SOMERS, N.Y. – Somers resident Joe Russo found nothing but despair and heartbreak when he traveled to Haiti seven and a half years ago. What he hoped was a rescue mission only turned up more evidence that his friend’s daughter, 19-year-old Stephanie Crispinelli, was among the many victims of the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people.
Russo, a retired Secret Service agent, was once in charge of the detail for former President Bill Clinton. Working for Clinton, Russo traveled to more than 60 countries with the president before retiring in 2004.
Shortly after the earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, Russo received a frantic call from Lenny Crispinelli, father of Stephanie. His daughter, a 2008 Somers High School graduate, was in Haiti on the “Journey of Hope” mission, a service trip she took with 11 fellow students and two professors at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
“It was complete bedlam to try and get some information out of there,” Russo recalled.
With misinformation continuing to circulate, Russo decided he would personally investigate whether Stephanie survived the earthquake. He used his connections with the Secret Service and tagged along with Clinton, who was traveling to Haiti to help with recovery efforts.
“I grabbed my satellite phone from the office and I shot down to Haiti myself to get a handle on what was happening and finding out the possibility if Steph was alive,” Russo said.
Once there, Russo separated from Clinton’s motorcade and attempted to walk a mile-and-a-half up a hill to Hotel Montana, where Stephanie was staying, though he was prevented from reaching the site by a United Nations checkpoint. Undeterred, Russo walked back down the hill and hitched a ride with a construction truck that was headed toward the hotel.
“I got all the way up to the top and at that point I saw that the hotel was completely destroyed,” Russo said. “I could see that if they were inside, there was no way they survived.”
Stephanie’s fate was confirmed weeks later when her remains were recovered.
Due to the poor infrastructure of Haiti’s buildings, the hotel, Russo said, crumbled within a few seconds of the earthquake, which happened on day two of the humanitarian mission. Three other students and the two professors were also killed. Those who survived were outside by the pool area when the hotel collapsed.
From the ashes of that tragedy, Stephanie’s family found a way to build hope. Since then, they have continued to carry out her mission of helping the planet’s most impoverished citizens by building “Steph’s Place” schools in Jamaica. To date, seven have been constructed.
Each school costs about $50,000 to build and is done through the Stephanie Crispinelli Humanitarian Fund (AKA Stephanie's Mission), which was established in 2010 in partnership with the Westchester Community Foundation. The fund’s largest fundraiser, the Stephanie Crispinelli Softball Tournament and Family Fun Day, will return for its eighth year on Sunday, July 9, at Reis Park.
Working alongside Food for the Poor, an international nonprofit, Jamaican communities without schools or with unsafe schools are identified, and Steph’s Schools are built there. The 1,300 square-foot facilities are usually built in two days, said Lenny Crispinelli.
“The government inspects the schools, and if they deem them unsafe for the children, they close them and they don’t open a new one,” Lenny said. “And it’s not like here, where if Yorktown closes you could go to Somers. There are no other schools.”
Stephanie first traveled to Jamaica in January of 2009 on an earlier “Journey of Hope” trip sponsored by her school, Lynn University, and Food for the Poor. She felt a strong connection with the country and its citizens. Stephanie kept a journal while on one of her mission trips to Jamaica and wrote, “I went to Jamaica to help the poor and the poor ended up helping me.”
“When she got to Jamaica, they told her, ‘Whatever you do, don’t tell these children that you’ll be back, because you probably won’t,’” Lenny said. “So, as soon as she got off the plane, she said, ‘I’ll be back,’ and she did go back for a second trip. That was her thing, she just wanted to help.”
Russo said he has traveled with the family for school construction and unveilings and has witnessed first-hand the effect these schools have on the Jamaican people.
“It’s amazing how much of an impact they’ve made in Jamaica,” Russo said. “They’re famous down there, the Crispinellis.”
A plaque of Stephanie is inside every “Steph’s Place” school that is built, informing students about Stephanie and her accomplishments.
“She gave her life to help the less fortunate,” Lenny said. “She was just the kind of person who, if she had two coats and a friend didn’t have one, she’d give her the other coat.”
While on the trips to Jamaica, the Stephanie’s Mission team distributes hundreds of soccer balls throughout the country in honor of PFC Nick Madaras, a Connecticut teen who lost his life in Iraq. Schools, universities, manufacturers and other parties donate the balls, which are deflated, packaged and shipped to dozens of countries around the globe.
“It could be 2,000 [soccer balls] and it wouldn’t be enough,” Lenny said. “They just don’t have anything. There’s no Dick’s Sporting Goods around the corner.”
Team admission for the July 9 softball tournament is $600. To reserve a team spot, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 914-224-7127 or 845-260-1385. Provide a team name, team color, sponsor name, and co-ed or a men’s league.
At the event, there will be a free barbecue and lunch for all to enjoy. Ronald Reggae will provide live music throughout the day and there will be games, activities and inflatables for the entire family. There will also be a gift basket raffle with over $1,000 worth of prizes.
There are many other ways to help out with the Stephanie Crispinelli Humanitarian Fund, which also creates and donates Steph’s Comfort Kits to the American Red Cross. The care packages are filled with no-sew blankets, pillows, books and more, and are distributed to needy children in the Hudson Valley.
The fund also awards annual scholarships to a Somers High School student and funds summer camp opportunities for children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.
For more information on the fund, including upcoming events, visit stephaniesmission.org and instagram.com/stephaniesmission.