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Greenport resident serving key roles in his school, community

03/10/2017 6:00 AM |

To say Chris North maintains a busy schedule would be an understatement.

The 22-year-old Greenport resident is a member of Southold’s Anti-Bias Task Force and recently joined the town’s Democratic committee. He also attends Suffolk County Community College, where he was elected in June to serve as student trustee, a position held by just one person in the county each year.

But Mr. North says he wasn’t always an overachiever. Just a few years ago, in fact, he was struggling to get decent grades in high school and didn’t participate in many extracurricular activities.

That changed around 2014, when the issue of public transportation on the East End spurred him to get involved in civics.

Mr. North, who has cerebral palsy, doesn’t drive. Instead, he uses the county’s bus system to attend classes at SCCC’s Eastern Campus in Northampton. And he’s noticed many flaws in the way the buses operate.

In particular, he’s observed that if no one is waiting outside for the bus when it reaches campus, it passes without stopping — even in the winter, when students tend to wait inside the college’s Peconic Building. So Mr. North worked with college administrators to develop a transportation survey, which found that a large percentage of students use public transportation. Eventually, officials installed a camera inside the building that bus drivers can view via a monitor to see if people are waiting inside.

“You don’t have to stand in the cold anymore,” Mr. North said.

Now that he has a taste for public service, Mr. North has become a recognizable figure at local civic and government events. Last week, he testified during a Southold Town Board meeting, lobbying officials to support a proposed Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Council. He also helped lead the Anti-Bias Task Force’s Synergy Greenport event in January.

“He’s very young and energetic,” said task force co-chair Valerie Shelby, adding that she believes Mr. North is the youngest member the group has ever had. “We need more like him. He’s concerned about his community and willing to work hard.”

The town’s Synergy events, which are based on a similar program that SCCC professor James Banks brought to Southampton Town, were proposed by Mr. North in May 2015 when he wrote a letter seeking appointment to the task force in his hometown of Greenport.

“That’s how that got started,” Ms. Shelby said. “It was because of Chris’ initiative.”

Mr. North said he’s witnessed considerable divisiveness close to home lately — much of it centered around national politics — and that he appreciates the task force’s message of unity.

“What I would like to see the community do is come together, come to common ground,” he said.

That’s something he’s tried to do for students and staff on the 10-member SCCC Board of Trustees, of which he is a full voting member with the ability to make a difference on campus. He was elected to the position by his peers.

The trustees serve as board of directors of the SCCC Association, which collects a fee from students to fund co-curricular programs like theater, athletics and child care.

“I’m here to represent the students and, once I get elected, my job is to be involved and be engaged,” Mr. North said.

Mr. North recently created a student government advisory committee that he said serves as a means of communication between student government and trustees. He also visits each of SCCC’s campuses to get feedback from students, usually traveling by bus to Brentwood and Selden in a round trip that can take up to three hours.

“He’s a very engaged trustee,” said SCCC Board of Trustees chairwoman Theresa Sanders. “There are some young people his age who would be a little overwhelmed by this kind of volunteer work, but he definitely holds his own. Chris stays focused on issues and he is engaged in bringing us perspective as it pertains to the students.”

Mr. North’s transformation into a civic leader hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who have known him since childhood.

“I always knew Chris was special,” said fellow Greenport High School graduate Karre Brown. “I’m so proud of the young man he has become.”

Ms. Brown is the sister of Mike Brown, whose name Mr. North brings up when discussing his experiences with public transportation and SCCC. Mr. Brown was killed in a 2010 crash in front of the school’s Eastern Campus when the vehicle he was driving was struck by a county bus. Like Mr. North, Mr. Brown had cerebral palsy.

“He reminds me so much of Mike,” Ms. Brown said. “Not because of his disability, but because of his ability to make any person feel special in his presence. Chris is just one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of people.”

Following Mr. Brown’s death, his family gave Mr. North the three-wheeled bike he used to get around town.

“Seeing Chris on that bike made my heart full because I knew there was no one more deserving than him,” Ms. Brown said.

Mr. North credits his four years in NJROTC at Greenport High School with teaching him discipline and leadership skills, which he hopes to employ in an eventual career in public service. He’s set to graduate from SCCC in May and plans to attend Stony Brook University or University at Albany to pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science.

“My ultimate goal? I’m looking to run for office in maybe another five years,” he said. “I’m looking at state Assembly, Congress, and the local level as well. Any level, just to get my foot in the door.”

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Photo: Chris North of Greenport has become a recognizable figure at local civic and government events. The 22-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, credits his experience in NJROTC with teaching him discipline and leadership skills. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

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