Jaime Franchi

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Jaime Franchi is the Executive Editor of Morey Publishing. She covers education and contributes news and entertainment pieces for the Long Island Press, along with occasional op-eds when she's in the mood for some hate mail. Her work can also be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Huffington Post and The New York Times.

You Know You Grew Up in Suffolk County If…

Big Duck Flanders Long Island
The Big Duck in Flanders (Photo: Friends of The Big Duck, bigduck.org)

11. You know that Field 5 at Robert Moses Beach is for families, Field 2 is where the cool people go and Field 3 is for losers. 10. You know not to feed the deer! 

9. Keep your Hamptons share house, we’ll be on the ferry to Fire Island. 

Backpackers walk off into the Fire Island wilderness to camp.

8. You know Lyme Disease is no joke. 

Deer ticks, like these, transmit Lyme disease to humans, including Long Island residents.

7. You know Ralph Macchio lives here.  
6. You know there’s a suburban legend of a vengeful princess at the bottom of Lake Ronkonkoma waiting to claim another male. 

Lake Ronkonkoma
Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island’s largest lake.

5. That the real mall is in Huntington. 

Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

4. You know where the sidewalk ends. 

3. We root for the Long Island Ducks. 

 

2. East Northport is actually south of Northport. 

1. Our duck is bigger than your duck. 

Big Duck Flanders Long Island
The Big Duck in Flanders (Photo: Friends of The Big Duck, bigduck.org)

 

Meet The Millers: Reality TV’s Next Superstar Family

Meet the Millers

Editor’s Note: The following is a pitch for a reality TV show based upon the most unique and ready-for-primetime Long Island family I’ve ever come across in my experience as a journalist. If any television producers are out there reading this, you’re welcome!


TITLE

Meet the Millers


GENRE

13-episode half-hour reality series


THEME

Who’s the Boss meets The Real Housewives of Long Island; based on a quirky stay-at-home dad and the shenanigans the family gets into as he plans and executes various social charity-based parties.


SETTING

The Millers’ home in Roslyn, Long Island at the end of a cul-de-sac. It is decorated in bright hues, with colorful abstract art and movie posters lining the walls. The kitchen has a black-and-white checkered floor with papier-mâché sculptures of skulls peeking out of odd places. A recreation of Vicki’s lips on a 20” x 20” canvas sits atop the cabinets. An autographed framed photo of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dave Grohl hangs by the calendar. The dining room table is a salvaged piece of the Long Beach Boardwalk discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, painted a bright, eye-catching blue that matches the hue of the painted floors leading into the living room. It’s an upscale Pee-wee’s Playhouse.


CHARACTERS

VICKI – CEO of First Spice Mixing Co., calls her husband by his full name, David Miller. As in, “There’s just something about David Miller.” She has been involved in philanthropy from a very young age, including as a founding member of the junior committee for the Museum of Natural History and the United Nations. Attractive, with a streak of purple in her hair, she is quietly confident, smart as a whip, and cool as F.

DAVID – Is exuberant. Everything about him is outlandish, almost cartoon-like. He has a twisty, iconic mustache and wears brightly colored, custom-made bowties. He speaks in ALL CAPS. He puts most of his energy into the various charity committees that he chairs, including the junior prom committee at his children’s private school and Sunrise Day Camp. He prides himself on knowing everyone, being universally liked, a self-proclaimed attention whore; he balances his oversized personality with a heart of gold.

MILES – Fifteen-year-old, type 1 diabetic with a thick mop of dark hair. His father’s son, he is enthusiastic, bright and entrepreneurial. He is a star goalie for the school soccer team. His claim to fame is raising an unprecedented amount of money for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

MAX – Sixteen years old, the quietest in the family, he is deeply interested in science and technology. As in, he builds computers from parts. An introvert, he is putting a lot of effort into coming out of his shell to make his mark in his overachieving family. He takes DJ lessons in Manhattan and spins beats for his high school friends at various functions. And he has most recently launched a project called Sunrise S.T.E.A.M. Shack (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), to break ground this June, which includes construction of a building he designed, funded with money he has raised, for a science and technology wing of a summer camp for children with cancer (and their siblings). He may very well be the next Steve Jobs. But a Steve Jobs with a heart.


Meet the Millers
Meet the Millers: (L-R) Max, David, Miles and Vicki Miller

EPISODE SYNOPSIS

Right in Roslyn, New York, in the heart of Nassau County, Long Island lives a family straight out of central casting. Precociously brilliant, they are the epitome of thinking big. Why rent a hall and give a bar mitzvah with a DJ and balloons when you can rent a mansion, hire burlesque dancers, and transform the celebration into a sepia-toned perfect recreation of the Great Gatsby era, replete with furniture handmade in the basement workshop of that Roslyn home? Why go trick-or-treating when you can lead the Halloween parade in NYC in glow-in-the-dark LED costumes? While some kids may take the initiative to collect recyclables to earn money for video games, these kids justify new routes by the local sanitation department because their undertaking became so big, earning in the five figures and donating it to charity.

Meet the Millers, a family that redefines what’s possible to accomplish. While the Millers (and Beyoncé) have the same amount of hours in the day as the rest of us, they just get so much more done. (And B while pregnant with twins.) Yet it’s not just their vaulting ambition that makes them reality-show worthy. It’s their quirkiness, their audacity and their oversized senses of humor, balanced with an over-achieving desire to give back. It’s almost a crime that camera crews aren’t documenting their every move.

Consider Sunrise Day Camp. This summer camp for children with cancer (and their siblings) is located in Wheatley Heights. It provides a respite for children who are going through what can be long, grueling treatments that lets them just be kids. It’s a haven for their brothers and sisters who experience traumas, trials, worries, and fears that only other cancer-afflicted siblings could ever truly understand. It’s a very special place. And it’s free.

David Miller became involved with Sunrise in an ancillary way, making donations and bringing the family down to its annual “Planting Day” as a favor to a friend. Yet, when a neighbor’s son became sick with leukemia seemingly overnight, David’s involvement went into overdrive.

“I picked up my phone and called the mother and reached her in the hospital room where she was literally sitting there with her unconscious son,” David gushes. “And I said, ‘Sharon! I heard what happened to Max. I know the director of this camp for kids who have cancer, and I’d love to introduce you.’ She kind of said, ‘Yes,’ then hung up on me and that was it. I picked up the phone and called the camp director. She ran over to the hospital. Twenty minutes later, she was in the room with them.”

Quite often, an immediate human instinctual response to very bad news such as a severe illness or death can be isolating. Ask anyone who’s gone through a trauma, and they will tell you how quickly even close friends distance themselves. It’s a natural response to the awkwardness and fear of not knowing the right words to say.

David’s response was the opposite. He jumped in. That’s what he does.

The camp director was able to offer solace to a mother still absorbing the shocking news of cancer.

“She explained to them what they were going through, what to expect, sort of held mom’s hand and explained to her what was about to happen and that everything will be fine,” Vicki Miller explained. “Told her she deals with this every day. The family was so appreciative.”

That summer, both the boy with cancer and his brother attended Sunrise. They had a wonderful time. They discovered a much-needed support system. It truly changed their lives.

The Millers took note, and in true Millers fashion, they got involved. Big time.

David joined the board of directors and became heavily involved in planning their annual gala event and organizing its “Volunteer Day.” Ten years later, Sunrise now has seven camps, is affiliated with 30 hospitals, and within 12, including Memorial Sloan Kettering, New York–Presbyterian Hospital / Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and Cohen Children’s Medical Center, where they have something called “Sunrise on Wheels,” in which 150 volunteers create camp in the ward.

Beyond that, they do simple things, like rushing to a child’s side and being there with him, or saying to a parent, “Hey, take your other kid to a soccer game.”

David is so committed to Sunrise that he’ll do just about anything to help raise funds. When Raymond Davoodi and Michael Ramin from Great Neck-based title insurance and real estate solutions firm The Atlantis Organization and online crowdfunding real estate investing platform Sharestates proposed that he shave his beloved trademark mustache for a pledge of $10,000, he was taken aback. He gave pause. That ‘stache is not just hair follicles under his nose, but a piece of his identity. It’s a dark, twisty, physical representation of who he is—boisterously evident in a commercial he’s starred in for Capital One. It’s fun, it’s unique, it’s David Miller.

He counter-offered. At the upcoming annual Sunrise Day Camp gala on May 4th at the Glen Head Country Club, David will not only shave his mustache, but his ample head of hair. Not for 10 grand, but for 50.

And in true Miller fashion, it wasn’t just David who got involved with Sunrise. When Max turned 16, he applied to be a camp counselor, a sought-after volunteer job with more than 1,000 applicants vying for only a few hundred positions. Although Max had traditionally attended Yale in the summers for an intensive camp there, when he was hired at Sunrise, he cut his Yale time short.

Max isn’t your typical camp counselor-type. He’s not particularly interested in sports. Unlike his boisterous father, he’s fairly introverted. But when he discovered a sense of purpose that summer at Sunrise, his confidence blossomed into an idea. A big idea.

“I think it was on the second day, during basketball, I saw a kid sitting over in the friendship circle,” Max said. “I went over and sat next to him and introduced myself. We started talking and found that we both liked technology, and later we found that we both really loved cars also. I told him about how I was the captain of my school’s robotics team, and I write 13 kinds of coding languages, and he said, ‘That’s really cool. I wish I could learn that stuff.’ He said he wished the camp had a computer lab so I could teach him. And I went home and asked my dad if we could do that.”

At first, the camp said no. They wanted kids outside, running around, interacting with each other, not sitting with their faces glued to screens. That, you would think, would be that.

But not if you’re a Miller.

Max came back with a compelling argument. Approximately 80 percent of children with cancer become cured, he told the board of directors, but only after years of grueling treatment, which leave gaps in their education and cause them to generally fall behind. However, the 16-year-old said, if you could learn to write code, you will always be employable. Moreover, technology is a low-energy activity, much like arts and crafts. Just a little snazzier. And to kids like Max and his new friend, much more interesting.

Max won approval, but with a caveat: He had to raise his own funds. Technology education would not come from Sunrise Day Camp’s budget.

And so Max learned how to write grant proposals. He became adept at pitching his idea to boardrooms. He raised cash. Then he wanted to do something bigger.

He designed the building on his computer. And with a team or architects and builders, they will break ground on his vision, this spring. The curriculum for the S.T.E.A.M. Shack, which will be a year-long program, includes computer programming, 3-D design and printing, and music production. It will be available as an online education forum offered to children with cancer, as well as a laboratory for kids who attend the camp.

As he talks, he becomes increasingly animated, matching the enthusiasm his brother, Miles, exudes when talking about soccer and the CAPS LOCK-fevered pitch with which his father speaks.

Vicki surveys the living room with a grin, looking over her brood. They are now talking over one another, pitching more ideas and growing ever more excited.

The sun is setting, but they are just getting warmed up.

It’s Miller time.

6 Questions With Def Leppard Guitarist Phil Collen

Def Leppard
Def Leppard

English rockers Def Leppard are celebrating 40 years as a band this year, making them one of the longest touring music acts in the world. To mark the occasion, the band is embarking on their 2017 North American Tour, hitting 38 cities with Poison and Tesla. They’ll surely be playing their hits, such as “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Rock Of Ages” and “Love Bites” along the way, including when they make their fifth stop on the tour, on Saturday, April 15, at NYCB Live Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

In advance of that show, the Press spoke with Def Leppard lead guitarist Phil Collen, who shared the secrets of his longevity, memories of Long Island concerts past, along with the true meaning of being a music artist:

Long Island Press: Have you played Nassau Coliseum before?

Phil Collen: Oh yeah, we played there in the ’80s and in ’93, I believe. On the Hysteria and Pyromania tours. We’re really looking forward to it. We love playing Long Island, they are a rabid fan base. Maybe the biggest in America. We rarely play in New York City, we play Jones Beach. I’m looking forward to playing indoors this time, with the lights and the screens. It always rains when we play Jones Beach!

LIP: Def Leppard turns 40 this year. What do you owe your longevity to?

PC: In a nutshell, it comes from our parents and our backgrounds. Our parents were in World War II. That generation gave us our value system, they passed that down to us. We always joke about Monty Python and The Holy Grail, that joke where he says, “Oh, it’s just a flesh wound.” They instilled that in us. When Rick Allen lost his arm, he quoted that. But they taught us to just work hard. If we wanted to be an okay band, that’s fine. But if we were going to be a great band, we all knew we had to work very hard.

LIP: The fact that you never considered another drummer for the band after Rick Allen lost his arm in a car accident and waited for him to heal and learn how to play with his single arm and both feet speaks to that kind of loyalty and brotherhood, that same value system. Do you agree?

PC: Well, I think anyone would have done the same. We were in the middle of recording an album, so we were able to go on without him for a while. Then we went on tour and he missed the first show. But you’re right, it was never a business for us. We were a gang. We were friends first. We slept on each other’s couches.

LIP: How has the music industry changed?

PC: If you would have told me there would be a way to stream music through Wi-Fi on your phone, I would never have believed it. It’s like some kind of black magic. Vinyl is now a billion-dollar industry. There’s been a resurgence. But the business has changed dramatically. It was an art form, and then it became a business. If you can do both, you’ve got it. But you’ve got to change with the business. It’s like when you get older, you have to change your diet. You have to start eating healthier to keep going. It’s the same with music. It can be a vicious and cruel business with narcissistic people.

LIP: What’s it like to tour with Tesla and Poison?

PC: I love Tesla! We’ve known them for 30 years. I’m producing their new album; we just wrapped it, actually. This tour is like a celebration of integrity. We almost [still have] all the original members. It’s not some karaoke experience with one or two founding members. Poison is the original four guys. We all have that integrity. We’ve been around a long time. We have that value system.

LIP: What advice would you give a young aspiring rock star who wants to be the next Phil Collen?

PC: Just roll with it. Don’t expect anything. You can be an artist and a musician, but not everyone is both. One doesn’t equal another. We’re very fortunate to get paid, but that’s not why we do it. I would be playing small clubs, just making music. If you put your soul into your art, that’s the true reward. Most artists died penniless, but their creation was their reward.

Legendary rockers Def Leppard play the newly renovated NYCB Live Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, located at 1255 Hempstead Turnpike, Uniondale, NY on Saturday, April 15, at 6 p.m.! For more information and tickets, visit nassaucoliseum.com

Latest Common Core Testing Met With Protest & Mass Refusals on Long Island

Common Core Protest Freeport
Parents converged in front of the Freeport School District administration building Tuesday, March 28, 2017 to protest a new "opt out" protocol mandated by the principal of its middle school. (Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)

More than 70,000 students in school districts across Long Island have “opted out” of taking the first round of this year’s controversial Common Core standardized tests, according to education advocates monitoring the numbers of those refusing the exams—and those figures are expected to rise.

The Common Core testing, administered in two waves of exams—first, the ELA (English Language Arts) component for grades 3 through 8, which began Tuesday, March 28, to be followed by Mathematics in May—has been met with criticism from parents and educators since its rollout under the Obama administration in 2013. Since then, the number of students refusing to take the exams, or “opt out,” has grown annually—with a very vocal constituency of anti-Common Core parents residing on Long Island.

Among those leading the charge against the tests is Jeanette Deutermann, founder of the anti-Common Core Facebook group “Long Island Opt Out,” and a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a coalition of 50 parent and teacher organizations who oppose the standardized tests. Each year, Deutermann and a team from each school district compile the running, unofficial figures.

“Looking at the numbers, it’s very clear at this moment that the opt-out movement is not going away,” she told the Press Wednesday afternoon. “One thing I keep thinking is: Is the state ever going to start listening? Are they really just going to wait us out? How long are they going to give these tests that no one is taking? Not no one, but even in districts that have 20 percent that are refusals, that is still a significant number. Most districts have 60 to 70 percent and more. Any value of the tests has been invalidated. They can’t use them for any significant data.

“How much more of a clear message do they need?” she continued, referring to the New York State Department of Education, which mandates the tests. “All of the numbers and percentages are our voices. How much louder do we need to get?

“I’m getting reports from teachers who say that so many of these kids are sitting until 3 o’clock,” Deutermann added. “Kids are crying. One child puked in the middle of the test.”

More than 240,000 students statewide refused to take the Common Core examinations in 2015—representing more than 20 percent throughout the state, according to data compiled by the New York State Department of Education. The department found that figure increased to more than 21 percent last year.

On Long Island, those figures included more than 82,000 students across Nassau and Suffolk counties’ 124 school districts who refused to take both the ELA and Math exams, respectively, in 2015, and more than 94,000, respectively, in 2016, according to Deutermann and her colleagues’ tallies.

As of press time on March 29, day two of the ELA tests, those preliminary figures counted more than 73,000 refusals, and were updated throughout the day.

This latest round of ELA tests was prefaced with an additional degree of hubbub this time around locally, sparked by new mandates from at least one Long Island school district regarding the manner in which a student could officially “opt out,” and culminating in a protest in front of the Freeport School District administration building.

Parents of students in grades 3 through 8 there were furious to receive a letter recently sent home from Johane Ligonde, principal of the John W. Dodd Middle School, stating that written requests “opting them out” of the controversial Common Core ELA state exams given this week would not suffice as refusals for the district.

In order to officially opt out of taking the examinations, Ligonde told the parents, their children would be required to first sit for the tests, and those wishing to refuse taking them would then need to verbally state their intentions to the administering teachers and proctors in front of the class.

About a dozen parents protested this policy outside the administrative building Tuesday. They were upset that the letter came so close to the testing period, not giving ample time for parents to prepare their children; that the policy put undue stress and anxiety on children as young as 8 years old; and that the letter was written only in English in a school district where many parents speak only Spanish. Some parents interpreted the correspondence’s distinctions between “opting out” and “refusing” as an intentional means of confusing them.

“If your child, under your direction, refuses to take the exam once it is placed in front of them, the proctor will mark the student as a ‘refusal’ and your child will be allowed to read quietly and independently in accordance with state regulations,” the letter reads.

Claudine Leguizamon has a third grader in Freeport who suffers from anxiety when test-taking. Leguizamon believes that this high-stakes state exam is inappropriate for her daughter at this time, so she had sent in her refusal letter. But now that her child must verbally refuse to take it, her 8-year-old’s anxiety level has risen.

“We practiced over and over her saying, ‘I refuse!’” Leguizamon told the Press as she stood in the rain flanked by fellow parents.

She added that she is angry at the district for putting this undue stress on her daughter.

“She was quiet this morning, running it through her head,” Leguizamon said. “When I dropped her off, I said, ‘Be strong. I’m sorry you have to be in this position and stand up to your teacher and refuse this exam.’”

Howard Colton of the Freeport Independent Parents Association is not against the Common Core state standards, per se, but the testing apparatus tied to it.

“It’s not that the Common Core is a bad idea; it’s just that the testing is not appropriate,” he explained outside the school. “It’s not age specific, and it’s not appropriate for what kids are learning in school.”

It’s not just Freeport School District parents who are upset with the way Ligonde handled this year’s protocol, either.

Long Island Opt Out’s Deutermann has also been monitoring how Long Island school districts are responding to students’ test refusals. She describes Freeport’s response as “incorrect,” but rare.

“Thankfully, most districts do not handle it the way that Freeport is handling it,” she explained. “We do have peer districts here and there that are handling it incorrectly like this, but for the most part, the parents’ letters are handled very well. Even the commissioner and chancellor both said it is the parents’ final decision. It is up to the parent.”

Featured Photo: Parents converged in front of the Freeport School District administration building Tuesday, March 28, 2017 to protest a new “opt out” protocol mandated by the principal of its middle school. (Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)

Lisa Loeb’s Songs Will ‘Stay’ With Us Long After Upcoming Boulton Center Gig

Lisa Loeb
Lisa Loeb rocks YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bay Shore on March 30! (Photo: Lisa Loeb official Facebook profile)

Lisa Loeb broke onto the music scene in the ’90s and was immediately welcomed into the echelon of acoustic singer-songwriters who dominated the Lilith Fair era. She embodies emo-nerd chic and makes it sexy, and she’ll be unleashing all her hits and irresistible magnetism at YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, March 30.

Her stripped-down confessionals, like “Stay (I Missed You)” from the cult classic film Reality Bites (which catapulted Ben Stiller, Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder to Gen-X infamy) remain popular to this day. The song was the first #1 single by an artist who didn’t have a recording contract! Of course, after that tune, she released two back-to-back albums that went gold—1995’s Tails and 1997’s Firecracker—and was nominated for a Grammy Award for the latter.

Loeb become a bonafide television star in 2004 for her culinary misadventures with Dweezil Zappa on the Food Network, chronicled in Dweezil & Lisa, and 2006’s reality TV-music show Number 1 Single on E! Entertainment Television. She’s released nearly 20 music albums throughout her career, most recently 2016’s Feel What U Feel, appeared in a ton of television shows and movies, and has also done voice-over work.

Loeb’s songs have appeared in television and film soundtracks, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Legally Blonde and Twister, and she’s also a prolific children’s music and book author—releasing a bevy of award-winning titles and audio versions—crafting fun, catchy tunes that connect with kids.

Besides her infectious songs, you’ll also recognize Loeb by those signature dark-framed glasses. In fact, those glasses are so synonymous with Lisa Loeb that she has her own line of them.

Classic. Refined. Quirky. Fun. Soulful. Vulnerable. And always real. Lisa Loeb is more than a performer. She’s a singer-songwriter who reminds us Gen-Xers of who we used to be, when the world was a gritty, undefined place. Somewhere along the way, we’ve suddenly discovered we’re now the grownups, alongside Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder and Ben Stiller. And guess what? We’ve all made it.

Lisa Loeb provided our soundtrack.

Featured Photo: Lisa Loeb rocks YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bay Shore on March 30! (Photo: Lisa Loeb official Facebook profile)

Lisa Loeb will be performing live at YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts, 37 West Main Street, Bay Shore, on Thursday, March 30 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, call 631-969-1101 or visit boultoncenter.org.

The INN: Long Island’s Enduring Refuge Provides Shelter From Life’s Countless Storms

The INN Long Island Soup Kitchen
Volunteers prepare the day's meal for guests at The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network) in Hempstead ahead of an oncoming blizzard. (Photos: Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)

News of an oncoming blizzard spread throughout the ranks of the Mary Brennan INN in Hempstead with the speed and urgency fueling any agency on the frontlines of a life-or-death situation tasked with making preparations to save lives.

Jean C. Victor, its manager of 13 years, barked instructions at team members and volunteers in a back room off the bustling kitchen that serves as a conference room, coat closet, and staff room as they ready themselves for the day ahead.

The seasoned crew—some who’d retired and others who’d donated time sandwiched in between their busy daily schedules to lend a hand—followed his directives with lighthearted banter along several stations throughout its large industrial-sized kitchen: An elderly couple sliced fresh loaves of bread. Several women stirred various dishes simmering in pots atop a massive stove. Others chopped vegetables and assembled a salad in a giant metal bowl.

Victor soon headed to an adjacent pantry stocked floor-to-ceiling with cans, bags and containers of all shapes and sizes brimming with countless foodstuffs, awaiting word from The INN’s Executive Director Jean Kelly about whether the nonprofit would be open the following day, when forecasters predicted temperatures would plummet and up to 18 inches of snow and ice would smother the region and shut down Long Island for days.

“Today we [are] going to be giving out the house!” Victor bellowed to the readying staff. “Hats, gloves, food!”

An assembly line of volunteers quickly materialized, with helpers and staff immediately stuffing hundreds of bagged lunches, gathering the warmest clothing and winter gear, and cooking up that day’s hearty meal to feed those in need already lining up.

Kelly, joining Program Manager Nancy Burke in her office at the group’s Center for Transformative Change in a building next door, assessed the latest weather reports on the ominous storm’s severity and made the tough declaration that The INN would in fact be closed during its wrath.

“We know it’s happening,” Kelly said of the impending storm. “It will happen during the exact hours everyone’s trying to get in and out. We need to prepare ahead and de-stress, and the only way we could do that is to get ready and make a plan. And have enough time to make and carry out that plan.”

“Nancy,” she directed, “if we know anyone who is sleeping outside—if we can find a way to get them in, even if it’s to get them a hotel room for the night. Whatever you need to do to get them in.”

“There are a few,” replied Burke.

Similar scenes have played out time and time again at The INN throughout its more than three decades as a refuge for Long Island’s most desperate, no matter the emergency—from daily hardships to unprecedented cataclysms, from manmade catastrophes to natural disasters, the March 14 blizzard being the latest. It’s an everyday commitment among its volunteers to address everyday struggles, and much needed, despite Long Island’s reputation as an affluent suburban paradise replete with beaches, parks and luxurious zip codes.

There were 3,960 homeless throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2016, according to nonprofit Long Island Coalition for the Homelessannual “Homeless Count”—with more than half of those children. Nassau County has a poverty rate of 6 percent and an ALICE rate—short for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; those who can’t make ends meet without making tough choices regarding basic necessities including food, shelter, child care, transportation and health care—of 25 percent. In Suffolk, it’s 7 percent and 32 percent, respectively, discovered a recent study “ALICE: Study of Financial Hardship” by nonprofit United Way of New York State.

The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network) is a volunteer-based nonprofit whose mission is to address hunger and homelessness on Long Island by providing food, shelter, long-term housing and supportive services for all those in need. It operates a network of 14 soup kitchens, in 21 locations, serving more than 300,000 meals annually. It runs three emergency shelters in Nassau County—two designated as refuges for homeless families, the other for homeless men. The INN provides 23 formerly homeless families with long-term housing throughout Long Island, offers housing and supportive services to homeless veterans, and works to resolve homelessness overall and ultimately empower families’ self-sufficiency.

The INN’s latest facility, its Center for Transformative Change (CTC), is a one-stop resource center helping individuals successfully navigate multi-tiered, multi-agency services so crucial for the homeless, unemployed or destitute to get back on their feet.

The Mary Brennan INN in Hempstead, where Victor led the storm preparation efforts, is the group’s flagship and the largest soup kitchen on Long Island. Yet while The INN’s many services are unquestionably changing and saving lives, Executive Director Kelly aims to serve an even higher purpose:

Kelly aspires to turn nobodies into somebodies, and quite literally make her job obsolete in the process.

“The greatest thing we can ever say to somebody is ‘We hope we never see you again,’ she explained. “Because it means you don’t need us anymore. And you don’t owe us anything.”

The INN Long Island Jean Kelly
Jean Kelly, executive director of nonprofit The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network), home to Long Island’s largest soup kitchen and so much more. (Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

The Mary Brennan INN, the first in Nassau County, began in 1983 at a meeting held at the home of Michael Moran, then a chaplain at Hofstra University, in Uniondale. Kelly attended at the behest of a friend from college, and initially, the only things she was sure of upon arrival was that it seemed to be some kind of cult and she wouldn’t be able to help.

Back then, Kelly had a full-time job in advertising. She thought she could possibly volunteer in the soup kitchen on her free night during the week, but quickly learned that soup kitchens traditionally only operate during the daytime, since they’re typically located in dangerous areas.

So Kelly told Moran she wouldn’t be available to help start his brainchild.

At the time, Long Island’s only soup kitchen was in Wyandanch, in Suffolk County. Moran had been bringing student volunteers weekly into Brooklyn to help at a soup kitchen there. When these students witnessed through their bus window a person their age fishing a half-eaten bagel from a garbage can right in their own county, Moran realized the need to feed the hungry right here. And he knew he could use Kelly’s help.

Moran sat the group of 30 who’d responded to a newspaper ad he had posted in a large circle. He asked them to introduce themselves and to state why they’d come.

The first person offered his name and said, “I saw the ad in the paper. I have two hands. I want to help.” The second and third echoed those sentiments. Kelly, who’d never been to a meeting like this before, became frightened.

“I was with a woman I had just met at school and she had seen the ad in the paper and asked if I wanted to join her,” she recalled. “I barely knew her, but I said yes I would go because I had one night open during the week. And then finally, I thought this is a religious cult. And when she said, ‘I have two hands, I want to help,’ I thought, ‘Oh no! She’s one of them!’

“I was the last person to speak, and I thought, ‘What am I going to say now? What happens if you don’t say the company-speak?’ All I could say was, ‘My name is Jean Kelly. I didn’t see the ad in the paper. I have two hands, but I can’t help because I work.’

“They all looked at me like, ‘Who let her in?’” she explained.

Moran turned and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find something for you.”

He then asked Kelly to be the “temporary” volunteer committee chairperson.

“I thought: ‘That’s how they do it,’” Kelly told the Press in her office in Hempstead, a sign spelling “BELIEVE” on the wall behind her. “They put you in for just a tiny bit and wait for the real one. Well, it’s 34 years later and I’m still waiting for the real person to show up.”

The INN began with a simple premise that they keep to this day: to feed the hungry, no questions asked. Due to this policy, Kelly can’t tell you exactly whom they serve. This also restricts the nonprofit’s eligibility for many government grants requiring demographic information. Consequently, The INN relies on private donations and annual fundraisers to pay for their soup kitchens, three emergency housing shelters, administration building, and latest addition, the aforementioned Center of Transformative Change.

The INN owns all of the 21 buildings in their organization; none are subsidized by government money. More than 2,000 people volunteer in the organization. They’ve come a long way from raising funds by collecting change inside empty tennis ball containers at area delicatessens, and their financial well-being allows the freedom to give what’s needed to whoever needs it.

This is what legitimizes them, according to Kelly.

“Someone needs this, you have to have the funds to say, ‘Give them the whole thing, and don’t worry if they’re going to rip us off,” she explained. “Yes, every day, we open up and we get ripped off. If you don’t like getting ripped off, this is not the place to come and volunteer, because you are going to see the doors open and people ripping us off.”

In its early days, The INN’s founders approached the 36 religious groups residing in Hempstead. Twenty-one of them agreed to meet, and although each agreed to help in whatever way they could, only the last church they approached offered a kitchen and dining room they could operate the original soup kitchen out of—for $400 per month rent.

Kelly asked the remaining religious groups to take turns covering each month’s rent.

They were in business.

The INN Long Island soup kitchen
The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network) has a “No Questions Asked” policy of providing food, clothing, shelter and a wide range of other helpful services to the homeless and those in need across Long Island. (Photo: Courtesy of The INN)

FACELESS, NAMELESS

The INN’s policy of “No Questions Asked” serves to remove any barrier that might prevent someone from visiting for a needed hot meal. It’s a form of respect. It’s a kindness. It’s an unconditional welcome without the fear of being judged. It’s the mark of Jean Kelly and informs the entire culture of the organization.

You won’t find any pictures of The INN’s many guests. Journalists are forbidden from interviewing them. There’ll therefore be no heart-wrenching images of the people on Long Island struggling to feed themselves, who need a place to take a hot shower, who are getting their basic needs met so they can survive another winter accompanying this story.

Likewise, because The INN does not record personal information from their guests, it’s impossible to know whether one of them is holding an order of protection from someone, or if he or she is in hiding. (A published photograph of a guest could have tragic repercussions.)

While at The INN, the guests truly are nobodies. Kelly believes the volunteers who interact with them, however, become reflections of those very people.

“If a guest looked you in the face and you looked back at them, your face is a mirror of the guest,” Kelly told the Press, gesturing to her own face. “So if you want to see what a guest looks like, this is what a guest looks like. Is that good enough for you?”

On a recent tour of The INN’s soup kitchen, its marketing and communications director, Dana Lopez, greeted many of the guests by name as they sat at tables in the kitchen awaiting the day’s meal. Along with 13 other soup kitchens on LI, The Mary Brennan INN serves a hot, five-course meal, five days per week. It’s large, served at midday, and consists of nourishing breads and proteins and carbs—a nice, hearty meal. It’s got to be. For many of the guests, it may be their one and only hot meal that day, so it must be substantial enough to fill them.

These meals’ importance is not lost on The INN’s crew, or its hungry visitors. They hold a sacred moment of silence before each.

Victor’s job as manager for the past 13 encompassed “everything,” he explained.

“What do I do? What don’t I do?” he laughed when asked about his responsibilities.

Victor has not only run the day-to-day operations of the food kitchen, including overseeing the creation of the menu, meal preparation, and ordering, he’s also managed the building itself. A prerequisite was training in conflict resolution and crisis management.

“If something goes down, Jean [Victor] is there to handle it,” explained Lopez.

The Mary Brennan INN is so much more than a soup kitchen. Besides food, they accept lots of different types of other donations as well, so besides the ability to for somebody to walk in off the street and enjoy a hot meal, The INN is also home to a guest-choice library, where guests can escape the elements or their daily struggles within the pages of a good book, or simply reflect. It’s also the only place on Long island where someone can walk in, off the street, and take a hot shower, no questions asked.

The INN even provides them with a towel, toiletries, a toothbrush and toothpaste.

And as its volunteers know all too well, there’s a thin line between being on the giving and receiving ends of The INN’s many services.

Kelly maintains that anyone can find themselves in the position of one of the guests.

“We said 34 years ago when The INN started, that anyone on this side of the counter could be on the street,” said Kelly. “And it has happened.”

She described the devastation plaguing Long Beach in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Volunteers found themselves without hot water and/or electricity, and came to The INN for showers and meals. Kelly recalled many in tears as they came to the full realization of what it felt like to be without the basics.

After Sandy, Kelly noted many of the guests never came back. The reason, she realized, was that because the Red Cross was on hand to help everyone—those who were homeless and in need both before and after Sandy—people were able to access services more easily, and without judgment.

“They rose up with everyone else because no one else knew they were a guest,” she said.

Sometimes, unprecedented disasters shed light on everyday tribulations.

On September 11, 2001, news of the terror attacks poured in across radios and telephone calls as The INN’s team struggled to prepare the day’s meal. Although there were no televisions, the tragedy unfolding that day and lasting for subsequent weeks and months was vividly embodied in the anxiousness among both volunteers and guests while awaiting calls from loved ones working in or near the World Trade Center.

Kelly recalls one guest in particular. He had asked a volunteer who was distraught with grief and shock for a toothbrush. The volunteer was incredulous. How could someone think of brushing his teeth during such a time?

The guest, Kelly remembered, answered quietly, but with conviction.

“I don’t know anyone in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon,” he’d said. “And I’m sorry. But I have a job interview. And if I don’t brush my teeth, I won’t stand a chance.”

The volunteer recovered.

“Of course,” he replied, handing over the toiletries and looking curiously at the guests who were quiet and respectful but not emotionally traumatized the way the staff was.

“We had to calm the staff down about the fact that the guests did not seem to react as if this was the end of the world,” recalled Kelly. “I said, ’Because in their life, in their world, planes fly through their buildings every day.’”

The work the staff and volunteers do can take a toll on them physically, spiritually and emotionally. Kelly hosts non-mandatory spiritual retreats for them to recharge and reflect. She shares books or information she’s acquired, and encourages everyone to go into silence for two hours each day. In addition to the retreats, Kelly has taken four, four-month-long sabbaticals throughout her career to prevent burnout.

“If you sit down with somebody and hear a horrific thing and you don’t realize you are exposing yourself to vicarious trauma, the same as if you’ve breathed in a different kind of air quality that you need and you don’t do anything as an antidote, you are going to physically at some point not be able to do it anymore,” Kelly told the Press. “It’s like asking someone to get into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson, and they don’t have any gloves on, and Tyson is going to attack them emotionally.”

The INN Long Island
The INN’s most recent initiative, its Center for Transformative Change, is a one-stop shop that helps guests navigate critical multi-tiered, multi-agency processes to get them back up on their feet. (Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)

CENTER FOR TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE

When Nancy Burke walked into The Mary Brennan INN, she felt a sense of belonging she’d never before experienced in her life.

A retired social worker, she wanted to volunteer and contribute something meaningful. Her organizational skills as well as her remarkable, immediate rapport with the guests soon made her an indispensable part of the organization. When the idea of the Center for Transformative Change (CTC) began to take root, it was obvious she was the perfect candidate to run it.

The CTC is the latest development of The INN, and marks a turning point in the organization’s philosophy. At the CTC, they are looking beyond offering help in covering basic survival needs. The Mary Brennan INN’s guests have the opportunity to make an appointment with a trained volunteer at the CTC next door, sit down with them, and try to figure out what’s next.

“Next” could mean a number of different things, such as classes to improve a guest’s English, a computer course to learn basic skills to apply for a job online, furniture, housing, an identification card, transportation, child care, or interview attire.

“What we found is that a lot of our guests are going through this cycle because they can’t find their way out of the system, and a lot of the places they have to go to are really hard to navigate,” Lopez told the Press in a phone interview. “So there are forms that are too confusing to fill out, or they don’t know where the offices are, or just don’t know, and it’s a frustrating process that ends [with] them up right back in the soup kitchen again.”

In order to break that cycle for good, Kelly introduced the CTC. Before its opening in January 2016, Kelly, Burke and some volunteers visited several service agencies on the Island in order to experience firsthand what guests face in each situation. They pretended they needed to obtain identification cards, for example, carefully taking note of how difficult the systems were to navigate—and how they were treated.

The peaked roof of the CTC recalls the church it was before Kelly purchased the building. Inside, up a flight of stairs, open cubicles take up most of the main floor space. In this Resource Center, guests can sit in semi-privacy with a trained volunteer and figure out their next steps.

Sometimes, guests just need to tell their stories to someone who will listen without judgment. Because one of the main criteria for becoming a volunteer at The INN is kindness, that need will be met with ease.

“The volunteers are trained to see where the guests are at,” explained Burke. ”We’re not on the business of prioritizing for them. We’re in the business of listening and helping the person come up with an action plan.”

Down the hallway is the computer lab. Downstairs is the boutique, where 150 to 200 guests per week acquire free clothing, interview attire, housewares and bedding. The CTC also offers enrichment programs, like healthy cooking demonstrations, flu shots, and dental screenings, chair yoga and meditation, and English classes.

The CTC brings in eight agencies to work directly with guests, including the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, Nassau County Commission on Human Rights, Fidelis Care, United Healthcare, Options for Community Living, the Women’s Bar Association, Literacy Nassau, and the Mental Health Association.

The direct service the CTC offers that is the most valuable for the homeless or those on the edge of homelessness is to get them identification cards, something necessary for applying for public assistance or employment. This is sometimes a months-long, painstaking process funded by a grant from Bethpage Federal Credit Union. Without a social security card, birth certificate, or a non-drivers ID, opportunities are severely restricted. So what may start as a request from a guest to help get a job, may entail volunteers helping to fill out online job applications, setting up an email account, helping with a resume, getting them interview attire, and role-playing job interviews. At the same time, they also work on getting guests their birth certificates.

“And what does identification mean?” asked Kelly. “It means you are somebody. This is who you are. You are somebody. And in our world, you have to show who you are, that you’re a somebody. In their world, they’re nobody. You don’t need ID if you’re a nobody. In the world of nobodies, no one needs to know who you are.”

Dave, 59, was one of the first guests to come into the Center for Transformational Change. He was the first one to take a computer class and to apply online for a job at Home Depot, which involved a confusing 140-word questionnaire the staff patiently assisted him with. He was the first to be dressed by volunteers. He was the first of almost everything, a mark of his personality.

For years, volunteers arrived at the Mary Brennan INN around 8 a.m. to find Dave sitting on the stoop, already waiting for the doors to open at 9:30. The volunteers practiced the interviews with him, and when he had his initial phone interview with Home Depot, they were in the office listening and cheering him on. After his in-person interview, he was hired. He now works about 25 hours a week. The day of his first job evaluation, he rushed right over to the CTC to show the staff.

“It was a beautiful evaluation,” recalled Burke. “We made a copy and put it on our little mini refrigerator. And the other day he got a raise!”

They have recently started a breakfast club, a “job club” that meets every Tuesday morning. Dave has become an ambassador, bringing people from the dining room over to be part of this club. He’s the example of someone who was ready.

“They may not know where they’re sleeping tonight, they may not have any plans of what they’re going to eat, and their health may be in jeopardy, everything might be going wrong, but they’re surviving,” explained Kelly.

“Why more of them don’t end their life each day, it’s a miracle,” she continued. “If you ever understood what they’re actually up against. Any tiny bit of hope is huge for them, because nobody has ever focused on them enough to do anything meaningful. That doesn’t have strings attached. Like, if you give it to them, they feel they owe you. And they can’t afford to owe you, because they have nothing to pay you back with.”

The INN Long Island Soup Kitchen
The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network) provides hot meals, clothing, shelter, and a wide range of critical services to Long Island’s homeless and poor. (Photo: Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)

HOPE ENDURES

More than 800 guests have visited the CTC for various needs in its first year. More than 700 of them have returned for follow up visits.

Although Jean Kelly cannot tell you exactly who they are serving in their soup kitchens, she can officially report that last year, they served 10,000 less people than the previous.

She’s not out of business, not yet. But she’s working on it.

“We treat people with respect,” Kelly told the Press. “People use what we give them and they get on their way and that’s what we want… You don’t have to come back and pay us back. If you can help anybody, walk that way and help people, but don’t come back to the scene of an accident, because whatever’s going on in your life was like an accident, and we need you to feel empowered.

“We can get through this,” she continued. “We can help you. And we are honored and privileged to walk you through the process, and tell other people on your way, if you meet people who need help, tell them to come. But we’re trying to go out of business so that we’re not needed.

“Everyone says, ‘You can’t go out of business.’ It even says in the Bible, ‘The poor will always be with you.’ I say, ‘Yeah, but there was an asterisk at the end of the line. The poor will always be with you, but they’re not supposed to be the same ones.'”

Featured Photo: Volunteers prepare the day’s meal for guests at The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network) in Hempstead ahead of a recent oncoming blizzard. (Photos: Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)

For more information about The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network) and its many services, including its Center for Transformative Change, how to volunteer and/or donate, visit the-inn.org.

Ward Melville High School Graduation Gown Revision & Walkout Spark Petitions & Ongoing Criticisms

Ward Melville High School graduation gowns
Ward Melville High School's decision to roll out 'unified' gender-neutral graduation gowns sparked a student walkout, online petitions, criticisms, and ignited a debate about how it accommodates its transgender students. (Photos: Ward Melville High School)

A break with tradition intended to foster unity at Ward Melville High School has instead been met with division among its students, sparking a mass demonstration, online petitions, sharp criticisms, and igniting a heated local debate about how to best accommodate its transgender students.

Approximately 100 students staged a walkout at the East Setauket school on March 1 in protest of its decision to introduce multi-colored, gender-neutral graduation gowns at its upcoming commencement ceremony this June. Traditionally, girls wear gold gowns and boys don green. The school’s new graduation gowns are universally green, with the high school’s emblem emblazoned on a gold stole.

Principal Alan Baum posted a letter addressed to parents, guardians and students on the school’s homepage the following day outlining the reasoning behind the wardrobe change, characterizing it as a move toward unity, and citing the school district’s upcoming 50th anniversary, students who may feel uncomfortable wearing colors at odds with their gender identity, and the progressive leanings of the district, school and community.

“As many of you are aware, we have made the decision to celebrate a theme of unity during our graduation ceremony,” he wrote. “This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Three Village Central School District, we are focusing on honoring the traditions of the past, while building new traditions for our future.

“In addition to creating a unified senior class, it is our hope that creating a unifying color scheme will eliminate the anxiety that is caused by forcing a young adult to wear a gown that labels them differently than how they identify,” Baum continued. “This decision also reflects the progressive nature of our district, our high school and our community. Through the use of the unified gowns, we are no longer separating our students by gender; rather, we will be promoting a more inclusive practice at graduation.”

Baum’s letter did little to quell strong sentiments on both sides of the issue, however. Students launched online petitions both in favor and against the gown revision that quickly garnered hundreds of signatories accompanied by charged comments, with new remarks added daily since their collective inception.

“For the seniors on graduation day, it is important for us to have different color gowns to walk in,” states a petition against the universal garbs started by student Max Gironda, which had attracted 1,000 new gown opponents as of March 8. “This means having the girls wear gold and the boys wear green, and if there are people that identify as a gender other than the one that they received at birth, then they should choose which color they prefer. This has been a tradition for all of the classes before us to wear their school colors one last time and this should not be changed.”

“i’m signing this because the new gowns are bullshit,” wrote one opponent.

“The idea of a one color gown for the 4 transgendered is ridiculous. The reason for changing the gowns is absurd,” complained another.

“Liberals already destroyed our School District,” slammed yet another. “This is just the icing on the cake. I support all of the kids that stand up to this moronic politically correct school board.”

“There has been a large dispute over whether the altering of Ward Melville’s traditional cap and gown color sequence is justified,” explains a contrasting petition in favor of “Same Colored Gowns” started by student Brianna LaSita and two others, which had about 700 supporters as of press time. “While some of the points are understandable, many of the comments made about this issue are truly appalling and archaic.

“Tradition, as many emphasize, is not always right,” it continues. “Allowing everyone to feel comfortable and happy on their graduation day is what is ultimately important. These colors should in no way divide us or box us in to ideas we do not agree with. We should all graduate as a united class, accepting our differences and embracing what makes us a diverse population of people in order to improve our society as a whole. And we can only do this by accepting everyone for who they are and respecting their discomforts.”

Students and others on both sides of the gown switcheroo also took to social media to vent.

David Kilmnick, CEO of nonprofit The LGBT Network, praised Ward Melville High School’s decision to introduce the gender-neutral gowns, expressing his hope during a March 3 press conference at the group’s center in Woodbury that more school districts would follow its lead in the future.

“Ward Melville High School, just like [Paul D.] Schreiber High School in Port Washington last year, is making the decision that graduation will be a safe and inclusive place for all of its students,” he said.

The LGBT Network works with 112 of Long Island’s 124 school districts to combat bullying, and helps establish and maintain gay-straight alliance programs, among other initiatives.

LGBT, and transgender youth especially, comprise the most at-risk group for suicide, mental illness, addiction, bullying, and violence due to their sexual orientation and gender identification, according to multiple national and international studies, including those from nonprofits GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) and Human Rights Campaign, and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This community faces significant challenges within the school environment, with a report titled “The 2015 National School Climate Survey” by GLSEN finding, among other revelations, that nearly six in 10 LGBTQ students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and four in 10 reported feeling unsafe at school because of how they expressed their gender.

“What we hear from many transgender youth who we work with and serve is that graduation is supposed to be a time of celebration, however, what unfortunately happen for those kids, it becomes a time of anxiety,” explained Kilmnick. “They worry that if they wear the color gown that matches their true identity will they be beaten up or harassed or called names at their graduation.

“And that’s reality,” he added. “This isn’t about political correctness.”

Kilmnick believes Ward Melville High School’s student walkout exemplifies a growing divide on Long Island, and especially within Suffolk County, between those who espouse progressive viewpoints and those who lean more conservatively. He characterized the protest and some of the reported remarks made at it as a “hate stance,” and laid the blame of its legitimization at the feet of President Trump, who issued a controversial executive order in February rescinding federal guidelines implemented under the Obama administration that, among other provisions, protected transgender students’ right to use public school bathrooms that best fit their gender identity.

“I do believe by walking out and shouting anti-transgender comments and slogans that that definitely is a hate stance that they took,” Kilmnick told reporters.

“It’s another example that people follow what our president says,” he blasted. “So when he attacks Mexicans, when he attacks immigrants, when he attacks women, or doesn’t mention Jews in the Holocaust, we’re seeing the repercussions from community to community and now school to school.

“Now is a time when we need unification more than ever,” added Kilmnick.

A request for comment for this story from parents who are members of a popular Ward Melville-related Facebook group went unanswered, as did a requests left at the school, Paul D. Schreiber High School and Island Trees High School, which also instituted gender-neutral graduation gowns.

One Ward Melville High School parent, who asked their name be left out to “play it safe” and any avert potential backlash, shared the following with the Press:

“For us, this (the drama) really wasn’t ever about any legislation, it was about privilege, it was kids annoyed they weren’t getting their way, mad they didn’t get a say and their parents supporting them instead of teaching them why it was such an important change.

“The only people who didn’t show support were the seniors (and their parents) who were ‘upset’ that they weren’t wearing the usual gown,” the parent continued. “And that really came down to two things, the girls had already taken their senior pics in the gold gowns, and, no one was told (it leaked out before admin sent a letter).

“Eventually some ugliness came out of it towards our transgender kids but I can honestly say, that if this was done at the beginning of the year, I truly don’t believe there would’ve been any issue,” added the parent. “It’s a shame because it’s certainly created a divide now but the large majority of us are so proud of the decision and welcome it with open arms.”

Featured Photo: Ward Melville High School’s decision to roll out ‘unified’ gender-neutral graduation gowns sparked a student walkout, online petitions, criticisms, and ignited a debate about how it accommodates its transgender students. (Photos: Ward Melville High School)

Jim Breuer Performs 3-Show Valentine’s Day Weekend Treat at The Paramount

jim breuer paramount huntington
Comedian Jim Breuer performs three hilarious Valentine's Day Weekend shows at The Paramount in Huntington on Feb. 11! (Photo: Jim Breuer official Facebook profile)

Valley Stream-born comedian Jim Breuer returns to Long Island on Saturday, February 11 for three hilarious back-to-back-to-back shows.

Long Islanders know Breuer from his stint as “Goat Boy” on Saturday Night Live, from his 1998 hit film Half Baked with Dave Chappelle, from his podcast, from radio interviews with Howard Stern, VHI’s That Metal Show, and for Mets fans, games just aren’t complete without Breuer’s rip-roaring video commentary.

Metal fans love Breuer, too, and follow his rock band the Loud & Rowdy, which killed it at Mulcahy’s this November.

As a live, in-person, Valentine’s Day Weekend box of comedic chocolates, if you will, this laugh god will be treating us to three—you heard that—three shows at The Paramount in Huntington on Feb. 11. The first gig in this day-long residency is at 5 p.m., and all-ages, so parents can bring their whole kid crew along, and when they grow up, can tell them that their very first show was an absolutely hysterical set by none other than Breuer himself! (This parent-to-kid talk is to be accompanied with a full-color photo of “Goat Boy,” of course.) The second and third performances of the night—at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.—will feature Breuer unleashed, wild and hysterical, in his local stomping grounds, delivering a barrage of extra-special Valentine’s Day kisses of hilarity, one joke after another.

Expect to laugh, uncontrollably—and, a lot.

Breuer will set his comedic skills on one thing he’s an expert on: being the ultimate “Marriage Warrior.” This set is perfect for couples, singles who were once part of couple or hope to be, and families. The metal-loving funnyman offers insight into the tedium of marriage, the fights that are seemingly over nothing, and the challenge of raising children. (Breuer has three teenage girls, which makes him a super-expert!) These comedic insights examine the ways in which wives choose to express themselves, versus how men often respond.

Marriage is no picnic. In fact, as Breuer explains via comedy, it can be a war, where couples can devolve into enemy combatants.

Under Breuer’s tutelage, you, too, can be a marriage warrior.

Will he read out loud from a real text message his wife of more than 20 years, Dee, sent him right before he was due to go onstage one night? Will he lay bare the intricacies of that fight and explode on can’t-stop-laughing-it’s-just-too-damn-funny tirade about how it’s not really about a toothbrush? (Seriously. A toothbrush.) In that bit, he discovers how to read between the lines (of the text) to get to the heart of what his wife (and women) really want. Will Breuer, like a true warrior, show the audience how to send love missiles over to the enemy camp, destroying their defenses?!

Breuer’s comedy has a way of getting right to the heart of everyday life, the struggles that make us human. It’s a place where we recognize ourselves, and in doing so, laugh not just at Breuer’s crazy life, but our own.

And our marriages are all better for it.

What better way to kick off Valentine’s Day weekend? There is none!

Of course, no Breuer set would be complete without his spot-on impressions of Metallica front man James Hetfield, or Goodfellas’ star Joe Pesci. Will he do Jack Nicholson? Will he screech in perfect AC/DC falsetto fashion an impression of Angus Young?

Of course he will! But there’s only really only real one way to know for sure! Check him out!

The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington. paramountny.com $19.50- $59.50. 5 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Feb. 11.

Related: Do This: Long Island Concerts & Events February 9 – 15

Rosie O’Donnell Open To Portray Trump Advisor Steve Bannon On SNL

rosie o'donnell steve bannon
Photos: WikiMediaCommons, Rosie O'Donnell at the premiere of ‘I Am Because We Are’ at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival by David Shankbone; and WikiMediaCommons, Steve Bannon by Don Irvine Photos via Flickr

Speculation abounded on social media Tuesday about whether Long Island-native Rosie O’Donnell would join the cast of Saturday Night Live to portray Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s assistant and chief strategist.

Word of O’Donnell potentially teaming up with SNL’s Alec Baldwin, another LI native, who’s been killing it with his parody of Trump, and Melissa McCarthy, who recently slayed as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, began Monday when she responded to a tweet expressing she’d be “honored” to play Bannon—formerly the executive chair of alt-right news mouthpiece Breitbart News.

“They know where to find me,” she tweeted.

On Tuesday, she clarified that such a cameo is still very much “just a funny idea.”

A longtime critic—and target—of the billionaire reality TV star-turned-president, O’Donnell would no doubt bring some genuine vitriol to her impersonation of the Trump confidante, should she be given the chance. Trump’s repeated derogatory references to the actress, lesbian rights activist and celebrity blogger during his campaign highlighted for many detractors what critics have characterized as his offensive misogyny. O’Donnell told People Magazine that her repeated attacks from Trump–in response to her assertion on The View in 2006 that “The Donald” had claimed bankruptcy—were “the most bullying I ever experienced in my life, including as a child. It was national, and it was sanctioned societally.”

Trump’s verbal attacks on O’Donnell went global during his run for the White House, with this response to a question regarding his description of women as “fat pigs,” “slobs” and “dogs” from moderator Megyn Kelly at the first Republican primary debate:

“Only Rosie O’Donnell.”

If President Trump’s prior Twitter reaction to Baldwin following one of his SNL skits is any indication of how the commander-in-chief of the free world would likely respond to O’Donnell’s impersonation of his close personal advisor, we may soon be reading 140-character tirades lambasting O’Donnell.

Team Trump was reportedly less than thrilled with McCarthy’s recent lampooning of Spicer, too—apparently since, you know, she’s a woman. The parody featured the former Republican National Committee spokesman gum-chewing, parading out another LI native, Kate McKinnon, as controversial new billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, screaming at the White House press pool, and “apologizing on behalf of you, to me.” It was a huge hit.

Regardless of whether she’d get under the president’s notoriously thin skin, O’Donnell would have big shoes to fill if she tackled Bannon, because so far on SNL the right-wing white supremacist billionaire has been portrayed as the Grim Reaper.

Despite Fierce Opposition, Trump’s Pick Betsy DeVos Confirmed As Education Secretary

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President Donald Trump’s controversial pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was confirmed Tuesday by the U.S. Senate following a historic tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

DeVos, a billionaire businesswoman and champion of charter schools and vouchers, faced stiff opposition from Democrats, public school advocates, and even some Republicans. Among their criticism, detractors cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education—having neither taught, administered, attended, nor enrolled her own children in public school. Supporters framed her lack of experience as one of her strengths, arguing the nation’s education system needed an outsider to fix it.

Local and national education advocates launched a fierce battle against her confirmation, with countless taking to social media encouraging phone calls to senators and the proliferation of a popular anti-DeVos hashtag, #DumpDeVos. Democrats staged a 24-hour #HoldTheFloor talkathon Monday evening in protest. Two GOP senators, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted against her, bringing the count to a 50-50 tie.

Ultimately, all these efforts weren’t enough to thwart DeVos’ confirmation, with Vice President Pence’s never-done-before vote—the first time in U.S. history a vice president has broken a tie for a Cabinet nominee’s Senate confirmation—securing President Trump’s nomination for education secretary. Both took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to herald her addition.

DeVos has a long history of promoting school choice through charter schools and vouchers in her home state of Michigan. Despite a billion-dollar investment of taxpayer funds in charter schools in Michigan, test scores were no higher than in public schools and in many cases, lower, according to an investigation by the Detroit Free Press.

Critics of charter schools charge that these privately run schools take much-needed public funds with little to no oversight or transparency, stripping them of much-needed money they require to sustain themselves, and resulting in school closures. This cycle of defunding public schools by diverting taxpayer money to charters, thereby closing underfunded public schools deemed “failing,” is a means to privatize the public education system, they argue.

Critics also contend that because charter school teachers are rarely unionized, the privatization strategy is a means to lessen the power of teachers unions.

“It’s like a cancer or a Trojan horse,” Mark Naison, Forham University professor and public education advocate, told the Press regarding charter schools. “These charter schools are not trying to improve the public schools, they’re trying to undermine them.”

DeVos endured a tense Senate hearing, where she demonstrated what critics believed was a significant lack of knowledge about federal laws governing special education students, showed ignorance of the difference between measuring students’ proficiency and growth, and presented a convoluted argument in support of arming teachers in case of attacks by “grizzly bears.”

Locally, DeVos faced a groundswell of opposition from major education groups, including the New York State United Teachers, the United Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as well as local groups on Long Island such as the Badass Teachers Association, New York State Allies for Public Education and Action Together Long Island.

Her opponents took to social media Tuesday to vent their displeasure, with Sen. Charles Schumer mocking Pence’s historical tie-breaker as proof of how unqualified DeVos is.

Others lamented DeVos’ ascension, and vowed to fight on.

“Today, 50 Senate Republicans and Vice President Pence have shown their disdain for our nation’s public education system,” New York education advocates Kesi Foster and Natasha Capers said in a statement to media outlets on behalf of the Urban Youth Collaborative and the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice. “Betsy DeVos’s performance during the Senate hearing and her follow-up answers have demonstrated she is wholly unqualified to head the Department of Education. DeVos has spent the last two decades using her family’s fortune to dismantle public education in Michigan by weakening accountability and oversight, elevating for-profit charter schools, and undermining efforts to foster equity for low-income communities of color.

Last month, opponents slammed NYS Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Smithtown), former chair of the state education committee, for supporting DeVos.

Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out, characterized DeVos’s confirmation as “a very dark day indeed” on Facebook.

“Anyone who watched those confirmation hearings or dipped even an inch into her background yet still supports her nomination is doing so under a delusional ego-driven political pretense and cares nothing for his young constituents in our Long Island public schools or their parents,” she’d previously told the Press.