Helping out is what this Southold teen does

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01/18/2013 8:00 AM |

Every Thursday afternoon a group of Peconic Landing residents assembles in a cozy room filled with large chairs and couches. This isn’t a typical living space, where the furniture surrounds an illuminating television screen. The only thing glowing here is a wooden piano against the wall, where sunlight filters naturally through a nearby window.

At the piano is 19-year-old Brian Connolly, a Southold High School graduate who has a form of autism called pervasive developmental disorder. As he plays the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” the room and surrounding areas at the Greenport lifecare center radiate with live music. The residents’ eyes swell.

When the melody finishes, the group applauds. Mr. Connolly, who has been volunteering at Peconic Landing since last spring, smiles and moves on to another song.

In an interview with The Suffolk Times before his performance last Thursday, Mr. Connolly said he’s grateful to have the opportunity to bring joy to others and isn’t letting his disability get in the way of living his dreams.

“I’ve been proud of doing piano and I’ve been proud of working,” said Mr. Connolly, who also works part-time at Bonnie Jean’s Restaurant in Southold. “I’m proud of being here with my family and friends.”

While Mr. Connolly was a high school student enrolled in the culinary program at BOCES, college and career counselor Martha Tuthill helped him secure an internship at Bonnie Jean’s that later turned into part-time work. Knowing his fondness for music, Ms. Tuthill also arranged for him to volunteer at Peconic Landing. Mr. Connolly plans to keep his job and continue his volunteer endeavors while attending Suffolk County Community College’s Culinary School in downtown Riverhead.

“Our local business owners who give students like Brian a chance are doing such a good thing for our community,” Ms. Tuthill said in an email. “I truly believe that everybody is capable of working in some capacity. It is a question of figuring out what they can do, and sometimes they just need a chance to figure that out. Working gives these students a sense of pride, confidence and accomplishment and gives them a chance to be active members of our community. It is so important.”

Mr. Connolly is the oldest of three children. His father, Don, works in construction and his mother, Sue, has worked as a special education teaching assistant at Southold Elementary School for the past five years.

Ms. Connolly described her son as “very compassionate” and said she admires how he enjoys helping people.

“That’s what makes him feel very good about himself,” she said.

One of the her son’s achievements, Ms. Connolly said, was overcoming being bullied at school.

“He felt down because people made fun of him, but he knew he still had to go there,” she said. “He was very forgiving and kept a positive attitude. He stood up for himself. He didn’t give up.”

Mother and son both said they’re grateful for the community’s support. Ms. Connolly said Southold High School music teacher Karl Himmelmann helped her son develop his music skills and win competitions.

“[Mr. Himmelmann] saw he had talent,” she said. “He took him under his wing and let Brian fly.”

Mr. Connolly said one of his biggest challenges is transportation, since he isn’t able to drive. Suffolk County bus service isn’t always reliable, but Mr. Connolly said he’s dealing with the inconvenience because he enjoys being independent.

“If everyone can help out, then the world will be a better place,” he said. “When we’re struggling in hard times, we shouldn’t give up on our dreams.”

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