The loss of one child is a devastating blow for any community. But in the last year, P.S. 221 was forced to say goodbye to not one, but three of its students, each of whom would have been part of this year's fifth grade graduating class.
“It’s unheard of," said Principal Sheelia Twomey. "To have three [deaths] in one year -- it totally defeats any kinds of odds that you can think of."
The service opened with a brief statement from Twomey, followed by remarks from from teachers who had worked especially closely with each child. The fifth grade class, whose commencement was held on Wednesday, concluded the proceedings with a song in honor of their former classmates.
Family members of the children expressed their gratitude to the school for organizing the ceremony.
Joe Falabella, whose daughter Alexandra - better known as Lexie - passed away last year after a lengthy battle with cancer, said it meant a lot that the school was honoring his daughter. Falabella himself attended P.S. 221 as a child, and later worked there as an employee. He said his daughter will be remembered throughout the campus for her unfailing compassion.
"She was always worried about the other kid next to her, even when she was going through her own hard times," he said. "She was wise beyond her years because of what she went through -- I kind of went from having a 6-year-old daughter to a 20-year-old daughter. But she taught us a lot, in a short time."
Lexie's parents have established the Lexiebean Foundation in honor of their daughter, in order to support other families enduring illness.
Fajir Javid, who died last June from drowning, was another student at P.S. 221 renowned for her generosity and caring.
Diane Malanga was Javid's fourth grade teacher. She said that, in addition to Javid's love of candy - both eating it and sharing it with her classmates - she'll always remember her former student's endless desire to learn, and determination to try her best, even at subjects that she found difficult.
"She was always smiling," Malanga said. "Anything you told her, she was just so enthusiastic about. She always wanted to share the things she was doing, the things she was learning. She was just such a remarkable little girl.”
Javid's older sister, 15-year-old Noor Javid, agreed.
"She was the most giving person on the face of this planet. She really, really loved to help," she said.
Michael Petillo, father of Steven Petillo, who was killed in a car crash in Virginia last August, said the tight-knit community at P.S. 221 has meant the world to him and his wife, Maria.
"Just to have them put a memorial out there - he’ll always be part of the school," Petillo said, referring to the memorial plaque and garden planted near the school's entrance. "It means a lot.”
"This was his second home," Maria said. "We’re like family, and the kids are like family. It’s a shame that the school got hit so hard."
The Petillo's are working to launch a foundation in their son's honor, to be called the Steven Petillo Field of Dreams Foundation, based on their son's undying love of baseball. The organization will revolve around enabling any child who wants to play ball to do so, regardless of financial circumstances or physical disabilities.
“Whatever the case is, it has to be baseball, because that was his life," Petillo said. "He lived for baseball.” Those interested in contributing to the Steven Petillo Field of Dreams Foundation can contact Petillo directly at (917) 859-2657.
P.S. 221 has seen a great deal of tragedy in the past year, but one thing that everyone - parents, administrators and students themselves - agree on is that the school community will pull through it together.
“It's not supposed to happen -- three children in one year," Petillo said. "But if any school had to pull through a tragedy like this, it would be this school," Petillo said.
"It’s just one big family. It always has been. We’re proud to be part of this family forever.”