Our new series invites you to the homes and neighborhoods of notable North Forkers and Shelter Islanders. This week, Brett Surerus, founder of Shelter Island Fireworks, talks about moving back from Brooklyn, the generosity of his neighbors, and living by the philosophy that “when you’re in a place, you try to improve where you are.”
“I grew up in Shelter Island—my parents moved me out here when I was one. I went to school here, graduated from here, played all the sports here. I first dated my wife, Kelly, on Shelter Island when we were 12 and had a summer fling. Then I went to Nichols College, a small business school in Massachusetts, and got a job in finance up there. But I would always return here on the weekends religiously because I love this place. When I come across the ferry, it just has a different feel to it. I think, Man, I’m in a different zone.
A few years ago, I came out here from Massachusetts for a friend’s wedding, and I happened to run into Kelly that weekend at a restaurant. And that was it—we started our life together.
Kelly went to Stony Brook to become a nurse, and my career led me to work in Manhattan for Banco Santander. When we had Jackson in 2013, we were living in Park Slope in 640 square feet, still commuting religiously on the weekends to Shelter Island, filling up our car and trucking out here. When he was six months old, we said, I think that’s it. We packed up. I got a job at Hampton’s Property Services as a property manager, and Kelly is an intensive care unit nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
“But I would always return here on the weekends religiously because I love this place. When I come across the ferry, it just has a different feel to it. I think, Man, I’m in a different zone.”
That was about five years ago, and now we are very fortunate to live in this house, which we rent from friends who own the South Ferry. We can walk down from here to a beach where you can catch crabs. To have this big yard with the family is fantastic. When they’re not running around like maniacs and they’re just hanging out on the couch on the back porch with us, that’s one of my favorite things of all time.
Shelter Island is a magical place. I just couldn’t see myself living anywhere else. From the first few months when we moved back out here, Kelly and I had decided that, as my dad says, ‘When you’re at a place, try to improve where you are.’ In March of 2015, they canceled the Shelter Island Fireworks. The Chamber of Commerce could not afford to pay the bill anymore. I have never missed a show. My wife has never missed a show. My friends have never missed shows. We were texting each other and said, ‘We’re gonna do this right now.’ We formed Shelter Island Fireworks: We got the board and we just started pounding the phones, putting it out there on all types of media. Kelly was pregnant with Piper, and I remember, taking phone calls in the hospital about it.
We ended up raising $62,000 for a $40,000 show in under two and a half months. Our friend has the only little tiny house on Crescent Beach. So we sat on a picnic bench on his private beach and as the fireworks were going off, I could feel the goosebumps coming out. It was the best feeling ever, short of my children.
When the pandemic rolled around, I remember watching Kelly and I could see it ramping up and anxiety setting in. She said to me, ‘I’m going to have to do extraordinary things. You realize that.’ And I said, ‘Do whatever you gotta do. I’ll take everything else.’ And she ended up working for six days a week, 15 hour shifts. She’d leave on the first boat and not get home until nine. The protocols for her to come home were shocking, and she was religious about that time, after time, after time.
One night she said, ‘You know, I was starving today. And we can’t leave our unit. The hospital has so many more people than beds, and we can’t get to the cafeteria. And we really can’t bring in our own stuff from outside.’
The restaurants who donate to us for the fireworks are wonderful—they never say no. I thought, They need help. And my wife needs help. The idea was to address the crisis that is affecting our local restaurants by collecting money to feed frontline medical professionals, therefore creating a win win. I put together an email and sent it to Alex Graham, who is the marketing manager at Compass and does the social media for the Chamber of Commerce. Then we emailed every leader of every organization that I have knowledge of, from the town supervisor on down, about launching this new program, the Shelter Island Action Alliance.
Right off the bat, everyone was strongly supportive. I had one guy call me. He said, ‘You’re the guy who does the fireworks? What’s your address?’ And in five minutes he was here with a check for $5,000. His only request was that he deliver the meals himself with his four daughters. The Lion’s Club reached out to me and offered to use their nonprofit status to process the donations. We’ve distributed $64,000 to nine local restaurants and we delivered over 5,100 meals to the North Fork hospital, ELIH, and the South Fork hospital, Stony Brook Southampton.
The restaurants here have been nothing short of amazing partners. Pepe at Stars was getting up at 4:30 am with his cooks and making a hundred breakfast burritos and having it ready by 7:00 am, wrapped, labeled, packed in a box. We got to send Vine Street Cafe to the hospital, which if you know Vine Street, there were some thankful people. 18 Bay sent a set of a hundred astonishingly beautiful, full meals over to the hospital.
When we started to realize that the community out here is as generous as they are, we reached out to the senior citizen center and said, can we help meals for the seniors? And then we also started delivering to homebound seniors twice a week. We bought a pizza for every firefighter on Shelter Island. The Ram’s Head gave a gift to every police officer on the Island. The Islander fed every EMS professional. And we have gift certificates to feed every one of the administrators and teachers within the school that stayed open to help. And then there was another group that started to feed the people of the IGA. You watch people out there doing whatever they can to help other people. And you think, This is why I live here.
There has to be somebody that organizes it, but the work was done by everybody who sent in money, delivered food, made a sandwich. I get pretty emotional about it. Just…I hope I don’t have to fire that thing up again.”