No family nor community is ever prepared for a tragic loss, especially the death of a high schooler.
When Joseph Rera died on Nov. 6 at Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton Beach, Center Moriches responded with undoubted support. And among the first to mention is a particular core group of Rera’s peers. Trudging through grief, Rera’s closest friends have spearheaded various projects and fundraising events as their way of providing support.
“It really has built us up to be stronger than what we are,” said Jacob Ducoing, who has been friends with Rera since they were in third grade. “Everyone knew Joe somehow, whether he was your friend or just a kid you saw fishing. Everyone knew Joe, and everyone loved him.”
Ducoing organized a GoFundMe for the purpose of restoring Union Avenue Dock in Center Moriches and renaming it Joseph Rera Memorial Dock. This is a spot where Rera and his friends would fish regularly.
The money will go toward a plaque in Rera’s tribute as well as a filet station. Brookhaven Town councilman Dan Panico and his office are involved in making this happen. Said work on the dock is anticipated to begin this upcoming March.
James Debler, another member of this core group of peers, formed another fundraiser in order to pay for Rera’s memorial service.
Debler, who met Rera when they were in kindergarten, often fished alongside Rera at the Union Avenue Dock, Cupsogue Beach County Park as well as Kahler’s Pond (also known as Mill Pond) in East Moriches. Paul Loguercio, another peer, said that the group really connected through fishing.
“That was our big thing,” Loguercio said. “We always loved to go to docks. And we'd go on his dad's boat too. That was always really fun.”
Loguercio expressed that he helped out with the aforementioned fundraisers in addition to several others, including the community’s annual Turkey Bowl fundraiser. This year, the proceeds went to Rera’s family. Several other fundraisers had proceeds go toward causes related to the Rera family, including one at Dairy Queen in Medford, Hurricane Grill & Wings in Manorville and Druek’s True Value in Center Moriches.
“Some of these stores and places aren't even in our community,” Loguercio said, pointing out the widespread support for this cause.
Chris Winslow is a history teacher at Center Moriches High School and had Rera in his U.S. History class. Additionally, Winslow knows the whole core group because he taught them in 7th grade, too. He also coached some of these boys in football, lacrosse or both.
Even further, Winslow is a longtime ocean lifeguard at Great Gun Beach in East Moriches, which is fairly close to Cupsogue inlet.
“I have known [Rera] very well for all these years, and that is what influenced me to get involved,” Winslow said, explaining that he took two personal days from work to go out looking for Rera’s body in the inlet on his jet ski.
Winslow was accompanied by Sean Spiller, who is also an ocean lifeguard. Spiller is a retired police officer as well as Rera’s previous scoutmaster when he was in Boy Scouts as well as Cub Scouts. Additionally, Spiller has gone on fishing trips, camping trips and various family outings alongside the Reras through the years.
“[Winslow] and I put in quite a few hours, unfortunately, just trying to see if his body was still able to be recovered,” Spiller said. “A lot of people don't want to go searching knowing what you are going to find. That, unfortunately, was part of my job. It was dealing with what a lot of people didn't want to see. For me, it was probably too close to home, but it's Joseph. If we could have brought him home sooner, that would have helped us all.”
Beginning Nov. 6, Rera’s closest friends experienced firsthand dealing with a huge loss. Winslow, other teachers, administrators and psychologists expressed initial concern for isolation behaviors. Grief counselors were brought in to help these high schoolers through this tough experience.
“I came up with the idea that, if the parents were cool with it, that every week I would spend one day with them and we would hike. I knew keeping them together keeps them talking,” Winslow said. “About two weeks after we lost Joe, every week, we started meeting up outside of school on our own time. We would just do different hikes through the woods, down the beach and whatnot and just talk to have them explain what they are struggling with. It just turned into this awesome outing where we have about nine kids who come every week. They just got closer and closer. Then they started really looking forward to it.”
However, on Dec. 4, the group hit a bump in the road when Rera’s body was found.
“It was kind of like going back to ground zero... starting all over... because it just brought everything back,” Winslow said, who expressed now that his mission is spreading awareness of this tragedy. “Setting up safety equipment down at the inlet, in the spring possibly have clinics for fishermen to push this whole agenda of wearing life jackets and personal flotation devices…. Because no one does. Most fishermen are just wearing waders.
“If Joe had a lifejacket on, he very well probably would have survived,” Winslow added.
Winslow said it is notable that Rera’s friends were very happy that they found him, considering that they would all say 'We just want him to come home’ before he was found.
All in all, this a stressful situation for those in this core group, as well as many other peers and individuals in the community close to Rera. Peers, as well as Winslow, expressed how Rera’s comical side is key to include in his memory
“Every time we were in a stressful or sad situation, he would always say something to make us laugh and lighten up the situation,” said Colin Leslie, another member of this group of friends. “That is the best quality he had. He always made us laugh.”