Deborah Kirnon has spent much of the last decade as a dogged advocate for at-risk and marginalized residents of Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore. On Saturday night, her friends, fellow civic leaders and former clients tried to reciprocate.
Kirnon, who lost her job as parish outreach director for St. Anne's Catholic Church in Brentwood in January, found out last month that she has throat cancer. Saturday night, a fundraising gala in Central Islip hosted by the community she serves celebrated Kirnon's tireless work, with all proceeds helping to pay her living expenses and medical bills while she's unable to work.
The light from tiki torches flickered as people trickled into the shady, open backyard behind the Teatro Yerbabruja's Arts & Community Center in Central Islip Saturday night to show support for Kirnon. Amid hugs from friends, who arrived every few minutes, Kirnon said it was the first time since her cancer diagnosis that she hasn't felt afraid.
"You don't realize how many people you touch until something like this" happens, Kirnon said as she sat with two of her best friends, one of whom flew back from Puerto Rico for what Kirnon and her friends called a celebration of life.
Kirnon dabbed at her eyes. "I'm feeling very emotional right now. Just because I have cancer, it's not going to take me out. I'm not going to leave," she said. "My arms are a little broken right now and I can't hold people up, but I'll be back."
One of Kirnon's close friends, Renee Ortiz, said: "It's always the people that have the least that give the most, and that's Deb.
"She's always struggled a bit herself and in her personal life financially, but she always was so generous with her time, her money and everything," said Ortiz, a longtime community advocate and member of the Islip Town Community Development Agency.
After superstorm Sandy in October 2012, Kirnon went into the flooded streets, handing out warm meals to people with no electricity or whose houses were uninhabitable.
When a boarding home in Brentwood exploded in August 2012, killing two people, she was on the front lines demanding legislation to prevent overcrowding and dangerous conditions in illegal rentals.
She held yearly Thanksgiving turkey drives for the needy, developed a summer camp for Brentwood children at no cost to their parents, and often spent weekends feeding and providing clothing for homeless people she met in Brentwood's parks and streets.
Kirnon's job as parish outreach director was more of a lifestyle than a 9-to-5, friends and community leaders said.
She helped down-on-their-luck clients find housing, food and clothing, and guided them through the social services process.
"Her heart is larger for the community than it is for herself," said Ray Mayo, co-founder of the Brentwood Association of Concerned Citizens, who helped develop the summer camp and fed Sandy victims alongside Kirnon. "She's a high-strung individual to begin with, so when something of an emotional nature touches her, she goes all out and she gets very caught up in it."
The community supplied everything for the fundraiser.Donations may also be made at People's United Bank to the "Friends of Deborah Kirnon Fundraiser" account.