Elizabeth Sill set up a GoFundMe fundraiser for student scholarships in the memory of her husband, Greg, who died March 26 of a pulmonary embolism. Credit: Barry Sloan

Elizabeth Sill was preparing April 1 to leave for the funeral of her husband, Greg, when she went to use the computer.

The task: creating a GoFundMe fundraiser for student scholarships in his memory.

"I was like, I can’t let his name not mean anything anymore," she recalled Wednesday about her husband, her high school sweetheart and a popular social studies teacher who died March 26 of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 48. She added, pausing to cry: "I told my daughters: ‘We have to do something, even if it’s a small scholarship. … We’ll see what we get.’"

She figured it might raise $1,000, tops. But as the family grieved — Elizabeth and the Lake Grove couple’s three daughters, then 16, 20 and 21 — she would get alerts on her phone that donations keep exceeding that goal: $5,000, then $10,000, then, $15,000.

It wound up netting nearly $65,000, and within three months Sill’s family had awarded scholarship to four students based on essay submissions — three at Smithtown West, the high school where Greg spent most of his decadeslong teaching career, and a fourth at Sachem North, where his three daughters are, or will be, alumni.

Now the family has started a foundation, with ambitions to expand beyond those districts and eventually to across Long Island, reaching students of all types, not just those headed to four-year colleges but also technical schools or other training. Perhaps organizing trips to El Salvador, where his widow traces her roots and a country he embraced.

Fundraisers include a golf tournament next year, and sales of hats, bracelets, shirts, stickers and other apparel.

Elizabeth Sill, right, and her daughter, Isabella, 17, wear Greg W....

Elizabeth Sill, right, and her daughter, Isabella, 17, wear Greg W. Sill Foundation "Sillworld" T-shirts in their Lake Grove home Friday. Credit: Barry Sloan

His daughters, Emily, now 22, and Natalie, 20, and Isabella, now 17, made the foundation’s website, marketing materials, and brainstormed ideas for what to write, channeling their father's wisdom, aphorisms and values to inspire the design. The greens and blues, for the earth and its waters, were inspired by their dad’s love of traveling and history, which he threaded through his pedagogy.

"He would actually inspire his students to experience history for this epic story that it was, and feel that it’s more than just a textbook and some boring words, but actually a place to explore and hear stories and be a part of it and take all these roles of historic figures in different types of classroom activities or scavenger hunts around the school or puzzles online, challenges," Emily said.

The foundation website urges visitors to "be the coffee bean" inspired by the bestselling 2009 Jon Gordon and Damon West book "The Coffee Bean: A Simple Lesson to Create Positive Change."

"Life is often difficult. It can be harsh, stressful, and feel like a pot of boiling hot water. The environments we find ourselves in can change, weaken, or harden us, and test who we truly are. We can be like the carrot that weakens in the pot or like the egg that hardens. Or, we can be like the coffee bean and discover the power inside us to transform our environment," the book’s summary says.

Greg Sill, a social studies teacher in the Smithtown High...

Greg Sill, a social studies teacher in the Smithtown High School West, died March 26 at the age of 48. Credit: Nicholas Gallucci

One of the scholarship recipients was Smithtown West student Caitlin Camilleri, now 18 and a freshman at Marist College studying data science and analytics. She had Sill for sophomore-year global history. She recalled typing up the application essay on a laptop from her family’s kitchen — her mom nearby — and broke into tears upon finding out she had won.

"It was his classroom that they told me in," she said Wednesday from a college dorm, her voice breaking with emotion. "He was a teacher who didn’t just teach. He went the extra mile, always was willing to help out the students. He wanted to make learning fun. Some teachers would just do the bare minimum, teach you the material straight out of the textbook. Within the first week of school, he brought us around the high school campus, through the fields and was trying to teach the lesson as we went along," she said.

She said that news of his death was particularly hard for the school, coming in a tough year as students struggled during the isolating time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Of course, I felt way worse for his family and everything they probably were going through," said Camilleri, who is putting the money toward tuition.

Another scholarship recipient is Madison Friscia, a freshman studying health administration at the University of Scranton.

Sills Foundation scholarship recipient Madison Friscia is a freshman studying health administration...

Sills Foundation scholarship recipient Madison Friscia is a freshman studying health administration at the University of Scranton. Credit: Madison Friscia

"He was the teacher who got me out of my shell and made me join clubs and make friends and get involved," she said in an interview from a campus library.

In life, the Sill family was also inspired by his indomitable spirit, said Emily Sill, 22, who is finishing her last semester at George Washington University, studying marketing and international business. She said the foundation would perpetuate that ethos.

"My dad, honestly, was the most positive person I knew," she said. "He would always teach us that, you know, whatever life throws at you … that you can get through it."

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