Sag Harbor’s 2015 Person of the Year: Denise Schoen by Kathryn G. Menu


Denise Schoen packs medical bags in preparation for her trip to Greece with some help from her friend Kathryn Bermudez on November 19.

Denise Schoen packs medical bags in preparation for her trip to Greece with some help from her friend Kathryn Bermudez on November 19. Michael Heller photo.

By Kathryn G. Menu

Public service has always been a part of Denise Schoen’s life, but an excursion to Greece this fall, where the Sag Harbor resident provided critical care emergency medical technician services for some of the thousands of refugees pouring into that country from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, has forever altered her life.

“One of the best things I came away with is I now know what I want to do when I grow up,” said Ms. Schoen, of humanitarian aid work, shortly after returning from 10-days in Lesbos, Greece in late November and early December. Ms. Schoen went on the trip as a part of The Direct Relief Project, a joint venture between the Montauk-based East End Cares and the Do Your Part organization. She was joined by East End Cares organizer Amanda Bickerstaff, Eugene DePasquale, an East Hampton Town assessor who has EMT experience, and East Hampton Star reporter Joanne Pilgrim, as well as volunteers from New York and Virginia, carting with them more than $50,000 worth of medical supplies.

Ms. Schoen is joining East End Cares volunteers, including Montauk resident Melissa Berman in expanding the organization’s role in providing humanitarian aid relief to refugees in Greece and beyond, by continuing The Direct Relief Project. Ms. Berman helped found East End Cares with a number of local residents including Melissa Ann Mitchell, of Sag Harbor, who also happens to be Ms. Schoen’s sister, in an effort to provide relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. While Ms. Schoen hopes her experience as an attorney will aid that organization as it explores formalizing its non-profit status, she also said this week she would like to find herself on the ground again later this winter — in Greece or another part of the world impacted by the refugee crisis — providing medical services to refugees.

“I think they will still need a lot of help in Lesbos,” she said. “We are hearing they are in dire need of volunteers, but the situation on the ground is constantly changing, so we need to figure out where it is we are needed and decide on a date. There are so many people interested in going.”

Ms. Schoen was born at Southampton Hospital in 1971, and raised in East Hampton alongside her sister, Ms. Mitchell. Both sisters live in Sag Harbor and remain very close. Ms. Mitchell, an eighth grade teacher at the Southampton Intermediate School, organized a clothing and shoe drive to aid refugees travelling to Lesbos.

An attorney with a private practice in East Hampton, Ms. Schoen also serves as the village attorney for the various Sag Harbor regulatory boards. Married to Jon Schoen, Ms. Schoen has two daughters – 16 year-old Emily, and 12 year-old Sara. She provides pro bono legal advice for the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust, a non-profit that hopes to develop workforce housing around Sag Harbor, and is on the board of the Reutershan Educational Trust, a non-profit organization that supports art education opportunities for Sag Harbor residents.

Ms. Schoen has been a member of the Sag Harbor Ambulance Corps since 2008, said Ed Downes, a longtime member and former president of that organization. She is one of four critical care EMTs in the organization, which is roughly 30 volunteers strong. Ms. Schoen’s grandfather-in-law, John Schoen, co-founded the ambulance corps and the family has a strong history of volunteerism with that organization.

“She is very good at what she does — very professional and focused in patient care,” he said. “Denise is very intelligent — we are at a point that when we work together where we are automatically able to get on the same page during a response.”

“She is the one you want called if you are in real crisis and need someone to save your life,” said Ms. Mitchell. “She is an overachiever, always has been, and has the kind of personality where she is driven to help others.”

Denise Schoen in November with a group of refugee children in Greece.

Denise Schoen in November with a group of refugee children in Greece.

It was Ms. Mitchell who showed Ms. Schoen the photographs shared by East Hampton photojournalist Doug Kuntz on Facebook, chronicling the series of tragedies occurring on Lesbos. Mr. Kuntz shared footage of dozens of boats landing in Lesbos, largely run by smugglers from Turkey charging a small fortune to cross a six-mile stretch across the Mediterranean to what has become one of the largest gateways to Europe for refugees. Thousands arrive daily, and many have drowned making the journey, or arrive with serious injuries and health conditions. After viewing those photos, Ms. Schoen knew she was bound for Greece.

Mr. Downes said he was proud of Ms. Schoen when he heard about the trip to Greece, but admittedly nervous about her safety. The organization aided Ms. Schoen with monetary donations, but also by providing the group with medical supplies to bring to Greece.

“Denise made the decision to come on the trip pretty close to when we were leaving, and she got more done in two weeks than some people who had been working on it for months,” said Ms. Berman. “She asked really smart questions, and brought real compassion to the table — not just for the refugees but for the other members of the team going to Greece. That is what community, and East End Cares is all about. I just love her.”

“Part of what made it so incredible was to meet friends from around the world who are selfless and passionate about helping people,” said Ms. Schoen after her trip. “It renewed my sense in humanity.”


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