08/01/14 12:00pm
08/01/2014 12:00 PM
Nancy Reyer and her son Michael Hubbard with 2013 'Person of the Year' award. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)

Nancy Reyer and her son Michael Hubbard with 2013 ‘Person of the Year’ award. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)

More than three years after her son was badly burned in a gel candle accident in 2011 — an accident that has left him in need of constant care for traumatic brain injuries — Nancy Reyer will be honored at a fundraising gala next month at Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center in Riverhead.

And a little more than a month after she watched him earn an honorary diploma at Riverhead High School, Ms. Reyer will be named Caretaker of the Year for her dedication and hard work caring for Michael, as well as her constant work to raise awareness for traumatic brain injury survivors and for Brendan House, a group home under development on Sound Avenue that will one day serve as Michael’s new residence.

The award will be presented to Ms. Reyer at the 6th Annual Summer Gala, a fundraiser for the traumatic brain injury nonprofit New Beginnings Community Center — the organization building Brendan House — Aug. 15.

“She’s always out there talking to businesses, promoting our fundraising,” said Allyson Scerri, founder of New Beginnings Community Center. “She’s amazing.”

But Ms. Reyer said she’s just “doing what any mother would do.” She said it’s the people and businesses across Riverhead who have supported her, Michael, and Brendan House that deserve the praise.

“It’s such an honor to come from such a loving town,” she said. “It makes me feel proud.”

Several businesses — like Riverhead Building Supply, Lowes, and Home Depot — have donated supplies and construction materials for Brendan House, which will provide 24-hour care for up to eight residents suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Costs for care would be covered by the patients’ insurance, Ms. Scerri said.

The 1,900-square-foot historic property being renovated for the project was built in the early 1900s and once served as a group home for unwed mothers. The building was given to New Beginnings in 2011, and plans for Brendan House began soon after.

As part of its renovation, a 2,500-square-foot extension was built on the rear of the structure.

The property is named after Brendan Aykroyd, a 25-year-old Blue Point resident who died in 2011 after suffering a brain injury in an assault two years earlier.

Ms. Scerri said the group hopes to open Brendan House this fall. She said that while the siding of the house is finished, the home still needs to have fire alarm systems installed and must undergo inspections.

“It was a tough winter to get through, but we’re on a bit of a roll now,” Ms. Scerri said. She said that while Brendan House has received numerous donations, the group still needs more funding to pay laborers and contractors to finish the job.

03/15/14 6:00am
03/15/2014 6:00 AM

Riverhead High School’s Crazy Sports Night last year raised more than $5,000 for the Brendan House. (Credit: Riverhead School District)

The craziness will be back in Riverhead March 21.

The Riverhead PTO Executive Council is hosting the annual Crazy Sports Night in the high school gym to raise money for the New Beginnings Brendan House. Last year’s event raised more than $5,000 for Brendan House, a facility for victims of traumatic brain injury on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (more…)

01/26/14 8:00am
01/26/2014 8:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | General contractor Roy Schweers and New Beginnings founder Allyson Scerri outside the old farmhouse on Sound Avenue being renovated for Brendan House, a long-term care facility for adults with brain trauma.

Amid huge swaths of open space, farmhouse after farmhouse dots scenic Sound Avenue. Among them, on the south side of the road across from Reeve Farm in Riverhead, sits a historic home that’s in the middle of a renovation and extension project unlike any other the North Fork’s rural corridor has ever seen.

New Beginnings, a nonprofit founded by Alysson Scerri after her father suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2007, is building a long-term medical care facility at 4079 Sound Ave. The two-story, 1,900-square-foot house was built in the early 1900s. While removing its kitchen and modernizing the existing space, Ms. Scerri and general contractor Roy Schweers are also overseeing the addition of a 2,500-square-foot rear extension to the building. They hope to have that project completed by summer.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The existing portion of the Brendan House project dates back to the early 1900s, featuring built-in cabinets and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on the first floor.

The completed structure will be called Brendan House, after Blue Point resident Brendan Aykroyd, who at 25 died after suffering a brain injury in a 2009 assault. It will be part medical facility and 100 percent home for a severely underserved group of individuals.

The building “fell into our lap,” said Ms. Scerri, explaining that the home’s former owner bequeathed it to New Beginnings in 2011. Since then, raising funds, receiving donated goods and appearing before the local zoning board have all been part and parcel of establishing the 24-hour care facility for adults, a rarity on Long Island.

Greg Ayotte, director of consumer services with the Brain Injury Association of America, said funding for such facilities is often the biggest hurdle to getting brain-injured people the care they need.

“Most folks who sustain a severe brain injury end up in a skilled nursing home, a nursing home or just at home,” he said. While nursing homes naturally have the necessary round-the-clock resources, individuals who aren’t age-appropriate for a nursing home could experience setbacks from being in the wrong environment — if they’re accepted into the facility at all.

“Especially when they’re younger, you might see a lot of behavioral problems, not just because of their injury, but because of their environment,” Mr. Ayotte said. “If you have a 40-year-old stuck with a bunch of 80-year-olds, that might create a few problems.”

Pointing to Brendan House, he said, “There is certainly a need for longer-term care community-based programs.”

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | In the back of the house the studs are up for the kitchen (left) and bedrooms at right. General contractor Roy Schweers said installing plumbing and electric will be up next.

People have responded to help make that happen.

Among others, the Riverhead Lions Club cut a check for $4,000 and plans to donate $2,000 a year in perpetuity. The family of Justin Walker — a Riverhead High School graduate who had suffered a traumatic brain injury and will likely be placed at Brendan House — donated another $2,500.

Contracting company Babe Roof donated materials and labor to put a new roof on the facility, a job Mr. Schweers estimates is worth at least $6,000 to $10,000. In addition, Revco has donated lighting and Home Depot has contributed building materials. Electrical service throughout the house will be installed with the help of the Electrical Training Center, a school for those hoping to get into the field.

Mr. Schweers — who also built New Beginnings’ 9,000-square-foot outpatient facility in Medford — has also used volunteer labor from the Suffolk County Department of Corrections, a service he initially thought would be a one-time thing.

“But they keep coming,” he said. “They even wanted to work on Christmas.”

Due to the building budget, Mr. Schweers said the newly constructed part of the facility will have a more modern feel, while the existing farmhouse will retain its older look with interior renovations. The bones of the house are strong, he said, though a new heating system will be needed to make the building livable.

In back, two smaller structures are also being converted for use. One will house a full-time caregiver while another will hold two bedrooms. In total, Brendan House will be able to accommodate 12 people.

Ms. Scerri, who described herself as “just a hairdresser” before starting New Beginnings, said the nonprofit would build more variations of Brendan House if it could, pointing to a need for long-term, 24-hour care facilities in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

“We need three more of these buildings,” she said.

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12/09/13 1:00pm
12/09/2013 1:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The main building on Sound Avenue that will become Brendan House.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The main building on Sound Avenue that will become Brendan House.

The Riverhead Lions Club is donating $4,000 to a group home for survivors of traumatic brain injury called Brendan House, which is now under-construction on Sound Avenue.

The club will present the funds to New Beginnings, the Medford nonprofit that is spearheading the project, tomorrow afternoon, said Lions club member Bobby Hartmann.

The Lions will name the living room of the building “The Lion’s Den” as a result of their donation, he said.

The Lions Club has also pledged to donate $2,000 each year “in perpetuity” to the project, to help with operating costs, Mr. Hartmann said.

Once completed, the group home will provide round-the-clock care for eight residents. The aides that will work at the home will not stay overnight, and a house mother will live in a separate house on the property.

Mr. Hartmann said New Beginnings approached the Lion’s Club at the group’s meeting last week and immediately made a strong impression.

“They left and five minutes later we made a motion [to donate the funds],” he said. “The stars lined up and it was a perfect match.”

Mr. Hartmann praised the work New Beginnings has already done, which includes rehabilitation work for those recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

“Being in our backyard and the good that they’re doing as a nonprofit, it was just there for us as a win-win for everybody,” he said.

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11/25/13 3:52pm
11/25/2013 3:52 PM
JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | Family members of Justin Walker at Friday night's fundraiser: Kristy Fink, Miranda Walker, Matthew Walker, Jeanette Fink, Kathi Gentile, Sharon Ford, Katie Gentile.

JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | Family members of Justin Walker at Friday night’s fundraiser: Kristy Fink, Miranda Walker, Matthew Walker, Jeanette Fink, Kathi Gentile, Sharon Ford, Katie Gentile.

It was supposed to be a routine trip to the gas station for 18-year-old Justin Walker.

He headed out, filled up his car and was driving back to his relatives’ home in North Carolina — where he was living at the time — when he was involved in a violent wreck that saw his car flip over several times.

In the six months since the mid-May crash, Mr. Walker’s life has been anything but routine. The Riverhead native has been confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak. His prospects at recovering from the accident were so grim, doctors told his family he could be in a vegetative state the rest of his life if he remained on ventilators.

But Mr. Walker had an ace up his sleeve. (Literally. He has a tattoo on his right wrist of playing cards.)

Exactly 81 days later, Mr. Walker awoke from his coma, first wiggling a toe, and now, moving half his body. While the traumatic brain injuries suffered in the crash have taken the aspiring rap artist’s ability to speak, and even the ability to swallow, he can communicate via sign language and write on a board with his right hand.

He’s also got the support of the community.



On Friday night, over 250 members of the community attended a fundraiser to benefit Justin Walker’s Foundation of Hope, Inc., an organization that was created to aid Mr. Walker and his family. The event was held in a hall at St. John the Baptist Church in Wading River.

The group’s founders are also seeking to help others facing similar setbacks.

“It started as a foundation to help with the medical bills and help Jeanette (Mr. Walker’s mother) as well,” said Kristy Fink, Mr. Walker’s aunt. “But on the flip side of it, there are other families in the same position.

“We want to make it that big, big enough to help other people.”

Mr. Walker’s mother, a single mother of two other kids, since took leave from her job at the Suffolk County clerk’s office to stand by her oldest child. While physical recovery remains a large hurdle, Ms. Fink said that having the teenager’s mother at his side has helped him, more than anything else, come back from the brink of death.

“Without her by his side, he wouldn’t be where he is now,” she told the crowd on Friday.

Mr. Walker is living at the Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Smithtown. Ms. Fink said finding a space for him on Long Island was a challenge. His family is hoping to place him at Brendan House, a home for those who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries that’s in the process of being constructed on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

Finding a place for the young man is not an uncommon challenge, said Erin Weaver, director of family services for the Brain Injury Association of New York State.

COURTESY PHOTO | Justin Walker and his mom, Jeneatte Fink.

COURTESY PHOTO | Justin Walker and his mom, Jeneatte Fink.

Ms. Weaver said that up until the 1970s or 1980s, technology wasn’t often available to keep victims of severe brain injuries alive.

While the technology has become available, services are still catching up to provide care for victims. And the care is in high demand. According to the Centers for Disease Control, on average, 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries occur each year in the U.S.

Locally, construction of The Brendan House on Sound Avenue is one manifestation of responding to that demand for care.

Allyson Scerri, founder of the nonprofit responsible for bringing the project to life – Medford-based New Beginnings – said “could fill six of those houses,” had she the means.

While money for more such projects as Brendan House isn’t quite within reach, support for the cause Friday night was evident in the donated gift baskets, which were up for lottery, and other items that helped raise money.

Just under 100 items were raffled, from wine baskets to synthetic oil to defensive driving courses. Breads and pies, paintings, T-shirts, even bracelets made by Mr. Walker’s younger brother were on sale, all to benefit Justin Walker’s Foundation of Hope. The event raised about $7,000, and Mr. Walker’s grandparents, Ruth and Douglas Harris, raised another $1,700 for the event. With the proceeds, the foundation will be donating $2,500 to New Beginnings to benefit Brendan House construction.

Trisha Burton, who organized a similar fundraiser for Michael Hubbard – another Riverhead teenager who, over two years ago, fell victim to a traumatic brain injury – helped put the event together.

She was hoping for about $10,000 in donations.

“We all gotta help one another,” said Nancy Reyer, Mr. Hubbard’s mother, who was also in attendance.

Mr. Walker’s grandmother, Kathi Gentile, said she’s been teaching him sign language — a skill nobody in the family knew before these past few months.

Among the words and phrases she’s teaching her grandson, are the two she says are the most important for his recovery: “I believe,” and “Hope.'”

JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | Justin Walker's younger brother, Matthew, made bracelets to raise funds for the Justin Walker Foundation for Hope.

JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | Justin Walker’s younger brother, Matthew, made bracelets to raise funds for the Justin Walker Foundation for Hope.

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11/21/13 3:00pm
11/21/2013 3:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Michael Hubbard (left) hangs out with classmates in the Riverhead High School Interact Club Wednesday afternoon.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Michael Hubbard (left) hangs out with classmates in the Riverhead High School Interact Club Wednesday afternoon.

For the first time in two years, Michael Hubbard will be spending Thanksgiving at home, surrounded by family and a feast.

The Riverhead teen is still recovering from a gel candle explosion in May 2011 that severely burned him and lead to cardiac arrest and brain damage. Michael had been in rehab at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Westchester County since the accident.

But since returning to Peconic Bay Medical Center Health’s Skilled Nursing Facility this spring, Michael has been steadily improving, his mother, Nancy Reyer, said. He’s gone through a growth spurt and has gained weight thanks to a new diet.

Being back home — surrounded by medical and emotional support — has given him a noticeable boost, she said.

“He looks better,” Ms. Reyer said. “He has that little look to his face … He seems to be doing really well.”

Michael — who turned 17 in August — will leave the nursing facility next week to spend Thanksgiving with family, after a worker at PBMC offered to help, Ms. Reyer said.

“Coming to Peconic Bay Medical is nothing but a godsend,” she said.

Michael was also visited Wednesday afternoon by members of the Riverhead High School Interact Club, who decorated the common room at the Skilled Nursing Facility.

“You can’t teach compassion. You kind of have to show it,” said Allison Pressler, a parent of an Interact Club member and friend of Ms. Reyer who chaperoned the trip. “I was really proud.”

The students put up turkey decorations and spent time with Michael, who smiled and laughed, Ms. Reyer said. The Interact Club — which is affiliated with the Riverhead Rotary — also made Michael an honorary member.

The club plans to come back every month to redecorate the room and spend time with their classmate, who will graduate this spring from Riverhead High School with an honorary diploma.

Ms. Reyer said returning home has been a “reality check” as the family grapples with Michael’s ongoing medical care. But efforts like the Interact Club’s, fundraising efforts to build a full-time home at Brendan House on Sound Avenue – where he is expected to live – and the level of care he gets from nurses at the center eases her mind.

“[It’s] the greatest comfort knowing that everyone here loves him,” she said.

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11/08/13 10:00am
11/08/2013 10:00 AM

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.

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10/14/13 6:21pm
10/14/2013 6:21 PM
NEW BEGINNINGS COURTESY PHOTO | Volunteers helping frame the first floor of New Beginning Brendan House on Sound Avenue.

NEW BEGINNINGS COURTESY PHOTO | Volunteers helping frame the first floor of New Beginning Brendan House on Sound Avenue.

Work has officially begun on the long anticipated New Beginnings Brendan House, but to get the home finished the non-profit foundation is in need of volunteers.

“We’re very exited. The more people the better. We want to keep the project moving,” said Allyson Scerri, founder of The New Beginnings Community Center in Medford. “We’ve been going full force, really, for the past month.”

She and husband Steve are looking for volunteers to help with the project, which will serve as a home for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and need round-the-clock care.

They are looking for framers, electricians and plumbers, as well as cleanup crews and people to donate or help prepare lunches.

“Even guys that are willing to learn, it’s a great way for them to learn fast from professional guys,” she said

Volunteers will be needed every Saturday and Sunday, Ms. Scerri said. Those that need to perform community service can also take part, and letters outlining their service will be given, she said.

“It seems like for most people, the time they do have is on the weekends,” she said. “If we have enough volunteers we will work during the week as well.”

They have hired Roy Schweers of Schweers Construction to work as the project manager. He helped build the non-profits Medford site, she said.

“We call him the builder of dreams, and he’ll donate a day here and there too,” she said.

This Sunday three volunteers helped frame the first story of the home, Ms. Scerri said.

“We want to get the word out. There are so many good people that want to get this done for the community,” she said.

At the same time, the non-profit is still trying to raise the funds needed to complete the home, so the more volunteers the better, she said.

“Funding is difficult. We’re just going off fundraisers and the lumber bill alone is like $30,000 so the money is going fast,” she said. “I am trying to think of other fundraisers we could do.”

Those interested in volunteering should reach Steve Scerri (516) 356-5642.

Michael Hubbard, a Riverhead teenager who suffered severe brain damage in the aftermath of being badly burned by an exploding gel candle in his backyard in May, 2011, is expected to be one of the residents of Brendan House.