CSI students spend winter vacation working at Costa Rican orphanage

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE — While most college kids spend winter break binging the latest Netflix series, six students from the College of Staten Island gave up their vacation to fly across the globe and volunteer in Costa Rica.

Pablo Llerena, Dea Aga, Blerim Cukovic, Xena Flowers, Shiqirije Salaj and Jorge Villatoro partnered with the volunteer organization UBelong to help with reconstruction projects in Pitahaya, Cartago, Costa Rica.

“Realistically, I know there’s not much impact I can make in Costa Rica,” said Cukovic, a 21-year-old psychology major with a pre-med concentration. “I’m only a pair of helping hands, but that’s enough for this experience to mean a lot to me.”

From Jan. 6 to Jan. 30, the CSI group reconstructed the Hogar de baik Costa Rica (Home of the Children Baik in Costa Rica) orphanage.

Although the group originally signed up for manual labor — they also cared for the children of the orphanage, ranging in age from toddlers to 7 years old.

Cukovic said leaving the kids was tough — but the lessons learned from them will stay with him forever.

“The way they persevere through life is so inspiring,” the Grasmere resident said. “It’s like they were teaching me more than I was teaching them.”


The students stayed with a host family in the developing country. They walked through the towns, worked full-time, seven-hour shifts during the week at the orphanage and “lived life as Costa Ricans” throughout their stay.

The three-week trip marked the first time anyone in the group had been to Costa Rica. They say the experience opened their eyes to the world and humbled them on a personal level.

“It made me realize that we are very lucky to live in New York where we have access to anything that money can buy,” said Dea Aga, 23-year-old biology major from Grasmere. “The main lesson I learned from this trip was to be more humble and take advantage of all the opportunities that come my way.”

Their trip was not free of complication: On their first night, the town where the students lived experienced a black out. Shortly after, ongoing pipe construction left Costa Ricans with no water for a day.


Sure, the idea of “giving back” via helping a community in need warms their hearts, but the group went to Costa Rica in hopes of doing some personal soul searching as well.

“This has always been a bucket list thing for me, to take time and help people who need it,” said Brooklynite Jorge Villatoro, a 23-year-old political science major. “I wanted to start the new year with a new perspective.”

Cukovic said it was simply an opportunity to turn “free time into useful time.”

This article by Victoria Priola was first published February 8, 2017 on www.silive.com.  It is reprinted here with permission.


Former Miss Staten Island, Katlyn Cohen, fulfills dream at Disney University

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE – Great Kills native Katlyn Cohen, Miss Staten Island 2015, is fulfilling her lifelong dream.

The former beauty queen has been asked to participate in the Disney College Program, where she’ll be enrolled in classes at Disney University while serving an internship in entertainment.

“I’ve been dreaming about doing this program since I was 11 years old and I can’t believe my dreams of working for the Walt Disney Company are finally coming true,” says Katlyn.

She adds: “I will also be videotaping my entire journey on my YouTube channel if anyone is interested in following my adventures!” 

The bright, brunette beauty says she is incredibly excited about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and is grateful for the love and support the Miss Staten Island Board, her family and friends have shown.

Katlyn was named Miss Staten Island at only 18 years of age and on her very first try at any pageant competition.

For her talent performance she delivered a dramatic contemporary monologue from the beloved play “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder, having performed it earlier as part of her senior project.

Katlyn, the daughter of Jen and Eric Cohen, chose a hot topic for her pageant platform: “Stop the Texts and Stop the Wrecks.”

To say the former Miss Staten Island looks with enthusiasm toward her trip to the Sunshine State, would be somewhat of an understatement.

Before she ventures down south, however, the College of Staten Island co-ed will be feted by her pageant family and friends at a “Good Luck Dinner” Wednesday, Jan. 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Perkin’s Restaurant on Amboy Road in Eltingville.

All are invited to attend. Note: There’s no entrance fee. Guests are responsible for dinner.

“We are always proud and happy when one of our title holders advances in her dreams,” said Jim Smith, pageant executive director.

All pageant princesses and former contestants are encouraged to attend.

This article by Carol Ann Benanti was first published January 16, 2017 on www.silive.com.  It is reprinted here with permission.



CSI Alumna Sharon Curley Nominated for “Most Inspirational Islander of 2016”

College of Staten Island alumna Sharon Curley is one of the nominees in the Staten Island Advance contest for the “The Most Inspirational Islander of 2016.” Graduating from CSI’s Nursing Program 30 years ago, Curley is now a Pediatric Nurse and Mental Health Advocate. The West Brighton resident has been called a “hard-working nurse, non-traditional student and phenomenal role model…,” as was reported on Staten Island (SI) Live.

To read the full story and to vote, visit the SI Live Web Site.



[videos, gallery] CSI pathway remembers Willowbrook’s sad past, eyes future

Geraldo Rivera, Michael Cusick, and William J. Fritz joined together for the groundbreaking and launch of the Williowbrook Mile walking and remembrance trail.

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE – Almost 30 years after the Willowbrook State School for the developmentally disabled closed its doors and released its patients from deplorable conditions, a new pathway at the site of the former facility will unite the sad past with an optimistic future.

Now on the 383 acres that made up the state school is the College of Staten Island, Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council and the Elizabeth Connelly Resource Center, all of which have collaborated to create the Willowbrook Mile, a path a little more than a mile long that winds through the campus. Ten stations along the pathway have signs with information about the Willowbrook site. They will later include interactive kiosks, some with audio/visual components.

Learn more about The Willowbrook Mile Collaboration [PDF] and the view the Willowbrook Mile Photo Gallery>

Diane Buglioli, Michael Kress, Bernard Carabello, Geraldo Rivera, Michael Cusick, and William J. Fritz cut the ribbon in between Stations 1 and 2 of the Willowbrook Mile.

A groundbreaking took place at the site on Wednesday morning, with TV journalist Geraldo Rivera among the guests to speak about the horrible conditions of the institution that closed in 1987.

While the Advance had written stories in the 1970s about the conditions for children and adults, it wasn’t until Rivera’s expose’ with Eyewitness News that folks off the Island took notice.

View the Willowbrook Mile website>

Rivera met Bernard Carabello, then a young man, while he was living at Willowbrook and remained in touch with him all these years. Both attended the groundbreaking.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TahJZ6GpgAk[/youtube]Carabello left the institution at age 21 and now at 66, he is wheelchair-bound and lives an independent life.

“The amazing thing is how normal his life is,” Rivera said, after being in a place for so long that devalued human life and saw it as something to hide away.

Seeing the crowded, unclean conditions in which people lived at Willowbrook “still weighs on my psyche, on my heart,” he said.

“They were warehousing people with disabilities here,” Rivera explained. “They were getting them out of sight … it was concentration camp-like.”

While life “was being squandered” behind the walls of the buildings, now the deinstitutionalization of disabled people allows them to live in their communities with appropriate care.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w7L9kScuLg[/youtube]The path represents celebrating everything that has changed, yet remembering what happened, Rivera said.

Former Willowbrook employee Diane Buglioli was among the several speakers at Wednesday’s groundbreaking.

She is deputy executive director of A Very Special Place, a not-for-profit that provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and recalled her first day of work at Willowbrook in 1969.

She was given a heavy steel key that she keeps to this day — she held it up, banged it against the microphone, dropped it on the podium to demonstrate its weight and density.

It was to be used to unlock door after door — heavy, steel doors at the institution.

On her first day, going through all the locked doors, she grew concerned that she might be in jeopardy from whatever lay behind the doors.

“What have I gotten myself into, maybe this was not such a good idea,” she remembers thinking.

Opening up the last door, “I found behind it 40 toddlers,” she said. “Some smiling, some asking me my name, others were silent, just looking at me. Some walked toward me, some were lying in wooden carts and some were sitting on the floor. But they all shared one undeniable truth: they were all little children. To this day, I can still feel the twinge in my stomach thinking to myself, ‘Why are these kids locked behind these doors?'”

“Having seen such injustice, one must ensure it is not repeated,” she said. “No one should be isolated, deprived of care and the tools to thrive and live a productive life simply because they require some assistance to do so.”

At the time, state Sen. John Marchi, Assemblywoman Elizabeth Connelly and Assemblyman Eric Vitaliano championed the closing of the facility, something that Assemblyman Michael Cusick noted on Wednesday.

He secured $125,000 for the project and said, “I wish I could be a third of the legislator those three were.”

Speaking of Connelly, a fierce advocate for the disabled, Cusick said to the stakeholders, “I know that she’s very proud right now of all of you for this project that we are going to start today … she wanted to make sure that the future generations knew exactly what happened here and what is happening presently and in the future. It’s her legacy, I believe, that lives on with a project like this.”

Written by Rachel Shapiro for the Staten Island Advance and published September 14, 2016 on www.silive.com. It is reprinted here with permission.  

CSI Alumnus James J. Kuffner featured in SI Live Story

College of Staten Island (CSI) alumnus James J. Kuffner was featured in an article on the Staten Island Live website.  The story, “Kuffner brothers garner accolades for high achievements,” details the accomplishments of Kuffner and his brothers over the years.  Kuffner received a Bachelor of Arts from CSI and recently retired from The University of Portland, after 32 years of serving in many capacities.

Read the full article on Staten Island Live.



From Staten Island to Iowa: CSI grad awarded Truman Capote Fellowship

CSI graduate Julianne Neely is the recipient of the prestigious Truman Capote Fellowship to study creative writing at the University of Iowa. (Neely family photograph)

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE – More than 1,000 miles separate Staten Island from Iowa City, home of the celebrated University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop,the holy grail of aspiring poets and novelists.

That’s where College of Staten Island graduate Julianne Neely is bound in just a few weeks.

Neely, 23, was awarded a prestigious Truman Capote Fellowship to study literature and write poetry and fiction at UI, leading to a master’s degree in fine arts.

“That’s been a dream of mine since high school,” said Neely, an alumna of St. John Villa Academy, Arrochar. “I have always loved reading, and writing as a way to express myself. I feel it’s something I can do well.”

Neely, a Richmond resident, credits her teachers at Villa — where she was in the scholars’ program and completed Advance Placement courses in literature — for instilling her love of literature and creative writing. She credits her professors at CSI — English Professor Cate Marvin in particular — for nurturing and encouraging her talent.

But her road to Iowa was not to be a straight path.

She enrolled for a year at the University of Delaware before she transferred to CSI, where she majored in cinema studies with a minor in English. After earning her bachelor’s degree from CSI in 2014, Neely landed a job with the Children’s Television Workshop, best known as the creators of “Sesame Street” — where she worked until last month.

Neely, however, kept in touch with her professors at CSI, who encouraged her to apply to graduate programs in creative writing. She applied to several colleges and universities, but was wait-listed, she explained.

“But I hadn’t applied to Iowa, and decided I would give it a shot,” she recalled.

She said that Cate Marvin, her adviser at CSI, told her about the Truman Capote Fellowship, “and encouraged me to apply.”

She had to win over her parents — dad Michael Neely is director of the Staten Island CYO —  who were skeptical at first.

“They were somewhat concerned I might just become another struggling writer, but ultimately they wanted me to do what I enjoy,” Neely explained. “Now they’re very proud and supportive of me.”

Neely said she hopes to one day see her work published as a novel, or collection of short stories or poems.For now, however, she plans “to keep reading and keep writing” while she’s at UI.

Among her favorite literary influences are  T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, Franz Kafka, and, of course, Truman Capote.

“When people tell you about working hard, if you’re a writer, the only way to get better is to keep at it. That’s what I want to do.”


This story by Diane C. Lore was published by www.silive.com on July 2, 2016 and is reprinted here with permission.



Flan with a watermelon sangria chaser: Sips and samples at CSI fundraiser

First time entrant Caramelo, owned and operated by Crystal Deosaran, nabbed the first place prize for Best Dessert for her signature take on a classic flan. "I think we might carry that flan — it's delicious," said Ho'Brah's Tommy Casatelli who tasted and loved Carmelo's coconut flan.

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE  — Perfume from ricotta fritters floated through the College of Staten Island’s Center for the Arts atrium. Rivaling that fragrance from New Dorp’s Piece-A-Cake was the scent of cayenne-laced chili and freshly fried mac ‘n’ cheese balls, creations from Baci Neri, resident cook at Castleton Corners’ Beer Garden.

“Ya gotta try the mac ‘n’ cheese balls!” enthused Pat Murphy of Beer Garden who enjoys this fundraising event each year for its good cause and for the restaurant love in the room, so to speak — a camaraderie among chefs and owners who turn out to support scholarships funded by CSI’s Alumnni Association.

View the Photo Gallery on SI Live>

Just before guests entered the building this Sunday afternoon, West Brighton’s Ho’Brah co-owner Tommy Casatelli stopped over to the Liberty Tavern for a selfie with volunteers manning that table. At the Leo’s Deli station just across the atrium, owner Leo Balaj scooped his wife Ella into a hug as the West Brighton sandwich shop’s signature chicken soup steamed away in a kettle. Leo’s homemade soup proved most welcome on this unseasonably chilly and blustery day.

“We’ve got chili, chips and Buffalo wings,” encouraged the staff at Beer Garden. To go with that, Pat Murphy and his colleagues offered sips of brews featured the by-the-bottle at the tavern such as Abita “Bayou Bootlegger” and Bluepoint’s “Blueberry.”

Organizers of the two- hour CSI affair turned up about 200 attendees to the Willowbrook campus at $40 and $50 a guest.

Aunt Butchie’s of Brooklyn served up a massive, supple meatball that oozed fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheese upon prodding with a plastic fork. It was a stunning item by attendees’ standards based on the “wows” and “oohs” from tasters.

While Bean’s ‘n’ Leaves of West Brighton sliced up Cap’n Crunch Waffles alongside cups of hot Joe, Jimmy Max presenters dished up paper boats of crab-stuffed bread Cajun shrimp with mixed greens.

And, roving from table to table among the 40 or restaurants who turned out, were professional chefs and judges du jour Ed Canlon, John Seip and Rob Burmeister, clipboards in hand.

The celeb trio stepped up to Joe Salemini of J’s on the Bay in Rosebank as the chef plated samples of his food.

Chef Joe addressed the judges, “To start with, we have a truffled chicken salad with a truffled mayo, dried cranberries, Granny Smith apples and grapes.”

A deep-fryer kicked in for the next item offered from J’s on the Bay, “A sweet potato croquette with a maple-soy sauce reduction,” a panko-coated bite of candy-like sweetness that ultimately melted into sweet maple on the palate.

Organizers included CSI undergraduates and alum, such as Carole Gervasi and James McBratney, a recent grad of the school and owner of Jimmy Maxx in Westerleigh and Eltingville. They planned a cooking demo for 3 p.m. Presenters included “Delish Dish” caterers and Port Richmond High School culinary student chefs-in-training.

Christina Pilato, a CSI student enrolled in a journalism class, covered the event for a writing assignment. After sampling consideration, her top two dishes were Aunt Butchie’s stuffed meatball and the Richmond Valley restaurant’s accompanying “baked spaghetti.” In third place, she said: It was the creamy coconut flan from Caramelo, a catering company led by Crystal Deosararn from Mariners Harbor who specializes in the dessert.

At the end of the day, the results came in from the judges. And the winners are…

For desserts, Beans ‘n’ Leaves Cafe of West Brighton proved a favorite with freshly pressed Capt’n Crunch waffles and, subsequently, took second prize. First place in the category went to Carmelo, caterer from Mariners Harbor, for individually plated coconut flan.

In third place: Leo’s Deli of West Brighton impressed with his soup and quinoa salad.

“I used to throw most of this salad away when I started serving it because people didn’t know what what it was — keen-what?’ they’d say? Now, they ask for it,” reported Leo earlier in the afternoon.

In second place: Port Richmond High School took the prize with tiny tacos that students shuttled around the room.

“Three bean salad?” asked students from the program as they dished out portions to guests.

In first place: Ho’Brah Tacos was awarded the prize for their assortment of California-style South of the Border fare, particularly the pork breakfast tacos with pickled radishes.

“I think we might carry that flan — it’s delicious,” said Ho’Brah’s Casatelli who tasted and loved Carmelo’s coconut flan.

The Best Table award went to PepperJack Grill in Castleton Corners with its tequila cake shots and watermelon sangria decorated with a wedge of melon.

And, the overall win went to Aunt Butchie’s for its giant, cheese-filled meatball that packed a serious and delicious dose of fresh garlic.

This story by Pamela Silvestri was published by www.silive.com on April 3, 2016 and the Staten Island Advance on April 4, 2016, and is reprinted here with permission.

Sample 30 Staten Island restaurants at ‘Savor the Flavors’ this weekend

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE — This weekend, have some Irish Lasagna and Portuguese Stew, courtesy of Canlon’s Restaurant in Oakwood. Then, move onto Liberty Tavern’s “Not Your Mamma’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese,” with slow-cooked pork butt made at the West Brighton pub.

Find all this plus beer, wine and vodka samples and international nibbles presented by more than 30 restaurants at the annual College of Staten “Savor the Flavor” showcase on Sunday, April 3.

The event happens from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts Atrium on the Willowbrook campus. The cost is $40 if tickets are purchased in advance. They are $50 per guest at the door.

“We are making mini-stuffed meatballs filled with ricotta and mozzarella, and a spaghetti al forno in cognac cream sauce with shrimp and prosciutto,” said an enthused Pete Marcolini of Aunt Butchie’s of Brooklyn, located in Richmond Valley.

The afternoon includes a shot to vote “the best” in the “People’s Choice” award portion of the program. Professional judges of the dishes include Rob Burmeister, Eddie Canlon and John Sierp, former competitors on Food Network’s “Chopped.”

For more information, email alumni@csi.cuny.edu or call 718-982-2290.

Participating restaurants and businesses include:

Afternoone’s of West Brighton

Alfonso’s of Castleton Corners


Aunt Butchie’s of Brooklyn, Richmond Valley

Bayou of Rosebank

Beans and Leaves of West Brighton

The Beer Garden of Castleton Corners

Beso of St. George

Blue of Livingston

Cake Chef of Meiers Corners

Cookie Jar of West Brighton

Canlon’s Restaurant of Oakwood

Caramelo Caterers of Staten Island

The Crazy Taco Tequila Bar of Elm Park

Delish Dishes by Carole Gervasi, Staten Island caterer

Dosa Garden of Tompkinsville

Ho’Brah Taco Joint of West Brighton

J’s on the Bay of Rosebank

Jimmy Max of Westerleigh and Great Kills

Leo’s Deli of West Brighton

Liberty Tavern of West Brighton

Mother Mousse of Grant City and Travis

Oriental Plaza of Bulls Head

Pepperjack Grill of Castleton Corners

Piece of Cake Bakery of New Dorp

Portobello Café of Great Kills

Port Richmond High School Culinary Arts Program

San Rasa Sri Lankan Cuisine of Tompkinsville

Vino Divino, homemade wines from the Travis winery

Zaghloul Grill of New Dorp

This article by Pamela Silvestri was first published March 30, 2016 on www.silive.com.  It is reprinted here with permission.