Island Park teen activist’s home gets makeover for NBC show


When the members of Island Park’s Byrne family opened their door this fall to an NBC television crew, they were genuinely surprised.

“We just couldn’t believe it,” Tara Byrne said. It was a classic scene for fans of home renovation shows, and she said she and her husband, John, had “a real-deal reaction.”

The show on which they were featured was “George to the Rescue,” in which star George Oliphant travels the nation with a team of contractors to rescue and renovate the homes of deserving people.

John “J.J.” Byrne — who has a 14-year-old brother named Kieran — is a well-known figure in Island Park. The 17-year-old is the mayor’s assistant, a lector at Sacred Heart Church, the assistant manager at Masone Beach, a helper at the village’s Department of Public Works, a member of a teen advisory committee at Winthrop University Hospital and much more.

“Who knows all the stuff he does?” Mayor Michael McGinty said of his friend, describing his activities as “countless.”

J.J. has also been a perennial fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to funding research into treatments for the life-threatening genetic condition, which chiefly affects the lungs.

A sufferer of the disease himself, J.J. said he doesn’t want it to define him. Instead, he works to raise awareness. Tara estimates that he has raised more than $30,000 for the organization over the past five years through its annual Great Strides Walk in Jones Beach. J.J. leads Team Shenanigans, which each year collects donations ahead of the spring event.

Managing Shenanigans out of his home had proved hectic for him. His office, littered with paperwork and boxes of Shenanigans T-shirts — which McGinty described as “de rigueur” in Island Park and, comparing them to Long Beach’s Polar Bears sweatshirts — left little room for him to get much work done.

In came George, recruiting the help of Merrick residents Frank and Rose Ott. Frank, who runs a contracting business in Island Park, and Rose, an interior designer, took the lead on design and construction work.

“It really tugged at our heartstrings,” Rose said, adding that the two bought their first home together in Island Park. The show’s producers sent the couple a short clip about J.J.

“We immediately fell in love with him,” she said. “He’s a really dynamic and smart young man … When we saw what he needed, we were very excited to help the family and create a space for him so he could continue his good work.”

The Otts contacted their vendors, and asked for donations for the project. Together they contributed a total of more than $60,000 in appliances and construction materials to the family.

In addition to a new office and storage space for J.J., the crew renovated the family’s kitchen and laundry room to help Tara. “She’s also very community-oriented,” Rose said. “So we gave her a new kitchen to ease the burden, because she does so much for everyone else.” Tara is a trustee on the Island Park Board of Education.

The kitchen had been a long-planned project, Tara said, but between a switch in medication for J.J. and expenses after Hurricane Sandy, “we never really got it done.”

While the show’s producers were unavailable for comment, Tara said she believes they were drawn to her family after seeing a Herald article outlining her son’s efforts with Team Shenanigans. J.J. coined the name after a Nassau County-organized trip to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., where he advocated for support following Sandy.

“These politicians need to stop the political shenanigans, because we need to make our village greater than ever,” J.J. recalled saying. Each year he collects donations online, and asks for contributions from local groups such as the Island Park Civic Association and the Unity Party for his team.

Preparing the apparel, he said, is the biggest challenge. “A lot goes into it,” he explained. “It starts around January, February when we have to put the order in, and it’s a lot of work to sell them.”

In addition to supporters in the village, J.J. said he has some help at Long Beach High School, where he is currently a senior, and is in the midst of narrowing down his choice of colleges. He is considering the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Fordham University in the Bronx. He would like to study law, he said, and is interested in entering politics.

For now, he still has a fundraising campaign to organize. This time, however, he has some extra space to do it. “It’s great now to have an office and a space for me to do what I want,” he said, adding that he had no idea that he had been selected to be on “George to the Rescue.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It really was a complete shock.”

If you would like to donate to J.J. Team Shenanigans for the 2018 Great Strides Walk, visit his fundraising page here