From obstacle courses to cooking classes to horseback riding, several Long Island groups offer extracurricular activities that help children on the autism spectrum feel more at ease while they’re having fun.
The activities may provide higher staff ratios or have directions and processes broken down into parts to help out participants, organizers say, and the age range goes from toddlers all the way into the teen years.
Here are some places that offer fun recreational options geared toward kids with special needs:
Cecelia Cernilli, 6, from Rockaway, participates in a sensory activity with her dad Matt Cernilli at Actions Speak yoga class at Positions Dance Studio in Babylon on Jan. 8. Credit: Morgan Campbell
A speech language pathologist and an occupational therapist run three activities for children of different ages. Yes I Can is an obstacle-course challenge for children ages 5 to 8; it’s a class of eight to 10 children with a lot of structure, consistency and routine, says Lauren Vaughan, an occupational therapist.
Yoga and You is a preschool option during which children learn emotional regulation; siblings who are not on the spectrum are welcome to attend as well. Tiny Titans is for ages 18 months to 3 years who need work on language development skills and calming strategies even though they might not yet have an official diagnosis of autism, says Frieda Shmuel-Markowitz, the speech language pathologist.
Classes are held at Positions Dance Studio, 264 Deer Park Ave., Babylon, on Sunday mornings or New York Dancers Studio, 388 Merrick Ave., East Meadow, on Thursday evenings. A full six-week series is $185 and includes a 20-minute Zoom consultation with the parents prior to the course; a three-week series is $100 and individual classes are $40. For more information or to register, call 516-305-7227 or visit actionsspeakkids.com.
The Family Center for Autism, 1517 Franklin Ave., Garden City
At The Family Center for Autism, children, tweens and teens can participate in programs including yoga, Zumba, music, cooking classes and more, says Tina Moreno, director of development. The center particularly has focused on the needs of high school students ages 14 to 18, Moreno says.
“We felt that was the black hole, they just fell through the cracks. They weren’t getting invited to parties, they weren’t going to hang out on a Friday night,” she says.
The center’s weekly Friday Night Social Scene from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. is a very popular offering, during which participants do arts and crafts, play video games and make friends, says Lonnell Harrington, assistant director. For more information and pricing, which varies, call 516-355-9400 or visit familycenterforautism.com.
Participants study a different artist every week at during the Spirit of Huntington Arts Center’s drop-in ArtABILITY classes for ages 5 to 17, which include a slideshow of the artists’ art, perhaps a video clip of the artist working, and an art project in the style of the artist, says Michael Kitakis, executive director. All of the students’ creations may be included at a periodic art exhibit, he says.
Classes are in person from 10:30 to noon on Saturdays; a virtual option allows students to take the class at 12:30 p.m. Saturdays, with boxes of material sent to their homes in advance. Classes are $75 each.
The center also offers a six-week series of clay classes during which students make cups, bowls, decorations and more, with advanced students about to use pottery wheels; cost is $250 plus a $40 fee for the clay. A Clay Partners class at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays allows ages 5 and older to collaborate on projects with a parent for the same fee that includes both participants. For more information, call 631-470-9620 or visit spiritofhuntington.com.
HorseAbility, on the campus of SUNY Old Westbury, 223 Storehill Rd.
HorseAbility’s adaptive riding program offers group or private lessons adapted to the needs of the individual. Lessons are 30 or 45 minutes and are geared to offering physical, mental and social rewards, including interacting with the animals and the volunteers, says Katie McGowan, founder and executive director. For ages 4 and older. Cost is $55 per group lesson and $90 per private lesson, but lessons are offered as a series. For more information, call 516-333-6151 or visit horseability.org.
Long Island Children’s Museum, 11 Davis Ave., Garden City
Once a month, the Long Island Children’s Museum opens after hours for families with children on the spectrum or with other special needs; admission is free for the whole family once families preregister on the museum website, says Maureen Mangan, director of communications. During Friendly Hours the museum lighting and sound is reduced. The next session is from 6 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 24. For more information, call 516-224-5800 or visit licm.org.
These programs are designed for family members of children with special needs:
GASAK — Grandparent Advocates Supporting Autistic Kids, The North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, 80 North Service Rd., Manhasset
The North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center offers a free monthly support group for grandparents who have grandchildren on the spectrum; it meets in person or on Zoom at 10:30 a.m. on the last Thursday of every month. “The grandparents … help each other, give each other ideas and suggestions. It’s a place they can share their fears and their little victories,” says facilitator Sue Cohen. Their friends who have typical grandchildren might not understand what a big deal it is when they express pride in their grandchildren’s accomplishments, Cohen says. For information, call 516-484-3174 ext. 402 or visit northshorechildguidance.org.
Sibshops siblings support group, Sensory Beans, 3309 Merrick Rd., Wantagh
Children ages 5 to 9 who have siblings with special needs can share their experiences — both good and challenging — with other kids who can relate during the monthly Sibshops gathering. Meetings include play, pizza and a drink and cost $30 per child. For more information, call 516-308-1462 or visit sensorybeans.org.
Nonprofits on Long Island say they are offering affordable mental health therapy for teens and young children — without long waiting lists — as the region faces a shortage of psychologists serving those age groups.
Many families in Nassau and Suffolk counties have grown frustrated trying to find private therapists, who often don’t take insurance and have waiting lists months long — or no available appointments at all.
The nonprofits are encouraging parents to contact them at a time when depression, anxiety and suicide rates among young people are rising due to a confluence of factors including isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and heavy social media use.
“We turn no one away for any inability to pay,” she said. “We are grassroots, and we are committed to equity in mental health regardless of what your ZIP code is, what your bank account looks like. Everyone deserves to have access to care.”
The agency has 50 therapists on staff, along with other workers and a department that deals solely with insurance companies, she said.
Nonprofits such as North Shore said they can help fill a gap as families struggle to find therapists for their children. Some parents are taking their kids to private therapist appointments during school hours — the only time slots available — while others are getting saddled with thousands of dollars in bills because their therapists don’t take insurance, experts said.
Meanwhile, the number of people between the ages of 12 and 17 nationwide who experienced at least one major depressive episode increased by 306,000, or 1.4%, year-over-year, according to an October 2021 report from the Mental Health America nonprofit. At the same time, nearly 61% of New York youths with major depressive episodes did not receive treatment, the report said.
Finding trusted therapists
Adrienne LoPresti, executive director of YES Community Counseling Center in Massapequa, said her nonprofit also generally has capacity to provide therapists for young people in a timely manner.
“There is a comprehensive system of care for youth and families, which includes YES, that provides affordable services regardless of income and health insurance status,” LoPresti said. “Unfortunately, many community members are unaware of these networks and resources.”
LoPresti cautioned that families should make sure they connect with reputable agencies, since there is a proliferation of people offering “telehealth” appointments who are not always qualified.
“It’s important to find access to a vetted mental health provider you trust in your community,” she said. Local schools, ones that have their own psychologists and social workers, can help identify reputable therapists, she added.
While telehealth services offer some advantages, “it is often the financial gains rather than quality care” that is the priority, she said. In-person counseling is generally more effective than on-screen, she added.
Besides YES and North Shore, agencies families can contact to help find a community-based therapist include the Nassau County Helpline, at 516-227-TALK (or 8255), and the Long Island Crisis Center‘s 24/7 hotline, at 516-679-1111, LoPresti and Rivera said.
Some agencies are seeking to adapt to Long Island’s increasingly diverse population.
North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center has intake staff who speak fluent Spanish and other staff members who can translate Creole and Arabic, Rivera said.
Another agency, the Hispanic Counseling Center, with offices in Hempstead and Bay Shore, focuses on Latino children, youth and adults. Its Mental Health Clinic offers bilingual and bicultural mental health counseling, and refuses services to no one, CEO Claudia Boyle said.
In response to the growing demand, the group is boosting its efforts to hire more therapists, she said.
In Suffolk County, the nonprofit Rise Life Services in Riverhead opened a mental health clinic in November 2021 that includes treatment for children after it saw a growing demand for therapists for that age group, said Tracey Anderson, operations director of clinical services and behavioral health.
Their anticipation of “a high demand for mental health services for youth was certainly on point,” she said. “The demand is even higher than we expected. “
The nonprofit Family Service League, which works throughout Suffolk County, has seen the need for more therapists first hand and through its DASH hotline helps families connect with them, said Kathy Rosenthal, senior vice president at the group.
“We are finding youth with higher rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges, and, tragically, an increase in young people attempting and dying by suicide, she said.
The number of teenage suicides her group responded to in Suffolk tripled between 2020 and 2021, going from four to 12, she said.
Groups representing private therapists said families should not give up on seeking their help. The Suffolk County Psychological Association‘s website allows families to plug in their hometowns, insurance and other information to try to match them with a therapist, said Ann Eckardt Erlanger, past president of the group. The Nassau County Psychological Association has a similar website mechanism.
Rivera also said families should keep trying to get their children help, despite the obstacles.
“There is hope and an opportunity for healing,” she said.
WHAT TO KNOW
Families in Nassau and Suffolk say they have become frustrated while seeking private therapists who often won’t take insurance and have wait-lists or no available appointments.
Long Island nonprofits say they offer affordable mental health therapy for teens and young children — without long wait-lists.
The nonprofits are encouraging parents to contact them at a time when depression, anxiety and suicide rates among young people have climbed because of the pandemic and heavy social media use.
Thank you for highlighting the crisis in access to mental health services among our youth as rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking are at all-time highs in your cover story of December 27, 2022.
While the pandemic has exacerbated the struggles of children and teens, the difficulty in finding timely and affordable quality mental health care isn’t new. In 2017, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center conducted extensive research, spotlighted in our Project Access report, shining a light on the longstanding problem and advocating for strategies to effect change.
Throughout our 70-year history, we have been providing mental health services to the children and families of Nassau County within just days of receiving their call, and no one is ever turned away for inability to pay. Kids in crisis can’t wait weeks or months for help.
North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center
Roslyn Heights, NY
Published in Newsday, September 12, 2022, Guest Essay By Kathy Rivera
I’ve been a social worker my entire adult life. I grew up in a household and a culture where talking about mental health was not allowed and mental wellbeing was not acknowledged or supported. The stigma was strong, but it only made me more determined to shed light on these issues and let people know it is perfectly normal to seek help.
But five years ago, when my then-15-year-old son came to me and said, “I don’t want to live anymore,” I was in total shock.
Not only was he having suicidal thoughts, he had also begun to formulate a plan—a prime indicator that the danger was real and imminent.
I felt overwhelmed because my child was hurting, and I also felt a deep sense of shame. How did I not see this coming? I had all the clinical knowledge to recognize the signs. It’s not that I didn’t know he had challenges. I just hadn’t realized it had reached a crisis point.
My family’s story is all too common, especially as young people struggle with the trauma caused by the pandemic. Children, teens and young adults have experienced the losses surrounding COVID-19 in deep and potentially long-lasting ways. Studies have reported sharp increases in rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide attempts.
Trauma in children and teens is at an all-time high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a third of high school students said they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic; 44% reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.” One in five considered suicide; nearly 10% attempted it.
But the youth mental health crisis pre-dates the pandemic. In 2018, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among 10-to-24-year-olds, an increase of nearly 60% from 2007. Moreover, suicide rates among 10-to-12-year-olds increased nearly fivefold from 2010 to 2020.
Studies suggest that social media use and cyberbullying in particular contribute to depression, low self-esteem and other mental health issues that influence suicidal behavior, especially in girls. Tragic events such as mass shootings in schools have led to unprecedented levels of anxiety among youth. A lack of timely, affordable mental health care, economic struggles, and the epidemic of drug use also likely play a role.
While the picture seems bleak, there is a lot you can do to keep your child safe. Watch out for common warning signs of suicide, including withdrawing from friends and family, mood swings, engaging in risky or self-destructive behavior, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, increased use of drugs or alcohol, giving away possessions, posting suicidal thoughts on social media, and talking about death and not being around anymore.
We are lucky our son chose to tell us he was suicidal. We immediately sought professional help, and today, though he is not without struggles, he strives to maintain a balance with his mental wellness every day. We keep the lines of communication open, and assure him that we are there for him.
Ask your kids how they are feeling on a regular basis, even if they seem fine. Ask directly if they are having thoughts of suicide. Talking about suicide doesn’t make it more likely that they’ll consider the idea. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Make talking about mental health the same as talking about any illness. We must all play a role in breaking the stigma and helping other children who may be hurting. Compassionate communication can save a life.
This guest essay reflects the views of Kathy Rivera, Executive Director and CEO of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights.
Kathy Rivera, Executive Director/CEO of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center
A Nassau County nonprofit has received a $3.9 million state grant to help underserved women at high risk of maternal mortality in eight Nassau County communities, officials said Thursday.
The five-year grant awarded to the Long Island Federally Qualified Health Center will fund programming for women in Elmont, Freeport, Glen Cove, Hempstead, Long Beach, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury — areas with significant populations of at-risk women.
Statistics show African-American women are five times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, said David Nemiroff, president of Long Island FQHC, one of 26 organizations across the state to receive the Perinatal and Infant Community Health Collaborative grant from the state Health Department.
Nemiroff said Long Island FQHC, which has 10 facilities to help low-income, underinsured and uninsured residents, will partner with community groups such as the Women’s Diversity Network and other health care providers in an effort to reach women, educate them about healthy lifestyles and provide better access to health care.
The assistance will continue for at least two years after the woman has given birth.
“We’re excited to finally be able to focus and make a dent in these health care disparities,” Nemiroff said at a news conference with community leaders outside the LI FQHC facility in Roosevelt.
Dr. Tarika James, chief medical officer at Long Island FQHC, said many of the conditions women deal with are treatable and preventable if detected early, such as hemorrhaging in the days after delivery.
“We have to educate providers and clinicians to look for those signs more early in the pregnancy and we have to educate patients about what to look for and what to observe about themselves in order to get the help they need in a more timely way,” James said.
In 2018, 51.2% of women who died of pregnancy-related causes in New York were Black, non-Hispanic, even though only 14.3% of births statewide were to Black women, according to state Health Department data.
Experts have said some of the reasons for this disparity include discrimination, health care providers not paying attention to the concerns of their patients, lack of follow-up care and inadequate patient education about potential complications.
As part of the new program in Nassau County, community health workers will be hired and conduct outreach to find women and assist them with a variety of services, such as access to healthy foods, educating them about the importance of avoiding tobacco, alcohol and drugs, and following up on medical appointments.
James said women also will learn how to advocate for themselves and speak up to doctors if they feel something is wrong.
Martine Hackett, director of public health programs at Hofstra University and co-founder of Birth Justice Warriors, which works to reduce maternal and infant mortality numbers, said some people are surprised to learn Nassau County, viewed as a wealthy suburb, has a serious problem with maternal and infant mortality.
But she pointed out the county is separated and segregated into areas with a lot of resources and residents in good health and others with few resources and residents in poor health.
“Where we live has a strong influence on our health,” Hackett said. “And this is especially true for the most vulnerable in any society — pregnant women and infants.”
The Suffolk County Health Department also received a Perinatal and Infant Community Health Collaboratives grant, to continue services in Babylon and Islip townships and expand into Brookhaven and Riverhead townships this summer.
Photo: David Nemiroff, president of Long Island FQHC, is joined by area health care leaders in Roosevelt on Thursday. Nemiroff said the nonprofit will partner with community groups and other health care providers in an effort to reach women, educate them about healthy lifestyles and provide better access to health care. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca
Jennifer Rush of Huntington has been hired as associate director of the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights. She was vice president of residential and clinical services at Berkshire County Arc in Pittsfield, MA.
That may be the first reaction of school-aged children when they hear about Tuesday’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas that left 21 people dead. “Most children want to know, ‘Am I going to be OK? Are you going to be OK? Is this going to happen to me?’,” said Mary Pulido, executive director of the Manhattan-based New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Long Island social workers and psychologists offered advice for parents:
See what your child knows. Ask if they’ve heard any news that they want to talk about, and if so, what they heard, advised Kathleen Rivera, executive director and CEO of North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, with offices in Roslyn, Manhasset and Westbury. “Let the child use their own words to tell their own story. Sometimes you need to know what you’re working with before you can take proper action,” she said. Correct misinformation and talk to them in ways appropriate for their age.
If you think they haven’t heard about the shooting, you may wonder whether you should bring it up. While you know your child better than anyone, experts generally suggest introducing the topic. With cellphones and TV ubiquitous, chances are if they don’t hear about it from you, they will hear about it from someone else when you aren’t there to help them manage their reaction, Rivera said. You don’t need to be detailed, experts said. Kids understand the concept of good and evil.
Emphasize that many people work every day to keep them safe. Tell them, “Days, months, and years have gone by when you are OK and adults have protected you,” said Don Sinkfield, vice president of The New Hope Mental Health Counseling Services in Valley Stream. Outline in concrete terms that it’s your job to protect them, and that many people — from the President of the United States to their local police department to their individual teachers — are protecting them as well, experts said. “You can’t promise them something that is false — ‘it will never happen again,’” Rivera said. But remind them that their school has plans for how to keep them safe; you could review those plans, but don’t contradict the school’s protocol, experts said.
Don’t have the conversation at night. A lot of parents connect with their children at bedtime. That may not the best time to broach the topic, said Laurie Zelinger, a child psychologist in private practice in Cedarhurst who spent 19 years as an elementary school psychologist in the Oceanside School District. “If you have a child who is particularly anxious or sensitive, have the conversation early in the day,” she advised. Give them a chance to absorb the information and ask questions.
Keep children away from constant news. “Please turn off the TV, stop the social media apps,” Rivera said. “Stay present with your child.”
Be conscious of your own reaction and how you are expressing it. “It can have a trickle-down effect,” Rivera said. This shooting happened on the heels of the mass shooting in a supermarket in Buffalo, so adults are feeling vulnerable as well. “We didn’t have a chance to recalibrate,” she said.
If your child is afraid to go to school and really needs a day to stay home for a day, that may be OK. “Right after a tragic event, kids can have acute stress. You want to be able to help kids resurrect a feeling of safety, and they will feel safer at home,” said Zelinger, who is also the author of the children’s book, “Please Explain Anxiety to Me” (Loving Healing Press, 2014).
This is not a “one and done” conversation. “As a parent, you have to do a temperature check on your child,” Rivera said. They might be OK today, but not tomorrow. Parents should look to community resources, she said. “We are a phone call away.”
Ashley Rivas had to grow up fast during the pandemic.
At age 15 in early April 2020, she shielded her 8-year-old sister from the details of their mother’s hospitalization due to COVID-19, a newly known virus that also had forced schools to close statewide.
When their mother was in the hospital, the teen helped her father sanitize the house and washed clothes for the family. She also took on the role of caretaker for her sister, helping her with homework in between their online classes. After her mother was released from the hospital two weeks later, she brought her food and cared for her while she was recovering.
“I was trying to keep my house together with my mom being sick and trying to be the next her,” Rivas, a Hempstead High School senior, recalled.
Rivas, now 17, is expected to be among about 35,000 Long Island students graduating in June, representing a milestone for a class that has weathered two years of pandemic learning. The students Newsday spoke to said they matured faster during the pandemic, when they had to take care of family members sickened with the coronavirus, and became more disciplined because of their virtual and, later on, hybrid schedules.
Some seniors said they have gotten back to normal since the school mask mandate ended on March 2. They look forward to resumed field trips, get-togethers with friends, the prom, graduation and adulthood. Others noted school is still not the same amid the uncertainty, lamenting lost opportunities to grow friendships, along with the missed basketball games and concert rehearsals that could not to be rescheduled.
Dena Papadopoulos, a mental health counselor at Roslyn Heights-based North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, said this senior year has been marked by amplified excitement, but also anxiety.
“There is that … general anticipatory anxiety that ‘I’m excited for college’ or ‘I’m excited about the next step,’ but ‘I’m also anxious because I don’t know exactly what to expect’ ” in any given senior year, she said. Now, “It’s more intensified.”
‘Stronger than I thought I could be’
In the spring months of 2020, Rivas was struggling.
“The teachers didn’t really know how to work with Zoom; my mom was in the hospital, I think. And then it was also around my birthday,” she recalled. “Everything was just falling apart.”
Because school was virtual and New Yorkers were urged to stay at home, Rivas found herself with a lot of alone time.
One day when scrolling TikTok, she saw people crochet. She had never done it before but decided to give it a try. She bought some yarn and watched tutorials online. Soon enough, she made a bee plush and put it on Etsy. It sold the next day. She sold about 20 more later.
Rivas always has been interested in business. When she was a first-grader, she sold purses made out of duct tape to her classmates for $3 apiece. She also has considered becoming a schoolteacher like her mother did in her home country of El Salvador.
Her bee plush success helped crystallize the path she wants to take. Rivas said she plans to study business administration or economics for her undergraduate degree, though she’s yet to choose a college. National College Decision Day is May 1.
The experience also taught her something else.
“I think I matured a lot quicker,” she said. “It made me realize that maybe I hadn’t known who I really was. There were parts of me that I didn’t even know about. … I’m stronger than I thought I could be.”
To protect her mother, who still has a dry cough, Rivas continues to wear a mask in class for the most part.
“It’s still not the same,” she said of school. “It’s always in the back of your mind that there’s a global pandemic going on. And you have to be careful.”
Had to become a ‘mini adult’
Zakkiyya Fraser, 17, a senior at Valley Stream Central High School, remembered looking to adults for answers in the early days of the pandemic.
And not getting them.
It took Fraser some time to learn to accept the unknown. “It’s like you become a mini adult,” she said.
“The pandemic may have made us grow up in a [different] way,” she added. “Having that mindset of still being a child but having to function almost as an adult has been very challenging, I think, for all high school students.”
When school turned remote and, later on, hybrid, Fraser said she pushed herself to become more independent. The routine structured by a typical school day was no longer there, and the inconsistency of learning online was difficult for her to adjust.
“Being on the computer is like, not necessarily that you’re forgotten, but much harder to connect in the classroom,” she recalled. “It’s harder to grasp the content. It’s almost like you’re there, but not there.”
Ian Hua, a William Floyd High School senior, can relate.
“We didn’t have a school schedule to keep us on track. We needed to manage our own time without a bell,” the 18-year-old said. “We didn’t have teachers to ask questions to. We did, but it was much harder to communicate.”
Still, Hua said he feels “overwhelmingly lucky” compared to other student cohorts who were affected by the pandemic differently.
“There were seniors that had their final events taken away. They had no prom. They had no graduation,” Hua said. “Then there are younger kids that never had a first year of kindergarten. … Honestly, I feel very thankful.”
Shifting his perspective
Timothy Hogan, a senior at East Islip High School, didn’t begin to appreciate school until it was shut down.
Before, it was like “you can’t wait to leave,” the 17-year-old said. “With COVID, it made me want to go to school in person.”
The pandemic also has taught him that the things he used to not give a second thought are not a given.
“Whether it’s family, school, your friends, going out to see a movie or to shop, you can’t take those things for granted,” Hogan said.
Sharing similar sentiments, Daniel Frankenberry, 18, said he grew closer to his family.
Those first few months of staying at home allowed him to spend more time with family, an experience that confirmed his desire to stay in or near New York when choosing a college. “It reinforced the idea that I wanted to stay home,” he said. He’s yet to decide which college to attend.
Looking back, Frankenberry felt like part of his high school years was stolen.
The better part of “my second half of sophomore year just didn’t exist,” the Garden City High School senior said.
His junior year was spent under such heavy restrictions — plastic shields around desks, social distancing and masking — that he said regular interactions were greatly reduced.
“It’s unfortunate,” Frankenberry said. “Definitely a little bit upsetting. It’s a shame that [we] couldn’t get the full experience.”
Frankenberry is hanging out with his friends as much as he can and planning social activities — almost as if to make up lost time.
“I can’t say I’m trying to fix everything,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to make all that time back. But you have to enjoy what time you still have left … before graduation.”
Black women in Nassau County and across the country are facing a “mortality crisis” that has left women of color three times more likely to die during labor or in the first year after giving birth compared to white women, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said at a news conference Monday in Roosevelt.
Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote this week to the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee, calling for the fiscal 2022 funding bills to include $7 million for evidence-based training programs to reduce bias in maternal health and for $25 million to establish a program that delivers integrated health care services to pregnant women and new mothers.
“This is a crisis and it is a result of long-standing inequities in our health care system that we must address,” Gillibrand said outside of the Roosevelt Family Health Center. “We can’t accept the idea that black families and children losing their mothers is business as usual. We have to do more to support black women.”
The United States, experts said Monday, has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world — approximately 700 pregnancy-related deaths each year — with the numbers driven largely by high death rates among Black mothers. CDC studies have found that two-thirds of those deaths were preventable.
Meanwhile, the overall maternal mortality rate in New York State is 10% higher than the national average, with the risks growing even higher during the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials said.
In Nassau, the highest maternal mortality rate is in Roosevelt, followed by Hempstead and Westbury, said Dr. Nellie Taylor Walthrust, co-founder of the Westbury-based Birth Justice Warriors, a group that advocates for pregnant women.
Experts Monday attributed the disparity among Black mothers to a lack of affordable housing, proper health care and nutrition, along with discrepancies in medical care for women of color.
“Whether you analyze the research or listen to the experiences of black women, you’ll find a strong pattern of unequal treatment by health care providers during pregnancy and labor,” said Dr. Martine Hackett, the other co-founder of Birth Justice Warriors.
Gillibrand’s letter called for the allocation of $25 million to establish a Pregnancy Medical Home Demonstration Program that would deliver health care services to pregnant women and new mothers. She also supports adding $7 million for Implicit Bias Training Grants for medical and nursing school students to reduce bias and errors in judgment or behavior.
Dr. Tarika James, chief medical officer of the Long Island Federally Qualified Health Center, said comprehensive improvements are needed in the care of Black mothers, including standardization of care, improved patient education, and addressing “social barriers that prevent patients from getting much-needed services in a timely way. All of those things … can make a big difference in our community.”
Robert Brodsky is a breaking news reporter who has worked at Newsday since 2011. He is a Queens College and American University alum.
Decorating for the holidays is a national pastime and a drive around Long Island this time of year is a brilliantly lit eyeful. But what goes on outside homes — the lights, the sleighs, the reindeer — sometimes pales compared to holiday decorating inside. It’s individualistic, often meaningful and occasionally over-the-top.
Why do people do it? “I think a lot of holiday decorating is born of nostalgia … because it recalls memories of childhood and family,” says Hadley Keller, the digital director of House Beautiful. “Plus,” she adds, “for the past few years, I think we’ve all been driven to find more joy in our surroundings at home, leading to an upped ante with holiday decorating — a phenomenon we dubbed ‘Christmaximalism.’ “
Walter Dworkin, 77, of Westbury, is a major holiday decorator himself and an expert on vintage holiday collectibles who has written a book on the subject. “Tradition is a key word,” he says. People do it, “for the enjoyment of passing on traditions from one holiday to the next. It’s an escape from our busy, hectic lives and an inviting way to share nice memories and happiness.”
Speaking of inviting and sharing, three Long Islanders welcomed us into their homes to see their takes on going a-l-l out for the holiday and told us their stories. Fa-la-la-la indeed.
The staircase at the home of Jo-Ellen and Ira Hazan is always sweeping and dramatic, but come the Christmas holiday, well, it’s nuts … as in nutcrackers. For about two decades, Jo-Ellen has been collecting nutcrackers of every variety, and size: Statues of Liberty, “Wizard of Oz” characters, a ballerina, golfers, a fisherman and even a Hanukkah nutcracker, (both for her husband — an avid fisherman who is Jewish). She says, “When I see a nutcracker, I say to myself, ‘No I don’t need one more,’ but then I get it. Nutcrackers are like a magnet for me.”
The set up: Each season, Jo-Ellen carefully unwraps her nutcrackers which have been packed away in the attic. “I’m like ‘oh yeah’ I remember this one’ and I’m glad to see them. It brings back the feeling of when my kids were little,” she says of her two adult sons. “I place them and then I sit at the bottom and look up the stairs and move them around a lot. I try to mix them up by size — a big one first, a small one next.”
Why she does it: “I’m obsessed with holiday decorating, but it’s a good obsession,” she says. When people visit, “it puts a smile on their face. They say, “Oh my God, how long has it taken you to collect these? I feel accomplished, happy and joyful.” And she explains, “My mother always said to keep tradition and have stopgaps otherwise life can just roll one day to the next. I’ve taken that to the nth level.”
Helene Fortunoff believed in the value of hard work, at any age.
In the 1950s, the retail trailblazer established the fine jewelry division in what was then a small group of Brooklyn housewares and home furnishings stores called Fortunoff, which later became a Long Island institution.
The former president of Fortunoff Fine Jewelry and Silverware Inc., Helene Fortunoff felt it was important to expose her six children to what it took to run a growing family business.
“I took my children to work as soon as they were able to crawl on the floor,” Newsday quoted Helene Fortunoff saying in March 2010, when she was a panelist at a Hofstra University roundtable discussion on running family-owned companies.
“They worked in storerooms. At about age 12 they would be out on the floor. We put a suit” on one of the Fortunoff sons, she said. “People would come up and say, ‘There are child labor laws.’ I guess you could say I dragged them, but it was a worthwhile experience.”
Helene Fortunoff died Monday in Miami Beach of a respiratory illness, her family said. She was 88 years old.
She was a retail pioneer, at a time when women serving in business leadership positions was rare, said her daughter Esther Fortunoff-Greene, of Old Westbury.
“She was a groundbreaking woman who shared her knowledge with other women to help make all women able to succeed in the working world. And, of course, she did say you could have it all because she had six children and she worked full time,” Fortunoff-Greene said.
Fortunoff was born Helene Finke on March 2, 1933, to Samuel and Tillie Finke in Paterson, New Jersey. She had one sibling, a brother named Leon.
A high-achieving student, she graduated from New York University cum laude with a degree in business administration in the early 1950s, Fortunoff-Greene said.
In 1953, she married Alan Fortunoff, whose parents, Max and Clara Fortunoff, had started the Fortunoff business in Brooklyn in 1922.
Helene Fortunoff established the jewelry division at Fortunoff in 1957.
In 1964, the company moved its eight Brooklyn stores to Long Island, consolidating them into a 150,000-square-foot superstore with three levels in Westbury, which became the flagship of the business.
Alan and Helene and their children, which then numbered four, moved from Brooklyn to Old Westbury in 1965.
By 2003, there were six Fortunoff stores in New York and New Jersey, including a store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan that was the flagship of the jewelry division.
Fortunoff’s annual revenues were more than $400 million, according to a Newsday article published in June 2002.
The high-end jewelry business flourished, and had its own manufacturing division, Fortunoff-Greene said.
Jewelry sales eventually accounted for about one-third of Fortunoff’s revenues, she said. Much of that was due to Helene Fortunoff’s foresight in sourcing unique products globally, she said.
“She traveled the whole world and brought back great products for the stores. … She took our team to Thailand, India, Hong Kong. [We went to] Italy twice a year,” she said.
With Helene Fortunoff at the helm of the jewelry division, Fortunoff was “recognized by National Jeweler in 2003 as the 24th-largest jewelry retailer in the United States with just five jewelry departments,” the Fortunoff family said in a statement.
Helene Fortunoff was also a self-taught jewelry designer.
Newsday featured her in a Jan. 3, 1970, article about her design process.
“The attractive 37-year-old wife of Alan Fortunoff, head of the stores of that name, never had any formal design training until she tried a hit-or-miss approach to creating jewelry about 12 years ago,” Newsday reported.
Helene Fortunoff believed “in natural obsolescence like the garment industry,” she said in the article.
“A woman buys a $200 coat and gives it up in one or two years. Why not the same with jewelry?” she said.
After Alan Fortunoff died in 2000, Helene Fortunoff succeeded him as president.
She retired after the business was sold in 2005.
Fred Reffsin became acquainted with the Fortunoffs during the 1990s, when he was president of high-end watch company TAG Heuer.
“They were big customers of the brand,” said Reffsin, 64, of Norwood, New Jersey.
Helene Fortunoff’s impact on the retail industry through her position with Fortunoff, an iconic company, was significant, he said.
“She was a real, authentic, tough business person, but fair. Always was warm and welcoming … smart, very smart, and a great merchant,” said Reffsin, who also worked for the Fortunoff company as a watch consultant after the business was sold.
Helene Fortunoff married Robert Grossman in 2006, and they moved to Miami Beach about 10 years ago, Fortunoff-Greene said.
The Fortunoff business filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008 and 2009, the year it closed.
Helene Fortunoff’s volunteer work included serving as a past trustee of the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center and a past chairman of Hofstra University’s board of trustees.
She is survived by her husband, Robert. In addition to Fortunoff-Greene, Helene Fortunoff’s surviving children are Andrea Fortunoff, Rhonda Hampton, Ruth Fortunoff-Cooper and David Fortunoff. Her son Louis Fortunoff died in 2012.
She is also survived by nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Her brother Leon Finke predeceased her.
The funeral will be at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, 425 Roslyn Rd. (vaccination and mask required). To livestream, go to venue.streamspot.com/2f55cc72.
Donations in Helene Fortunoff’s memory can be made to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center or the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.
When COVID-19 took the life of 36-year-old Krystal Colman in April, Christina Colman, 60, of Coram, inherited a precious gift: her grandson Kacen, 2.
Colman was hospitalized with the coronavirus at the same time as her daughter, both in Stony Brook Hospital just after Easter. Krystal previously had pleurisy, an inflammation of the membranes that surround the lungs. When the elder Colman heard a “Code Blue” — which signifies a hospital emergency in a certain location — she said to her nurse, “That’s my daughter’s room.” Says Colman: “I wasn’t there when she took her last breath. I was beyond shocked.”
Colman, who works as an office assistant at Stony Brook Hospital, immediately went to court to get custody of her grandson; she plans to raise him with the help of another of her daughters, Jasmine, 31, an elementary school nurse.
“I’m not going to tell anyone that every day is peachy and sunny when you’re trying to raise a 2½-year-old,” Colman says. It’s especially challenging when mourning the loss of a daughter at the same time the child is mourning the loss of his single-parent mother. “It’s overwhelming.”
But through word-of-mouth, Colman heard of a grandparent caregivers’ support group run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. The group offers PASTA classes — it stands for Parenting the Second Time Around. The eight-week curriculum offers support to those being thrust into the new role and discusses child development, discipline and family law legal issues.
“It’s been a while since a lot of the grandparents have had 2-year-olds, 8-year-olds, teenagers in their home,” says Dinah Torres Castro, a bilingual family well-being educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension. They need to feel they can do this, she says.
HELP THROUGH PANDEMIC
Cornell also collaborates with the Amityville-based not-for-profit Hope For Youth to offer family engagement activities through a kinship caregiver grant. In August, the group resumed in-person events such as movies and field trips; a family picnic was held Aug. 30 at the Suffolk County Farm, just before Grandparents’ Day on Sept. 12. “Those things are very important when you’re going through these kinds of situations,” Colman says.Sign up for Newsday’s Family newsletter
The North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center also runs a free program called C-GRASP, Caregiver-Grandparent Respite and SupportProgram, for grandparents who are caregivers due to abandonment, substance abuse issues, incarceration or mental illness, says Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, director of the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center’s Leed Place in Westbury. C-GRASP is run in conjunction with the Town of North Hempstead for caregiver residents 60 or older, she says.
It’s important for grandparents to see they’re not alone in what they’re doing for their families, and to be alerted to resources available to them. Grandparent caregivers often feel isolated, Taylor-Walthrust says.
“They have given up their retirement to take care of children. They don’t have a lot of social opportunities themselves.” The pandemic made their isolation and challenges worse, says Taylor-Walthrust.
“Many of them are not technologically savvy,” she says, needing guidance, for instance, with helping children to log on to their Chromebooks during at home schooling. They also initially had challenges getting food, and C-GRASP volunteers helped get supplies delivered to their doorsteps.
A CHANCE TO TALK
The hardest part for grandparent caregivers can often be financial, Torres Castro says. Extra mouths to feed, school supplies, doctors’ appointments — “it can be very costly,” Torres Castro says.
Melinda Stephenson, 45, an insurance verifier, and her husband, Dexter, 50, a care coordinator, of Hempstead are currently caring for five of their grandchildren, ages 8, 7, 5, 3, and 1 — after already raising seven children of their own. “Financially, it’s sometimes a struggle to take care of them, but we do it,” she says. She’s been able to talk to Torres Castro about such issues, she says.
The opportunity to talk to others is also valuable for Colman. “That’s not my greatest strength, talking about my daughter. When I start talking about my daughter, I turn into mush,” Colman says. Her daughter and grandson had already lived with her, so she feels Krystal’s absence even more strongly. Her grandson will often want to spend time in his mother’s former bedroom, Colman says.
Colman has done some virtual events and looked forward to meeting the other families in person with Kacen at the Aug. 30 family picnic, which she expects to help them move forward with healing.
“People need people. We’ll be able to hug each other, and if we can’t, we can at least hold hands. We’ll be able to laugh together, cry together, share together.”
Beth Whitehouse writes about families, parenting and great things to do with the kids on Long Island. She’s been a Newsday editor and shared a 1997 Newsday staff Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800.
Top Photo Credit: Christina Colman, 60, of Coram, sits on the porch with her grandson Kacen, 2. Credit: Raychel Brightman
Kathy Rivera became the first woman of color to take the helm of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center when she assumed the executive director role last month at the Roslyn Heights-based nonprofit.
The organization provides mental health services for Nassau County’s children and young adults. Newsday recently spoke with Rivera, 47, of Fresh Meadows, about the pandemic’s impact on youth mental health and how her upbringing as a first-generation Asian American shaped her work.
Q. How did you get interested in the field of social work?
There has been a history of mental health issues in my immediate family. I have … witnessed domestic violence, food insecurity and housing instability. So from a very young age developmentally, I was exposed to that. So it was not surprising that as I got older, in recognizing what my own needs were growing up and experiencing all of this, I knew I wanted to find a profession where I could help communities that struggled with issues that I struggled myself with.
Q. How did your upbringing as a Thai American with immigrant parents shape your understanding of what you do?
In the Asian culture in general, mental health is often frowned upon. … What I experienced going back to my childhood [shaped] what I recognize [in] a lot of our communities that we serve. Parents sometimes don’t seek help because they fear it is a reflection of them as being a bad parent. It can feel embarrassing to ask for help, and so they don’t. . . . So [it’s] realizing that how not getting the right … help at the right time can really cause lifelong damaging changes and fracture a family.
Q. Has your organization seen a rise in cases during the pandemic?
We have gotten more calls for our triage unit from local hospitals and urgent-care centers where children are at risk of an inpatient hospitalization. … We’ve been finding more and more calls coming in and actually even for some younger kids. At one of our sites, we even are treating a 4-year-old [for mental health]. … We’ve definitely been getting calls from parents as well, really worrying about the social impact of the pandemic, the isolation, just the overall mental well-being of their own child and asking for their child to engage in therapy. So we’ve been seeing it from families, too, more so than in the past.
Q. How do people go about getting services from your organization?
Anyone who needs our services can just be a phone call away. … Our payer mix is a combination between self-pay, commercial insurance to Medicaid. And for those who have a struggle where the service may not be covered but yet they need it, we find a way to raise funds and cover those costs.
Q. Anything else you want to add?
One thing that I want to give the pandemic credit for is the exposure of the mental health crisis in our children. Again, it did not cause it, it exposed it, and it enhanced it. And I think that it helps naturalize it — being able to talk about it without the stigma.
Rich Shlofmitz was the first in his family to become a doctor — and his son Evan is the second. At 6 a.m. on any given weekday, the duo will touch base at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn before they start their day treating heart patients there.
“I came from the projects in East New York,” says the senior Shlofmitz, 66, who is chairman of the cardiology department at St. Francis. “I knew I wanted to do something important with my life.”
Rich’s dedication to medicine made an impression on Evan, 38, when he was growing up in Manhasset. “It was an easy choice for me to follow in his footsteps,” says Evan, also a cardiologist and director of intravascular imaging at St. Francis.
Here are the stories of seven Long Island sons who are in the same line of work as their fathers — and may even work side-by-side with them.
Years ago, when Jonathan Cooper, 71, a social worker from West Hempstead, ran a support group for children with special needs at the North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, he would bring several of his five kids to interact with the group socially. So, it was no surprise to him when three of his sons followed him into the counseling field.
Aaron Weintraub, 42, his son from his first marriage, works with social skills groups and at a summer camp for children on the autism spectrum in Connecticut. Jacob Cooper, 31, of Massapequa, is a clinical social worker in private practice, and Raphie Cooper, 26, lives at home and is in his second year of social work school.
“It was always about service,” Jacob says. “That was really ingrained in us.” Jacob says his father always encouraged them to value a population that other people might look away from or stigmatize.
Aaron’s job is the closest match to his father’s. “As adults, I’ve had the chance to talk with him about how we both plan our curriculum and help each other with ideas and inspiration to try new things,” Aaron says.
For Father’s Day, the elder Cooper plans to fly to Chicago, where he grew up, with Jacob to show his son the area. “I want him to see that. Those were formative years for me,” Johnathan says.
“Whenever I had off from school, I’d shadow my dad around the hospital and got to see the impact he made on patients,” Evan says of his childhood. “He set the bar high with his innovation and work ethic and his unique way of practicing medicine.” Now that Evan is a peer, he will bounce ideas and approaches off his father, he says.
On the flip side, the elder Shlofmitz says his son’s involvement with clinical research got him motivated to start doing research as well. “I owe a lot to my son,” Rich says, including keeping him up on cutting-edge technology. “I’m so proud. The best part is watching his interaction with patients and staff. Everybody loves him.”
And who knows? There may be a third generation of Shlofmitz cardiologists — Evan and his wife, Lisa, who live in Port Washington, are expecting a baby girl in August.
Peter Lombardo’s late wife was the catalyst for Mike Lombardo joining in his father’s electrical business. The elder Lombardo, 65, launched his eponymous electrician company in Deer Park in the 1980s; his wife was his business partner, handling payroll and accounts.
Their son, now 31 and living in Farmingville, initially wasn’t interested in becoming an electrician. But when his mother got cancer, she showed Mike the ropes so he could take over her position. She died in 2015.
If that event hadn’t transpired, Mike says he wouldn’t have earned his own electrician’s license. “Not a shot. That’s not to say I don’t like it, but there’s just no way. Nope. I would probably have done something in banking or finance.”
The pandemic has been a boon to the company’s business. “Everybody was home, so they were doing home improvements,” Peter says. Many people put in pools that needed wiring, he says.
At some point, Peter hopes Mike will take over the business completely. “I look forward to the day when he says, ‘Dad, I got this,’ and I’ll go on my merry way.”
It was Luis Rosa’s wife who spurred her husband and son working together as well. When Amazon opened a facility in Shirley, she suggested that all three of them apply for jobs, and the trio was hired on the overnight shift Sundays through Wednesdays.
Sometimes they are unloading, other times they are scanning and stowing packages. They drive to work together, and they eat together on breaks.
“Working with my son has been one of the best things I’ve ever experienced. I’ve seen him grow up as a kid, and then to see him working with me, it’s such a great experience,” says Luis, 42. William, 19, says he looks up to his dad: “I always see him working really hard, and I want to work just as hard as he does.”
The toughest part for the duo was adjusting to the new work schedule. “My parents go to bed at 5 p.m.,” says William, who on the other hand, likes to sleep as soon as he gets home from work. The family lives in Mastic Beach, along with William’s two siblings and his sister’s two children. “Sometimes they’re making noise in the house,” he says.
At one point in the pandemic, the whole family had COVID-19. “I just can’t wait until all this is over,” William says. “It’s been really hard on us. Luckily, we didn’t get it that bad.”
When Lee Gaddy, now 64, of Wheatley Heights, joined the New York City Police Force in 1981 and was assigned as a housing officer, it was “the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says. His son, Sean, 36, echoed his dad’s words when talking about his own experience as a Nassau County police officer, now assigned to the department’s Police Athletic League program working on community sports programs to engage kids.
For Father’s Day this year, the family plans to barbecue before Luis, William and Margarita, 40, head to the job.
“Growing up, obviously watching my dad go off to work, it was always interesting to hear his stories over the dinner table,” Sean says. “My dad, he was big on telling me to take the Civil Service test. I thank him to this day. I never would have done it without him putting it in front of me. It’s the best thing I ever did.”
This isn’t the first time the younger Gaddy has mirrored his father, says Lee, who retired after 22 years in law enforcement and now works for the Copiague School District as a security person. “Sean is well-liked, like me. He played high school sports, just like me. I’m happy because I think he has that type of attitude I had coming on: Do the right thing.”
Sean recently had his first child, and he plans to spend his first Father’s Day in part by wearing matching shirts with his newborn during a breakfast visit to Lee’s home. He also hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a parent: “I hope to be what he is to me with my son,” Sean says.
“It’s a fun way to relax,” said Gwen, of Locust Valley. “It’s almost like a therapy, to sit down and do some artwork.”
Gwen wanted children on Long Island to have the same opportunity to unwind and express themselves creatively. They just needed the supplies to do it.
So once again heading to Michael’s, Gwen bought watercolor paints, paintbrushes, colorful pencils, markers, paper and yarn. She’s assembled 175 art kits and donated them to the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights, a not-for-profit children’s mental health agency.
Gwen made four different versions of the kit, distributing the supplies where they each fit. The “watercolor and Impressionism kit” contained a lesson plan on painter Claude Monet and a brief history of Impressionism. The “mixed medium kit” had a picture of an owl to be colored in and an inspirational quote.
The “collage kit” included facts on artist Pablo Picasso. The most recent kit she’s made contained a canvas, acrylic paint, a paint brush, painter’s tape and a Sharpie pen, so that kids can create geometric shapes.
“I remember coloring as a kid was so much fun to do in art class,” said Gwen. Now, she prefers collaging and painting.
“I wanted to merge both what I liked to do when I was younger, and what I like to do now, and make it good for the younger age group,” she said.
When she first started putting the kits together, Gwen envisioned giving them to children. When she was done, she realized that may not be her only audience.
“Really, any age could do it,” she said. “Any age could have fun with this.”
The North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center serves clients from birth to age 24, according to its website. It provides services that address mental health for children and their families throughout Nassau County, said Lauren McGowan, the director of development. That includes programs on suicide prevention, depression and anxiety, specifically geared toward youth.
Dr. Sue Cohen, the director of early childhood and psychological services, is excited for her clients in particular to use the art kits. Her young clients don’t always have the words to communicate their emotions — that’s where art comes in, Cohen said. Anger can be expressed by scribbling, and fear by drawing what the monster under the bed looks like.
“We use art as a therapeutic tool,” she said. “It’s a great icebreaker to begin to establish rapport with children.”
Cohen added that the art kits arrived at a perfect time for the center: the clinicians had just begun to discuss a safe transition back to in-person therapy sessions and interactive programs, including details such as how to keep crayons and markers clean.
“These individual kits [Gwen] made are perfect because each kit has their own pens, markers and paints,” Cohen said. “As the kids are coming in, they can have a bag designated with their own art supplies, and they can keep them in the office for continued use or take it home.”
McGowan said she’s “delighted” that Gwen has taken initiative and was thoughtful in her approach to helping the center.
“It’ll help our clinicians to communicate better, because kids will open up as they start to feel comfortable and as they’re drawing,” she said. “Art is another modality they can have in their own toolbox, so she’s really given us a gift in that way.”
Gwen dropped off 150 art kits on April 8, and 25 more on April 29. This was a labor of love for her — as she carefully crafted each kit, she said she daydreamed of the moment that she would finally donate them and offer children the same creative outlet that’s helped her through the pandemic.
“Finally getting to hand them over was so exciting,” she said. “I’m excited to be making some more.”
She’s still brainstorming ideas for different art kit themes. McGowan said Gwen’s motivation aligns with the center’s mission to help children in need.
But Gwen’s biggest hope is that children will see that you don’t necessarily have to be a great artist to create something beautiful.
“I hope that younger kids can realize that everybody can be creative and everybody can have fun with art,” Gwen said. “It’s not such a serious thing; you can do whatever you want. It’s something anyone can do and have fun with.”
Click to watch the video interview Gwen Jones, 17, recently put together 175 art kits and donated them to the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights. Her hope is that children can use art as an outlet to express themselves, just like she did throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Howard Schnapp: Photo credit: Peter M. Budraitis Photography
By Rachel Weiss, Rachel Weiss joined Newsday in 2016. She writes and produces local content for newsday.com, including stories on religion and colorful characters from Long Island.
As children return to classrooms and playgrounds, and maybe soon to summer camp, we must not forget that many are still feeling the effects of the social isolation they experienced when school went virtual last year. Learning is still remote for many kids, who continue to be cut off from treasured spaces that nurture positive, developing relationships, caring about others, thinking critically and avoiding negative behaviors.
Even though the physical settings might be restored, many children continue to feel an undermined sense of security. Some will be resilient and bounce back. Others will need extra support from parents and adults in their community.
Mental health workers are seeing young people in their second decade of life who are anxious and depressed. These include both kids who were struggling with their mental health before the pandemic and those who were stellar students with rich social lives who seem to have fallen off the coronavirus cliff.
The unforeseen loss of routine is especially impactful on young folks like these for whom connecting with peers is so integral to their daily life experience. Now, and since the onset of the pandemic, it’s as if the adolescent ecosystem has suddenly been deprived of oxygen and light.
For far too many young people, this is a painful time when an essential aspect of their lives has been suddenly threatened, resulting in lost connections, isolation and longing. This is a lonely time in which the grief they experience is unacknowledged and unsupported by any social ritual, a demoralizing reality that may lead to days and nights of anxiety, desperation and, for some, deep depression and dark thoughts about whether life is worth living even one more day.
Although this may be a time to draw closer to one’s family, the notion of increasing togetherness with parents at the precise time in one’s life that a young person is striving to become more independent can create an existential crisis. Parental support should include encouraging social connection outside the family, either virtually or in safe face-to-face settings. This does not suggest pushing away one’s child, but rather empathizing with the healthy need for some separation and peer connection. Groups of peers can create the sparks necessary to ignite the warm fires of intimacy that will help see many a young person through this public health disaster.
Adults need to understand the uncertainty and shakiness that kids might be feeling. Reinforce to them that you are there for them, that we all went through a very difficult time and there will be more tough times ahead in life, but that you will always stand by their side.
What we know is that young people who feel connected are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as self-harm, violence, early sexual activity or suicidal actions. As my friend and colleague Dr. Ariel Botta, a group worker at Boston Children’s Hospital, advised: “Healthy human development and adjustment require both connection and solitude. At this point in history, there is plenty of isolation and a dire shortage of connection.”
The importance of attachment and connection carries on throughout a child’s life and impacts relationships as they move into adulthood. The support you give them is not just for now — it’s forever.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights.