Stepping up to serve others

Rony Kessler is leading the Central Nassau Rotary Club — again

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When Rony Kessler dons his cap with the words “Central Nassau County Rotary Club,” he tries, he said, to personify the club’s motto, “Service above self.” Kessler, 77, has spent decades working not only for his fellow Franklin Square residents, but also for the people of West Hempstead, Elmont, Westbury and many other communities on Long Island and around the world.

Through the Rotary Club, Kessler has assisted dozens of local projects and nonprofits, as well as several international charities that serve people in Haiti and Puerto Rico. With nearly 100 people at the Rotary’s annual installation dinner on July 20, Kessler and the rest of the board members renewed their oaths to the club, and for the seventh time, Kessler became the group’s president.

“Everyone here understands the joy you get from giving to others,” Kessler said. “We raise money, and that’s the easy part. It’s what the people do with the money that’s really amazing.”

West Hempstead Library Director Regina Mascia, who was reappointed as vice president of Rotary, said that Kessler’s tireless work ethic is what makes him so special. “We call him Mr. Rotary,” Mascia said. “He’s done a lot to get the club to where it is today, and he just never backs down.”

Kessler said he wants to give back because of the gratitude he feels toward his neighbors and the country. Born in what would become Israel, he came to the United States when he was 15. Because of his limited English, he had trouble in school, but through perseverance and others’ help, he earned an accounting degree.

Before becoming an accountant, he served two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He did not deploy to Vietnam, but the people he met and their commitment to the country, he said, instilled in him a sense of duty to do right by others.

In the late 1970s, Kessler, who by then was an accountant, gave a presentation to the Central Nassau County Rotary Club on taxes. The club’s charitable spirit impressed Kessler, and he joined the group shortly after. Now, roughly 40 years later, he has become a fundraising juggernaut who shows no sign of slowing down.

In the last year alone, the Central Nassau County Rotary Club has donated funds to dozens of charities and local projects, including the Franklin Square Civic Association’s Hometown Heroes banners, the Safe Center Long Island’s Christmas Gifts for Children, the Friends of Nassau County Recreation Victory Games, and the Center for Science, Teaching and Learning’s Spooky Walk.

The club’s biggest night is its installation dinner, when it distributes tens of thousands of dollars to several invited charities. This year, the club gave $45,000 to about 20 organizations, and it sent $30,000 to Puerto Rico to help rebuild playgrounds after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Mascia, who co-chairs the installation dinner, said the process of collaborating with local charities begins each January.

“From sending invitation letters out to the charities to setting up the raffle baskets, there’s a lot that goes into the event,” Mascia said. “But it’s just so rewarding when you’re able to help all of the charities with their goals.”

Mascia also said that the group is currently planning a trip to the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island later this month to support one of their projects.

“The work the Rotary does for our communities is amazing,” State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages said as she distributed certificates of recognition to Kessler and the other board members at the installation. “Your work ensures that our communities remain united.”

As he watched Kessler up on stage, William Youngfert, one of the club’s new co-vice presidents and another longtime community advocate, said he felt assured that the club would see another successful year of fundraising and growth. While previous Rotary clubs in Nassau County have come and gone, Youngfert said the Central Nassau County Rotary Club has nothing to fear with Kessler at the helm.

“Rony’s led this club before, and he’ll do great job this year, too,” Youngfert, a first-time board member, said. “He’s delivered a lot, so, of course, we’re expecting a lot more out of him this year.”

Kessler said he hopes the 2019-20 fiscal year is a time of growth for the Rotary. He wants more members from Elmont and Westbury to join and help expand their philanthropic efforts in these communities. He also hopes to sign up younger members to ensure that the Rotary avoids aging out, like many other Long Island organizations have.

“As leader of the Rotary, we have to make sure that we can pass this on to the next generation, so they, in turn, can provide for the communities when we’re gone,” Kessler said.

Mascia added that bringing in younger members is one of the group’s main goals. “We’re a warm and welcoming club with a great group of people,” Mascia said. “There’s a lot of young people in our communities, and we hope that they can be a part of what we hope to accomplish in the future.”

Nakeem Grant contributed to this story.