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Scholarships to ‘smile’ about: Local athletes are Simonsen Foundation winners

Smile and do good.

That’s the fitting motto for a foundation named in memory of late New York City Police Department Det. Brian Simonsen, who went by the nickname Smiles.

Smiles weren’t in short supply earlier this month when graduated Riverhead High School seniors William Burkowsky and Chrissy Thomas, both athletes from Jamesport, were recognized for their selections as winners of Detective Brian “Smiles” Simonsen Memorial Foundation scholarships.

That was one of the biggest [scholarships] I wanted to win, and I knew it was not even because it was a scholarship, but it was a significant one and important one.

William Burkowsky

The $5,000 scholarships are named after Det. Simonsen, who was shot and killed by friendly fire while responding to a report of an armed robbery in Queens Feb. 12, 2019. Det. Simonsen, who grew up in South Jamesport and lived in Calverton, was named the Riverhead News-Review’s Person of the Year in 2019 in recognition of his heroism, sacrifice and service to others. The foundation named in his memory continues to generate smiles by doing good for others.

The foundation has raised over $100,000 in two years, according to Mike Lojko, the foundation’s vice president and treasurer. Proceeds go to scholarships, assisting with community ventures and funding bulletproof vests for K-9s. The foundation has also donated $10,000 to the New York Marine Rescue Center at Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, said Leanne Simonsen, the foundation president and Det. Simonsen’s widow.

“The outreach of everybody has been awesome,” Mr. Lojko said. “We couldn’t ask for more. Whatever we touched so far has worked out.”

Ms. Simonsen said she has been astounded by the foundation’s success. “I look at it as with so much bad news you’re going to have, there’s so much more good,” she said. “You know, people are just willing to help, and it amazes me how loved Brian was in this community.”

Ms. Thomas was a regular visitor to the Riverhead High School guidance office for a while. It wasn’t guidance she was necessarily seeking so much as the arrival of the Simonsen scholarship applications.

Sure, the money that comes with the scholarship to graduating Riverhead High School senior athletes is nice, but Ms. Thomas also understood the honor of being associated with it. The scholarship and the foundation keep Det. Simonsen’s name alive.

Ms. Thomas didn’t know Det. Simonsen personally, but she read about him. “It just pushed me to get the application even more, because this guy’s awesome,” she said. She said as part of her application she wrote an essay about what it means to be a member of a community and “what it means to give back and how great Brian portrayed that to the community, without any seeking of attention or recognition. He was just doing it out of who he was.”

Ms. Thomas left no doubt about where this honor ranked for her. “This is the top one,” she said. “It’s huge.”

A five-year varsity lacrosse player and cross-country runner for Riverhead, Ms. Thomas will play lacrosse for Maryland. She ranked 130th out of 391 students in her class and had a weighted average of 91. She was in the National Honor Society for two years, served in the Town of Riverhead’s Youth Court and coached PAL girls lacrosse.

Mr. Burkowsky, who played football and lacrosse for the Blue Waves, wants to major in biology on a pre-med track at Drexel University. He ranked 48th in his class and finished with a weighted average of 100.

“His grades are phenomenal,” said Melissa Peeker, the foundation’s secretary and events co-chair.

In addition to having been in the National Honor Society, Foreign Language Honor Society and student government, Mr. Burkowsky was also a member of both Riverhead Youth Coalition and Athletes Helping Athletes.

What was his reaction to winning the scholarship?

“Honestly, I was ecstatic,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I won. That was one of the biggest ones I wanted to win, and I knew it was not even because it was a scholarship, but it was a significant one and important one. I was so honored. I don’t even know how to describe it.”

The foundation’s first scholarship winner last year was Nick Dejewski of Jamesport.

The selection of this year’s winners was made by a handful of out-of-state judges in order to avoid potential bias. “They actually all were unanimous with their picks,” said Ms. Simonsen.

This year’s winners each received an initial $2,500 (the second $2,500 will arrive in the second semester, Ms. Peeker said) as well as bags of merchandise.

“We wanted top make them feel as special as possible because they really are stand-up kids,” Ms. Peeker said. “They’re going to do great things.”

That’s a lot to smile about.