Public—and student—access to the real world

Standing, from left: Priscilla DeMasi, Louise Blackburn, and Donald Fisher. Charles Burnham is seated at the video controls, and a Southold High School student focuses the camera on the set. Photos by Andrew Jarchin

On the northeastern tip of Long Island, two institutions—a nursing home and a high school—have collaborated to produce television shows that benefit the greater community and give students valuable hands-on training. This symbiotic relationship on Long Island's North Fork is the result of the community's need to learn about services for the aging and the students' need for experience.

The nursing home, San Simeon by the Sound Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation—a 150-bed facility in Greenport, New York—has been a nonprofit skilled nursing and rehabilitation center for more than 25 years. San Simeon wanted to open up the lines of communication between the facility and the community, especially seniors. “We have a strong obligation to educate our community,” says Priscilla DeMasi, administrator at San Simeon. “Television is a great way to reach seniors and let them know about the services that are available.”

At nearby Southold High School, students learn video production—but need real-world projects to hone their skills. “San Simeon and the school district came together in a perfect partnership at a time when it was needed by the students and the district,” states Donald Fisher, the audio-visual technician for the Southold School District. Fisher and Louise Blackburn, the director of admissions at San Simeon, have a keen interest in Southold High School—they are alumni.

The television shows feature content relevant to seniors and long-term care, and are broadcast over eastern Long Island's North and South Forks via public access Channel 20. “Even though it's a small-town television station,” Blackburn notes, “it's unbelievable how many people will come up to me and say, ‘I saw you on TV.’”

Southold High School's venture into public access television sprang from Fisher's desire for students to gain real-world production experience before they graduate. The school's campus has studio facilities and a large auditorium in which shows are taped live. “It's pretty straightforward and, if you will, sterile, because everything's all wired, the cameras are in place,” Fisher says. “Everything that you could possibly want is at your fingertips.”

A few years ago, the local town supervisor wanted to interview people from the volunteer community and air videotapes of those interviews on Channel 20. He asked Fisher if Southold's students would produce the interviews as a series of shows, and Fisher jumped at the opportunity. Fisher and the students would videotape four half-hour shows one Sunday a month. “This was perfect for giving the kids the experience that they needed in electronic newsgathering,” he says. After three successful years, the town supervisor stepped down, and the new town supervisor did not continue the program. Fisher says his reaction was, “I've got these kids who are chomping at the bit and I have no venue, no place to go.”

Blackburn had been the subject of one of the town supervisor's interviews, and she had a chance to meet with the students who produced the segments. “She had seen the shows that we were doing,” Fisher recalls. “She said, ‘Your kids do such a great job. Is there any chance that they might do something like that for us?’ And I said, ‘This is like manna from heaven.'”

From left: Blackburn, DeMasi, and Karen McLaughlin, director of Southold's senior center, on the set

Facility administration saw the students and Channel 20—which airs on Cablevision—as a means for San Simeon to answer community members' frequently asked questions. “We take seriously our role of education on the North Fork and responding to the needs of the population,” DeMasi says

A resident waters flowers at San Simeon


Blackburn, who now does the interviewing, attends monthly community resource meetings and looks for organizations and community members to cover. “We try to pick folks who are going to be significant to the senior population in our community,” she explains. Adds DeMasi, “Every year we sit down and reflect on what questions we were asked as staff at a long-term care facility. People need more information about senior issues, and Louise finds folks to speak to these questions.”

San Simeon by the Sound Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation

San Simeon staff built a set in the facility's community room for taping the shows. The Southold crew—three students, Fisher, and Charles Burnham, Southold School District's video technician—would load up their equipment and head to the nursing facility. The students set up the lights, tripods, cameras, switches, monitors, and microphones. “They are remarkably dedicated—these kids will come here on a Saturday or a Sunday for the entire day,” Blackburn says. “They're giving up their own free time to come here and do this with their school.” One of the students also volunteers in other capacities at San Simeon. “The kids don't want any money—you can't pay them for this experience,” Fisher explains. But the students are rewarded in other ways: After shooting is completed, San Simeon provides meals from the facility's kitchen or orders pizza for the crew.

The students' work is not done when they leave San Simeon. They must edit the tapes, mix the sound, prepare credits, and complete other post-production tasks before the shows can air. The final product has been nine shows over two seasons—five last year and four this year. Recent show topics include:

  • a discussion on the differences between social- and medical-model adult day care, which included DeMasi

  • an episode on physical therapy and non-rehabilitation hospital therapy versus subacute care

  • a segment on gender-specific joint replacement

  • an interview with Karen McLaughlin, the director of a local senior volunteer program

  • a look at CancerCare of Long Island, a nonprofit organization that provides support services to those affected by cancer

Production of this year's episodes ran smoothly, but the team did experience challenges during the first season. “It's remarkable how many details there are and how much it takes to produce just one interview,” Blackburn says. “I found that really fun and kind of exciting, as well as exhausting.” Adds DeMasi, “Just navigating the amount of paperwork to access the public airtime was difficult.” Other obstacles included meeting technical requirements and getting the tapes to the station 72 hours before airtime. Fisher, the students, and a Cablevision staff member made sure that all technical needs were met.

DeMasi and Blackburn are currently considering ideas for next year's season. Possible future topics include home sharing and safe food preparation and handling. “The folks in the community have given me a lot of positive feedback about the shows and how much they've learned,” Blackburn notes. Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport has also seen what San Simeon and the students have done, and the hospital will work with students to produce content for that facility in October.

“Television is a wonderful means of communicating,” Blackburn says. It also brings the community closer to San Simeon and its long-term care residents. Along with the facility's administration, the Southold High School students, and the members of the community, one other group benefits from the collaboration: “It gives a lot of connectivity to the outside population for our residents,” DeMasi says. And Blackburn notes, “The residents within the facility get the biggest kick out of seeing us on television.”

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