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Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager

LEE KARASIK, 17, of Kauneonga Lake displays his numerous awards from the American Red Cross – now to be joined by yet another accolade, this time from the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan naming him as an American “Home Town Hero.”

An Extraordinary,
Ordinary Teen

By Jeanne Sager
KAUNEONGA LAKE — September 28, 2004 – Lee Karasik isn’t your typical hero.
He’s 17. He wears glasses. He lives with his mom and dad, Mona and Steve, and his dog, Buddy, in a small house near Kauneonga Lake.
He still has to crawl out of bed early each morning to head off to classes at Monticello High School.
He’s even got a mom who hovers, protectively, like he’s her baby boy.
But Karasik isn’t your typical teen either.
He’s the winner of this year’s Home Town Heroes Youth Community Service Award, a national recognition from the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan.
He’s like an extra right arm for Bette Popovich, the head of the Sullivan/Orange chapter of the American Red Cross.
Oh, yeah, and he has cerebral palsy. But that, like everything in his life – except, possibly, girlfriend Nicole Faber – comes out maybe a half-hour into a conversation with Lee Karasik.
“It doesn’t make me any different from everyone else,” he said.
No, this isn’t a kid who wants to talk about his misfortunes.
He wants to remind you about the Red Cross.
He wants to tell you why he’s a volunteer. He wants to convince you to sign up, today or tomorrow, but preferably now.
“The Red Cross is not the Red Cross without volunteers,” Karasik will tell you. “Volunteers are the heart of the Red Cross.”
In Sullivan County, Karasik is the type of volunteer who pumps lifeblood into the Red Cross.
He decided to donate his time on Sept. 12, 2001 – just 24 hours after returning home from school to watch television footage of two airplanes flying into the World Trade Center in New York City.
It was a tragedy that pushed many into action, but for Karasik it was especially poignant.
As a child with “disabilities,” he always had support from others to make his life a little easier.
Now it was his turn, he said, to give something of himself to make others’ lives better.
“I felt like I need to give back,” he said simply. “Being that I have a disability, so many people have given to me. . . . I said to my mom, I have to do something – there’s got to be something I can do.”
Karasik was worried that organizations would turn him away because of his disabilities, but he made the right choice in calling Popovich.
“Right away Bette said, ‘We want you now,’” Karasik recalled. “They don’t treat me any different than a volunteer who doesn’t have a disability.”
Adept at using a computer, Karasik was put right to work in what was then the Red Cross’ main local headquarters, an office on Route 17B in Mongaup Valley.
He did mostly administrative work as Red Cross workers left town to converge in New York City to help with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
For Karasik, it was very literally a dream come true.
“I’d been involved in some other organizations, but for some reason the Red Cross always stuck out,” he recalled.
He had dreamed of putting his talents to use, and there he was living that dream.
It would have been easy for Karasik to limit his time to the months that immediately followed the terrorist attacks – school and his job at Kristt Company in Monticello beckon, and he’s busy trying to live the teenage life.
Instead, he asked Popovich if he could do more – signing up for CPR and first aid training classes and studying to serve at disaster scenes.
Three years later, Karasik now has his courses in mass care, shelter operations, logistics, family management and other emergency necessities under his belt.
Although he can’t respond to an emergency alone until he’s 18, Karasik was in Westbrookville last month and Port Jervis a week ago helping flood victims, doing interviews and filling out paperwork.
His first call for the Westbrookville flood came at 9:30 p.m. when Red Cross Disaster Services Coordinator Damaris Rundle put a call in to his house.
“Damaris said, ‘I need you to call our disaster volunteers,’” he recalled.
Karasik spent much of the night on the phone from his Kauneonga Lake home dispatching the crews needed to respond to the emergency.
“She called me at 12:45 in the morning and said, ‘Lee, you can go back to sleep now,’” he said with a laugh.
The next day, he was up and moving and out in the field.
For Karasik, that’s the real thrill – working with the people one on one, hearing their problems and finding a solution.
Eight awards from the local Red Cross chapter, the school, even the Greater New York and NYS chapters of the Red Cross – they’re nice, but they’re not the reason he’s a volunteer.
“What I enjoy is the satisfaction of going to a disaster and being able to talk to these people,” Karasik explained. “They walk out of the shelter happy, or at least not crying anymore.
“I do it to help people,” he continued. “If I needed the Red Cross, they’d be there for me, and it might be weird, crazy hours of the night, but it’s needed.”
The county’s Red Cross youth liaison, Karasik is proud of what he’s accomplished.
He managed to convince the head of the Monticello Central School District’s transportation department that every bus driver, mechanic and bus aide should have CPR training.
It took nine months of discussions, but 78 staffers took the course the week before the Monticello district opened its doors for the 2003-04 school year.
Karasik remembered hearing about a kid choking on a bus when he was in eighth grade – the child survived, but the bus driver didn’t know any first aid, and he always wondered if some of the kid’s pain and suffering could have been prevented.
Karasik is available to talk to schools at any point – he’ll even sit down with youth groups and explain what kids can do to help the Red Cross.
And he’ll tell you, straight from the heart, what he gets from his job.
“A lot of satisfaction,” Karasik said, “a lot of happiness.
“I’ve learned to run my life and be five different people at once.”
Oh, and there are those awards – eight now, with the Intrepid statue he picked up after leaving the scene of a disaster in Westbrookville.
They’re nice, he said, but not what it’s all about.
“If I had to volunteer every day without the awards, it wouldn’t matter,” he said. “But it’s exciting to know that people feel like they need to recognize me, to know that I’m doing something so good that they’d feel the need to recognize me.”
Karasik hopes that every press release issued about his awards, every story written about his accomplishments, will be the final push that sends someone to the phone to volunteer.
Karasik will graduate from Monticello High School in June. He’s already planning to attend Sullivan County Community College for two years so he can study communications and keep up his volunteer work.
Popovich is planning to keep him around for as long as possible.
“There’s no assignment he’s been given where he hesitated for even a fraction of a second,” she said. “He’s really an inspiration.”
To volunteer, or to talk with Karasik about youth opportunities with the Red Cross, call Popovich at 294-9785.

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