Kindergarten student Avery Green surprised his teacher, Keri Stromski, with a "hugging machine" he and his mother made for her. Stromski, who had stage-four breast cancer when she spoke in March about the creation with Newsday's Cecilia Dowd, died Tuesday, according to a spokesman for the Riverhead Central School District. Credit: Howard Schnapp, Madison Stromski; Photo Credit: Cathie Green, Keri Stromski

A beloved kindergarten teacher in Riverhead who missed embracing her students so much during the pandemic that she inspired one to build her a "hugging machine," died Tuesday of breast cancer, according to the Riverhead Central School District.

Longtime Aquebogue Elementary School teacher Keri Stromski, a former teacher of the year, was 48, a Riverhead Central School District spokesman said Wednesday night.

Stromski, a married mother of three, taught in the district for 23 years.

Christine Tona, Riverhead Central School District’s interim superintendent of schools, said Stromski’s death will be felt throughout the community.

"I am saddened by the news of Keri Stromski’s passing," Tona said in a statement. "She was incredibly dedicated to her family, her students, the Riverhead Central School District, and the Riverhead community and will be greatly missed. We can all learn from Keri’s example of strength during the most difficult of circumstances."

Jill Kubetz, Stromski’s sister, reached Wednesday night via text, directed a reporter to a Facebook post she wrote about her sibling.

"Keri was passionate in her love for her husband, Rob, the love of her life. An awe-inspiring mother who was always there for her children," Kubetz's post read. "The loudest voice at the swim meet shouting 'Go, Maddie, Go,' 'Go, Morgan, Go,' 'Go, Quinn, Go.' You could hear the tears of pride in her voice as she shouted, so they knew she was always rooting for them."

Longtime Aquebogue Elementary School teacher Keri Stromski, a married mother...

Longtime Aquebogue Elementary School teacher Keri Stromski, a married mother of three, taught in the Riverhead Central School District for 23 years.   Credit: Zoom

Kubetz wrote in the Facebook post of her sister's passion for teaching.

"Keri held the hands of our youngest and most precious gifts, children," Kubetz wrote. "She spent countless dollars buying school supplies, gifts, meals and ensuring no one in her class felt unloved for 7 hours a day."

Stromski’s dedication to her students, and how much she loved hugging them, was highlighted in a Newsday story last month.

She told the newspaper: "A hug is just everything. You’re just letting people know without saying a word … how much you love them."

Kindergarten student Avery Green, 5, said he knew his favorite teacher was struggling while not being able to hug her students.

"We decided to make the hugging machine because Miss Stromski missed hugging everyone else," Avery said in the March 18 story.

Stromski, who had been teaching virtual classes during the pandemic, never told her students of her battle with breast cancer.

Avery and his mother, Cathie Green, built the hugging contraption for Stromski after being inspired by similar creations by others during the pandemic to allow grandparents to safely hug their grandchildren. The Greens' hugging machine was made from a black-and-silver coat rack with clear plastic bags fashioned into a reverse coat with sleeves, one set for an adult on one side, and a set placed lower for the little ones, plus a covering for the face suspended from the top.

Green and Avery presented the hugging machine to Stromski last month.

It was a smash success.

Stromski screamed with joy when she and Avery safely embraced using the hugging machine.

With Cecilia Dowd and Joie Tyrrell

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