he said, ‘I didn’t think anybody survived this.’

“Having a daughter ourselves who was coming up on that age of being able to go out and drive, the dread of getting that phone call is what really impacted me the most. So even though there were injuries between my husband and myself, and we still deal with a lot of the trauma, the most traumatic part is that she died and that was somebody’s daughter, and it was preventable. So that’s why we share our story. Because we were blessed to survive—but she wasn’t. This 22-year-old girl died because she was reading a text from her best friend. It was a Saturday night, she was just out for the night and then her girlfriend said, ‘Come pick me up,” and she was reading the directions and it happened that fast. It was an instant.

When I’m on the road, I see all ages on their phone. I see businessmen and women and they’re checking their emails and whatever it is they’re doing. A lot of emphasis is put on high school students and college kids, but this isn’t isolated to young kids. The woman driving that car could have been 55-years old and an executive…it could have been anybody. I think it’s broad. From young to old, everybody’s doing it.”

‘I called the studio and Annie Leibovitz must’ve been waiting for a call because she picked up the phone.’

Babylon

“For my 16th birthday, my parents bought me my first camera. So, I started taking a lot of pictures. And I loved music. I was seeing live music on Long Island, like Twisted Sister at Cheers in Deer Park. But then I saw Led Zeppelin and all I wanted to do was to go to shows.

“I learned how to hustle tickets and I was always sitting close, so I decided to bring my camera to a show. Being close in the front, I kept seeing photographers in the photo pit and I started talking to them. When I went to see Fleetwood Mac at Nassau Coliseum, I had second row seats, so I brought my camera and shot the show. Instead of sneaking in booze to concerts, I was sneaking my camera in. Then I had all these shots, and everybody said, ‘You should do something with your photos.’

“I was a big fan of Rolling Stone magazine and Annie Leibovitz. I thought, let me see if I can track down her studio number and maybe somebody could give me some direction there. I called the studio and Annie Leibovitz must’ve been waiting for a call because she picked up the phone. She was really sweet and rattled off a bunch of photo agencies to me.

They called me up a week later and said, ‘Pick up People Magazine, your photo was going to be in the magazine.’

“And so, I called the first agency. They’re like, ‘Yeah bring your photos in.’ I went in and they said, ‘Wow, you got great photos of Billy Joel. We have a request for Billy Joel, do you mind if we take these pictures and send them in?’ And I said, ‘yeah, no problem.’ They called me up a week later and said, ‘Pick up People Magazine, your photo was going to be in the magazine.’ I was so thrilled!

“But this is the key moment of my career…from a kind gesture that I made. I met a guy at a Talking Heads show in Forest Hills. I was backstage and he dropped a bunch of papers. I walked up and I helped him pick up all the papers. We started talking, and it was Ken Sunshine, who’s a big publicist now, and he goes, ‘I work for ASCAP and I hire photographers. I want you to shoot a luncheon that we’re having for Paul McCartney, but you have to wear a suit.’ That was my first paid job in the business — shooting Paul McCartney. It was just a snowball effect. But the key thing, to me, is always be respectful and kind to everybody. And that’s what went a long way for my career.”