For Celeste Sassine, the 2018 Mill Neck Apple Festival was more than just an opportunity to sample fall fruits in a scenic setting. It was a chance to practice what you teach.
Sassine, of Queens Village, is fluent in sign language and heads the deaf ministry at the Christian Cultural Center, a church in Brooklyn. She has attended the festival at the 86-acre campus of the Mill Neck School for the Deaf every year since 2003.
She encouraged fellow church members Darnelle Gillisslee, Janeen Forbes and Toni Rivera, whom she has taught sign language, to attend the 2018 festival to be better able to communicate with those in the deaf community, especially those in their ministry.
"She believes it's not just about the language," Gillisslee said. "It's about immersing oneself in the culture."
Now in its 61st year, the two-day festival is believed to be the largest event on Long Island catering to those who are deaf. It attracts as many as 20,000 people over the course of the weekend, organizers said.
Gillisslee and Forbes traveled from Brooklyn and Rivera from Valley Stream early Saturday morning to attend. They posed for group pictures — and in one snapshot each made the sign of the word "love" — at the sprawling Mill Neck campus.
Jillian Michaelson, director of events at the Mill Neck Foundation, said the festival was one of the foundation's largest fundraisers. Beyond the apples, strudels and sweets, it features food trucks, face painting and family-friendly games. In keeping with the focus, vendors such as the Center for Hearing Health administer free hearing tests. Dr. Susan Antonellis, director of the Mill Neck center, said the facility conducted at least 250 tests out of its mobile van there annually.
At the Cheese House, an annual attraction, Ted and Barbara Urban assumed their decades-old roles as shop volunteers. Ted Urban, 75, of Hicksville, said he has worked at 52 festivals and his wife had donated her time there since the two married more than 40 years ago. The only thing that has ever prevented her from attending is a wedding, she said. "I've only missed one year," said Barbara Urban, 68. "The year my daughter got married."
Niah Taylor, 17, a 10th-grader at the Mill Neck School for the Deaf, volunteered at the festival for the first time Saturday. She thanked patrons who purchased water from the refreshment stand she was staffing near the Cheese House.
Many annual attendees have ties to the Mill Neck School for the Deaf. Jeremy Radziejewski, 32, has been to every Apple Festival since he enrolled in the school in fourth grade. On Saturday, he signed that he most looks forward to the apple pie and ice cream. His brother Daniel, 30, and mother Carol, 72, said they participated no matter the weather because they felt indebted to the school they believed gave so much to the Island's deaf population.
"Most of the deaf come on Sunday," said Carol Radziejewski of Mastic Beach. "It's a way for them to gather."
Daniel Radziejewski, who is not deaf, learned to sign before he could speak.
"Why talk when everyone around me was signing?" he said.