Two years after Philip Joseph “PJ” Fusaro’s death due to COVID-19, his memory continues to live on as family, schoolchildren and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office celebrated his legacy Friday in his hometown of Shirley.
Donna and Phil Fusaro, PJ’s parents, were at times holding back tears during a ceremony at Nathaniel Woodhull Elementary School as Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. presented them with a special badge and posthumously named their son an honorary K-9 deputy sheriff.
Fusaro, a horticulturalist and animal lover who family members say was beloved in his community and dreamed of joining the sheriff's office K-9 unit, died May 3, 2020, after battling COVID-19. He was 25.
Donna Fusaro, a teaching assistant at Nathaniel Woodhull Elementary School, told Newsday after the ceremony that her son was “the love of my life.”
“My son was the most selfless, giving person you would want to meet,” his mother said. “He was the guy that you called when you were in trouble at 3 o’clock in the morning and he would get out of bed and go, ‘No problem, I’ll be right there.’ He was just that guy. He was just amazing.”
PJ had multiple medical conditions, including Marfan syndrome — a disorder that impacts the body's connective tissue — two open-heart surgeries and spinal reconstruction, which prevented him from becoming a police officer, Fusaro said. So the office naming her son as an honorary K-9 deputy sheriff touched her.
“This is amazing. He would be so thrilled,” she said.
At the ceremony, which was held in the school's multipurpose room, the sheriff's office also presented the Fusaros with a challenge coin, which bears the office's insignia, to honor the family for leadership through adversity.
“To honor a family that lost their loved one is something that I think we should all recognize in our community. Especially someone who, when you talk about PJ, loved canines. We have a very robust K-9 unit in the sheriff’s office, so we were very happy to be asked to participate today,” Toulon told Newsday.
The Sheriff’s Community Relations Unit also held K-9 demonstrations and answered questions for students at the school.
In honor of PJ, the Nathaniel Woodhull Elementary School Community Cares Club is sponsoring a newly launched “Coins for K-9s” fundraiser throughout the William Floyd school district. Proceeds from the fundraiser, which was started by Donna Fusaro, will go toward the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Foundation for training purposes and to support the K-9 program.
Olivia France, a third-grader from Mastic, and fellow student Jaxon DiFrietus said they have raised more than $1,000 so far through the fundraiser.
Jaxon said he enjoys being able to raise money for something that honored PJ’s memory.
“It feels good because he wanted to help the community,” Jaxon said.
Olivia shared his sentiments.
“He liked helping the community like how we do in the Community Cares Club,” she said. “And he was the go-to, reliable guy in all his schools.”