By Joe Dziemianowicz Special to Newsday Updated June 25, 2021 11:00 AM

A popular “read aloud” series enjoyed by Jefferson’s Ferry health center residents and Setauket Elementary School students made a happy return after a pandemic pause.

But instead of its typical face-to-face format, the outreach program was tweaked for safety’s sake. A recording of seniors reading a book for kids was made into a video and shown to sixth graders moving up in the fall.

“What Do You Do With a Chance?” — an illustrated book for children of all ages — was selected for the occasion.

“As we were planning end-of-year events, we decided this would be a good time for us to use this book,” said Principal Karen Mizell, 47. “It’s part of a series and is a favorite of mine.”

“It sends a positive message to students about really looking at their chances and taking time to seize their opportunities,” she added.

Written by Kobi Yamada, the book begins: “One day, I got a chance. It just seemed to show up … It circled me as if it wanted me to grab it. I started to reach for it, but I was unsure and pulled back. And so it flew away … I wished I had taken my chance. I realized I had wanted it, but still didn’t know if I had the courage.”

The message, read-aloud organizers agreed, speaks to everyone about chance encounters. It resonates whether you’re 11 or 12 years old (as the students are) or over 100 years old (as some of the readers are).

That’s by design, Yamada, 53, told Newsday. “I wrote the book in the first person because I really want the reader to be able to inhabit the experience,” he said, adding that he was honored that his book played a “part in the connections being made across generations.”

That’s what programs and projects between the senior residence and school are all about, according to Jefferson’s Ferry director of therapeutic recreation Lorrie Prescott. Over the past five years they’ve included sharing meals, building gingerbread houses, playing games, trick-or-treating and, of course, read-alouds.

“Residents here loved reading to their children and grandchildren,” said Prescott, 50. “The idea that they would read a story that would go to kids and create that bond was very special for them.”

Food for thought

Senior readers were taped reading sections of “What Do You Do With a Chance?” on June 2 at Jefferson’s Ferry’s Bove Health Center. The session offered a chance to recall the joy of hours spent reading to their loved ones and to channel their inner performers.

Maxine Hartman, 88, a former accountant who is new to assisted living, revealed herself to be a natural-born audiobook star. (Hello, Audible?) The section of the book she read finds the narrator overcoming nervous butterflies as an opportunity knocked.

“I ran as hard and as fast as I could toward it,” she read, her voice churning with emotion. “I don’t know how to explain it, but the second I let go of my fears, I was full of excitement.”

Mary Bafundi acknowledged that the book offers food for thought. “The subject we were reading about was quite interesting,” said the 101-year-old resident who has a daughter in Setauket and moved into Jefferson’s Ferry after her husband died. “Some people are afraid to take a chance.”

Bafundi paused, and then added, “I may be one of them. Sometimes I don’t hear what people are saying, and I’m afraid that I’ll say the wrong thing. And so I’ll think, ‘Maybe it’s better to be quiet.’ “

Other readers included Lillian Bowman, 94, a former fourth-grade teacher from Hauppauge; Eleanore Agatstein, 100, a longtime hospital volunteer from Manhasset; and Bill Daly, 90, an ex-insurance salesperson. Each made their passages personal and special.

‘Jump at opportunities’

Students who spoke to Newsday in a Zoom interview after watching the video on June 9 gave the Jefferson’s Ferry readers high marks. The book’s message hit the mark.

Ryan Plume, who’s 11 and lives in East Setauket, shared his spot-on, succinct summary: “Don’t hold back.”

Grady Ghiz, a 12-year-old student who lives in Setauket, appreciated that the seniors took time to read. “I thought it was kind of touching,” he said.

Leo Puckett, 12, who lives in East Setauket, echoed his appreciation and recalled how taking a calculated chance during a baseball game really paid off. “One time,” he said, “I stole home base and we won the game.”

Quinlan Heilbron, 12, who lives in Stony Brook, shared how taking the opportunity to play lacrosse came with wonderful and unexpected rewards. “The book had a really good message,” she said. “Even if something’s out of your comfort zone, you should still go for it because you’ll never know what you’re missing out on. You need to jump at opportunities.”

As Heilbron and fellow classmates watched the video, her teacher Jennifer Miele stood at the front of the room. She held the book, turning pages as the story progressed. Kids could see that the illustrations by Mae Besom were mostly muted shades of brown, gray and blue. Chances appeared in sunny yellow.

“We wanted to show how chances can bring energy and light and illumination to people’s lives,” said Yamada, adding that even when an opportunity doesn’t live up to all our expectations “we can still gain perspective and understanding.”

Miele, 47, who lives in Belle Terre, echoed that sentiment.

“From the perspective of someone who’s had more years of experience than the students, I recognize that there are so many opportunities that come our way that we don’t recognize,” she said. “It’s good for the children to know that it’s worth the risk to take a chance.”

Daly, who performed and did stand-up comedy when he was in the Army, concluded the read aloud with a fitting question. “What will you do with your chance?”

WISDOM OF THE AGES: 6 LIFE LESSONS

“What Do You Do With a Chance?,” by Kobi Yamada, offers smart advice about opening the door when opportunity knocks. Jefferson’s Ferry residents and Setauket sixth-graders shared six more life lessons they’ve learned.

  • Don’t worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will take care of itself. — Mary Bafundi, 101
  • Always work your hardest. It’ll pay off. — Quinlan Heilbron, 12
  • Take your own path. — Lillian Bowman, 94
  • Don’t procrastinate. I did a lot of that this year, and it didn’t help me. — Leo Puckett, 12
  • Stay close to the Lord, and you can’t go wrong. And work hard, continuously. — Bill Daly, 90
  • Stay positive, and keep doing your best. — Grady Ghiz, 12
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