Jail inmates are helping to build Brendan House

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11/08/2013 10:00 AM |
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO |

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Several Suffolk County jail inmates are renovating Brendan House in Riverhead. The group first started working on the Sound Avenue project Wednesday afternoon.

Up until last March, Michael McNemar had a computer business and did various construction projects on the side. That experience may have seemed like a distant memory when Mr. McNemar, 42, landed in jail.

But thanks to a partnership between the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and New Beginnings — a Medford nonprofit group — Mr. McNemar and other inmates with skilled labor backgrounds have been given the chance to assist with helping to build a home for the disabled.

On Wednesday, Mr. McNemar was one of the inmates working on a construction project at Brendan House in Riverhead, which is owned by New Beginnings. Several inmates were using their construction and carpentry skills to build a frame for an extension to the house.

“We’re good people at heart,” Mr. McNemar said. “Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. We’re able to take this and turn it around for a very good thing.”

With saws and tape measures in hand, Mr. McNemar and Tyler Schiffelbian, 29, said they were happy to volunteer because they believe it gives them an opportunity to turn their negative situation into a positive experience.

“We’re all skilled labours and we’re putting that to good use for the community,” Mr. McNemar said.

Mr. Schiffelbian said he’s volunteering because he believes it’s an opportunity to repay his debt to society while supporting a noble cause, a situation he finds is better than sitting in a jail cell.

“In my personal life, I don’t enjoy work this much,” he said as he placed a slab of wood on a work bench. “Everybody here has something to put into it. I learn something new every day.”

New Beginnings president Allyson Scerri said she’s grateful the county inmates will be helping out on a weekly basis. She said there are two paid staff workers overseeing the project. The rest are volunteers.

“It feels like a lot of pressure has been lifted,” she said. “Having all of this manpower helps.”

Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said the inmates volunteering in the program are skilled laborers. Under his tenure since 2006, Mr. DeMarco said he’s expanded the program because he believes it’s a “win-win” for inmates to work on vocational skills while helping nonprofit causes.

In February, he attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Right Path Home, a new program that provides housing for men ages 17-21 who are released from the Suffolk County Department of Corrections. Inmates also helped build the facility.

As for the Brendan House project, Ms. Scerri said her group is still seeking additional support for 25 windows, siding and roofing. She’s also planning a holiday-themed fundraiser Dec. 5 at Martha Clara in Riverhead to help raise funds for the project.

Ideally, Ms. Scerri said she hopes the house is move-in ready by March, which is also brain injury awareness month.

Michael Hubbard, a 17-year-old who suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body in 2011 after being burned by a gel candle that exploded in his backyard, is one of 10 people that plan to move into Brendan House. The local community has been rallying support for him and his family since the accident.

His mother, Nancy Reyer, organized the area’s first-ever human bowling ball event sponsored by Skydive Long Island and All-Star bowling to benefits Brendan House. Ms. Reyer said she plans to skydive for the first time on Michael’s 18th birthday, Aug. 16, to raise additional funds.

Mr. McNemar said he’s glad to be a part of the project because he finds the end result will be very rewarding.

“We’ll be able to drive by this place a few months from now and, knowing that we worked on it, feel good that we were able to help out for a good cause,” he said.

jennifer@timesreview.com