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Brett Surerus is the Reporter’s Person of the Year

Selecting a single Person of the Year for 2021 has been particularly challenging because so many Islanders reached beyond their own households to help others.

We salute all those who stepped up, day after day, and continue to do so, as we move toward an end to the pandemic in 2021 and a return to some semblance of normal life.

But one very unassuming person stood out, because of efforts made during the pandemic, and his previous contributions to the community that he has called home all his life.

Brett Surerus is the Reporter’s Person of the Year.

Speak to Brett about the Shelter Action Alliance, which he formed with friend Alex Graham, to improve the plight of medical personnel and Island residents, while helping sustain local businesses, and he’s quick to deflect attention from himself while singing the praises of others.

He is the same man who, with his wife Kelly, put together a team to save Shelter Island’s fireworks program in 2015 when the Chamber of Commerce could no longer afford the beloved tradition of gathering at Crescent Beach for the mid-July spectacular. Without the committee he helped to form, a part of the Island’s summer for generations, creating memories for so many families, would have been lost.

A simple but effective plan

Recognizing the need to help health care workers was easy for Brett — he shares a life with one. Kelly Surerus is a critical care nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and has been among those working 15-hour shifts, giving up days off and holidays in the battle to save lives. Safety protocols prohibited going out for meals, so Kelly would arrive home hungry and exhausted. After some nourishment and a few hours of sleep, she would return to the hospital for another long shift.

While she and her colleagues cared for the sick and dying at the hospital, Brett worked from home, while also attending to the couple’s two young children, Piper, 5, and Jackson, 6.

Brett, along with  Ms. Graham, initiated a program that would keep Island restaurants functioning and also pay them to help feed the staffs at Eastern Long Island and Stony Brook Southampton hospitals through donations administered through the Alliance.

The program was as simple as it’s effective:

• Choose the restaurant you would like to support and the amount you’re able to donate.

• Venmo Shelter Island Action Alliance (@shelterisland-actionalliance) and the Alliance handles the rest.

• Donations go directly to the restaurant, which will determine the best way to optimize the money to feed the most people.

• By helping the restaurants to continue operating, they are committed to continuing to provide takeout options, hiring back as much staff as possible and donating meals to hospitals and hospital staff.

Getting a Lions share

If Brett’s efforts initially were to ensure Kelly and her colleagues at Stony Brook‘s Southampton and Eastern Long Island Hospitals would have meals, while also bolstering sales for area restaurants struggling to find customers, it wasn’t long before he would expand the Alliance program to help Island residents in general.

Something had to be done, he reasoned, for people who have lost jobs or are working for less money than they earned prior to the pandemic. One of the Alliance’s first means of expanding the charitable effort was to help provide food to fill shelves at the Shelter Island Food Pantry at the Presbyterian Church, where residents can take what they need without charge.

To bring in the kind of money an expanded program requires, Brett realized he needed credibility for the new Alliance and a means of providing tax exemptions to contributors. Being well-known and liked on the Island wasn’t enough. The Alliance would need help to grow.

Enter the Shelter Island Lions Club. Brett reached out to Don D’Amato, a Lions Club leader responsible for that group’s information technology and website presence. Mr. D’Amato has known Brett for years and believed in the young man’s ability to help the community.

He took Brett’s request for help to his fellow Lions, explaining that if the Alliance was to gain traction and thrive, it needed credibility the organization could provide thanks to its many community contributions through the years.

That the Lions have nonprofit status, enabling the organization to provide tax exemptions to contributors, was a major plus.

Brett has since applied for 501(c)3 — or nonprofit — status for the Alliance, but as anyone who has ever filed such an application can attest, the process isn’t rapid. Mr. D’Amato enlisted support from Lions Club President Darrin Binder and COVID Committee Chairwoman Mary-Faith Westervelt and the Lions stepped up to support the fledgling Alliance. That COVID Committee was already acting to recommend to the membership ways in which Lions could help the community through the pandemic. Supporting the Alliance’s efforts was just one more way of helping Islanders who have long demonstrated a willingness to reach out to one another, whenever a crisis arose.

The Lions provided “an incredible support system,” Alex Graham said.

The spirit of the season

The Alliance has lifted spirits during the Christmas season, launching a “Holiday Home Decorating Contest.” Entrants paid a fee to compete, and that money went to support the Alliance’s funding of food and gifts for individuals trying to make ends meet and to help keep businesses operating.

As money flowed in, Brett was able to go to stores to purchase gifts with the contributions received, paying with cash, instead of asking business operators for donations.

He and Ms. Graham also were in touch with School Nurse Mary Kanarvogel and other school officials to identify families who would benefit from the gifts they couldn’t afford to buy themselves this year — an effort Ms. Kanarvogel has spearheaded for years.

Brett helped organize what became a large team of volunteers needed to deliver food to housebound residents. Ms. Graham, a marketing advisor with Compass and a transplant to the Island about four years ago, joined him in reaching out to business owners who were needed, not for contributions, but to cooperate with food and gifts the Alliance purchased for those less fortunate.

Generosity and teamwork

“It’s been a crazy year,” Ms. Graham said. “We really didn’t even have a name for what we were doing.”

When she and Brett first contacted local restaurateurs, some were reluctant to be a part of the start-up nonprofit effort.

Brett convinced them he wasn’t asking for contributions of money or food, but offering to bring them business and pay for the food with money contributed by others. The same was true for local store owners. Like the restaurateurs, they were used to slow winters and even closures, but as the pandemic worsened and they were faced with the anticipation that their usual seasonal business wouldn’t happen, questions of survival were very real.

“I really like the people that run these establishments,” Brett said about wanting to support Island restaurants and other businesses.

Fundraising that began late in March 2020 has taken in more than $90,000 in contributions.

Islanders are “selfless,” he said about the generosity so many full- and part-timers demonstrated in supporting the Alliance. He also praised students and other Islanders who have helped deliver food and gifts.

Modest, industrious, and one who acted with his heart and his head to help his community, Brett Surerus has our thanks, and the honor of being our Person of the Year.