‘Paying it forward’ at JABS in Cutchogue


A gift card passed from one person to another, growing in value along the way, had reached its final destination in the hands of Cathy Russo.

The Mattituck resident was planning to pass the card on to someone else, just as it had been given to her, but fellow gym-goers at JABS in Cutchogue had another idea. 

When Ms. Russo, a retired corrections officer who suffers from colon cancer, mentioned forwarding the gift card as a gesture to someone else, the others quickly chimed in.

“It’s your turn!” they shouted, their voices ringing out in agreement when the group got together one day earlier this month.

Ms. Russo had received the $200 gift card to JABS after several people — one of whom is friends with Ms. Russo’s daughter Marissa — kept deferring the credit to the next person. What began as a simple refund owed to a customer snowballed into a chain of generosity.

“Through this whole thing, I’ve had a lot of signs, and I take this as another sign,” said Ms. Russo, 59, who had stopped attending the gym while receiving treatment. “I had really started to miss coming here.”

The chain began in June, when Michelle Zunno of Cutchogue purchased a membership and was owed a partial $100 refund. When JABS owner Jill Schroeder offered the refund, Ms. Zunno, 48, opted to have it paid forward to someone else.

“It really stems from Jill being so giving and being part of the community,” Ms. Zunno said. “Then you get people who are drawn to that positive energy. I was like, ‘Shoot, I don’t care about the money. Let’s give it to someone who needs it.’ ”

Touched by the gesture, Ms. Schroeder doubled the value and offered it in a raffle as a summer student membership. Stefanie Loverde of Mattituck, who has been friends with Ms. Russo’s daughter since kindergarten, won the raffle.

Inspired by her predecessor, Ms. Loverde, 21, followed suit and put the credit back into the system, hoping it would go to someone who needed it more. Little did she know her gesture would end up with a childhood friend’s ailing mother.

“It feels like it’s just fate,” she said. “That small little action of giving back is insane. It’s a greater feeling than winning the membership … Hearing what Ms. Russo is going through, she can use it so much more than I can.”

Once Ms. Loverde declined her award, Ms. Schroeder contacted Kait’s Angels, a Mattituck charity established in honor of Kaitlyn Doorhy, who died last August. The organization raffled the $200 credit as a gift card.

Marissa Russo happened to win it, and then donated it to her mother.

“I think it was the coolest story ever,” Ms. Schroeder said. “It happened so organically and fluidly.”

And Ms. Schroeder believes others can learn from the generosity that unfolded in her exercise studio.

“It’s simple things,” she said. “You think you have to do big things to make big changes in life, but even if you do something so small, it can make a huge difference.”

Ms. Russo, who was diagnosed with cancer last August and has already undergone one surgery, currently trains once a month with Ms. Schroeder in private sessions. The instructor started giving them for free to help Ms. Russo maintain her fitness level while she undergoes chemotherapy. It’s a gesture Ms. Russo called “a wonderful thing.”

However, the two disagree about how frequently Ms. Russo will pay for the one-on-one training.

“I’m not going to hold you to that,” Ms. Russo said to Ms. Schroeder, laughing. “I could live 20 years with this.”

With the gift card, Ms. Russo hopes to train more regularly, particularly with spin classes, once she feels ready and in shape.

But Ms. Schroeder frequently corrects Ms. Russo’s phrasing to be more positive.

“It’s not if you come back,” she said several times recently. “It’s when you come back.”

[Photo Credit: Cathy Russo of Mattituck (middle) during a spin class in Cutchogue last Saturday.]

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