A new feature was added to Milburn Pond Park last week in honor of an involved community member who died last year. It’s called Vitale Grove.
A new bench, surrounded by freshly planted trees, was welcomed by more than a dozen people who gathered at the park on Oct. 22 to honor the life of Baldwinite Jason Vitale, a longtime community advocate and beloved teacher. It would have been his 49th birthday.
An earth science teacher at Mepham High School in Bellmore, Vitale was the longest-running chair of the Quality of Life Committee for the Baldwin Civic Association, often attending Board of Education and Parent Teacher Association meetings, as well as fairs, festivals and other community events. He coached soccer for the Baldwin PAL and often picked up garbage as he walked around Milburn Pond Park or along the street, recalled his wife, Jennifer Vitale, an assistant principal at Plainedge High School.
Although he was born in Brooklyn, Vitale was raised in Merrick and moved to Baldwin about 10 years ago.
“Jason loved Baldwin, and spent 10 years working, with others, to improve life here,” Jennifer said at the ceremony. “He loved Baldwin’s diversity and small town feel and wanted it to be a place where people wanted to live. He wanted the town to thrive.”
Vitale was skiing at a resort in Vermont with Jennifer and their daughter, Katie, when he suffered a heart attack and struck a tree last Dec. 28. He was rushed to an area hospital, where he later died.
Longtime Baldwinite Sara Hill, who was the previous Quality of Life chair for the civic association, launched a GoFundMe page to raise funds for a special project in honor of Vitale.
“I wanted to do something that I thought Jason would really like at a place that he cared about,” Hill said. “I wanted to do something concrete, lasting. That’s why we came up with the idea of Vitale Grove.”
She knew he loved nature, so she conceptualized a grove — some trees and a bench where people could enjoy nature — and with the help of Baldwin Chamber of Commerce President Erik Mahler, she decided on Milburn Pond Park.
Because it is a Nassau County park, Hill reached out to County Legislator Debra Mulé, who then coordinated with the Parks Department to install the concrete slab, bench and surrounding trees.
“I know how important he was to the community of Baldwin,” Mulé said, “and how much he wanted to make lasting and wonderful changes to his hometown.”
The project cost $2,500, with the Parks Department covering the cost of the trees. The GoFundMe campaign, though, collected more than $4,000, so Hill decided to donate the remaining funds to the civic association’s Jason Vitale Community Service Scholarship.
Each year, a few hundred dollars is awarded to a Baldwin High School student who has shown exemplary community engagement.
“He was a powerhouse,” Civic Association President Darien Ward said, accepting the $1,000 donation for the scholarship. “He was always there; he was making things happen. We established this scholarship in memory of him, and this would contribute to that for a long way to help educate students. Education was his biggest thing.”
Additionally, the chamber donated a plaque that is embedded in the bench. Melanie Vaughan, owner of Pat’s Dance Studio, purchased the plaque.
“He wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get dirty,” Mahler said of Vitale, who often joined community cleanups at the local ponds, adding that he was “truly a remarkable man.”
“Volunteering is the practice of people working on behalf of others without being motivated by financial or material gain,” Mahler said, “and that’s the absolute epitome of Jason.”
Jennifer also thanked Deputy Commissioner of Nassau County Parks and Recreation Tim Messner.
“On behalf of our daughter Katie and Jason’s entire family, I want to thank everyone who is responsible for the Vitale Grove,” Jennifer said at the ceremony. “You, and all those who donated, have given our family and friends a beautiful place to visit where we can always feel Jason’s presence. I hope that Jason’s commitment to, and love for, Baldwin will be honored by the service of others who pick up where he left off.”