The 2021 Inspiration award winner

Lifting a community

Dr. James Bertsch volunteers on board of education and for the environment

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Dr. James Bertsch is an institution of thought, grace, and power in the community of Sayville, serving as a twice-elected board of education trustee and leading some of the most widely attended youth service groups for the town.

Jim Morgo, who nominated Bertsch, said of his potential for doing even more for the community, “I’m sure James’s special combination of energy and idealism will continue to have him get good things done, good things for his hometown and good things for all of Long Island.”

After being told he was the winner of this year’s Suffolk County News Inspiration Award, Bertsch was in complete disbelief, thinking, There are so many more people I can think of that are better deserving of this award than me.

A large part of Bertsch’s support of the community is in lifting other leaders in town to fulfill their dreams and passions.

When asked which community members most inspire him, Bertsch responded, “Jamie Atkinson and his wife, Brenda, who created the Notre Dame Early College Since the age of 10, Atkinson has been serving Sayville’s Community Ambulance and was the organization’s youngest chief and has been a longtime board president.  Most recently, two scholarship recipients at Sayville High School have been offered admission to Notre Dame University in Indiana.”

In his role as Board of Election trustee, Bertsch has come under fire for being one of its most vocal members, but has found this challenge to be rewarding, as it helps engage the community in debate and therefore, progress.

“Serving as a trustee for the Sayville Schools Board of Education during the pandemic is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.  “We need to be positive, supportive and take care of our kids, our staff and our community. Some people are angry and take their frustrations and pain out on us. Such people are most in need of our compassion.”

Aside from being a trustee, Bertsch has also led the community in the following roles: The Sayville Michael Murphy Team, Creek Defender for Save the Great South Bay, originator and leader of the Sayville Veteran Gravestone Restoration, and serving on educational panels (Environmental Businesses, Reforming Government, Climate Change, Islip at a Crossroads [Infrastructure], Governmental and Medical Update on COVID and others).

A native of Sayville, Bertsch has long been invested in preserving and growing the unique small-town qualities that have come to define Sayville.

In speaking of the transformation Sayville has undergone since his time as a child, Bertsch said that Sayville changed from a working-class to a middle-class community from when he graduated Sayville High School in 1988.  

“Many of us shared bedrooms with siblings and things like that.  My mom raised five kids by herself,” he added. “Lots of us lived like that.  We were happy and had less.”

In more recent times, Bertsch said, “We have a strong civic fabric, yet I see us being pulled away from each other by outside forces, such as the strains of the pandemic, our high cost of living (we work more) and our ugly political climate. If we can identify these outside distractors and take concrete steps to address them on a hyper-local level, I think we’d feel better about our community and ourselves.”

Never one to shy away from tough topics, especially concerning the school district, Bertsch often writes op-eds for the Suffolk County News, addressing difficult issues head-on and offering solutions.

Following the STRIDES event in Sayville, one that pulled together thousands of members of the community in a march of unity and solidarity, Bertsch wrote an op-ed about attendees of the student-led gathering who sought to cause division and slander after-school groups at Sayville High School, and called for the town to immediately rebuke the claims made by the offending party.

Bertsch treats the community as an extension of his own family and residence, saying of his block, Hamilton Street, “[We are] like a family.  We have had block parties every year this decade. We look out for each other. We are friends. We take care of each other. Our town is a lot like that.”

Counting his family—wife Christina and two daughters in Sayville Public School—as a source of strength and inspiration, Bertsch said he thinks of them first when looking to serve the community as a whole.

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