Island Profile: Soulmates Bryan and Kerri Knipfing

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Bryan and Kerri Knipfing by one of the five rocks on the campus of Camp Quinipet, where he runs the ecumenical youth group and the camp’s summer program.

Two of the freshest faces on Shelter Island are newlyweds Bryan and Kerri Knipfing, who have settled in to their apartment at Camp Quinipet after Bryan’s appointment in July as the assistant director of the Methodist Church’s ecumenical camp and head of the Shelter Island All-Faith Youth Group that is now based there.

Kerri is a substitute teacher at the Shelter Island School who helps handle administrative tasks at Quinipet, a place that  — according to its website — “provides an opportunity for children and youth to experience the outdoors, and discuss and examine their spiritual faith in a safe and fun environment.”

Run for many years by Pastor Bill Grimbol of the Presbyterian Church, the youth group faded away for a while when he left the area two summers ago. Bryan and Kerri are rebuilding the nonprofit program, which is sponsored by the Island’s churches and run by a local board of directors. Quinipet’s director, Greg Nissen, who hired Bryan, is a member. In the summer, Bryan will run Quinipet’s summer camp, which features outdoor activities, sports and games as well as discussion groups.

Married in June, Bryan and Kerri went straight to work at Quinipet after a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda. He’s 28 and from Miller Place; she’s 26 from Farmingville. Both are elementary education majors who met at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. Both grew up deeply involved in their own church youth groups, his Catholic and hers Lutheran.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever fill Pastor Bill’s shoes but we’re trying to get involved in the whole community and the youth group is meant for any teenager,” said Bryan, who over his years here during the summer sometimes helped Pastor Bill.

The youth group meets every Wednesday evening all year from 7 to 8:30 at Camp Quinipet’s Willard Lodge and is open to all high school-age kids. There’s no charge; donations on local churches keep the bills paid. Currently about 15 students take part but the number varies. Basketball practice at this time of year causes some absences.

An evening might start off with a game of some kind. Recently the kids had to try to pop a balloon that each had tied to an ankle. There’s always a theme and that night it was “intersecting.” The play eventually leads to some frank conversations about life.

“We talk about issues they go through as teenagers and see how it all relates to God,” Bryan said. “We try to meet them where they are with whatever faith they have and build on it.”

Bryan got to know Shelter Island through St. Gabriel Retreat Center, where regional Catholic schools and churches sent kids for decades until the Passionist Fathers closed it in 2009. “I used to love going there,” said Bryan, who went as a high school student and later volunteered and worked there, finally serving as assistant retreat director its last summer in operation. After that, he went to work at Quinipet in the summers.

St. Gabe’s “was definitely a chance for me and everybody who went there to figure out what we believed in. To figure out who God was in our lives and to work on a relationship with God — to build on our faith,” he said.  Its closure was “really sad” for everyone who knew the place.

Before his new job here, Bryan was a seventh grade home room teacher at a Catholic school in Port Jefferson, teaching social studies and religion, He knew he wanted to be on Shelter Island. “Once I had the Shelter Island bug in me, I was always looking for a way to get back,” he said. He loved the small town feel of the Island. And kids here are different. “They want to be involved in the program,” he said of his youth group participants. “You can see their excitement. They really care about each other.” They’re also funny and yet “very respectful.”

What makes kids here different, he said, is that “they have a lot of support” from their families, thanks to the small school and the close ties they have with other kids’ families and people in the community. Some kids in bigger communities “don’t have that support and encouragement, that love, and these kids have a lot of ways of getting that.”

When he was teaching, Bryan also worked at Quinipet’s summer camp, getting to know its director, Joe Young. Joe mentioned to Bryan in October 2011 he wanted to move on and that his full-time job would be opening up. “The minute he told me that I think that’s all I could think about and talk about for the rest of that school year,” Bryan said. The director, Greg  Nissen, wasted no time, hiring Bryan over the phone.

It was a quick transition for Kerri, as well.“He was like literally checked out and he was moved here and living here before we were ever even here,” she said with a laugh.

The couple met on a Habitat for Humanities project from St. Joseph’s that Bryan was running in South Carolina during spring break in 2006, when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. After that, Bryan went to work as a volunteer at a Catholic retreat camp in Wisconsin and Kerri got a job teaching first graders at North Shore Christian School in Port Jefferson Station. In 2009, her best friend got a job teaching at the same Catholic school where Bryan landed his last job. She texted Kerri that news, Kerri called Bryan, they got together and started dating.

Kerri’s father is a project manager for a commercial sign company. After raising three kids, her mother went to work in a doctor’s office and later as a secretary to the special ed superintendent in the Patchogue-Medford School District. Her mother is a practicing Lutheran; her father is a Catholic for whom church is of less importance.

Like Bryan, she’d been deeply involved in her church’s youth group when she was in high school. “I spent more time in my church than I did with my friends from high school … it just became part of who I was. Anyone who knows me would tell you church is very important to me and God is a huge part of my life,” she said.

Before they came here as a couple, Kerri had been to the Island to visit Bryan. One summer “he kind of roped me into working at Quinipet as a counselor … and it was not my favorite summer,” she said. “It was fun but exhausting,” too much like her chaotic work as a teacher during the year. “It was just a lot for me to handle,” she said.

She gave up her full-time teaching job last summer and Greg Nissen set her up in a less hectic job helping out in the camp office. “It was difficult” to give up her position “but it seemed like that was where our lives were headed and I wanted to do that for Bryan,” Kerri said.

Of Shelter Island, she said, “I’ve never experienced a place like this before. I just think there’s something really special about the people here, about the environment here. My first experience was over a summer and I think that wasn’t a really accurate description of what this really is.”

Now, being involved in the school as a substitute teacher, she has learned the Island isn’t about flashy summer folk. Families here include some “very humble people” who “live more simple lives than I thought people did” because of her preconceptions about a trendy second-home hangout for the wealthy .

“I didn’t think I would enjoy the quiet as much as I do,” she said of life off-season. She and Bryan are thinking of starting a family here.

“Now when we’re home” in Farmingville or Miller Place, she said, “both of us just want to be back here. We were just home for Christmas break for a week and a half and we got to the point where we said, ‘We’re ready to go back home.’”

“ It’s just the peace of it … I don’t know. It’s not that life here comes to a halt; people keep themselves busy all winter.”

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