March/April 2020 Issue
March 01, 2020

Sachem teacher’s legacy lives on

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
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dezy strong
Caption: Photo courtesy dezystrong.org.

Matthew DiStefano passed away Jan. 27. Matthew DiStefano is very much alive.

You can see that from the smiles he stills brings to the faces of students and staff at Sachem North High School on Long Island, where he taught special education for 19 years and coached volleyball. You can see that in the energy he still ignites throughout the school’s hallways, adorned with photos and signs remembering the man affectionately known as “Dezy.” And you can hear it in the way those who love Matthew DiStefano speak of him, still — always in the present tense.

“He is somebody I consider a brother,” said Matt Rivera, a history teacher at Sachem North and the head varsity volleyball coach. “He welcomed me into his family and ever since, I’ve been ‘Uncle Matt.’ We live a quarter mile away from one another. We come to work together. Our wives joke with us: ‘You guys are like an old married couple.’ We’ve become inseparable and it’s a friendship that I really cherish.”

Are you Dezy Strong?

To make a donation, buy gear or get involved, visit the Dezy Strong Foundation website at dezystrong.org.

DiStefano — a former standout college volleyball player and Rivera’s assistant coach — learned in Feb. 2019 he had a rare form of kidney cancer.

The diagnosis could not have been more bleak: Stage 4, no cure. In volleyball terms, “match point.” So as always, Dezy — whom Rivera described as “the most competitive and inspiring person I know” — dug down. He wasn’t defeated. In fact, he recognized opportunity.

“His response was to immediately find a way to help people. It’s his most important legacy, and it’s how he chose to spend his last year,” said Rivera. Matthew DiStefano is very much alive. You can see that in the impact he now has on others battling cancer. Following his diagnosis, DiStefano — a father of three and whose wife, Jennifer, also teaches at Sachem North — created the “Dezy Strong Foundation,” which helps cover expenses for those suffering from cancer.

Founded in August, the foundation has already raised more than $300,000, and has attracted fundraising support from the Sachem community, the New York Islanders, numerous collegiate athletic programs and various high school volleyball programs — even as far away as Shenendehowa near Albany.

“Dez was always the guy in our friendship who came up with the ideas, who was moving and hustling. He never stopped,” said Rivera. “Because he was sick and getting treatments, he turned a lot of the responsibility for the foundation over to me and other guys to carry out his vision. The cool thing about it is, it provides opportunities for people to get involved and to build on Dez’s legacy as we go.”

Helping to build on DiStefano’s legacy are the 1,300 members of the Sachem Central Teachers Association. Thursdays in the district have now been designated “Dezy Days.” Schol staff wear shirts promoting the foundation and raise money.

“We have 15 buildings and everybody jumped on board. It’s been amazing,” said SCTA President Philip Barbera. “We just want to be there for him and his family.”

Community response to the foundation has also been overwhelming. “Dezy touched the lives of thousands of kids,” Barbera said. “Everyone’s desire to help and get involved shows just what kind of impact a teacher can have on a community.”

Rivera agreed.

“In a big community like this, sometimes you can lose that personal connection. But that’s not the case here with Dezy. The support has been outrageous. I know it means a lot to him. He grew up here, and his parents are still here. It’s been incredible, and the family has found a lot of strength in that.”

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