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.

‘We had collected 30,000 books from all over Long Island, so many that we were able to give books out to other libraries in the county.’

Huntington Station

“In 1967, I applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to teach English in Ethiopia. I didn’t go, but I sometimes wondered what I missed out on. When I retired in 2003 at 57 as an elementary school principal, I was accepted to a program called Teachers for Africa through a Nongovernmental Organization. They invited me to teach in Ethiopia, so I decided I was meant to go. I worked on a new program to train college teachers in Hosana, a rural town.

“As I learned about the culture, the school system and met villagers, children, and teachers, I saw a great need, but also great potential. I committed to working with educators to improve the quality of education. I visited schools where there were 100 kids to a classroom and the teacher only had chalk and a chalkboard. There weren’t any books or materials. Before I left in 2004, I asked the largest school what I could do for them. They said, “Build a library.” Their “library” for 4,000 kids was 20 ripped, old books in a closet.

I learned that if you’re going to make really lasting change, you have to be in it for the long haul.

“I started fundraising and in 2006 founded a nonprofit, h2 Empower. I wanted to build something that would be for the whole community. We had a school committee in Hosana and the parents, town and county chipped in. We got a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy. We opened the first library in Hosana in 2010. We had collected 30,000 books from all over Long Island, so many that we were able to give books out to other libraries in the county. I’ve been back every year since then, except for 2020, and I’ve overseen getting water into 5 schools, training librarians, building 15 classrooms in 6 different schools and I’ve even extended my work to Burundi.

“What motivated me from that first trip through today is the students there all know that education is a way to a better life for themselves and their families. I know my purpose is to be a bridge, to bring people together in Hosanna and in the US. When they saw the impact the library made in their community, it made them realize they could do a lot more. I learned that if you’re going to make really lasting change, you have to be in it for the long haul. In the end, I feel like I’ve been so blessed by this. I’ve had opportunities that most people wouldn’t have.”

‘The last time I got arrested, I said I can’t do this anymore.’

Pamela Neely, Huntington Station

“At 26 years old I was in college, I was working full time, had mutual funds and I was saving to buy my own home. My mother died. She taught me everything about life, but nobody teaches us about death. After I lost my mom, and I had a breakdown and I started using drugs.

“I got involved with a lot of the wrong people, I was naïve and gullible, and I thought people were loving and caring because that’s what I came from but it’s an evil world. I kept getting arrested and continuing to go in and out like a revolving door. Part of why I kept returning was there was never anything available to me when I got released. I couldn’t continue to live that way.

“The last time I got arrested I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I went cold turkey; I didn’t go to a hospital for detox. I got clean on my own. That was in 2000 and I haven’t looked back. I’m not that person anymore.

“I had a little Yorkie that was my baby named Lightning. I called her Light Light. She got very sick and I had to put her down. After that, I had to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life because she consumed my life. She was like my physical therapist, I had operations and she was always with me.

None of us are bad people. We just make some bad choices.

“I’d be feeling sorry for myself, but I had to get out of my bed and walk the dog and take care of her. She gave me a reason to get up. Then I got involved with New Hour for Women and Children. I was part of the first cohort of the emerge program a few years ago. It’s been amazing. I became a peer leader in an advocacy program, a 10-week program to become an advocator. They give you support.

“I got the chance to see women coming home from incarceration and they’d get involved in the program and say, ‘I don’t have a job, I’m living in a shelter.’ Then the next week, they’d say, ‘I found a job, it’s gotten better.’ It’s like watching a flower grow, blooming and blossoming.

“I became very empowered, that helped me a lot. Now I’m the social justice coordinator for New Hour. I’m a team leader advocating for two parole bills for elderly people in prison and so people who are eligible for parole get out unless they’re a risk. None of us are bad people. We just make some bad choices.”

‘I got pregnant at 19 years old, and I said, ‘I’m becoming a stereotype.’ I wanted to break the cycle.’

Huntington Station

“My mom was 16 when she had me and I grew up in poor sections of Glen Cove. My mom has limited education. She was also addicted to drugs and my father was as well and in-and-out of jail my whole life. But my Mom always instilled in me to get an education and make something of myself; get myself out of the hood.

“I got pregnant at 19 years old, and I said, ‘I’m becoming a stereotype.’ I wanted to break the cycle. I wanted to show my children and my youngest cousins how we can be something more.

“I was part of a mothers group and after the sessions, I felt ostracized because they’d get into their huddles and talk and I’d be off to the side as the only black woman. The meeting leader asked for a volunteer to lead the group, I raised my hand, she acknowledged me, but I wouldn’t hear from her and she’d keep asking for leaders at the meetings. I approached her after a meeting, and she had no choice but to take me up on my offer.

I made sure they would never underestimate a black mother again and they hired me to become a facilitator to model other centers.

“I had to do something for my family and for black people and I vowed to be one of those voices. I made that location of National Association of Mothers Centers be a model center. I made sure they would never underestimate a black mother again and they hired me to become a facilitator to model other centers. I realized how powerful my voice was. I landed at an organization called Every Child Matters, advocating for children’s issues.

“I started to use my story of growing up in childhood poverty and motiving people to become advocates for policies that needed their voice. I published a book in 2019 called ‘Poverty’s Phoenix,’ a memoir about surviving childhood poverty.

“In all this, I noticed black folks were working together and white folks were working together, there was a lot of segregation. So, I started both the Women’s Diversity Network and the Long Island Black Alliance, a multigenerational and multicultural group to make lives better for black people on Long Island.

“You don’t have to be a victim to your circumstances, you can feel the strength and power to break these generational curses.”