One of Gerard Presta’s favorite recollections is how he became the adviser of the East Norwich Junior Firefighters 21 years ago.
Born in Brooklyn and living in College Point, Queens, Presta moved his family, which included his wife, Elfia, and their children, Tara, then 13, Tricia, 6, and Jerry, 4, to East Norwich 23 years ago.
Presta, now 55, said the move was particularly hard on Tara, who found it difficult being the new kid in town. When she heard about an opportunity at the Fire Department for teens, she asked her father if she could get involved.
“Her friend told her about the juniors,” Presta, a volunteer firefighter, recalled. “I asked her if she could wait until January , because there was supposed to be a new adviser. That was in November.”
At the firehouse, he spoke to Paul Power, who was slated to become the chief that January. He had been instrumental in ensuring that the Fire Department sponsor a junior firefighter program, establishing one in June 1994. “When I asked who the new adviser would be, Paul told me it was me, ” Presta said with a laugh.
All of Presta’s children eventually became juniors, and Presta, like parents who coach Little League, volunteered as the adviser. But he said that each year, something else came up that got him more involved in the junior program, so he ended up staying.
At the Junior Firefighters Installation of Officers on Saturday, Presta accepted the 2019 Youth Mentor of the Year award. He was its first recipient.
Presta, who said he doesn’t like to be in the limelight, said he was “honored to be singled out.”
“Jerry has been involved in the junior program night and day,” said Chris Velsor, president of the ENFD, who was also a junior. “He even takes the kids on trips. He’s done a great job for the past 21 years.”
Presta received eight nominations for the award, which came in the form of letters. One was from Robert McConville, a past president of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. “Some would classify Presta as a ‘youth whisperer,’” McConville wrote. “He seems to be able to identify with these young people as he has this instinct to be able to talk to, motivate and befriend them.”
It’s important to remember that the juniors are also kids, Presta explained, adding that he strives to make the training fun as well as educational.
Under Presta, the juniors have attended first-responder training that includes an opportunity to become state-certified. They have even participated in a few real-world disaster drill scenarios. Last year, the Port Washington and Freeport fire departments held simulated train-crash drills at their Long Island Rail Road station. The ENFD juniors played the victims.
The juniors have taught hundreds of Boy and Girl Scouts first aid and emergency preparedness, skills Presta said are needed for family safety. The juniors also ran a Safe Kids Day in 2007, which brought 400 people to the ENFD, where they learned about bicycle-helmet and car-seat safety and smoke detectors. They went on to help coordinate a county-wide Safe Kids Day that same year, where 348 children were photographed and fingerprinted for the Nassau County district attorney’s office’s child identification program, Presta said. The juniors also organize yearly blood drives.
Presta joined the ENFD in 1997. He was instrumental in forming the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association in 2006, which includes 40 junior firefighter/Explorer organizations. NCJFA provides opportunities for juniors to learn and share experiences through quarterly meetings and events, but its main goal is to provide an opportunity for the juniors to form friendships. Presta said many of the juniors atend the meetings, which are held five times a year. He’s been NCJFA’s chairman since 2009.
Perhaps what NCJFA is known for most is its yearly fire camp program, Camp Fahrenheit 516, held at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Bethpage in the last week of July.
“When I first became the junior adviser, the kids couldn’t even sit in the parking lot to watch the firefighters’ train,” Presta said. “Now they’re going into a 1,600-degree flashover simulator at fire camp. That’s where a whole room catches on fire.”
What is evident, besides Presta’s dedication to the juniors, is how they feel about him. Connor Cronin, the junior captain last year, said that Presta is all about respect. “Jerry is an all-around role model for everybody,” Cronin said. “He’s one of these guys that everyone respects. And he always tells us we should show respect because people deserve it.”