Adding one child’s smile at a time

‘Smile bag’ creator helped brighten a dark year

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The Herald-Citizen’s Person of the Year, Elise Ann Howell-Fehling, has had many titles over the years — waitress, administrative assistant, life skills coach — but none of them adequately sums her up. It seems more appropriate to define Howell-Fehling by what she does best and most often — help others. The Seaford native and lifelong resident learned many years ago the importance of helping those who need it, and in a year of nearly unfathomable loss, she provided a glimmer of light to her neighbors in the hamlet.

From creating and delivering “smile bags” to local families to continuing her work with special-needs children in the school district’s Career Develop-ment/Life Skills Program, Howell-Fehling devoted herself to her community in 2020 — as she does every year.

Howell-Fehling, 47, grew up in a house on Ocean Avenue in the Harbor section of Seaford. After it was damaged in Hurricane Sandy in 2012, she elevated the house on stilts, and she moved back in. Her father, Bruce Howell, was a general contractor before becoming an engineer. Her mother, Mary, was a homemaker, and was active in the Seaford PTA.

Elise Ann, her brother, Roy, who is two years older, and her sister, Allison, who is two years younger, attended Seaford schools. She has adolescent memories of a close-knit community, where families “took care of each other” — a lesson reinforced by her father.

“He brought us up to think of others first,” Howell-Fehling said. “He instilled that in us. If there was a snowstorm, when the first drop of snow hit, we would already be in full winter gear and outside, digging out our elderly neighbors.”

Howell-Fehling’s inclination to help was boosted by a strong work ethic. At 13 she started busing tables at the White Whale restaurant, on Bayview Avenue near her home. Roy was a dishwasher, and Allison became a busgirl, too.

When Elise Ann entered Seaford Middle School, she broadened her interests. She played field hockey, joined the kickline and cheerleading teams and developed into a talented artist. “I think I stood out within the art community when I got to high school,” she said. “It intrigued me.” She considered going to art school, but her father wasn’t keen on the idea.

“He was very strict, and he didn’t think it could be a career,” she recalled. “Then, near the [end of high school], my art teacher came to my house. She told my father that it would be a grave injustice if I didn’t continue [my] art [career].”

She attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, but came home a few years later, wanting to return to the restaurant industry. She worked as a waitress at local restaurants, including the now-shuttered Lovin’ Oven and Runyons. She enjoyed the service industry, she said, because she enjoyed cheering people up.

“I love the thrill of having someone come in who might be unhappy and making them happy when they leave,” Howell-Fehling said. The desire to make people feel comfortable came naturally to her, and a few years after she came home from college, she was presented with an unexpected opportunity.

“I was just asked to come help shred papers,” she said of her first encounter with the Coalition for Domestic Violence, which is now part of Safe Center LI in Bethpage. After just a day of volunteering, she was offered a job.

She worked for the nonprofit for 15 years, as an administrative assistant, in the finance department and helping to organize fundraising events. Howell-Fehling went on to work in various departments at Northwell Health, mostly in information technology but later with FollowMyHealth, which helps connect patients with their doctors and organizes their medical records.

Then, beginning nearly a decade ago, she faced a series of life-altering events. “I lost my father when I was planning my wedding, and then Sandy hit, and then my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer right after,” Howell-Fehling said. She felt lost, and after her mother died in 2014, she stopped working for two years.

Eventually, her husband, Tommy Fehling, urged her to reconnect with the community again.

In 2016, Howell-Fehling walked into Bayview Tavern and asked owner Amy Breidenbach, whom she knew, for a job. She started working as a waitress, and soon became a favorite of many of the eatery’s customers — especially their children. She brought in arts and crafts for them. She came to know the regulars by name. Many, she said, thought she was the owner.

In 2017, Howell-Fehling started hosting events for children in the community, at her home and at the restaurant. She held painting parties, and taught them the nuances of art. She has hosted dance parties, ornament-decoration events for the holidays, celebrated Halloween with them and even hosted some of their birthday parties.

She also holds her own birthday parties, and invites the community. She doesn’t accept gifts — for her, at least. She does, however, encourage people to donate to three charities that are important to her:  Karen’s Hope, a home for special-needs adults in Seaford, the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and Safe Center LI.

Last year, she began working as a life skills coach with special-needs students in the Seaford School District, teaching them how to complete everyday tasks. And this year, with large gatherings prohibited as the coronavirus pandemic spread, Howell-Fehling found another outlet for her charitable spirit. After schools closed in March, she felt sorry for the children, and wanted them to be happy and stay positive in a world where everything seemed quite the opposite.

“I started just delivering a handful of ‘smile bags’ to local [Seaford] Harbor kids,” she said. “Soon enough, I was delivering 600 smile bags a week.”

The bags were filled with toys, arts and crafts projects, snacks and inspirational messages. She delivered them until the end of the school year. At the peak of demand, Howell-Fehling was depending on nine other drivers to help deliver the bags. She depleted her savings account, she said, to keep Seaford smiling.

She is still working with special-needs children as well as young adults with autism, albeit remotely now. She does short Zoom meetings with them, but said she is desperately hoping to be reunited with them soon.

“She is great, and all of the kids in the community absolutely love her,” 2019 Herald-Citizen Person of the Year Donna Jebaily said of Howell-Fehling. “She is so selfless.”

“Some of my mother’s last words were, ‘Do what makes you happy,’’’ Howell-Fehling said as she fought back emotion. “It all makes me feel like I did some good, and that my parents are looking down happy and they’re proud of me.”

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