Change and Transformation

On a Wednesday evening in mid-September, more than 300 people gathered at Lombardi's on the Sound to support the Children's Maritime Museum at Port Jefferson. It was an extraordinary evening that supported an extraordinary cause. ...

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On a Wednesday evening in mid-September, more than 300 people gathered at Lombardi's on the Sound to support the Children's Maritime Museum at Port Jefferson. It was an extraordinary evening that supported an extraordinary cause.

Their mission is to provide a place for children and families to come that is fun and interactive. The founders of this wonderful museum want it to be a place of scientific discovery that will develop a broadened cultural awareness and experience a sense of artistry while learning about Long Island's rich and varied heritage.(from their Mission Statement)

Recently, an agreement was reached with the Village of Port Jefferson to house the museum in the 1890 s Bayles Chandlery. Before they can open the museum the building needs extensive renovation. Temporarily, the children's Maritime Museum is operating in the Skip Jack Room located in the Port Jefferson Village Center.

The creation of the Children's Maritime Museum is another example of people's vision, their capacity to dream and their tenacious spirit to make a dream come true. The dynamic board of trustees, advisory board and fundraising committee were responsible not only for a tremendously successful fiscal evening, but more importantly, a wonderful evening of community building.

Much of the evening s success is attributed to the event s first honoree, Charlie Russo. Mr. Russo has lived in the Port Jefferson Community with his wife Carol and six children for more than 30 years. Charlie grew up in Bethpage, attended Brooklyn Prep High School, University of Vermont, CW Post and Hofstra Law School.

He is known throughout our community as a tremendous philanthropist and is committed to protecting and improving the lives of children, young people and families in need. Charlie would say, his moral compass was first shaped during his Jesuit high school education and was further strengthened during the six years he lived at Melville House working with teenagers at risk. That early life experience set the stage that would become the driving force for the rest of his life.

While at Melville House, realizing that young people in trouble needed more than a compassionate heart, he went to law school. After law school, he worked for the District Attorney's Office and then went into private practice.

As a young attorney, his desire to work with young people at risk continued to grow. Even with a young family developing, he was reaching out to troubled kids that he encountered in the system. Twenty nine years ago, that led him to make a connection with an organization whose mission is to reach out to young people and families at risk. 29 years later, Charlie is the Chairman of the Board of Hope House Ministries and a major force in helping that Ministry to raise the necessary funds they need each year.

He is not only an extraordinary fundraiser, but more importantly, a powerful role model for these broken young people. He is an ongoing reminder to them that change and transformation are possible. He goes the distance and then some to assure every young person who wants to begin again has that opportunity.

Raising a family of six children and maintaining a successful law practice is not an easy feat. In addition to being a dad, an extraordinary husband, and a lawyer, Charlie spends countless hours supporting transitional residences for the mentally ill, is the new chairman of the Nassau Suffolk Homeless Coalition and a founding director of the Empire National Bank.

However, probably one of the greatest gifts that he has given to our community was the creation of Christmas Magic. More than 20 years ago, Charlie was very concerned that his children understand the true meaning of Christmas, and equally as important, the need to continually give back to your community and be committed to helping those less fortunate than yourselves.

His children were in elementary and middle school. He was very concerned that they were becoming too materialistic and not other centered. The year Christmas Magic was born, he was inundated with story after story of families with children who had fallen on hard times.

That holiday season, he decided he and his children would adopt a number of families in need and go out shopping for Christmas presents for them. What his children didn't realize at the time was not only were they going out shopping for Christmas presents, they were being drafted as elves to help their dad, Santa Claus, deliver these presents to those needy families on Christmas Eve.

That experience forever changed their lives and gave birth to Christmas Magic, which transforms thousands of the children's lives every holiday season. What is so amazing about Christmas Magic is that it transcends religious difference, class and age. Every fall, hundreds of volunteers begin to come together to make Christmas happen for so many needy children across Long Island.

In the fall, they begin to buy the presents that will be distributed at Christmastime. What is amazing is that this project brings students from middle schools, high schools and colleges around Suffolk County together to work on making Christmas happen. Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other spiritual traditions come together to work on this initiative. Everyone involved talks about receiving more from the experience than they have given and being profoundly touched by the founding spirit and driving force-Charlie Russo.

When the Children's Maritime Museum fundraising committee started reaching out soliciting ads for their journal and selling tickets for their dinner, and people became aware that their effort was honoring Charlie Russo, they were more than happy to be supportive.

Even though these are tough economic times, people were willing to dig deeper as a way of supporting a worthy cause for children, and also as a way of saying thank you to Charlie Russo for more than 30 years of dedicated service to young people and families in need within our larger community.

At that dinner that Wednesday night, people were amazed. Not only that there was sellout crowd, but at the great cross-section of our community present. The evening ended with a special presentation to Mr. Russo. After he accepted their plaque, he said a few words. He began by acknowledging the great work of the Children's Maritime Museum. He went on to say how blessed he felt to be a part of the community that has supported so many initiatives to make our larger community a better place to live. He acknowledged the continued generosity of local businesses even during these tough economic times. He thanked the many generous hands and hearts that have supported all of his charitable initiatives over the years. He reminded all who were present that without their support none of the good work that he has been a part of would have happened.

Probably the most profound thing that was said that night came from a young man, who Charlie had helped. He said, Mr. Russo gave me back my life, but more than that. He helped me to realize my untapped potential, and that my life was worth something. I want to make a difference like he has made a difference for me!