Eye on the ball: A teacher who’s sailed the world

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO | Laura Zavatto with the tools of her trade.

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO | Laura Zavatto with the tools of her trade.

I ran into Mike Zavatto, long-time owner of the popular West Neck Market, last week in the IGA.

Now retired, Mike lives in Key West when it gets cold and when things warm up he’s here on Shelter Island. In that brief supermarket meeting, he told me where his true love lies. In Key West, he said, they have signs around the town reminding people to keep paradise clean, and he tells the locals about Shelter Island, a place that really is a paradise.

When it comes to loving the Island, Mike’s daughter Laura is a case of the apple not falling far from the tree. Laura came here in 1970 from East Rockaway with her father, her mother, Ginny, and her three sisters, Linda, Janet and Amy. Growing up, she worked in her father’s market and graduated from Shelter Island High School.

While she was in school, Laura basically played all sports. One perk of the Island’s small school was the opportunity to play on all of the teams. Laura competed in field hockey, basketball and softball. (She would have loved to have played volleyball but unfortunately it conflicted with softball.) Laura proudly said that she was even on the first intramural tennis team coached by Teri Piccozzi.

After graduating from high school, she attended Adelphi University, receiving a degree in physical education, and then made the move to New York City and attended Columbia University for her master’s in curriculum and teaching physical education.
I was curious about her motivation to stay in the sports field and she mentioned the school guidance counselor, Carol Taplin. When Laura told Mrs. Taplin she wanted to follow in her footseps, she was told if she truly wanted to work with children and not piles of paper, she should teach. Loving sports, teaching physical education seemed like the perfect choice.

Almost 30 years later, Laura is still teaching at Stagecoach Elementary School in Selden. She also fills her schedule coaching tennis, kayaking and sailing.

Educating children, using the physical aspect of life, fulfills her. She loves watching students gain self-confidence and build self-esteem through various movement experiences from sports like lacrosse and non-traditional activities such as circus arts skills.

In her teaching, she also relies on what’s known in the trade as “character education” and “social emotional learning.”

When I asked about momentous sports memories, she went back to her college days, speaking about the excitement of playing tennis at the National Tennis Center in Queens. Although it was only a one-day event, playing in a place where all the tennis greats had competed was something she will never forget.

However, something that happened in 1989 topped everything that’s occurred in her sporting life.

Laura and her husband Paul Dewsnap took a honeymoon that lasted six years and 32,000 nautical miles, sailing half way around the world on board their 42-foot ketch. That’s right, they sold Paul’s house, put everything in storage, had a bon voyage party at Skip Tuttle’s American Bar and set sail.

After spending the first three years in the Caribbean, it was on to Ireland via Bermuda and the Azores. They liked Ireland so much that they spent a year in Kinsale, an appealing, upscale resort town. Laura taught aerobics at a local hotel and volunteered for the “IFDS Disabled Sailing World Championship,” where she sailed in tandem with paraplegic sailors on mini-trimarans.

Next port-of-call was the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, where they were befriended by an Italian couple who helped with repairs to their boat and as translators. Also, the woman was an Italian physical education teacher, affording Laura an opportunity to work in her school and learn Italian at the same time the students were learning English.

With finances nearly depleted, they started on the journey home. Crossing the Atlantic to Barbados took them 25 days. Next they island-hopped through the Caribbean to Miami before sailing home.

I asked her to remember something about playing sports on the Island. She recalled being one of the first girls to ever play Little League. She and Donna Anderson, Eleanor (Piccozzi) Labrozzi, Helene (Sieni) Starzee and Sue Klenawicus would go to the games packed in the back of Coach Ryan or Coach Cahill’s truck with the boys. The opposing team would see them coming and she could hear them yelling, “They have girls!”

Growing up on Shelter Island was truly special, Laura said. She remembers her neighbor, Jerry Berner, who gave her free tennis lessons and unlimited practice time on his court. With golf, swimming, tennis, sailing, ice skating, bowling, horseback riding, baseball, bike riding, basketball, field hockey, volleyball and running, the Island was a limitless playground.

Today, along with teaching physical education, she is on the board of the Suffolk Zone of the New York State Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. She does workshops for physical educators, writes for a professional journal called, “Strategies” as well as a website called PELinks4U.com.

Since she and her husband are planning on returning to the Island in the near future, her dream job would be to finish her career at Shelter Island High School. We’ll welcome her and wish her the best.