7 Staten Islanders who stepped up to fight COVID-19

City & State recognizes Staten Islanders who have stepped up during the coronavirus pandemic.
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City & State recognizes Staten Islanders who have stepped up during the coronavirus pandemic.

7 Staten Islanders who stepped up to fight COVID-19

At the pandemic’s peak, these heroes put their neighbors first.
November 15, 2020

Scherisce Lewis Clinton

President, South Beach Houses Residents Association

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In her 25th year as president of the South Beach Houses Residents Association, Scherisce Lewis Clinton has focused on helping her community through the pandemic. As the coronavirus upended the economy – and, along with it, the livelihoods of many residents – Lewis Clinton worked with the New York City Housing Authority to make sure the buildings were sanitized regularly and organized mobile food pantries for members of her community.

After ensuring residents had access to groceries, she helped other communities obtain those services as well, partly through contacts with Community Health Action of Staten Island and Project Hospitality, which provided the staples. 

 “Usually, Staten Island is left in the dark with everything,” Lewis Clinton says. “But I got to honestly say I made sure that my residents were taken care of and that they had all of the necessary things that they needed to have, especially food, because we have people that have kids here.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lewis Clinton moved to Staten Island in her 20s and built a life with her two children. She became very involved in her community because her daughter, who has autism, needed vital support. Since then, she has become an integral part of Staten Island. Her husband calls her “superwoman,” but she says her secret is that she accepts life for what it is.

Lewis Clinton says that elected officials from both sides of the aisle helped her and her residents accomplish their goals. In addition to managing the many duties for her community, Lewis Clinton also takes care of her own health, completing dialysis treatment three times a week.

“This is my blessing,” Lewis Clinton says. “I give back to the community wholeheartedly, and God continues to bless me every day by waking me up, and this is why I don't complain. A lot of people didn’t make it as far as me being on dialysis. I have no kidneys at all in my body. They’re all gone, and I literally live on a machine. But I take care of myself, I value life and I’m appreciative of life – I just make it a foot forward.”

Charley Ferrer

Founder and CEO, Cancer Tamer Foundation

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Medically compromised individuals face many challenges due to their heightened vulnerability in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Charley Ferrer, founder and CEO of the Cancer Tamer Foundation, a nonprofit that aids women with breast cancer, organized her community to help women economically, physically and mentally during the pandemic. Ferrer and others purchased groceries to deliver to individuals with cancer who either could not afford them or couldn’t physically go to a supermarket. They were also able to provide $2,000 to help women purchase necessary medicine, and, when buses were not operating regularly, Ferrer and her team would transport individuals to and from their doctors’ appointments. To combat the mental toll of the pandemic, Ferrer organized a Zoom support group, and she started a crochet group to get people excited about doing something other than watching television or going into a negative mindset.

Due to the pandemic, Cancer Tamer lost 90% of its funding – made up mostly of donations – as donors pulled out to cover their own expenses. Because of this, Ferrer donated her own savings to help individuals with cancer facing financial difficulties. Ferrer and other volunteers also worked hard to gear up community support for not just women with breast cancer, but for all individuals. They were able to obtain aid from the Mid-Island Rotary Club, which donated almost $20,000 in scholarship money to individuals on Staten Island. 

Ferrer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. Prior to that diagnosis, she struggled with thyroid cancer. Now cancer-free, she says her passion to help cancer patients emerged through her experience. She wanted to help individuals through education and hoped for a large community to do that.

“I know the fear,” Ferrer says. “I know the vulnerability and the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that comes with this disease, and I want to make sure other women don’t feel that.”

John Maese

Physician, Richmond County Medical Society and Academy of Medicine of Richmond

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A strong advocate for keeping doctors connected to the community, Dr. John Maese had his staff call a number of patients every day to check on their mental well-being at the onset of the pandemic.

“It’s so important to have that doctor-patient bond,” Maese says. “And for people who are alone, it’s very frightening to be by yourself. And so many elderly are by themselves – knowing somebody cared enough to call was really a plus.”

The line of communication between doctor and patient didn’t end there. For years, Maese has been one of the many physicians encouraging hospitals to adopt the telehealth option. Previously, Maese worked on the National Governors Association’s telemedicine team from 2004 to 2006. During the pandemic, Maese worked with other physicians in the Richmond County Medical Society to bring the necessary resources and training to hospitals on Staten Island to make more telehealth appointments possible, especially for the borough’s most vulnerable patients, like the elderly and those who live alone. 

“About 15% of the doctors were using telemedicine before COVID-19, and we were able to convert and give out information and teach the doctors how to do telehealth so that 85% of them were doing telehealth within a month of COVID,” Maese says.

Maese was also involved with the Staten Island Community Organizations Active in Disasters, a coalition of nonprofit organizations and health facilities dedicated to combating the pandemic. It created a communications system to effectively transmit the same information communitywide to avoid misinformation as the pandemic progressed.

Now that physicians have a better understanding of how to effectively treat patients with COVID-19, the group is communicating less frequently. However, Maese and his team continue to stay dedicated to community guidance and ensuring that Staten Island residents feel cared for. 

Ginny Mantello

Director of Health and Wellness, Staten Island Borough President’s Office

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Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Ginny Mantello handled emergency preparedness on Staten Island, along with a variety of other programs related to health and wellness. But Mantello and her team could not have anticipated how their work would be put to use during the pandemic.

Mantello, who has a background in government and is a practicing physician, knew that it would take the combined effort of various agencies in the community to effectively treat coronavirus patients on Staten Island. She spearheaded the Staten Island borough president’s incident command center, blending the medical ecosystem – including not just hospitals, but also physicians from the nursing home sector and chief medical officers – with the community.

“We met daily, sometimes multiple times in a day, and kept a very, very close eye on the situation, not just at the hospitals, but in all of these different sectors,” Mantello says. “I knew back then that this was something that was not just going to be impacting our hospital sector, that in order to have a seamless transition of care, we’re going to need a much more robust team, and so I set up an incident command team mid-March.”

At the time, there weren’t many other places in the United States to look to for guidance on how to properly handle an influx of patients in Staten Island hospitals. Mantello would send information from the daily incident command center meetings to the borough president to help New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo come up with a cohesive course of action for the borough.

As health officials across the state brace for a second wave, the notes that Mantello wrote down earlier this year have been a helpful tool for anticipating a spike during the winter months. Mantello says Staten Island now has a surplus of supplies, and there has been a significant increase in COVID-19 testing and contact tracing in the borough.

“We hope that this time around, there’ll be not only less people that get as severely ill, but less life lost,” she says. 

Susan Fenley

Executive/Artistic Director, Sundog Theatre

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Founded in 2003 by six artists from various boroughs, the Sundog Theatre became one of the first homes for original and contemporary theater in the Staten Island arts community. As theaters across the city closed their doors indefinitely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Susan Fenley immediately began working with her team to keep artists employed any way they could.

Within two weeks, teaching artists with Sundog Theatre made space in their homes to set up livestreams or recorded class sessions for students. Sundog Theatre has worked with over 80 schools on and outside of Staten Island, youth programs, and senior services to provide arts education and programming. 

“We met on Zoom with our teaching artists, and just kind of had a brainstorming session about how we’re going to do this – we wanted to keep them working because they literally had no income,” Fenley says.

Sundog Theatre worked with the Children’s Aid Society to provide online theater classes throughout the summer as well, and found a way to provide safe, in-person experiences for youth during the summer months with safety protocols and a mask mandate in place at a local recreational facility. 

“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen 50 second- through fourth-graders do a show on stage with little masks on. It was very different – but adorable,” Fenley says.

Sundog Theatre has also created new programs rooted in the new online format. “Soundtrack of Life” is a free remote workshop being offered to students 13 to 22 years old to learn how to create their own original music or poetry.

Fenley also teaches acting and public speaking courses at Wagner College on Staten Island. 

“I’m really proud of my profession,” Fenley says. “Even though a lot of people aren’t working how they want to work now, they’re making it work by being able to stay artistic and stay connected and to help other people experience the arts.”

Julio Velez

Fiber Enterprise Technician, Charter Communications

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Like few other resources, the internet has proven to be essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet technicians around the nation had to devise plans of action to bring stable, fast and effective internet everywhere, especially to health care providers that were hit hardest and needed the most communication. 

Julio Velez, an enterprise technician for Charter Communications, was one of those fearless and essential workers who went into the maw of the pandemic to aid hospitals and other locations to provide the best internet connection possible. Velez worked at a variety of hospitals, including Staten Island University Hospital, where he and his team braved working in buildings filled with patients infected with the virus. 

“It was an unforgettable experience,” Velez recalls. “We all wished that we were able to supply the community with the service that they needed to get the system up and running.”

Velez and others worked tirelessly through extended-hour shifts and braved working in the most dangerous sections of some hospitals. Velez says he put on double gloves, N95 masks and boot coverings, and was constantly aware of possible exposure. The team was exhausted and overwhelmed because they were trying to provide multiple locations with service as fast as possible under unprecedented circumstances. 

“It’s rewarding, at the end of what you do, to help the customer, and not only the customer, but the community at the same time,” Velez says.

Velez worked on a variety of buildings, and one sheer transformation induced by the pandemic has stuck with him. Speaking of his work at a particular church, Velez was shocked at how a place of worship was transformed into a testing site. 

“One day you go in, there are people in the cathedral, and the next day, there’s benches lined up and tents in the church,” Velez says. “That’s one of the experiences that I have a vivid vision of still.”

Mark Russo

Chair, Meals on Wheels of Staten Island

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Mark Russo has been lending a hand in the Staten Island community for longer than he’s been working in the nonprofit sector. As chair of Meals on Wheels of Staten Island, Russo knew from his experience as a volunteer in his youth that the need for help never ceases, especially in the most unpredictable of times.

Described jokingly by Russo as the “largest caterer on Staten Island,” Meals on Wheels delivers two meals per day to around 1,200 recipients. When the pandemic hit in March, volunteers continued to come into the kitchen daily to provide meals for residents who, now more than ever, needed healthy meals. What was once also a personal interaction that clients looked forward to every day also had to adjust to social distancing protocols.

“During COVID, a massive part of what we did was just making sure people were OK,” Russo says.

As the Meals on Wheels kitchens continued operating, storage space decreased even as the demand for meals increased. 

“We were barely making it beforehand and now we’ve increased our recipient list by 250 people,” Russo says. “So we’re going to continue to lean on our community and our elected officials – we’ll get through this.”

Russo is also president of RPM Insurance Agency. The bonds he nurtured within the Staten Island community have helped in this time of need. The New York Container Terminal on Staten Island donated an industrial refrigerator to Meals on Wheels while other community members chipped in to cover gas expenses for the extra storage.

Fundraising initiatives have adjusted to a virtual world as well. Meals on Wheels partnered with restaurants in the community to provide donors with a $50 gift card to the restaurant of their choice in exchange for a $100 donation. Russo credits the creativity of Meals on Wheels event planning committees for the success of donations.

“If there was any beautiful lining to it, it was the amount of volunteerism and altruism that came out in our community,” Russo says.

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Kimberly Gonzalez
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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Destine Manson
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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