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Camp Fatima: Bringing Harrison closer together for a cause

Photo by Jim Hague/ From left, Nick Landy, Patti Gerris and Ray Lucas get together at Camp Fatima in Lebanon Township last week, a camp specifically for disabled young people that has brought several Harrison volunteers together for years.

 

By Jim Hague 

LEBANON TOWNSHIP –

The brown sign off the eastbound lanes of Route 22 reads “Baptist Camp and Conference Center,” but in reality, it’s the home of Camp Fatima, a safe haven and makeshift Shangri La, nestled in the lower hills of Hunterdon County, a place where, for two weeks, nearly 100 or so disabled young people get a chance every year to enjoy their lives to the fullest.

Incredibly, the staff at Camp Fatima is comprised mostly of Harrison residents, including some of the town’s best known athletes and coaches.

Everywhere you turn, there’s a Harrison native, doing their best to make the campers feel loved and comfortable.

Of the 70 or so adults who volunteer their time to work at the camp, 45 or so call Harrison home. It’s almost like a Fresh Air Fund for those from Harrison, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the urban blacktop and escape to assist those who need it more.

Ask any of the volunteers about what their experience is like going to Camp Fatima and you might not get a definitive answer.

“I can’t tell you what it means,” said Ray Lucas, one of the most famous athletes hailing from Harrison. “I don’t have the words. It’s so much more than just Camp Fatima.”

“It’s one of the greatest places on the planet,” said Nick Landy, the head volleyball and basketball coach at Harrison High School. “We all talk about it all year long, waiting for camp to come. It’s a special place for all of us.”

The Harrison connection with Camp Fatima began two years after the camp started in 1968.

In 1970, Patti Gerris was a student at East Orange Catholic High School, when one of the nuns at the school showed the students a slide show about the camp.

“So we started to raise money for the camp,” said Gerris, who recently retired after 34 years as a teacher and counselor in the Harrison school system. “We started to sell balloons and other things to help them raise money. When I was in college at Jersey City State (now New Jersey City University), I was a special education major. One of our requirements was to do 30 hours of volunteer work, so I thought of Camp Fatima. I called some friends and asked if it was something they were interested in volunteering to do.”

It didn’t take long for Gerris to realize that Camp Fatima was going to be part of her life forever.

“I was hooked from the minute I walked onto the camp site,” Gerris said. “I knew that this was something I had to do. I got my brother and sister involved. Some nieces and nephews as well. Cousins, I have a huge amount of cousins.”

Gerris became passionate about her commitment to Camp Fatima and its campers from the outset. She became Camp Fatima’s chief recruiter in terms of rounding up fellow volunteers.

“I started at the high school after I started teaching there,” Gerris said. “I really didn’t want to shove it in the students’ faces. I just said that we needed help. Never in a million years did I think we’d get so many people involved.”

One of the first Harrison High students that Gerris approached was Landy.

“Nick was in my homeroom and I saw he had the same passion that I have,” Gerris said.

 

 

Photos by Jim Hague/ TOP: Danny Hidrovo of Harrison takes care of his camper, David Seney, also of Harrison, at Camp Fatima last week. BELOW: Chris Hidrovo of Harrison proudly displays the Camp Fatima tattoo on his left bicep.

“She brought me right in,” said Landy, who has been involved with Camp Fatima for the last 27 years. “When you see a camper remember you and they get excited, there’s no greater feeling. They want to give us the world. People come to volunteer and they can’t wait to come back.”

Another former student that Gerris recruited to Camp Fatima was Lucas.

In 1987, Lucas was still a Harrison High student, before he would eventually head off to become a standout quarterback at Rutgers and later the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins in the NFL.

“I vividly remember a camper named Lilly May, who always had playing cards with her,” Lucas said. “On the first day here, she didn’t have her playing cards, wanted the cards and when she didn’t get them, she put her hand hard into a two-inch thick glass door. I stopped breathing and moving.”

“I said to him, ‘Ray, breathe,’” Gerris said.

“It was like everything had stopped, like the world stopped,” Lucas said. “I remember saying that I wanted to go home right then. But Patti had to take care of me like I was a camper. This was in the first five hours I was here. Patti saved me that day and then I was hooked. I think it was almost a right of passage in Harrison, that you had to come to Camp Fatima.”

Lucas remembers the most touching moment he experienced as a counselor.

“There was a girl named Casey who was in the pool every day,” Lucas said. “She was there from when it opened until it closed. On the last day of camp, she was unpacking her suitcase instead of packing. When someone asked her why she was doing it, she said, `I want to fit Ray in my suitcase so I can take him home with me.’ I lost it. I was crying.”

Gerris knows that perhaps Harrison’s best known and loved athlete is just another counselor at Camp Fatima.

“No one cares that Ray was the quarterback for the New York Jets,” Gerris said. “He’s just Ray. It really puts your life into perspective. It’s like no one cares what happens in the real world. We call that Fatimagic.”

“That’s what this camp does to you,” said Lucas, who is now a respected sportscaster on SNY’s coverage of the Jets and does color commentary for the Rutgers football radio broadcasts. “It changes all of our lives forever. It’s really hard to explain what this is like. You really would do anything for these kids. The kids see you in a different light. We’re just typical, normal people, but to them, we’re everything.”

Lucas missed some years of Camp Fatima because he was busy with NFL training camp at the same time.

“I wish I didn’t play in the NFL, because I missed camp for years,” Lucas said. “Last year was my first year back and I got to see camp through my daughter’s eyes.”

Lucas’ daughter, Rayven,who will be a senior at Harrison High this year, is now a counselor as well.

Lucas also likes the fact that he spends time at the camp with lifelong friends from Harrison.

“I’ve known Nicky my whole life,” Lucas said. “I don’t get to see many of them all year, but they are like family and I like being together. It feels right. I don’t know anywhere else.”

The campers are of several different disabilities, some much worse off than others. There are those who are confined to a wheelchair. There are some who are mentally disabled, others who are physically disabled. There are some campers affl icted with Down syndrome. In that respect, Camp Fatima doesn’t discriminate against certain disorders. It encompasses them all.

“We have some campers that are so severely disabled that we consider the week as parent respite,” Gerris said. “We have one family that has three autistic sons. They know it’s safe to leave their sons with us, so for the first time in ages, the parents went to the movies. We don’t say no because of a disability.”

To become a camper at Camp Fatima, there is an application process. Unfortunately, with that, there’s a waiting list. Approximately 75 percent of the campers are return visitors from prior years.

“We have a committee that goes through each application,” Gerris said.“Each application is reviewed.” There’s unfortunately room for only 70 campers.

“We don’t have any room for any more,” Gerris said.

There is also one counselor assigned to each camper, one-on- one treatment.

“It ranges from changing diapers and wiping faces to just being there,” Gerris said. “Some kids don’t say one word, but they speak with their eyes. You know there’s something there.”

The entire camp is privately funded, with the money raised by donations. There are fundraising events like a trip to Monmouth Park, a dinner/ dance, a comedy show and a golf outing. A local Teamsters group had a motorcycle run to benefit Camp Fatima.

One Harrison resident and former Camp Fatima counselor Tony Espaillat pushed 11-year-old camper Anton Frazile 26.2 miles in his wheelchair during the recent New Jersey Marathon. They called their fundraising group Team Anton-y and collected more than $30,000.

“No amount we receive is too small,” Gerris said. “I think we got everyone in Harrison involved. The whole community got involved. It’s such a give-back experience. Tony is now in the East Newark police academy. He’s very driven and a wonderful kid.”

Perhaps the most touching moment last week was the pairing of two sets of twin brothers from Harrison.

Danny and Chris Hidrovo are Harrison grads, twins who played both baseball and football for the Blue Tide, graduating in 2007. Landy, who coached both, introduced them to Camp Fatima and the Hidrovo brothers have been counselors for the last six years.

This past week, the Hidrovo twins were paired with David and Adam Seney, 10-year-old twins from Harrison who are autistic.

The 23-year-old Danny Hidrovo said that he got involved in Camp Fatima because of his brother. Now, both brothers work full-time with kids with autism and emotionally disabled at a school in Fairfi eld, a school run by a former Camp Fatima counselor.

“If it wasn’t for my big brother and mentor, I wouldn’t be here,” Danny Hidrovo said. “Being here is a heart changer. All you need to do is put yourself in their shoes and you’ll understand it better. It’s an escape from reality. I’m able to be a kid again with these kids. I get to show them a little bit of fun. You don’t get that in the real world. I got to express my inner child again.”

Giving back to the community is something that Danny Hidrovo has taken to heart, as he is now a member of the volunteer fire department in East Newark.

“You find that the adults who come just keep coming back,” Danny Hidrovo said.

“I don’t know what I would do without camp,” Chris Hidrovo said. “These people, they’re a part of my life. There’s never a dull moment with the kids. They’re all unique in their own way, whether it’s a hug or a high-five. I enjoy every moment with them. You really come to appreciate more of what you have compared to them. I’m glad to share that with my brother.”

There’s another thing that Gerris, Landy and the Hidrovo brothers share, other than hailing from Harrison. Their Camp Fatima tattoos. It’s the camp’s logo complete with the year they started as counselors. Gerris’ stamp is on her foot. Landy’s sits proudly on his shoulder. Chris Hidrovo has his on his left bicep. About 20 or so of the Harrison contingent have the Camp Fatima tattoo, to have as a part of them forever.

Campers also never leave. Tony Garcia is a disabled 20-year-old who has been part of Camp Fatima for the last 16 years.

When he was a camper, Tony was known for his stirring rendition of “Born in the USA.” Now, he works in the kitchen with the title of CIC or Camper in Charge.

“I’m glad I can still come,” said Garcia, who helps with the preschool kids in Harrison while he still attends special school in Ridgefield. “It gets me excited to come to camp.”

When asked what camp means to him, even Garcia was at a loss for words.

“I have no idea,” he said. “These people, they’re my friends. And I love Harrison a lot.”

Obviously, so does Gerris, who relinquished her title as camp director and was just a kitchen helper last week.

“It’s overwhelming, the support we get from the people of Harrison,” Gerris said. “I’m a real stickler about being proud of where you come from. But it’s not the same kind of pride until you get here.”

Paul Murphy, a resident of Union who has spent the last 16 years working at Camp Fatima, was the camp director this year.

“My cousin was a camper, so his brother and I started volunteering,” Murphy said. “I just wanted to help out, but it was so moving.” How moving? “

Well, we had a 12-year-old camper this week who was crying when his family left, because he was homesick,” Murphy said. “Now, he’s having the time of his life. He’s confident, smiling and incredibly relaxed.”

Murphy was once an accountant, but gave it up to become a special education teacher because of his experience at Camp Fatima.

“I became a teacher because of this place,” Murphy said. “It comes full circle. Now, the campers are helping us.”

It was Christmas in August at Camp Fatima last Friday. Landy dressed as Santa Claus. Lucas was pushing wheelchairs. The counselors all made special gifts for the campers. It was just another day at Camp Fatima, courtesy of the dedicated close-knit people of Harrison.

Kearny’s Koziel racks up medals at National Junior Disability Games

Photos by Jim Hague/ Kearny rising sophomore Steve Koziel had a great week competing at the National Junior Disability Championships in Arizona, winning a grand total of 17 medals, competing in track and field, swimming and weightlifting.

 

By Jim Hague

If you think Michael Phelps was impressive in collecting medal after medal at the Olympic Games, then wait until you hear about the exploits of 15-year-old Steve Koziel.

The soon-to-be Kearny High School sophomore followed up his impressive performance at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions with an even more eye-opening week at the National Junior Disability Championships, held for nine days recently in Mesa, Ariz.

Koziel was looking forward to the event for the entire summer, rigorously training with his team, the Lightning Wheels, to prepare for the event.

Koziel was born with cerebral palsy, which has limited his ability to walk regularly. But the childhood infliction has not deterred Koziel from becoming a top flight athlete, competing in his specially-built athletic wheelchair.

During the nine-day stretch of the games, which were held at Mesa Community College, Mesa High School and the Kino Aquatic Center, Koziel collected an astounding total of 17 medals, competing in track and field, swimming, power lifting and weightlifting, the pentathlon and relays with his Lightning Wheels teammates.

That’s no misprint. Koziel amassed 17 medals in the span of a little more than a week. It took Phelps 12 years and three Olympics to collect all his medals. Koziel got his all in one shot.

“I competed in everything,” Koziel said. “I wasn’t afraid to try anything.”

Sure looks that way. In track and field, Koziel won the 100-meter, the 200-meter, the 400-meter and the 800-meter. He finished second in the 1,500-meter event. Hey, you can’t win them all.

In the field events, Koziel was second in the shot put, the javelin and the discus.

So that’s a total of eight medals – four of which were gold and four silver – in the track and field events. It was believed that track and field were the only events he competed in, making the most of his specialized wheelchair.

However, it’s not all that Koziel does.

Unbeknownst to this reporter, Koziel is also a swimmer. It’s an incredible feat for someone who has cerebral palsy.

“I can do it all,” Koziel said, with a laugh. “The only events I don’t compete in are archery and table tennis. I do everything else.”

In the pool, Koziel won the 50-meter breaststroke in 1:29.32, was second in the 50-meter backstroke, was third in the 50-meter freestyle and third in the 100-meter backstroke.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 12 medals.

It gets better. Koziel also competed in the weightlifting competition and took home gold medals in both power lifting and general weightlifting. He’s able to lift 120 pounds in power lifting and 135 in weight lifting, doing so from a special bench.

That gives him 14 medals, seven of which were gold medals.

There are more events. Koziel competed in the pentathlon, which consists of the 100-meter, the shot put, the discus, the javelin and the 800-meter. He finished second in that event.

Finally, as a member of a relay squad with the Lightning Wheels, Koziel was part of the 4×100 relay that finished first and the 800-meter medley relay that finished second. Koziel ran the opening leg of the medley relay, a 100-meter leg.

So his trip to Arizona led to an astounding 17 medals. It’s a wonder how Koziel was able to get through the airport security coming home carrying all that hardware.

Koziel thought he could do well in Arizona.

“I kind of hard an idea of what to expect out there,” Koziel said. “I had been to a couple before, so I knew what the competition was like.”

But 17 medals? Seventeen? It’s unconscionable.

“I never thought I could do this good,” Koziel said. “I just planned to go out there and do my best, do something that I love to do and have some fun.”

Koziel’s performance caught the eye of Cathy Sellers, who is the director of the Paralympic Track and Field Performances for the United States Olympic Committee based in Colorado Springs.

In an e-mail, Sellers instructed Koziel that he will be listed soon among the top performers and will be added to the world rankings. It means that he has a chance to compete internationally in the future.

“She wrote me and told me that I was doing a great job for someone my age and that I should apply for an IPC (International Paralympic Committee) license,” Koziel said. “That will enable me to compete in international events.”

Koziel said that no matter what the results are, he always has a lot of fun.

“It’s always really exciting for me to compete,” Koziel said. “I meet so many people that I compete against and they become friends, while there are also some rivalries going on. Believe it or not, there is always pressure, but nothing like the pressure I put on myself.”

However, there’s no question that Koziel will always remember his recent trip to Arizona. At least, he’ll have something to talk about with his classmates when school resumes next month and people ask him what he did over his summer vacation.

“You can definitely say that I have something exciting to talk about,” Koziel said. Sure does.

Abromaitis returns as QP athletic director

Photos by Jim Hague/ Ed Abromaitis has been named as the athletic director at his alma mater, Queen of Peace High School, a position he held from 1985 through 2008.

 

By Jim Hague

When Ed Abromaitis was a teenager growing up in Kearny in the early 1970s, he had to make a very tough decision, one that would affect him for the rest of his life.

Abromaitis decided to go to Queen of Peace High School instead of attending the hometown Kearny.

“I took a lot of heat from the people in Kearny,” Abromaitis said. “I heard it from all of my friends.”

So much so that when Abromaitis played baseball against Kearny, standout pitcher Bob Stanley, who later went on to pitch for the Boston Red Sox, went after Abromaitis.

“We were friends, but every time we played Kearny, he hit me with a pitch,” Abromaitis said.

But Abromaitis knew he was always doing the right thing.

“Queen of Peace was my life,” Abromaitis said. “As corny as that may sound, it’s just the way I feel about the school.”

Abromaitis played baseball and football at QP, graduating in 1974. He went to Kean and played baseball there, but soon after graduation, Abromaitis returned to QP as a physical education, health and driver’s education teacher.

Soon after, Abromaitis became a coach. He was an assistant football coach for almost 30 years under the regimes of the entire Borgess family as well as Andy Cerco. He became a highly respected baseball coach, leading the Golden Griffi ns to a host of wins and championships on the diamond.

And in 1985, Abromaitis was promoted to the role of athletic director, serving QP in that capacity for 22 years.

From the late 80s through 2008, Abromaitis was Queen of Peace. He was the most identifi able member of the athletic department. You mentioned Queen of Peace around the state and instantly, the name of Ed Abromaitis would come up.

But in 2008, the school’s administration decided that they wanted to make a change. Abromaitis, the loyal soldier who fell on the sword for the higher-ups when controversies arose with the coaching revolving door, was unceremoniously removed from his AD duties, replaced by another QP alum in John Ahmuty.

“I was devastated,” Abromaitis said. “I never thought that could happen.”

But it did.

Instead of being bitter and angry, Abromaitis decided to remain on at QP as a teacher.

“A lot of the alumni helped me through it,” Abromaitis said. “They reminded me that I was Queen of Peace, through and through. Tony Riposta (a respected attorney in North Arlington and a former standout athlete at QP during his day) was the voice of reason. When he spoke to me, I listened. But I had others who helped me. I tried to do the best that I could for the school, because I loved the school.”

A lot of other people would have walked away after getting the proverbial shaft, headed for the hills in search of another position at another school.

“I couldn’t walk by the office for a long time,” Abromaitis said. “It hurt. Eventually, I would get over it.”

Abromaitis stuck it out and remained on. He remained on as an assistant football coach, an assistant baseball coach. He was still a teacher. He knew Ahmuty and liked him.

“He’s a good guy, a Queen of Peace guy,” Abromaitis said.

Through it all, it was always about loyalty. Abromaitis was going to remain loyal to the school. After all, he bleeds green and gold. He has a tattoo on his bicep that portrays his love for QP. He’s a Golden Griffin for life.

In May, the QP revolving door started spinning again, when administrators decided that they were not going to rehire Ahmuty as the AD after three years. “Going in another direction,” was the standard catchphrase used, like it was when school administrators replaced seven boys’ basketball coaches, seven football coaches and four girls’ basketball coaches in the past nine years. The turnover in athletic personnel at the school has been absolutely staggering.

When Abromaitis heard the word that Ahmuty was being replaced, he was flabbergasted. It was a case of “Here we go again.” “

Honestly, I was shocked,” Abromaitis said. “I thought John was doing a good job, but they were looking for someone new. I don’t know the reason why.”

Without extending the search for a new athletic director, the administration approached Abromaitis and asked if he wanted his old job back.

“I thought that part of my life was gone,” Abromaitis said. “It was over with. When they asked me, I thought I could help. I don’t think I’m doing anything different than any other alumnus would do.”

With that, Abromaitis was given the responsibility of being the leader of the athletic department once again, a role he held for over a quarter of a century. He didn’t appreciate the way the job was taken away from him almost four years ago, but that’s in the past.

“I’m not trying to ride in on a white horse and save the day,” Abromaitis said. “I just wanted to help like any other person would do.”

But not any other person was removed like Abromaitis was.

“It’s water under the bridge now,” said the 56-year-old Abromaitis, who has spent more than 40 years of his life associated with the school. “I’m moving forward. We’re all going to go forward from here. Like the Bob Seger song, ‘Turn the Page.’ Well, that’s what I’ve done. I can’t go back. I’m not going to wallow in the past. I’ve turned the page and moved on.”

Abromaitis has hit the ground running in the job he held for most of his adult life. The school needed a new boys’ soccer coach. There is always the challenge of scheduling. It’s almost as if nothing ever happened.

“It’s as simple as that,” Abromaitis said. “I love the place and I’ve always been loyal to it. I don’t know any other place. It’s my home. I belong here. I think there a lot of us, the alumni, who still bleed the green and gold like me. I’m just one of many.”

The school has suffered through enrollment woes in recent years. The participation numbers are down. Still, Abromaitis remains optimistic.

“I still think we have some good talent here,” Abromaitis said. “We just don’t have a lot of depth. We don’t have the numbers at the lower levels. That’s what we have to do. We have to get the enrollment back up and be competitive on the lower levels. We have to have a freshman or a JV (junior varsity) team. We need to get our athletes experience in every sport.”

Abromaitis said that he has received a ton of e-mails and phone calls from his fellow athletic administrators, welcoming him back.

The fall season is rapidly approaching. Abromaitis was in his office every morning last week, getting ready. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. Just ask Ed Abromaitis. He is home again, but in reality, he never left.

Obituaries

Virginia DeArmas

Virginia DeArmas died suddenly on Aug. 5 in St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark. She was 70. Born in Cuba, she moved to Kearny 20 years ago.

A funeral Mass was held in St. Cecilia’s Church, Kearny, followed by interment in Holy Cross Cemetery, North Arlington. She was a member of the Harrison Seniors.

Daughter of the late Jose and Maria DeArmas, Virginia is survived by her sister Maria Sanz and her family along with many dear friends.

Patricia A. Kwiecien

Patricia A. Kwiecien died on Aug. 9, at the St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark. She was 70. Born in Jersey City, she was a lifelong Harrison resident.

Private arrangements were by the Armitage and Wiggins Funeral Home in Kearny. Burial was at Holy Cross Cemetery. To leave an online condolence, please visit www.armitagewiggins.com

Pat was the administrative assistant to Richard Tully at the Kearny Shop Rite. Daughter of Lottie (nee Dunaj) and the late Joseph Kwiecien, she is survived by her brother and sisters Joseph Kwiecien, Joanne Maier and Deborah Manzo, along with eight nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her brother Richard.

In lieu of flowers, kindly consider a donation to The Belgrove Acute Care Center in Kearny.

Philip J. Renshaw Sr.

Philip J. Renshaw Sr. died on Aug. 6 in St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark. He was 70. Born in Irvington, he lived in North Arlington before moving to Kearny 40 years ago.

Arrangements were by the Armitage and Wiggins Funeral Home, 596 Belgrove Drive, Kearny. A funeral Mass was held in St. Stephen’s Church, Kearny, followed by private cremation. To leave an online condolence, please visit www.armitagewiggins.com

Mr. Renshaw served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He was a Purple Heart Recipient. He retired from the Kearny Board of Education where he was a head custodian.

He is survived by his wife Linda (nee Ferrari); his children and their spouses Philip J. Reshaw Jr., Bobby and Sandra Renshaw, Louis and Franny Renshaw and Jennie and Fred Guevarez and his grandchildren Kaitlin, Ella, Luke, Leah, Louis Jr., and Madison.

In lieu of flowers, kindly make a donation to The American Lung Association.

Joseph J. Rozek

Joseph J. Rozek 96 of Streetsboro, Ohio, died Wednesday, Aug. 8.

He was born on April 5, 1916 in Holyoke, Mass. to John and Salomea (Majewski) Rozek. A former resident of Kearny, he has lived in Streetsboro since 1985.

Joseph was a U.S. Army veteran, a member of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mantua, Ohio and had worked in maintenance for Egyptian Lacquer.

Survivors include his daughters Christina (Richard) Baksa of Clifton, Theresa (Robert) Dobies of Oakridge and Lucille (William) Curtin of Shalersville Twp., Ohio; seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, wife Regina, three sisters and two brothers.

Arrangements were by Shorts Spicer Crislip Funeral Home Streetsboro Chapel. A funeral Mass was held at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mantua, Ohio, followed by burial in Evergreen Cemetery in Streetsboro, Ohio. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials to the Portage County APL, P.O. Box 927, Ravenna, OH 44266 or Pilot Dogs, Inc., 625 West Town Street, Columbus, OH 43215.

Condolences may be expressed at www.sscfuneralhomes.com.

National Night Out in Kearny draws crowds

An estimated 500 people turned out for Kearny’s annual observance of National Night Out and there were attractions for every age level.

 

Photos courtesy Kearny Police Dept./ A Jumping Castle for youngsters

Photos courtesy Kearny Police Dept/ Hose spraying, courtesy of Kearny Fire Dept

 

A visiting State Police North Star chopper.

 

Classic cars

 

A band of local teachers

 

Unloaded police weapons and shield

News from the Lyndhurst Police blotter

Aug. 8

• At 9:33 a.m. the owner of a 1997 Volkswagen reported that someone entered the vehicle while it was parked in the 200 block of Newark Ave. and removed a GPS unit valued at $125 from the glove box. Police believe the car was left unlocked.

• At 9:22 a.m. police said the owner of 2000 Toyota Camry called to report that their vehicle had been burglarized while it was parked in the 200 block of Newark Ave. Police said the owner told them the thief took a $100 GPS unit and tossed the contents of the glove box on the floor of the car. Police said the car was unlocked at the time.

Aug. 7

• Someone stole $10 in bills and change, plus a cigarette lighter, from a 2003 Buick while it was in a shopping plaza parking lot at 425 Valley Brook Ave. Police said the vehicle was unlocked when the burglary took place. The incident was logged at 9 p.m.

• At 2:17 p.m. police were called to the Englewood Tire shop on Page Ave. where two customers in the waiting room were believed to be under the influence. Police charged Lorianne Stamatio, 43, and Alexandro Stamatio, 51, both of Lyndhurst, with possession of suspected crack cocaine with intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of a school zone. Police said they had more than $1,000 in cash at the time. Both were taken to the Bergen County Jail, Hackensack, on $15,000 bail each, with no 10% cash option.

Aug. 4

• At 12:18 a.m. police said officers pulled over a 2002 Acura which was traveling north on Ridge Road near Kingsland Ave. after observing that the vehicle’s front headlight was out. The driver, David Camacho, 20, of Lyndhurst, was ticketed for the inoperable headlight, DWI and careless driving.

— Ron Leir

BREAKING NEWS from Nutley Blotter

A Nutley teenage girl had a close call with a prowler on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 13, police said.

Here is the account given by authorities:

At 1:49 p.m. police received a frantic phone call from a Nutley woman at her New York workplace. The woman told police she was just on the phone with her 15-year-old daughter who was home alone with an intruder inside the E. Passaic Ave. residence.

Police said the teen told her mother she was hiding in a second-floor linen closet and, after hearing the intruder coming up the stairs, hung up.

As investigators later learned, the intruder opened the door to the closet but never spotted the teen who had concealed herself under bed linens in the closet which, according to one investigator, was about three feet wide and a foot and a half deep.

While rummaging through several rooms, police said the intruder, apparently scared off by the sound of sirens from approaching patrol cars, ran out of the house, in the process, setting off a home security alarm system.

Ahmed Serrano

After getting a description of the suspect, police managed to capture a man matching that description just a block away with items taken from the house still on him.

Ahmed Serrano, 51, of Newark, was arrested on charges of burglary and theft. Nutley investigators are working with Bloomfield P.D. on other burglaries to which Serrano may be linked, according to police.

Nutley Police Chief John Holland said the teen had suffered trauma as a result of her narrow escape from the suspect.

Mayor/Public Safety Director Alphonse Petracco commended the actions of the police in quickly apprehending the suspect. He said he was happy that the teen was unharmed.

Serrano, meanwhile, is being held at the Essex County Jail on $50,000 bail. According to police, Serrano had just been released from jail in connection with an unrelated crime three days ago. – Ron Leir

 

Up against ‘Blue Wall’

PHOTO COURTESY GARY TOMASELLA/ TONY ABILIO AND HIS SON, CRISTIAN

 

By Ron Leir

NORTH ARLINGTON –

Judging from the complaints he’s filed against the borough, it’s probably safe to say that Tony Abilio dreads going to his job.

Abilio, who has served as a North Arlington police officer since July 1999, says that for the past several years, he’s been subjected to “an intolerable, abusive, and hostile work environment” and “violations of (his) civil rights.

”Papers filed with Bergen County Superior Court in Dec. 2011 by the officer’s attorney Steven A. Varano allege that Abilio’s misfortunes began May 20, 2009, with the posting of a newspaper photo on the locker next to Abilio’s at police headquarters.

The photo, according to the lawsuit, depicted a disabled young man sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Portuguese flag – an image that rattled Abilio, who is Portuguese and whose son, Cristian, suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, rendering him “paralyzed and wheelchair-bound,” the lawsuit says.

That picture was packaged with a story about an organization that assists persons with disabilities.

Abilio has lost two other children “from complications due to disabilities.” This tragedy, along with Cristian’s plight, “is well known in the Department because (Abilio) has sought leave due to the death of his two children and due to Cristian’s illness.”

Abilio took down the picture which he found “highly offensive and insensitive.”

“Five days later, on May 25, 2009, (Abilio) entered the (Police) Department’s locker room and again found the same newspaper photograph reposted (on the same locker).” Once the officer assigned to that locker saw the photo, he removed it.

After Abilio filed a complaint with the Department about the incident, an internal affairs investigation was initiated and, subsequently, two officers received letters of reprimand.

Since then, the lawsuit alleges, a superior officer criticized Abilio for having “ratted out” two fellow cops and Abilio “has been totally ostracized in the Department.”

He has been hit with “bogus disciplinary charges and an unwarranted suspension,” twice bypassed for promotion, removed from the Firearms Instruction Unit, given “unfavorable shift assignments,” denied training opportunities and denied family leave to care for his child and spouse, all “in retaliation” for the initial complaint about the photo, the lawsuit says.

In November 2009, the lawsuit says Abilio was bypassed for promotion as the result of Abilio being pressured not to contest an eightday disciplinary suspension (stemming from a civilian complaint) and agreeing to waive his right to promotion for three years – which, a separate complaint alleges, was, at the time, “unenforceable.”

In August 2010, the lawsuit states, Abilio “opened his mailbox at home (in Montville) and found inside a plastic bag filled with excrement.” Abilio reported the incident to Montville Police and suggested that the incident “may be connected” to his issues with North Arlington.

Abilio is seeking payments “for seniority level back pay and front pay, restoration of all seniority and all employee benefits …, compensatory damages for pain and suffering as well as loss of earnings …, damages for reputational and career development injury” along with legal costs and “remediation of (the Department’s) discrimination and retaliation through affirmative action….”

No trial date has yet been scheduled, according to Varano.

In a separate action, Abilio filed a complaint, dated Jan. 30, 2012, with the New Jersey Merit System Practices and Labor Relations Appeals Unit alleging that the borough bypassed him in a sergeant promotion made Feb. 25, 2011.

“Despite being the number one ranking candidate the Borough, using the so-called “Rule of Three,” bypassed (Abilio) in favor of (another officer), the second ranking candidate,” the complaint states. “It should be noted that (the new sergeant’s) sister is married to the son of the Borough’s Mayor.”

And, the complaint continues, “The Borough’s resoluteness in refusing to promote (Abilio), notwithstanding his superior abilities, is the result of personal animosity and continuing retaliation against him, stemming from his assertion of his legal rights. … and not based upon merit as required by New Jersey law.”

Borough Attorney Randy Pearce had no comment on the litigation.

On May 24, the Borough Council voted to retain Thomas B. Hanrahan and Associates, a Hackensack law firm, as special counsel at $150 an hour to represent the borough in connection with the promotion bypass appeal.

On Aug. 1, Sgt. Scott Lewis retired from the North Arlington Police Department after 25 years of service. (He was earning a base salary of $139,921 and he was entitled to 135 days of accumulated terminal leave plus an annual pension, the cash value of which have yet to be calculated.) Mayor Peter Massa, a former borough cop, said the governing body “was considering additional promotions to fill the T.O. (Table of Organization)” but no decision had been made whether to proceed yet.

The T.O. for police sergeant permits up to seven appointments for that rank and Lewis’s retirement creates a vacancy in that rank.

An existing state Civil Service certified appointment list for sergeant in the North Arlington Police Dept., issued May 15, 2012, shows Abilio first on that list. Ranked second, third and fourth, respectively, are Officers Michael Hofmann, Gabriel Fiore Jr., and PBA president David Ryan.

Asked whether he has recommended anyone for promotion to sergeant, Police Chief Louis Ghione told The Observer, “That information is confidential and I’m not going to share it.”

When Massa was asked about the allegations raised in the lawsuit, he replied: “In view of the litigation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment now. He can make all the allegations he wants – proving it is another matter.”

Estate sues for Hood pay

Photo courtesy of Councilman Kevin Kennedy

 

Belleville named a playground (above) for former Township Clerk Mary Lou Hood (below) after she died.

 

By Ron Leir

BELLEVILLE –

A little more than a year after she died, the Township of Belleville named a park in her honor.

Belleville High School established a memorial scholarship in her name.

She is lauded as the longest serving municipal clerk in Belleville’s extended history.

Yet now, the family of Mary Lou Hood is suing the township to collect money they say the township owes her.

In a lawsuit fi led Dec. 2011 the township, initially in Essex County Superior Court, but since transferred to U.S. District Court in Newark, Hood’s estate and heirs are seeking “judgment for compensatory and punitive damages, treble damage, counsel fees, costs of suit and interest….”

The complaint, filed by local attorney Frank J. Cozzarelli, says that when Hood died, in late November 2002, she “had accumulated approximately 509, plus or minus, sick, vacation and compensatory days.”

Hood, who was appointed as the municipal clerk in 1979, was still a township employee at the time of her demise.

As of last week, when interviewed about the litigation, Cozzarelli slightly revised that calculation, reporting that Hood had amassed “244 sick days, 152 vacation days, three personal days, and 43.75 compensatory days,” all unused.)

Cozzarelli estimated that that the aggregate amount of time had a potential cash value of “about $102,000.”

At any rate, according to the legal complaint Hood’s estate first solicited payment, through counsel, for the accumulated time in March 2003 but it wasn’t until November 2011 that the township, ultimately, “denied payment.”

Asked about the prolonged lag time between the initial request and the township’s response, Cozzarelli offered the following explanation: “When (Hood) passed away, unlike all the other situations where they’ve had people with accrued vacation and sick time, the township took the position she wasn’t entitled to (any payments) because she died – she didn’t retire.” And, therefore, the township reportedly reasoned, the estate wasn’t entitled to anything, Cozzarelli said.

In response, Cozzarelli continued, “we filed a (Superior Court) complaint in 2008 and we actually were in negotiations and close to settling matter and then the budget crisis hit (the township), and we agreed not to press the matter.”

But, the attorney said, “Eventually, it became apparent that the township, due to its financial situation, wasn’t willing to settle under the terms we’d been discussing and I elected to file a new complaint.”

Ultimately, Cozzarelli said, “My hope was we could get back to the bargaining table with the township.”

The lawsuit asserts that the township has “misinterpreted and misapplied” local ordinances to deny the estate the money to which Hood was entitled.

In November 2011, the lawsuit says, the Township Council “attempted to pass a resolution that would have clarified the misinterpretation of the Belleville ordinances governing the payment (of) sick and vacation time.”

The expectation was, according to Cozzarelli, that the council would “have a determination made by the Township Manager as to what the overall calculation was (for the time owed Hood) and then to pay it out. That didn’t happen.”

The proposed resolution ended up tabled, the lawsuit contends, “because the council was advised that the presentation of the resolution or any law regarding the matter would have resulted in the indictment of any elected official that voted in favor of such an enactment.”

In fact, the lawsuit says, “The free will of the elected officials involved was suppressed and otherwise inhibited by the Township Manager in contravention of the Faulkner Act whereby the power to adopt legislation and to interpret legislation is vested in the elected officials and governing body,and not in the appointed manager.”

Instead of allowing the elected officials to act, “The Township Manager has obstructed and otherwise destroyed the rights of (the estate). Further, Township officials misrepresented that their true intention (was) to budget sufficient funds to pay the (estate’s) claim,” the lawsuit alleged.

Victor Canning, who was Township Manager at the time of these discussions, denied giving the governing body any input. “It was the township attorney (Tom Murphy) who gave legal advice,” he said. “Victor Canning never had an opinion about it.” Canning, who now works as Montville Township Administrator, recalled that Councilman Kevin Kennedy, who had a personal relationship with Hood, urged the council to act on Hood’s behalf.

Murphy declined to talk about the matter.

Cozzarelli said he has refiled his complaint in federal court, alleging “deprivation of constitutional right to due process.”

“We have every interest in resolving this,” he said.

Cozzarelli noted that Hood’s family “goes way back to the early history of Belleville. Her father was an employee of Belleville and at least three of her children served the township. Her son, Charles, is a recently retired deputy police chief who now works in the township’s IT department; another son, Jack, is a police captain; and her daughter, Annemarie Krusznis, works for the municipal court.”

Charles Hood has also been a longtime participant in the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics; he’s been an active participant with the Belleville Soccer Association, as longtime coach and president, and with the Metro Youth Soccer League; and has also coached Little League.

An obituary tribute attributed to Councilman Kevin Kennedy says that Hood, who was 66 when she passed away, “held the town together” as the form of local government changed from commission to council. Hood was “beloved by all in the county and state and helped all.”

Hood was one of the three founding members of the Belleville Irish Association when it was created in 1989.

In 2003, the Belleville Township Clerk’s Office was named in her memory and in January 2004 the governing body adopted an ordinance naming the playground at 10-44 Riverdale Ave. (Fairway Park) as the “Township Clerk Mary Lou Hood Memorial Park.”

Charter school back for 2nd year at Holy Cross

Photo by Ron Leir

 

By Ron Leir

HARRISON –

The tenant occupying the former Holy Cross School on Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. has reupped for another year.

And so, the more than 400 youngsters who’ve been coming to that location from Newark for the past year will continue to do so starting in September.

The Holy Cross School is where Lady Liberty Academy Charter School has been holding its classes ever since it was displaced from its original site on Pennsylvania Avenue near Lincoln Park in Newark where it lost its lease.

Lady Liberty had hoped to be back in its home district in time for this fall term but its new space isn’t ready yet, according to Lady Liberty Executive Director Glen Pinder.

Back in 2011, Pinder said, “We were supposed to colocate at the Dayton St. School (in Newark) but they didn’t want to share their building with us and the state Department of Education (DOE) gave us a waiver to come to Harrison.”

Since then, Pinder said that Lady Liberty – one of 18 charter schools funded by Newark’s Public School District – had planned to move to a different Newark site “but that didn’t work out.” It has a $7.8 million budget that supports 81 staff members.

Now, Pinder said, Lady Liberty has negotiated a “master lease” for a building in Newark’s Vailsburg section. “It will actually be an add-on to an existing building that is now under construction.” He declined to give the location.

In the meantime, he said Lady Liberty “got an extension to our fi rst waiver from the (DOE) to stay in Harrison an additional year (2012-2013).”

“We like it here,” Pinder said, “but we can’t stay (indefinitely).”

But stay they will for now and Pinter expects the school will continue to get wonderful cooperation from the town. “They let us use their (soccer) field, the local businesses have been good to us and the town has helped us with our fundraising,” he said.

The only downside – for some families – is the inconvenience of getting to and from Holy Cross School – a distance of about 2.5 miles from Lady Liberty’s former base in Newark. To help those families who can’t transport their children, Lady Liberty has arranged for a caravan of yellow school buses to handle that task. Unfortunately, that means a lot of kids can’t participate in afterschool activities, Pinder acknowledged.

Enrollment at the school has pretty much stayed consistent, with the last offi cial count coming in at 468 for kindergarten through eighth grade, according to school records.

And there’s a “waiting list” of 213 kids, which, for Pinder, is evidence that the school must be doing something right. “We’re a public school, funded by the Newark school district, and anybody can come here who’s a resident of Newark and expect to receive a quality education,” he said.

While many students aren’t yet stellar scholars, many have made progress, Pinder said. During the 2010-2011 school year, 51% of the school population achieved “high growth” (an improvement of 12 grade points or more) in math and 41% secured high growth in language arts, he said. “We moved in the right direction.”

During the same time period, the number of out-of-school suspensions fell from 470 the prior year to just 25. “That tells you how disruptive this school was,” said Pinder. The improvement, he said, “speaks to the climate and culture of the building. We find ways to reach our kids, to get them involved in the learning process.”

To get the students’ confidence and trust, “we created a safe environment. Our teachers are trained to be very nurturing – hard but fair so long as the kids put forth their best effort,” he said.

Outside fiscal assistance from the Victoria, MCJ Amelier and Gem Foundations for teacher development sessions was “huge in helping us improve our instructional practices,” Pinder said.

Among the school’s extra-curricular activities are a “robust” girls’ basketball program, a championship cheerleaders squad, ballet for kindergarteners, mixed martial arts for grades 5 to 8 and ballroom dancing for eighth-graders.

“We just hired a fantastic music teacher for the fall,” Pinder said. “We want to organize a band and chorus.”

During a two-week period in July, Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to noon, Lady Liberty runs “Kinder Camp,” an opportunity for incoming kindergarten students to get oriented to a school environment. They get to meet their teachers, participate in story-reading and social activities. And students in grades 5 to 8, meanwhile, make up classes they failed during the school year.

Holy Cross School, closed in 2009 as part of an Archdiocesan consolidation plan, was reopened in April 2010 to accept students from Newark’s Wilson Ave. Elementary School when that school was closed for an environmental cleanup.

In September 2011, Lady Liberty took occupancy.