A true volunteer role model

Karen Gonyon is the Lynbrook/East Rockaway Herald's 2019 Person of the Year


Saint Raymond Church Deacon Bob Campbell said he didn’t even have to ask for Karen Gonyon’s help when he was ill and homebound for a month last summer. She brought him food, gave him rides to doctors’ appointments, shopped for him and watched over him.

“Karen is truly a role model,” he said, “and she is probably the only person who doesn’t realize that.”

Campbell is one of many people whom Gonyon has helped in East Rockaway, whether it’s those who’ve suffered a personal loss and attend the bereavement group she co-hosts with Rita Chojnacki at the church, those who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy or anyone else in the neighborhood in need of assistance.

For her dedication to her community, the Herald is proud to name Gonyon its 2019 Person of the Year.

Gonyon, 57, grew up in East Rockaway and graduated from Molloy College with a nursing degree. She still lives in the village with her husband of 29 years, Gerard, 57. Campbell affectionately referred to Gerard as Karen’s “sidekick,” noting that he often accompanies her on her many charitable missions around the village, and he lauded them both for all their efforts. The Gonyons have three children, Kayleen, 28, Matthew, 26, and Daniel, 23.

Campbell said that Karen was the fifth of six children, and was the “go-to” person in her family, and that she has since taken on the same role in her community. Her family includes a long line of volunteers: Her father, Tom Henry, was a founder of the Catholic Youth Organization program at St. Raymond. Gonyon works as a nurse for cancer patients, and followed in her father’s footsteps by serving as a CYO boys’ and girls’ basketball coach and minister at the church.

“One of her main characteristics is that she’s gently persistent,” Campbell said. “She doesn’t stop trying until something good happens.”

For Lynbrook resident Jackie Conn, that trademark gentle persistence helped her handle one of the most emotionally trying times of her life. After her older sister, Bonnie Coopersmith, died at age 60 in August, Conn’s friend Bridget Marrandino suggested that she contact Gonyon about joining her bereavement group. 

“My sister was my best friend along with being my sister, because she was my go-to person in life, so I’m still devastated,” Conn said. “I called Karen, and I immediately felt her warmth and energy through the phone.”

In September, Conn joined the group, though she was a little reluctant to do so because it was so soon after her sister’s death. She was glad she did, because it helped her carry on. She added that even though she is Jewish, the group helped her feel at home in its meetings at the church. 

Conn said that she went through various stages of grief, and the support of the group helped her. She described Gonyon as nurturing and warm, and added that she helped her understand that it’s OK to go through a range of emotions while dealing with a loss, and that people grieve differently.

“She’s just one of these people that always makes everyone in the room try to feel comfortable and special,” Conn said. “She remembers things that you say. She doesn’t just stand on the sideline. She jumps in and helps without being asked. If she sees a need, she just does it.”

Conn said that the group varied in size from week to week, but consistently had at least 10 people. They met for an hour and a half every Thursday night at St. Raymond from September through November, and will reconvene for a six-week program starting in January.

Gonyon started the group to bring community members in mourning together to help one another through their difficult time.

“I think our goal is to help our bereaved realize that they will never get over their grief, but they will get through it,” she said. “Grief isn’t cookie cutter, nor does it have a timeline. People will grieve in their own time and at their own pace. We try to give them the tools to meet them where they are in their grief process.”

Marrandino, who has known Gonyon for many years, said she told Conn to contact Gonyon about the group because she knew she would be able to help her. Marrandino recalled that her son, Steven, now 27, used to refer to Gonyon as a saint when he was a child. “My son always said, ‘When Mrs. Gonyon calls, you have to answer.’ She just has a way of getting people to help others in need.”

Marrandino cited several other examples of the community spirit shining brightly in Gonyon: She helped at the East Rockaway firehouse in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and served meals and donated clothing to a family in the village after their house was damaged in a fire.

“While others say there isn’t enough time in the day, Karen seems to find that extra hour to do something,” Marrandino said. “Karen’s door is always open for anyone who has a problem — or if they have something good happening in their life.”

Gonyon’s efforts were perhaps never more evident than after Sandy. In addition to helping bring food and supplies to the firehouse, she and her husband helped their mailman, Brian Barry, after his house was severely damaged in the storm.

Barry was injured on the job a few months before Sandy, and when the storm struck, he lost family heirlooms, photographs and many other items when his home was damaged by floodwater and sewage from the nearby Bay Park treatment plant. Though he initially refused help from his neighbors, the Gonyons drove to his house and banged on his door until he answered. Once he did, they persuaded him to get in their car and drove him to their home, where they gave him a hot meal.

The Gonyons then offered their basement to Barry to live in until his home was repaired, and they gave him a kerosene heater, blankets, jackets and candles. Gerard Gonyon even went to Barry’s house and covered his leaky roof. “I was blessed and kept in touch,” Barry wrote in a 2014 Herald column reflecting back two years after Sandy. “I still do to this day.”

Conn said she had heard about the Gonyons taking in Barry after Sandy, and that in getting to know Karen through the bereavement group, it wasn’t a surprise.

“When there’s anyone in need in the community, she’s there,” Conn said. “Whatever it is, she’s always on it.”