Ava Conrad, 10, who walked in memory of her kindergarten teacher, Keri Stromski, was first to finish the 5K at Tanger Outlets Sunday morning. Photo: Denise Civiletti

In a fitting end to the annual 5K walk hosted by Tanger Outlets to benefit the North Fork Breast Health Coalition, a 10-year-old girl walking in memory of her beloved kindergarten teacher Keri Stromski was first to cross the finish line this morning.

Ava Conrad, a 5th-grader at Pulaski Street School and one of a legion of Stromski’s students during her long career as a kindergarten teacher in the Riverhead Central School District, finished the walk before any of the other participants.

The annual walk is not a competitive event; the participants aren’t timed as they take laps around Tanger I and Tanger II, and there’s no ribbon to break through at the finish line. Nor was there a crowd to witness her feat and photographers to snap her photo. If it weren’t for Ava’s mom, Sarah, and her great aunt, Joyce Boone of Westhampton, the accomplishment might have gone unnoticed.

That would have suited Ava just fine, as her mom and aunt cajoled her into posing for photos under the arch of pink balloons where the walk begins and ends at the outlet mall. She was shy about cooperating, but she did. Mrs. Stromski would have been proud of her and Ava knew it.

Stromski, who died in April of an aggressive metastatic breast cancer at age 48, remained her students’ biggest cheerleader until the very end of her journey. And, as Ava — and every other person who had Stromski as a teacher over the course of her long career — knows, once a Stromski student, always a Stromski student, no matter how long it’s been since they last sat in her classroom or gave her a hug.

Stromski was a fierce advocate for people diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, adopting the motto, “Stage 4 needs more,” to underscore the lack of attention paid to people like her. She was diagnosed with stage four disease in late 2016 and fought for awareness of stage four survivors and funding for research into treatment of stage four breast cancer.

Stromski was vocal about detesting the proliferation of breast cancer “awareness” campaigns — some of which, she said, existed only to fill the coffers of national nonprofit organizations that spend most of what they raise on staff salaries and administration — and precious little on research and support services that matter to people with the disease.

The North Fork Breast Health Coalition, a local group that supports local people coping with breast cancer and their families, heard Stromski’s message and established the “Keri Lynn Stromski Stage 4 Research and Grant Fund” this year. A raffle launched in March raised more than $22,000 to provide both financial support to research oncologists and assistance to stage 4 patients to help cover unexpected expenses.

Last year, the organization honored Stromski as its inaugural Medal of Honor recipient.

Kleinfeld Bridal fielded the biggest team at the 2021 Tanger 5K. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The turnout for today’s 5K walk, the 23rd hosted at the Riverhead outlet center, was a bit lighter than usual after it was forced to go virtual last year due to COVID. But today’s participants were as enthusiastic as ever.

Kleinfeld Bridal, a New York City bridal boutique, has been a sponsor of NFBHC 5K each year and this year, as it has in the past, fielded the biggest team. There were 25 walkers on the Kleinfeld team today.

Michelle Iona, a doctor of acupuncture and owner of Healing Points Acupuncture in Riverhead, organizes the team for Kleinfeld Bridal because the company’s owners, Mara Urshel and Ronnie Rothstein are “dear friends and clients,” she said. Urshel was present to participate in the event today.

Riverhead Councilman Ken Rothwell walked with his wife Debra, a nine-year breast cancer survivor.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent also completed the walk.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who is still not completely mobile due to a broken ankle suffered this spring, was on hand with her guide dog in training, River, to cheer on the participants.

Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio was also in attendance.

A Color Guard from the Mattituck/Southold NJROTC led the opening ceremonies, which were emceed by News 12 anchor Gianna Pelosi.

A Chinese auction offered prizes ranging from Tanger gift cards to a flat-screen HDTV.

Regina Calcaterra with the suitcase she won in the Chinese auction at the 5K. It will be filled with comfort and essential items for a lucky teen in foster care or a homeless shelter, part of the Case’s for Cases program established by the New Suffolk attorney and the owners of Case’s Place to help the 600 older foster kids on Long Island. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Some winners took he opportunity to pay it forward. New Suffolk attorney and best-selling author Regina Calcaterra won a Vera Bradley rolling suitcase — one of the grand prizes in the auction — and plans to fill it with “comfort items” that an older child in foster care would enjoy.

“No one thinks about the older kids. Since I aged out of foster care on my own and realize as you get older you’re treated differently, I try to focus on them,” said Calcaterra, whose 2013 memoir about her experiences, “Etched in Sand,” was a best-seller.

Calcaterra said she bid only on cases today. “We’re going to put essentials in there — shampoo, makeup, sweatshirts and blankets,” she said. She works with Ken and Maryanne Birmingham, owner of Case’s Place in New Suffolk on “Case’s for Cases,” a project that collects comfort and essential items for teens in foster care and homeless shelters. The cases filled with those items are distributed to those in need by Birthday Wishes/Long Island, Calcaterra said.

The Tanger 5K is a fundraiser for North Fork Breast Health Coalition, an organization founded in 1998 by Ann Cotten-DeGrasse and her late husband Antonio. The nonprofit coalition provides free services and support to breast cancer patients and survivors on the North Fork and works to raise awareness of the issues faced by those coping with the disease. It offers free yoga, massage therapy, reflexology and support groups. Its Rita Duva Boutique provides wigs, scarves, prosthetics and other items to local breast cancer patients and survivors. The coalition also makes cash grants to patients and survivors to help them with expenses related to treatment or general support.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.