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His helping hand raises money, spirits

Cassy Caputo works with her son Keith to

Cassy Caputo works with her son Keith to build colorful Easter baskets at Helping Makes U Happy's building in Center Moriches. Credit: Steve Pfost

Keith Caputo points to a slogan carved in wood on a table outside his office, making sure a visitor doesn’t overlook it.

The slogan reads: “There is no dis in my ability.”

Caputo, 37, who has Down syndrome, has been proving this officially since 2015, when he founded Helping Makes U Happy, a nonprofit organization based in Center Moriches.

Through activities that aid hundreds of people, Caputo is on a mission to demonstrate how every human is capable of making a difference in his or her community, believing that doing good not only enhances the life of the less fortunate people they help, but also their own life as well.

“I love helping,” said Caputo. “It makes me happy, and it makes the people we help happy.”

As he speaks, his face is wreathed in a smile reflected in lemon-yellow smiley faces with two thumbs up emblazoned on donated colored hoodies that he sells as one of his many fundraising efforts. Since its launch, the nonprofit has raised more than $100,000.

Caputo — assisted by volunteers and his devoted mother, Cassy Caputo, with whom he lives in Center Moriches — provides funds, food, warm clothing and personal items for families who are hungry, homeless or affected by sudden, devastating illness. He gives comfort cases with blankets and toys for children separated from their families because of neglect. Free scarves, hats and gloves can be picked up at food pantries he supports.

Through projects he funded, Stony Brook University Hospital received care bags with activity books, crayons, gum, a blanket and other items for use by children with cancer. Mothers of premature infants got thermal totes. Annual $1,000 scholarships are given to four graduating seniors from area high schools who perform 50 to 100 hours of community service.

Caputo cooks and serves a Memorial Day breakfast for veterans at VFW Post 414 in Center Moriches and distributes pillows and towels at the Veterans Home in Yaphank.

To thwart bullying and promote friendship, his organization donated “Buddy Benches” at several schools. “If a student is feeling lonely or picked on, he or she can sit on the bench,” said Caputo. “It encourages kids to be aware of how their peers are feeling.”

Caputo — whose genetic disorder causes developmental changes and affects one of every 700 babies born in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic — could well be viewed as Center Moriches’ most well-known and beloved resident.

His mother may be his biggest fan. “When you have a child and he has Down [syndrome] and he’s your first, you say he’s never going to be president, but then I realize he’s so much more,” said Cassy Caputo. “He’s helped hundreds and hundreds. When people say he has Down syndrome, I think he has ‘up’ syndrome.”

Inspired by his selfless and untiring service, and by popular acclaim, the Center Moriches Chamber of Commerce board of directors unanimously voted to make him grand marshal of the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which was held March 11. “And well-deserving,” said Gerry Sapanaro, the parade’s vice-chair.

Caputo donned a green-and-white kilt, black jacket and top hat and waved and threw kisses as spectators along the parade route cheered him. “You’re the best community,” he told them.

On Feb. 28, the Center Moriches Fire Department made Caputo an honorary member. His firefighter’s black jacket and helmet are prominently displayed at the entrance to the rented 2,200-square-foot building that houses his nonprofit’s operations.

“Keith is always very supportive of the fire department, saying how proud he is to live in a community where members put in a lot of time and effort,” said Ian Foley, the department’s first assistant chief. “We’re happy to have him as an honorary member. The whole town supported it.”

‘Happy in a happy, helping way’

Caputo is the oldest of three. He completed his BOCES, middle and high school special-education and independent living programs and works at Smile Farms, a greenhouse in Moriches. Despite the joy he gets from helping others, it was a tragedy — the sudden death of his mentor, Anthony Parlato III, at age 44 — that served as the catalyst for Caputo’s volunteerism.

Parlato believed in helping people, Cassy Caputo said. At Parlato’s invitation, for six years, her son participated in his camp activities for youth and his basketball coaching and gym activities. “He would let him blow the whistle or call a foul,” Cassy Caputo said. “Keith loved that.”

Caputo was heartbroken and inconsolable when Parlato died in 2013.

“I was crying, my mom was crying, my dog [Lily, a Chihuahua] was licking away the tears,” Caputo recalled.

His mother remembers her son’s heartache well.

“Nothing hit him as hard as Anthony’s passing,” said Cassy Caputo, who retired in 2012 as director of purchasing for the Town of Brookhaven. “He was devastated. He would say, ‘Mom, Mom, why?’ He would wake up at night crying. At least three months he was crying. Watching ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’ was the only thing that brought him joy. She always had something on her show that helped people.”

A special-needs psychologist told her that her son missed helping others the way he did with Parlato.

“He told me to go back to my activities and do more helping,” Caputo said. “I felt better. . . . The idea of Helping Makes U Happy sprang from that. I am a better person, happy in a happy, helping way. I feel that the best thing in my life is my community. Everyone comes together like a family; we get the job done. This I do forever in my heart and in my guts.”

That dedication to service endears Caputo to his community. Children at Clayton Huey Elementary School chose him as their hero as part of a school program promoting positivity. One second-grader wrote: “He is generous, he helps everyone in town for no money or anything. He is nice and courageous.”

Individuals and organizations contribute to Caputo’s efforts. His organization filled the shelves of local food pantries as a result of a monthlong food drive conducted by the Suffolk Federal Credit Union. Nearly 40 families referred by a local school received free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch during the summer to replace the meals offered during the school year.

He helped a high school student raise money to buy a service dog for his autistic cousin. A student collected $173 in pennies that was used to buy 70 backpacks for families in need who were referred by school social workers.

Eileen O’Brien, program coordinator of Smile Farms, which helps Caputo with fundraising, said, “Keith has a heart of gold; he’s just driven to help people. He’s the most loving person in the world.”

Place mats on tables at the Moriches Bay Diner provide information about Caputo and his nonprofit. Spiro Nikolopoulos, the diner’s owner, said, “I love that kid; he’s the best. He treats every day of his life as if he can conquer the world. He doesn’t see his disability as a deficit; he sets a precedent for everyone. When he walks in the diner, everybody lights up. His mom should get a lot of credit. The world needs more people like them.”

Whole families volunteer to help Caputo. Kayla Kelly, 8, her mother, Tara, and her father, Ed, help him sort donated food, clothes, water and other items and make deliveries. The family learned about Helping Makes U Happy through Facebook and started donating food for Thanksgiving.

“Keith is like the town mayor; you can’t live here and not know who Keith is,” Tara Kelly said. “I think it’s important for kids to understand the work he does so they become adults and do things for the community.”

Her husband points out that Caputo always wears a smile. “He has such a great disposition,” Ed Kelly said. “Every day, he’s doing something. He doesn’t stop. That’s the kind of person he is.”

Emily Ferguson, 14, a Girl Scout and ninth-grader at Center Moriches High School, helps prepare care packages for children in need. “I’d been hearing about what he does and wanted to get involved,” she said. “Helping definitely makes me feel happy to make a difference in my community and see the difference happening.”

Stepping Stone Support, an Eastport-based nonprofit that helps Long Islanders battling cancer — including through its Survivor’s Helper Program that provides winter clothing for adult patients, their children and caregivers and meals and holiday shopping in December — is one of the organizations Caputo assists. “He really is remarkable,” said the group’s founder and president, Renee Lynn Scott, who is also a cancer survivor and patient advocate. “He is a gift. He brings out the best in everybody.”

Inspired ideas for helping others

Caputo gleans ideas for helping from social media and television, and has many creative approaches of his own. A Super Bowl raffle brings two winners everything from appetizers to dessert for 12 to 15 people and is delivered on Super Bowl night.

The prize for a “Name our Giraffe” contest was four tickets to the Bronx Zoo. The winning tickets were donated back to Caputo and were used to buy a child’s basket with crayons, chalk, bubbles and a snack that was a prize in the organization’s annual fundraiser that is a combination auction and raffle. The October fundraiser brought in $32,000. It is Caputo’s favorite event, his mother said, because he solicits funds from businesses himself and “meets and greets everyone” who attends the auction. For a guest chef night, Caputo donned chef’s attire, prepared a meal from a Westhampton restaurant’s menu and served it to patrons. An annual community yard sale last fall raised more than $2,400. At a Madison Square Garden event, the New York Knicks donated $2,000.

“That warmed me right up,” Caputo said. “I tipped my hat to everyone.”

Despite a slight speech impediment, Caputo promotes his organization at Long Island schools, chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs.

He and his mother — who raised Caputo and his siblings by herself — are a team. They say “I love you” to each other and hug a lot. “Introducing her, I say: ‘This is my mom. She’s my PR person, my secretary, my taxi,’ ” Caputo said.

When his mother says “the world needs more happy,” Caputo’s response is: “The world needs more mothers like you.”

Caputo has received many honors over the years, including a Humble and Kind Certificate from the South Manor PTA; an award from the Town of Brookhaven for passionate service to youth; and the Center Moriches Teachers Association’s Community Spirit award.

His own reward is simple:

“If just one person looks at what I do and says, ‘Well, if he can do it I can too,’ then I can say maybe I’ve made a difference,” Caputo said.

VOLUNTEER SPOTLIGHT: JACOB SIGERSON

Like just about everyone else in Center Moriches, Jacob Sigerson is happy helping Keith Caputo in his campaign to spread happiness.

Living just across the street from Caputo’s home in the hamlet, Sigerson willingly makes himself available to stock shelves with donated items and help with yard sales, an auction/raffle and other fundraisers.

“Whatever he needs,” said Sigerson, 16, who sometimes volunteers twice a week. “I’ve known him all my life, and I’ve been helping with his organization for as long as I’ve known him. It’s been a great experience.”

Sigerson has a twin brother, Matthew; and an older brother, Zachary, and a sister, Ashley, who are twins. “We all help,” Sigerson said. As an Eagle Scout project, he built the shelves at the nonprofit’s headquarters.

Sigerson, an 11th-grader at Center Moriches High School, said that he is inspired seeing Caputo’s efforts in the community and that the whole family lends a hand.

“I enjoy doing anything that Keith wants me to do,” Sigerson said. “It makes me happy to help Keith in whatever he does. My mom, Tracy, and my dad, James, help too.

“I think it’s very good that he’s sending that message that everyone can do something to help. As long as he needs me, I’ll be there for him.”

— Merle English

Sign me up

Volunteers who sign up to assist Helping Makes U Happy will be helping the organization carry out its mission to show how everyone can make a difference in their community.

“We are always looking for young community members who are in search of ways to give back to their community,” said Cassy Caputo, a board member, chairwoman of the organization and mother of the founder, Keith Caputo. “It is the generous donations of time and money that enable us to do what we do.”

Graduating high school seniors who have 50 to 100 hours of community service and who best describe in an essay what volunteering means to them can earn community service points.

“We encourage volunteers of all ages to get involved with our group and make a difference in your life and the life of those around you,” Cassy Caputo said. “Students can earn credits by volunteering at our events,” and volunteers can create their own event, she added. “We are always open to new ideas.”

For more information, or to volunteer, call 631-878-1978 or send an email to helpingmakesuhappy@gmail.com, and include your name, age, residence and contact information.

You might consider . . .

The Long Island Volunteer Enterprise, or LIVE, which promotes corporate volunteerism on Long Island. LIVE organizes teams of volunteers from the corporate, academic and nonprofit sectors to complete a one-day project that will significantly improve the quality of life for many who live and work on Long Island, according to its website. More than 400 companies have adopted LIVE projects.

Contact: 212-436-3058, liveli.org

Long Island Cares, which is looking for volunteers for its National Nutrition Month Food Drive with grocer ShopRite. Volunteers will set up tables outside ShopRite stores in Bay Shore and Massapequa and pass out lists of needed items to customers as they enter the store and collect donations as they leave. Four to six volunteers, 9 years old or older, are needed for the 3 to 6 p.m. shift March 25 in Massapequa; and 12:30 to 3 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. shifts March 31 in Bay Shore. Some bending and moderate lifting is involved.

Contact: Sign up at LIcares.org

For more volunteer opportunities, contact the LONG ISLAND VOLUNTEER CENTER at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org

NOTE: The Center is seeking new and gently used prom and bridesmaid dresses, dressy shoes, evening bags and other accessories for its 24th annual Prom Boutique Collection that is coordinated with Nassau Community College. The drop-off deadline is March 25. Donations go to thousands of young women on Long Island who cannot afford the expenses associated with proms, graduation and award ceremonies. For a list of collection sites and drop-off dates and times in Nassau and Suffolk, call the center or visit its website.

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