When 2020 began, little did anyone know that a pandemic was less than three months away from hitting the United States and throwing all of our lives into a tailspin. In the weeks preceding the pandemic, our lives were more or less normal. I found happiness in the little things in life. During this time, my attention was focused on my family and my hobbies.
In January, my daughter and I visited Carol Pessin, the wife of Jere Pessin who is a distant relative of mine. She owns an art business called Art Cards, which are hand-painted cards that are sold in many Whole Foods Market locations.
My brother Aaron celebrated his 50th birthday at the World-famous Junior’s Cheesecake Restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn.
In February, my friend Jacky Lee won the Extra Mile award at a holiday party for members of the Staten Island Athletic Club. This was a well-deserved award given how much time and effort she gave volunteering to help pace many other runners in various half marathons and marathons. She also assisted physically-challenged runners from the Achilles Track Club throughout the New York City Marathon.
Jacky would continue her commitment thinking about others by running around the perimeter of Staten Island for 53 miles. This was in honor of my 53rd birthday in June. What a birthday gift!
As I got more politically active in my community with the help of my friend and City Council 47 candidate Steven Patzer, I met up with the mother of Eric Diaz, a young man who was shot in the face by an ICE agent in Brooklyn. At an event that Steven put together, we engaged in a letter-writing campaign that asked local leaders to speak up when many chose to remain silent about this incident.
I worked on a TV gig portraying an aircraft crash victim. It took about an hour to put fake skin on my face and make up my hands to make me look like I suffered horrible burns from a plane crash. When filming was over, it took another hour to remove the fake skin and makeup.
As COVID19 entered our world in March, my attention began to be divided between the needs of my family and the needs of my community. This virus tested me as a human being. At first, due to the uncertainty of the virus and the increasing numbers of deaths across the Nation, I was very fearful that I’d die from it. As time went by and as I saw friends heroically helping the most needy populations in my community, I overcame my fears and bravely went out to join them in their efforts.
I joined Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus as she set out every Saturday afternoon to help residents of Coney Island who were most affected by COVID19. We delivered face masks, protective gloves, and hot food using contactless delivery procedures. Mathylde’s group of fearless heroes included Steven Patzer, Reyna Gobel, Jacky Lee, Jose Gonzalez, Kouichi Shirayanagi, Damien Charles, and Ajamu Osborne.
April was one of the deadliest months for COVID19. While the TV news reported grim statistics on a daily basis, I went out every week to help those in need. I started to volunteer for the South Brooklyn Mutual Aid and Bay Ridge Cares, two non-profit organizations that helped those in need. I made so many deliveries for these two organizations that by the end of the year, I had driven 490 miles throughout Brooklyn. I delivered care packages to 218 families, 199 hot meals to the elderly, 22 toys to children, 326 face masks, and 3,000 PPE face shields to hospital staff at Maimonides Hospital.
I was concerned about the collapsing economy and thought of ways we could help keep local businesses afloat. One business I tried to help was the Flagship Brewery. After getting beer delivered from Flagship, I asked the owners of the company if I could hold a weekly contest to promote their beer. I made up a trivia question each week and posted it on my Facebook account. Those who answered it correctly would be put into a drawing. The winner received a 6-pack of beer delivered to their door. The owners of Flagship loved this idea and supported it. I continued the contest for several weeks.
Working with my fellow teachers at the preschool I work at, I collected about 60 photos of our students posing with their rainbow drawings. With the help of local graphic designer Alex Marmolejos of AM Print NY, we created a dozen “Thank You!” posters with all the children’s photos on them. I hand-delivered them to hospitals, police precincts, and other institutions. Many were grateful to receive them. You can read more about this story in the article here.
In May, I started a used running shoe drive through gotsneakers.com. This organization gives money in exchange for old running shoes. I began collecting running shoes from running clubs and organizations throughout Brooklyn and Staten Island. By the end of 2020, I had collected 756 pairs of shoes and donated $400 to the South Brooklyn Mutual Aid. This amount was enough to feed 13 families for a week.
I continued to spread myself to whereever I was needed. I helped James Raffone, whose son Jamesy is afflicted with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, a rare disease with no known cure. Children with that disease become wheelchair-bound by the time they are teenagers and often don’t make it into their 20s. I volunteered a few hours of my time to help James with a clothing drive that benefitted the Jar of Hope, an organization whose sole goal is to find a cure for DMD.
In June, Coney Island had its own march for racial equality. I joined Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus, Steven Patzer, Reyna Gobel, Damien Charles, and others as we marched along the Coney Island Boardwalk.
By the end of June, I had already spent four months teaching my preschool class remotely. For graduation day, I decided to visit the homes of each of my students with my two teacher assistants, Maria Caceres and Malgorzata Michalewicz. We handed them their diplomas and a small gift, then took pictures with each of them. It was a bittersweet day full of happy tears, especially from their parents.
My cousin Jeffrey Kulls got married to a lovely woman named Frances. I attended their ceremony, but I had to be careful due to COVID restrictions. Unfortunately, immediately after exchanging their vows, Jeff had to be sent to the emergency room at the nearby hospital (he was okay after that). I spent the next hour or so getting to know Frances more. She has a very good rapport with people and is also funny.
In July, I wanted to get away from everything. Camping and the outdoors is always a great escape for me and my family. We went to a family campground in Pennsylvania. We rented a small cabin in the woods there. It was what we needed at the moment.
Now that it was August, there were only three more months left until Election Day. My cousin David Greene was preparing to hold a weekly series of remote phonebanking events to help elect Joe Biden for President. Every Thursday, I worked from my desktop computer calling voters living in different states to encourage them to vote for Biden. I worked with about a dozen other callers and each week we’d call voters from a different state. We called voters in Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Nevada. It was an eye-opening experience for me to hear about the many thoughts, feelings, and fears from people across America.
One day, I needed to make a spare house key and decided to support the local hardware store around the corner from where I live. When I gave the owner Mr. Leung my key, he was very excited to help me. I noticed a “For Rent” sign in the window and commented on it. He said that his business is dying due to COVID19. Feeling that I had to do something to help him, I took a picture of his hardware store, then I posted it on my Facebook account asking for everyone reading my message to please support his store. Within a week, my post was viewed by over 4,500 people and shared 6,200 times. On a local level, it went viral. I don’t know how many new customers actually visited Mr. Leung’s store due to my post, but when I passed by his store days after that, Mr. Leung seemed very happy and grateful to me.
After applying to be a Census enumerator in June, I finally got hired and started working in September. Working this job was very exciting and challenging. The challenge was in trying to count homes of people who were never home or who refused to answer their doors. Most people were friendly while others were hostile and belligerent.
During the deadliest part of the COVID pandemic in April, my brother Aaron was the only employee at his job who accepted a temporary job taking care of special needs adults who were in the hospital recovering from COVID. He himself contracted COVID and had to self-quarantine for two weeks. In honor of his bravery to take on this job, he was invited to a special ceremony given by the Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. He was handed a citation for his bravery along with about 80 other brave Brooklynites who went above and beyond the call of duty during this time.
I found a photo of two friends, Andrew Windsor, a Republican and Steven Patzer, a Democrat. They were working together to help clean up the beach at Coney Island Creek. This photo was meaningful to me for it showed members of two political parties working together for a common goal. I added text to the photo and turned it into a motivational meme.
In October, I was asked by Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus to find some teenagers who were willing to distribute and hang campaign flyers for pay to help with her reelection campaign. My niece Emma Gail Pesin and my former preschool student Selvin Ramirez were both up for the job. They distributed promo cards to homes and apartments and hung posters throughout her district. As it turns out, Selvin was interested in politics and wants to become a community leader one day. Working this job was a perfect fit for him.
In the Bensonhurst Parents Facebook group, one parent complained about how dirty Seth Low Park was getting. She posted photos of garbage strewn throughout the park. Other parents chimed in and made similar complaints. When I read their comments, I realized that nothing was going to get done through complaining. I then suggested that we all chip in and help clean up the park ourselves. Parents started to notice my comment and agreed with me. Within a few weeks, I organized a park cleanup. The Parks Department provided the tools and about a dozen families provided the manpower. We got the whole park cleaned up within two hours. Families were grateful to be included in this cleanup. It was a great experience for all. If I ever become a real leader one day, organizing this park cleanup will be a defining moment for me.
I have run the NYC Marathon several times, so I know what it’s like to run a marathon in the greatest city in the world. During the pandemic, all running events were cancelled and became “virtual” races. Runners can still run these races, but only on their own. For those who were registered for the 2020 NYC Marathon, I thought that this was a real bummer. I came up with an idea and David Panza, the President of the Staten Island Athletic Club, immediately approved it. My idea was for SIAC and Lisa Lubarsky, President of the Richmond Rockets (another Staten Island running club) to work at separate aid stations, create a marathon-distance course, then invite runners to run it. We called it the 2020 Staten Island Virtual Marathon, which then became a reality. 26 runners crossed the finish line on Sunday, November 1 with big smiles on their faces. Some even cried tears of joy. It was a great feeling to able to produce a running event that put smiles on so many faces in the midst of a pandemic that tried to destroy our spirits.
2020 began uneventfully, then transformed into a worldwide horror show, and ended with a gesture of hope. In December, I received my first dose of an experimental COVID19 vaccine.
My year wouldn’t have been complete without being inspired by new friendships that I’ve made throughout 2020. Each of the people below have helped make this year memorable for me. They are leaders in each of their respective fields.
Jose Gonzalez has been a member of the Guardian Angels since 1994. I met him while we both helped members of the Coney Island community who were most affected by COVID. Jose, while tough on the outside, was very personable, down-to-earth, and friendly. He shared with me all kinds of stories of how gritty and crime-ridden New York was back in the day and the many crazy situations he went through while patrolling the streets of New York as a Guardian Angel. He’s a great guy to chill with. I can sit for hours and hear his stories.
Steven Patzer was born to be a leader. I met him over a year ago at a Southern Brooklyn Democrats meeting. When it comes to community involvement, this guy is a human dynamo. And he possesses the triple threat of being intelligent, resourceful, and uniting. For the past two years, he has put on over 40 events benefiting our community. Along with his dedicated assistant, Reyna Gobel, he has worked tirelessly addressing the many issues that are unique to our community. I’ve been volunteering with him throughout the pandemic by delivering PPE and food to residents throughout the South Brooklyn communities. Steven is currently running to lead the City Council District 47 seat and has a very real chance of winning it.
Michael Ortiz is an ultrarunner who I’ve heard about, but never met until the end of 2020 while running with him and ultrarunner Phil McCarthy as they attempted a 50-mile run around the perimeter of Brooklyn. Michael had recently completed his “Game of Hundos” by running one hundred 100-mile races over 100 weekends. During the pandemic when all races were cancelled, he ran a loop around his living room that equalled 100 miles. He repeated this many times for he was resolute in not letting the pandemic destroy his goals. Now, when I think of goal-setting, I think of Michael. Michael’s inspiration came from his brother David who died in a tragic accident. Before his death, he told Michael to “live his life”. His brother was training for the NYC Marathon at the time. This was the seed of inspiration that helped Michael achieve his astonishing ultrarunning goals.
Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus represents the communities of Bay Ridge and Coney Island. While I knew of her before the pandemic, COVID19 created a situation where I ended up supporting her office as we helped those most affected by the virus living in the Coney Island community. While I have met other political leaders before, working closely with Mathylde gave me a direct glimpse into seeing a leader’s relationship with their community. I have found Mathylde to be an individual of high principles with great ideas and the willingness to set aside her own ego to improve her community. Mathylde has shown me that there are great leaders out there and that not all of them have self-serving agendas. It saddens me to know that some media outlets have tried to portray her in a negative light through blatant lies about her work.
Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, I came across an organization called South Brooklyn Mutual Aid. Whitney Hu was the SBMA’s fearless leader. She worked day and night to secure volunteers, donations, care packages, and more for underrepresented families throughout South Brooklyn who were most affected by the pandemic. I was one of 40 drivers who came to their warehouse in Sunset Park every Saturday to pick and deliver care packages to these families. Whitney was always there making sure that the logistics for everything were being addressed. From ordering food to diapers to children’s books to free Metrocards, Whitney made sure that every need for these families was met week-after-week. In early December, she announced that she was dropping out of her race to win the City Council District 38 seat so that she can continue to focus all of her energy on helping these families. By the end of 2020, the SBMA had delivered 30,000 care packages to families throughout South Brooklyn under Whitney’s leadership.
I first “met” Tad Cromwell while at a zoom meeting with the Southern Brooklyn Democrats club. Tad is a certified fitness instructor who was a special guest speaker at the meeting. His speech about how we can improve our lives through fitness was very inspiring and it motivated me to join his fitness classes. Tad used to be an out-of-shape unmotivated couch potato. One day, he decided that enough was enough and began his journey towards better health through exercise and nutrition. He now lives a life of fitness and healthy eating. Throughout the pandemic, he has taught virtual fitness classes to hundreds of people. His business, Better Days Ahead Fitness isn’t just a name, it’s Tad’s message to everyone that while things may not be going the way you want them to right now, there will always be better days ahead. His mantra, “Use the body you have to get the body you want” gives hope to everyone no matter what shape they may be currently in at the moment.