September 2012 Issue
September 06, 2012

Retirees share tech know-how

Author: Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: From left, Justin DiCristofalo, and his parents, Bernard and Denise, make mentoring the Lehman High robotics team a family affair.

As mentors for Herbert H. Lehman High School's Robotics team, the Lehman Lionics, retirees Denise and Bernard DiCristofalo work nonstop from January through May helping team members prepare for the FIRST Robotics competition. The mentor-based program fosters science, engineering and technology skills by challenging high school students to build a robot that can complete a specific task.

"FIRST teams get a basic kit of motors, gears and other parts at the beginning of the year when they register," explained head coach Bernard DiCristofalo. A former Lehman technology teacher, he began the program in 2003 while working as the school's assistant principal. Jimmy Chu, a United Federation of Teachers retiree and former technology teacher, works side by side with DiCristofalo mentoring students.

For this year's competition, "Rebound Rumble," teams built a basketball-shooting robot. Event registrations, extra parts and tools are the responsibility of team members, making fundraising and corporate sponsorship for the non-school-funded program important.

Heart and head

If Bernard is the team's head, Denise DiCristofalo, a New Hyde Park retiree and former high school special education teacher, is its heart. Students designated her "team mother of the year."

She takes the role seriously, baking goodies for the team's after-school meetings, organizing bake sales and traveling to competitions to help students critique competitors and stay motivated. "We don't make a lot off the bakes sales," she said. "It might buy meals on competition day or go toward robot supplies. Every little bit helps."

Since many of the students lack strong support at home, all consider her role vital. "Some of these kids don't have a lot, so I really try to give them moral support and inspiration," she said.

"We're proud of the many ways that NYSUT retirees continue to enrich the lives of students in their communities," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president.

"This program goes way beyond competing," said Denise DiCristofalo. "It gives the kids a feeling of self worth. It's a wonderful way to spend our retirement."

For more information about FIRST programs, visit