A hugging machine from a student so that she could still get affection during the COVID-19 pandemic. A massive parade in front of her school to encourage her. That’s how much Keri Stromski’s Long Island community loved and appreciated her.
The 48-year-old Aquebogue Elementary School kindergarten teacher inspired many as she lived with metastatic breast cancer, advocated for other patients, and continued teaching despite treatments for more than four years. Now those she touched are mourning the educator, as she passed away from breast cancer at the beginning of April.
Riverhead Interim Superintendent of Schools Christine Tona spoke of her district’s grief at the news, saying, “I am saddened by the news of Keri Stromski’s passing. She was incredibly dedicated to her family, her students, the Riverhead Central School District, and the Riverhead community and will be greatly missed. We can all learn from Keri’s example of strength during the most difficult of circumstances.”
Stromski was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in November of 2016. She shared her journey with the disease on her blog, Faith Over Fear. In her last post, from February, she touched on the isolation of getting treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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She wrote, “I spent Christmas Eve in the hospital getting chemo. New Year’s Eve too. But I’m grateful for my nurses, and we laugh at my tik toks and props that I bring with me. It’s hard mentally and emotionally going there, as many are very sick and sleeping. I close my curtains and dance to keep myself occupied, plus I’m lonely. My husband hasn’t been with me to an appointment now in almost a year.”
To help bolster her spirits, one of her students decided Stromski needed a hug, and he wanted to make sure she got one, despite social distancing. That’s when five-year-old Avery Green came up with the idea of a hug machine.
He said, “We made it out of a shower curtain and we cut holes … and then you start hugging.”
Avery’s mother Cathie Green explained that they wanted to keep Stromski safe due to her illness, but they also wanted to allow her a way to hug her students because she said she missed doing that.
At the time, Stromski said, “Yeah, one of the biggest things about being a kindergarten teacher is the hugs.”
It wasn’t just a hug machine, though. There was also a drive-by parade held in her honor days before she died. Nearly 100 cars decked out in Aquebogue Elementary’s blue and white colors lined up to drive past the school in the Glass Slipper Parade, which included glass slippers for people to slip donations into to help the Stromskis with medical costs. Many students dressed in superhero costumes in honor of their favorite superhero and teacher.
Touched by the effort, Stromski posted to social media that day, saying, “Words cannot express the gratitude and love I feel for the Riverhead community. Thank you for helping me make today about the children and our Blue Wave family. I love you all and feel your prayers every day.”
Stromski leaves behind her husband Rob and their three children, Madison, Morgan and Quinn.