Debbie Coleman, who started at the Suffolk County Legislature nearly a decade ago in a temporary jobs program and made herself the feisty heart of the building, will be honored Friday in a memorial service after losing a two-year struggle with cancer. She was 56.
Coleman, who had cancer of the stomach and esophagus, died June 17 at the hospice on the grounds of St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson.
"No matter what she was going through, she always had a smile on her face," Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said. "She was a warmhearted, dedicated person and a super employee."
"Debbie was heart and soul . . . of the legislature," said Meghan O'Reilly, a fellow legislative aide. "She was such a welcoming, cheery presence to everyone who came into the building."
Coleman started work at the legislature in 2006 as part of a county labor department program to train public assistance recipients with job skills to help them find work.
Those who worked with Coleman said she excelled in the program, learning computer and proofreading skills and developing an engaging way of dealing with the public.
"When her internship was almost up she asked, 'I know it's a long shot, but do you think I could be hired?' " recalled Renee Oritz, former deputy legislative clerk. Ortiz, assistant director of development for Suffolk Community College Foundation, recalled that when she approached then Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) on Coleman's behalf., "he said, 'You don't have to sell me. Debbie shows that government programs do work.'"
Other co-workers recalled Coleman's positive attitude despite her illness.
"She hated missing work -- she loved being here especially on meeting or committee days," said her boss Tim Laube, legislative clerk. "She had a lot of pride working here and it showed because she fought through the pain to be involved."
Friends also recalled that Coleman had no driver's license and daily commuted as much as 2 1/2 hours by bus from Rocky Point, and later from Port Jefferson Station.
Dolores Taylor, her cousin, said Coleman loved her job and always told people exactly what she thought. "She was persistent and insistent," Taylor said.
Coleman's son, Devon Coleman, 23, said his mother "meant the world to me" and was "the toughest fighter" he's ever seen. "She taught me how to be strong and never give up on anything," he said.
Debbie Coleman, who was one of three children, was born in Harlem and later raised in the Bronx. Her family said she was the first African-American student to attend Lehman High School. She was married briefly, lived for a time in Texas and moved to Long Island in 1992 to be near family.
Her other survivor is a sister, Joan Faison, who lives in upstate New York.
Coleman's memorial service will be held Friday at the Gordon Heights Fire Department, at 23 Hawkins Ave., Medford, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cremation was earlier this week.