Helping make a 'big town small'

Todd Weinstein is the Herald's 2018 Person of the Year


This year, an elementary school in Puerto Rico received a $10,000 donation from one in East Meadow to assist with post-Hurricane Maria repairs. The John Theissen Children’s Foundation received an additional $3,000 worth of toys to donate to local children in need. And youngsters across Nassau County were equipped with school supplies courtesy of the Mary Brennan Interfaith Nutrition Network. Behind the scenes at all of these charitable efforts was Todd Weinstein.

“In my 29 years as an educator, there are very few people I have come across that have given of themselves as much as Weinstein,” said Greg Bottari, the principal of Barnum Woods Elementary School, where Weinstein has led fundraisers as a member of its Planning and Management Team. “This guy steps forward every time,” Bottari added. “And he’s the last person to take credit.”

Weinstein, 46, is inspired to take on fundraisers, he said, because of the enthusiasm for them in the East Meadow community. “I’m not writing a check for $18,000. I’m not donating 2,600 pairs of shoes,” he said. “The success of all the fundraisers I’m a part of is reliant on the community.” In light of that success, the Herald chose Weinstein as its 2018 Person of the Year.

He spoke to the Herald last week, and, under the impression that he was one of several community members being highlighted in an article about activists in East Meadow, he began listing names of those he thought should be included. “Have you talked to Eileen Napolitano?” he said. “There’s also Donna Goldstein, Alisa Baroukh, Ross Schiller . . . there are a lot of good people in East Meadow.”

Schiller, the Herald’s 2017 Person of the Year, said this year that he owed Weinstein a debt of gratitude. “He’s always helping people really feel positive about the community, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Schiller said as he and his son David, 13, looked over toys at Matty’s Toy Stop in Merrick on Dec. 6. There Schiller took part in Weinstein’s most recent philanthropic endeavor, a Community Toy Drive to benefit the Theissen Foundation.

Rather than asking for donations, Weinstein bought 70 boxes of World’s Finest Chocolate that he distributed to local children, who sold them for $30 a box and then purchased and donated toys to the cause. “The goal wasn’t to ask people for money, but to get kids and families more engaged,” Weinstein said, explaining that the participants would feel more grateful when they opened their holiday presents after helping other children with their own.

“Whenever there are great things happening in the community, he’s always in the midst of it,” Paul Nadler, 46, of East Meadow, said of Weinstein. The two grew up in East Northport, where they were close friends, and went to the University of Albany together, where they were members of the fraternity Sigma Chi. During Greek Week one year, Nadler recalled, Weinstein led a fundraiser that collected $5,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Weinstein graduated in 1994, and he and his wife, Robyn, were married four years later. They lived in Rockville Center for three years before moving to East Meadow in 2001, where Weinstein is a self-employed manufacturer’s representative in the furniture business.

When his son Alex, now 15, was in kindergarten at Barnum Woods Elementary School, Weinstein recalled, he went to his first PTA meeting, where he met the organization’s then president, Eileen Napolitano. Hearing about the issues that the district faced, he said, “It was one of those things where you could sit back and watch or you could make a difference.”

East Meadow district officials wanted to build a new playground at Barnum Woods in the spring of 2012. Weinstein showed the Herald photos of the former playground, which included rusty slides and a worn climbing gym. Children at Barnum Woods now play on a sleek jungle gym with swings and accessories.

Greg Bottari, the school’s principal, said that Weinstein approached him as a member of the PTA who wanted to help, and Bottari asked him to lend a hand with fundraising for the playground. “When the principal of your kid’s school asks you to do something,” Weinstein said, “you say yes.” Ultimately, the school raised $20,000 by bringing coin-collection canisters to community events, selling boxes of chocolate bars and hosting fundraisers like local movie nights.

Thus began Weinstein’s involvement with the Barnum Woods Planning and Management Team, a group of building administrators and faculty, PTA and community members.

Years later, “The gentleman just simply can’t do enough for the school,” Bottari said of Weinstein. “He’s extremely selfless. Todd was so instrumental in giving us the idea of going through a chocolate company. He’s always brainstorming ways we could help.”

The team’s recent endeavor didn’t involve Barnum Woods, but rather a school in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria swept across the island last September, Onix Ruiz, 52, the custodian at Barnum Woods, learned of the extensive damage to Jose Celso Barbosa Elementary School, which he attended as a child in his hometown of Ponce, P.R.

After Ruiz told the Barnum Woods staff, Weinstein broke out the chocolate bars. At the school’s annual Flag Day ceremony and health walk on June 14, the Planning and Management Team presented Ruiz with a $10,000 check.

Weinstein has accelerated his fundraising through a Facebook page he runs called “Nice Things that Happen in East Meadow.” In September 2015, resident Ben Diamond asked Weinstein if he could use the page to promote the Mary Brennan Interfaith Nutrition Network in Hempstead. Since then, Weinstein’s page has been a conduit for fundraising efforts, and each year he has hosted his own school-supplies drive for the Mary Brennan INN.

“People in general, I think, are good-natured and want to help,” he said. “Sometimes they just need an extra push to get involved.”

Weinstein spoke to the Herald at Sacred Heart Church in Merrick, where he coaches the seventh-grade boys’ basketball team. He lives in the parish, but is a practicing Jew and a member of Temple B’nai Torah in East Meadow. He laughed and noted the irony of a Jew coaching a Catholic basketball team.

“East Meadow covers a lot of physical space — it’s a pretty big town,” he said. “But when you do these kind of fundraising projects and contribute to your community, you make a big town small.”