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.

‘My long-term goals are to continue to make a difference in the lives of Long Island students.’

Northport

As a science teacher and research scientist in Brentwood Union Free School District, I’ve dedicated 20 years of my career to getting more people of color involved in the sciences, to be the voice of change and the ones moving the legislation at the state level and that people are listening to. I have a state-of-the-art research lab at the high school. They come in as 10th-graders who have never picked up any equipment and by their senior year, they’re out conducting real-world investigations.

“Since 2018, my students have been working with New York State Parks and Save the Sound to replant and restore the salt marsh in Sunken Meadow State Park. They’ve planted over 2,000 plants. This came about because while getting my masters at Stony Brook University, I worked in Madagascar for six months. It was the beginning of the rest of my life because there I saw an imminent need to help those who didn’t have the resources that we had in the U.S., both for teaching and the environment. I worked with kids in Madagascar to replant and reforest the rainforest. And 20 years later, I’m planting Spartina in a salt marsh on Long Island.

“One would say my life hasn’t changed much, but when I came back from that trip, I realized that it’s not just Madagascar that needs help. It’s right here in our own backyard. I did my student teaching in Brentwood and fell in love with the population; 57 different cultural nations represented in the student body. I took a job in Brentwood and started a research program as an afterschool initiative. That became a class and my life mission.

Here I am jumping into my research to get me out of a bad situation in my life, and that’s kind of how I see research for our students in Brentwood.

“In 2004, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27. What helped get me through that darkness was the science and getting my kids to answer and ask questions. From 2004 to 2006, we started pushing forward with the research program. We were always the “Bad News Bears” at the science competitions. We’d go to country clubs and compete against Roslyn, Syosset and Jericho. I was going to the Salvation Army to buy jackets for my kids so they looked like the rest. I called it the ‘Science Unfair’ because my students didn’t have the same skillset and background as everybody else.

“In 2007, I had a recurrence, and a bilateral mastectomy. I decided to finish my Ph.D. I was going through chemotherapy and in graduate school full-time and working full-time. I was having a hard time, so I just sunk myself into research. The experience was one of the most arduous of my life and the most life-changing for both me and the Brentwood program.

“In 2010, we started to win competitions. We had a recognition from the Siemens Competition, a first ever for Brentwood. In 2011, my student Samantha Garvey was doing research in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook. She was going to drop out because her parents were evicted. We raised money so she could stay with the program and in 2012, she was recognized as an Intel Semifinalist. She was invited to the White House and President Obama’s State of the Union Address. We were on “The Ellen Show” and “The Today Show.” It was all about how through science you can get out of a bad situation.

My true purpose is that regardless of zip code kids have the resources to do and go where they need to go. If that means trying to hold your ground and saying, ‘things need to change,’ then you need to be the voice of change.

“Here I am jumping into my research to get me out of a bad situation in my life, and that’s kind of how I see research for our students in Brentwood. For me it was a long, uphill battle. I get hit with cancer and wind up continuing to persevere. Things started to fall into place when the students were getting the recognition they deserved. Since 2010, we’ve had over 20 national winners and we’ve brought in over $20 million in college scholarships. The lab is the little gem of the district. We have kids from this program who have gone to Yale, Harvard and MIT.

“In a community like Brentwood, one of the hardest hit by COVID, you need to believe in science. Without science, I wouldn’t be standing here right now. My long-term goals are to continue to make a difference in the lives of students and focus specifically on the underrepresented community of Brentwood to showcase that with the right skills and the right people in place, we can make a difference in the lives of our youth. My true purpose is that regardless of zip code kids have the resources to do and go where they need to go. If that means trying to hold your ground and saying, ‘things need to change,’ then you need to be the voice of change.”

‘This past year has been a gift for me and my students – giving us a place to come together and create.’

Northport

“I never planned on becoming a teacher let alone teach watercolors. For my entire professional life, I had my own marketing and advertising agency. I had longed to be creative so I designed my own line of greeting cards and thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to use my own art?’ So, I picked up my paints and brushes and searched for watercolor classes. I didn’t feel I was learning much. I was attracted to a particular class because the description said, ‘you get a demonstration.’ I learned how important it was to watch every brushstroke because that’s how I grew as an artist and eventually into a teacher.

“About 10 years ago, the programming director of the Art League of Long Island (ALLI) noticed my work and asked me to do demos for them. After watching me demo to their students, she said I was a natural teacher. I really didn’t think I was, as I had no formal training. A short time later, one of ALLI’s teachers retired and that same lady offered his class spots to me. It was serendipitous. I didn’t see the ability in myself but, as I began to teach, I realized she was right. I decided to build my classes on what I needed as a student and didn’t get.

“I retired from my business literally the week before we went into quarantine – not knowing we would be on lockdown for over a year – to focus on my art and teaching. I took all my cancelled in-person classes online via Zoom. It turned out to be nothing short of amazing. This past year has been a gift for me and my students – giving us a place to come together and create. It offered them hope and time to focus on their own art. It’s so rewarding to see them flourish. They needed these classes and I needed to be there for them.

I didn’t see the ability in myself but, as I began to teach, I realized she was right. I decided to build my classes on what I needed as a student and didn’t get.

“Part of the virtual classroom experience is that we gain inspiration from an image, a place we’ve been to, animals, flowers, just about anything! After we’ve painted for 2 hours, the students show me their work so I can offer a constructive critique to each of them. Now, I have hundreds of paintings that need a good home. I am currently looking to align with a not-for-profit to use some paintings as a fundraiser. If I can benefit a worthy cause, it would mean so much to give back and pay it forward.”

‘When I’m an EMT, that’s my job — I’m not a theater teacher. I juggle two worlds in that capacity. It really is weird and it’s wonderful.’

Northport

“Eventually, you let the universe choose for you and I think that’s why I became a teacher and, later, an EMT as well. More than 25 years ago, I had a career as a performer. I was working in regional theaters and with international tours. When my wife and I got married we realized that to have a family we had to be in the same place at the same time, so I went to earn my master’s degree and quickly lucked out with Syosset High School (SHS) because they were looking to start a theater program.

To be able to help somebody you know in their time of need, when they’re scared, is special.

“As a theater teacher, I get to see students create and learn in a unique way. My focus has always been on giving students a solid foundation so that if they want to go into the theater business, they are able to but even if they don’t, they have a foundation in problem-solving and looking at things through a different perspective and the discipline of creating that’s going to serve them in any profession. I never directed a darn thing before I started at SHS. All of these years later, I sometimes still think I have no clue what I’m doing. Other times, I sit back on closing night of a show and I think, ‘Wow. These kids really created something and I got to be a part of that.’ I have also been an EMT for eight years. I wanted to be able to help the community and I can ride a bike with the Northport Bike Squad, so I am able to combine two things I’m good at. Since I’ve joined the department, my family has felt more connected to the community. Often I go on calls and it’s somebody we know. To be able to help somebody you know in their time of need, when they’re scared, is special. You see them look up at you and realize that you’re somebody they know so they relax because they can trust you. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to help people in that way. In the summer I was a set medic for a couple of documentaries and commercials. I love working on the movie sets because of the atmosphere and creativity. When I’m an EMT, that’s my job – I’m not a theater teacher. I juggle two worlds in that capacity. It really is weird and it’s wonderful. I don’t have a lot of money to give to causes and support things like I would want to, so I give my time.”