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Hometown Hero: Forest for healing

John Sferazo and his fellow ironworkers spent several weeks at Ground Zero clearing steel beams, chunks of concrete, office furniture and dozens of crushed fire trucks and police cars in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

The work from 17 years ago took a serious toll on the physical health of Sferazo, his crew and thousands of others who toiled in the recovery effort, breathing in the noxious fumes and toxic dust that engulfed The Pile.

His lungs permanently scarred, Sferazo was forced to retire, but he went on to fight tirelessly to secure medical benefits for ailing first responders, testifying before Congress and traveling across the country for the cause. Sferazo, who lives in Centerport, has since received many accolades for his efforts, including the MacGregor Award from the Long Island Labor and Employment Relations Association.

Sferazo formed a nonprofit called American Greenlands Restoration and worked to reclaim a property in Somerset County, Maine, formerly used as a gravel mine and asphalt plant, turning it into a vibrant memorial forest and natural habitat.

The new trail at the Memorial Forest in Maine adds another mile to the existing 3.3 miles of trails. (Photo courtesy of American Greenlands Restoration)

The result is the 700-acre Memorial Forest, designed as a healing retreat for military veterans and first responders suffering from stress disorders. His work received a Heroes of Conservation award from Field and Stream magazine in 2012 and in 2016, Sferazo was honored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with its Landowner Appreciation Partners in Wildlife Award.

This summer, Weyerhaeuser, which owns property adjacent to the Memorial Forest, created the Memorial Trail, which adds another mile to the existing 3.3 miles of trails in the Memorial Forest, where visitors can hike, watch wildlife and enjoy the unspoiled outdoors.

The project fits well with American Greenlands’ motto: “Healing our world, one forest, one creature, one person at a time.”

Working on the land has helped Sferazo heal from the post-9/11 trauma he suffered and he’s opened the property to other first responders, combat veterans and their families so that the natural surroundings can do the same for them.

“It’s a labor of love,” Sferazo told LIBN. “It’s not just for the environment. It’s for the vets and responders who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

Though hampered by lingering health issues, Sferazo says he still visits the Memorial Forest four or five times a year. He credits caretaker Herb Hingley and other volunteers with keeping the restoration project moving forward.

Among the many supporters of the forest retreat are the American Chestnut Tree Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Trust for Wildlife, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Maine Department of Forestry and Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as several labor organizations including the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Building Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk.

Sferazo says the Maine project has been instrumental in helping him deal with his continuing post-traumatic stress, adding that retreats like the Memorial Forest are essential for their restorative and calming effects.

“This provides a safe haven for those with mental and physical disabilities,” he said, “and hopefully similar organizations will utilize the retreat we’ve created.”

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