When Elmont Memorial High School Principal Kevin Dougherty stepped outside the building the morning of April 7 to address a situation he was told needed his attention, he didn’t expect to find students and Elmont residents applauding him for the work he has done for the community since he was appointed principal in 2016 — including preparing meals for as many as 150 residents each week for the past year.
“It’s overwhelming,” Dougherty said. “It’s nice to hear when you’re doing the work every day.”
When he took the job five years ago, he said, he didn’t even know where Elmont was, and had to use a GPS to get around. But he eventually got to know the residents, and spent large chunks of his time trying to improve their lives, with the creation of the Men of Elmont mentoring club and a food distribution event every Wednesday during the coronavirus pandemic.
“As you came into Elmont, as you came into our hearts — you actually embraced the community and showed us what leadership is,” Rachelle Lewis, co-founder of the community organization Elmont Strong, told Dougherty, kicking off a surprise ceremony. “You showed us what compassion is, and we just want to thank you.”
Lewis and fellow Elmont Strong co-founder Sarah Campbell organized the small, socially distanced ceremony, at which County Legislator Carrié Solages presented Dougherty with citations from him and his sister, State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, and leaders of other community organizations — like the Long Island Knights Volleyball Club and Cub Scout Pack 294 — presented Dougherty with gifts.
“If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t let a day pass by without saying thank you or I love you,” Lewis said.
High school seniors in the Men of Elmont club talked about Dougherty’s leadership in the school, and Sewanhaka Central High School District Superintendent James Grossane spoke about Dougherty’s role in feeding Elmont families in need.
“Kevin has been the spearhead in all of this,” Grossane said at the weekly food distribution event at the high school after the ceremony, which Dougherty plans to expand into a full-time pantry, staffed by students who would learn leadership skills in the process.
“I see school as the center of the community,” said Dougherty, who now considers Elmont his “second home.”
So when he realized that there was a lot of food insecurity in the hamlet when businesses shut down last year, he contacted Elmont resident Tiffany Capers, who has been involved in many Parent Teacher Associations over the past few years and now sits on the Board of Education, about starting a food distribution effort at the high school. They started targeting 20 to 30 families Dougherty knew needed help, and reached out to staff and community members about donating nonperishables. He later partnered with Island Harvest Food Bank, which provided a steady supply of food.
“This is a labor of love for me,” said Dougherty, who grew up with a stay-at-home mom in Syosset, who, his father, Michael, said, helped reinforce his values.
“Kevin’s a very unique and sincere man” who “lives his beliefs,” Michael said. “You can’t be prouder.”
That’s why, he said, he decided to see his son’s efforts firsthand by helping out with the food distribution beginning in January, joining Capers, Lewis and Debra Clarke, another Elmont mother, in their efforts. Each week now, they said, they help others, which in turn makes them feel better about themselves.
They now feed up to 150 families in just three hours each week.
“You can see the appreciation, camaraderie and community,” Michael Dougherty said, and Lewis added, “Everyone’s all in in Elmont, and that’s what we love.”
But, she and the other volunteers agreed, the weekly food distribution wouldn’t have been possible without Kevin Dougherty, who said he would continue his efforts to support Elmont families.