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.

DEBBIE NIETO PHOTOGRAPHY

DEBBIE NIETO PHOTOGRAPHY

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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11/08/13 10:00am
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.

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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.

09/29/13 5:00pm
09/29/2013 5:00 PM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | New Beginnings Brendan House on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | New Beginnings Brendan House on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

Brendan House, the proposed community residence for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and need round-the-clock care, was granted town approval this week to house eight people, instead of the previously-approved four.

The New Beginnings Community Center in Medford, a nonprofit care group, is building the facility in an former farm house at 4079 Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

In April, the group received a favorable town Zoning Board of Appeals ruling that a “traumatic brain injury facility with a second residence for the ‘house parent'” is considered a permitted use in the Agricultural Protection Zone, in which the house is located.

The approval allowed the facility to house four residents.

But New Beginnings vice president Steve Scerri told the ZBA on Thursday that when the group went for the building permits for the project, employees from the building department and the county health department asked why the group was only using four bedrooms when there are other bedrooms in the house.

“They said that if we got approval from you guys, they would be fine with giving us approval for extra bedrooms,” Mr. Scerri told the ZBA on Thursday.

The aides that will work at the home will not stay overnight, he said.

The house mother will be in a separate house on the property.

With no one speaking in opposition, ZBA  members approved the request Thursday by a 4-0 vote, with one member absent.

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.

New Beginnings has been holding a number of fundraisers for the Brendan House and another one is scheduled for this Sunday, Sept. 29, at noon, at the site on Sound Avenue across from Reeve Farm.

The event is being billed as “country fair” and will feature things like pig races, duck races and food and games.

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06/24/13 8:08am

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | New Beginnings Brendan House on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

New Beginnings is seeking donations of materials and services for Brendan House, a long-term independent group home for residents with traumatic brain injuries that is slated to open on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

Building materials needed include lumber, siding, roofing, decking, paint, molding, appliances, hot water heater, septic system, plumbing and electrical supplies, and alarms. Professional services needed include contracting, roofing, painting, janitorial, cesspool, electrical, plumbing and fi re prevention as well as general assistance.

Contact Allyson or Kate at New Beginnings, (631) 286-6166, if you’d like to help.

The community residence, planned for a vacant Sound Avenue farmhouse, would house four people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and may be considered medically dependent, thus in need of around-the-clock care.

Each resident would have an aide, but the aides would work shifts and would not live in the residence themselves.

Under the plan, a barn building that is already on the property would be converted into an apartment for use by the “house master,” who would oversee the facility and serve as backup for any aides who cannot make their shift, the group said.

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

The home, which officials hope to have open in the fall, received ZBA approval in April. It is named in memory of Brendan Aykroyd, a 25-year-old Blue Point man who suffered a brain injury in a 2009 assault.

04/26/13 8:30am
04/26/2013 8:30 AM
Brendan House in Riverhead

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Brendan House is named in memory of Brendan Aykroyd, a 25-year-old Blue Point man who suffered a brain injury in a 2009 assault.

The vice president of New Beginnings Community Center of Medford had just gotten up to speak at Thursday’s Zoning Board of Appeals continuation of a hearing from two weeks ago, when ZBA chairman Fred McLaughlin told him to sit down.

Mr. McLaughlin then asked the audience, “Do we have anyone here in opposition to the Brendan House?”

When no one spoke, the ZBA then proceeded to vote on the resolution unanimously approving the proposed group home for people with traumatic brain injuries.

The community residence, planned for a vacant Sound Avenue farmhouse, would house four people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and may be considered medically dependent, thus in need of around-the-clock care.

Each resident would have an aide, but the aides would work shifts and would not live in the residence themselves.

Under the plan, a barn building that is already on the property would be converted into an apartment for use by the “house master,” who would oversee the facility and serve as backup for any aides who cannot make their shift, the group said.

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

He has been staying in a children’s hospital in upstate Valhalla for about two years since the accident because no such facility exists on Long Island.

His mother, Nancy Reyer, has been staying upstate to be near her son.

Since the Town Code has no specific category for this type of facility, the application was sent to the ZBA for an interpretation as to whether it is a permitted use in the agriculture protection zone on Sound Avenue.

“It is the determination of the ZBA that based upon existing federal, state and local statutes toward brain work as well as a litany of federal and state court decisions interpreting the same, the community residence to be known as Brendan House, as proposed, meets the definition of a single family dwelling use and the use is therefore a permitted use in the agricultural protection zone,” ZBA attorney Scott DeSimone said in reading the board’s decision.

The separate apartment for the house master is a customary and incidental accessory use to a community residence, the ruling stated.

Following the hearing two weeks ago, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said publicly that he believed the proposed home may be exempt from town zoning under a state law called the Padavan law, which usually is applied to group homes for developmentally disabled residents.

The ZBA ruling Thursday included a condition stating that if the principal use of the community residence ceases, the other building can no longer be used as an apartment.

At the meeting two weeks ago, ZBA member Leroy Barnes had asked to review the town’s entire file on the property and other ZBA members had asked for more specific information about what was being proposed in the building and what uses existed there in the past.

New Beginnings vice president Steve Scerri was unable to immediately provide that information at that meeting.

On Thursday, he thanked the ZBA for the approval.

Mr. McLaughlin said Mr. DeSimone had worked quickly to get all the information needed to make a ruling on the case this week.

Mr. Scerri told a reporter afterward that the group’s next step will be getting building permits and county health department approval.

The renovations needed for the structure should take about four months.

He is hopeful the Brendan House will be up and running by the fall.

Brendan House is named in memory of Brendan Aykroyd, a 25-year-old Blue Point man who suffered a brain injury in a 2009 assault.

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04/18/13 1:00pm
04/18/2013 1:00 PM
TIM GANNON PHOTO |  Steve Scerri, vice president of New Beginnings Community Center in Medford,  urges the Riverhead ZBA to approve the group's proposal to build a home for people with traumatic brain injuries on Sound Avenue.

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Steve Scerri, vice president of New Beginnings Community Center in Medford, urges the Riverhead ZBA to approve the group’s proposal to build a home for people with traumatic brain injuries on Sound Avenue.

Representatives of a nonprofit organization planning to open a group home in Riverhead for victims of traumatic brain injuries appeared before the town Zoning Board of Appeals last week.

New Beginnings Community Center, which is raising money to renovate a vacant Sound Avenue house that had been donated to the nonprofit, needs an interpretation from the ZBA on whether the long-term care facility is a permitted use. The town code doesn’t make any mention of such facilities.

ZBA members, rightfully, had some questions on the application, and are planning to undertake a fact-finding mission to learn more about the property, how it’s been used in the past, and whether a secondary structure on the land is suitable as a residence for a “house mother.” That person would live on-site and serve as backup to the trained aides who will be hired to care for medically dependent residents.

There is a true need for such a facility in town — and similar facilities across Long Island. One need look no further than the circumstances of Nancy Reyer of Riverhead and her son, Michael Hubbard, who suffered brain damage after a gel candle explosion in May 2011.

Since then, Michael, who needs constant care, has been living at Blythedale Children’s Hospital upstate because there are no large facilities on Long Island for medically dependent children or young adults. All large assisted living facilities in our area are only for the elderly.

So nonprofit groups such as Angela’s House — which runs three facilities for medically frail children in Suffolk — and New Beginnings of Medford have stepped in to fill the void. New Beginnings has already promised space for Michael, should the facility get up and running.

Riverhead ZBA attorney Scott DeSimone and ZBA members are not to be vilified for requesting more information and asking that the nonprofit representatives come back April 25. That’s their responsibility.

But it’s hard to imagine the board ever finding anything of substance to preclude New Beginnings from building its facility, so ZBA members should be cautioned against getting caught up in nit-picking and minutia, as government boards and attorneys are wont to do. As New Beginnings deals with the town and its local laws, fundraising efforts are underway to purchase pricey medical equipment and staff the facility, while also renovating the house. These efforts have already been slowed by Hurricane Sandy and subsequent winter storms. If potential donors come to believe the group might be having trouble with the town, and building plans stall, they might be reluctant to open their hearts and their wallets.

The ZBA and, moving forward, other town departments and officials should make it a priority to facilitate all dealings with New Beginnings — and get things moving. Every day accident victims like Michael Hubbard have to live away from loved ones is regrettable.

04/13/13 12:00pm
04/13/2013 12:00 PM
TIM GANNON PHOTO |  Steve Scerri, vice president of New Beginnings Community Center in Medford,  urges the Riverhead ZBA to approve the group's proposal to build a home for people with traumatic brain injuries on Sound Avenue.

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Steve Scerri, vice president of New Beginnings Community Center in Medford, urges the Riverhead ZBA to approve the group’s proposal to build a home for people with traumatic brain injuries on Sound Avenue.

New Beginnings Community Center’s proposal to create a home for victims of traumatic brain injuries in Riverhead needs an interpretation from the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals as to whether it is a permitted use, because town code doesn’t specifically mention that type of facility anywhere.

New Beginnings in Riverhead

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | The New Beginnings Brendan House site on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

Group respresentatives appeared before the ZBA on Thursday, and will have to appear again on April 25, as ZBA members asked for more information about what type of uses were allowed in the large colonial house on Sound Avenue, in which New Beginnings hopes to build.

New Beginnings is looking to convert the vacant house at 4079 Sound Avenue into a facility that will be named Brendon House, after Brendan Aykroyd of Blue Point, who died at the age of 25 from injuries sustained through a traumatic brain injury two years earlier.

Brendan’s parents, Sandra and Marshall Aykroyd, attended Thursday’s ZBA meeting in Riverhead Town Hall.

The group is planning to renovate the building to house four brain-injured patients, either veterans or civilians, New Beginnings vice president, Steve Scerri, explained to ZBA members. The center will be staffed with aides working around the clock to ensure the patients are fed and take their medication, although the aides will work in shifts and not actually live in the home, he said.

New Beginnings also plans to convert a separate building on the property into a home for a “house mother,” who will live in that home and will manage the facility and fill in when an aide can’t make it to work, Mr. Scerri said.

Michael Hubbard, the Riverhead youth who was badly burned by a gel candle explosion in May of 2011 and suffered brain damage after his heart stopped beating for a short time, is expected to live in Brendan House once it opens. Because there is no such facility locally, he has been staying in an upstate hospital with his mother, Nancy Reyer, by his side the whole time sine the accident.

ZBA attorney Scott DeSimone and ZBA members wanted more specifics, particularly about what was on the property before it was donated to New Beginnings, and when was the second building built, and for what purpose.

Mr. Scerri said he didn’t know when the second building was built, although he believes it was at least eight years ago.

Richard Reeve, who owns a farmstead across the street from the proposed center, was also in attendance Thursday night.

He said the second building was originally a shed that was renovated into an apartment by the previous owner about two years ago. He said the shed wasn’t there in 2004. Mr. Reeve said he believes the proposed facility is “good endeavor” but warned the New Beginnings representaties that the building is in the middle of an agricultural area — and that there will be noise.

ZBA member Leroy Barnes said he wanted to see the building department and assessment records for the property before making a decision.

The ZBA adjourned the hearing to their April 25 meeting.

Alysson Scerri, president of New Beginnings and the wife of Steve Scerri, said she got involved in New Beginnings about two years ago, when her father suffered a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle accident.

“I saw the debilitating effect it has on families,” she told the ZBA members. “When I work at the center, on a daily basis, I see a lot of parents who struggle with the thought that, if something happens to them, what happens to their loved one?”

New Beginnings Community Center provides office space specifically designated for individuals or groups committed to providing treatment to individuals with traumatic brain injuries and other similar disabilities.

Sandra Aykroyd said her son was blind-sided with a punch in 2009 that severed an artery and left him unconscious with a fractured skull.

He spent 71 days in an upstate hospital, and then continued his rehabilitation in New Beginnings when he came back home. He had been working with the group but still had seizures, never drove a car again and lost his independence.

On June 16, 2012, she said, he died suddenly.

“I can’t say enough about what New Beginnings has done for him and what is has done for us as a family and what it has done for community of survivors of traumatic brain injuries,” she told the ZBA. “It changes lives forever.”

Ms. Aykroyd said the proposed home will give its residents the sense of independence, hope and freedom they lost when they suffered their traumatic brain injuries.

“I thank you for the consideration of this project and I ask that you think about traumatic brain injuries, reach out and find out a little bit about it and look into your hearts before you make a decision,” she told the board.

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